The Band thought the whole idea of the Woodstock festival was exciting because of what it stood for. The promoters were telling everybody that it was a show of hands for people who felt a certain way about our generation and the war in Vietnam. It was being called a festival of peace and love and music. It was being touted in this kind of way, which was very nice.
But when we flew in and saw the mass of people sitting on the side of the hill, it was a frightful sight. It was like an army. There were two ways to look at this thing. There was the serious political side, which was kind of beautiful in that everybody wanted to join together like this; it was a very warm feeling. And then there was the other side, which was kind of frightening — this ripped army of mud people out there. People were saying, “Isn’t this beautiful?” And it was beautiful. But it was also very swampy.
There was an area backstage where all kinds of people — the artists, managers, record people, whoever — were mingling. Fellini faces were whipping by. It was kind of like a gypsy caravan, a very colorful sight. I think we were playing with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young back there, but I don’t remember exactly. Over the years, between the news footage and the movie, it’s kind of foggy in my mind as to who was doing what with whom and where. There’d be people like Wavy Gravy, who would run in with messages every once in a while. You’d get news flashes from the outside world: “This is the biggest gathering. … We are now the biggest city in New York. … We’re bigger than Brooklyn. … The traffic is backed up to the George Washington Bridge.” And everybody would go, “YEEEAAAAH!”
After three days of people being hammered by weather and music, it was hard to get a take on the mood. We played a slow, haunting set of mountain music. We lived up there, near Woodstock, and it seemed kind of appropriate from our point of view. We did songs like “Long Black Veil” and “The Weight,” and everything had a bit of reverence to it. Even the faster songs sounded almost religious. I thought, “God, I don’t know if this is the right place for this.” I remember looking out there, and it seemed as though the kids were looking at us kind of funny. We were playing the same way we played in our living room, and that might have given the impression that we weren’t up for it. But it could’ve been that we just couldn’t get that same intimate feeling with a few hundred thousand people.
I never thought it was an amazing musical experience. Just like in the movie, the music was only part of the entertainment. As for the event itself, you feel proud to have been a part of it; you feel it was amazing; you feel it was a first; you feel like it said something. In all of those ways it was huge. But as a musical experience for the Band, we were like orphans in the storm there. Most of the other musicians went up and said, “Everybody clap your hands and sing along with me.” But that wasn’t our calling. We were thinking, “These poor suckers have been putting up with a lot of stuff, so maybe we should send out a little spiritual blessing to them.”
A version of this story was originally published in the August 24th, 1989 print edition of Rolling Stone.