Summer of Love: Woodstock
LONG BEFORE THE WOODSTOCK FESTIVAL’S “THREE DAYS OF PEACE AND music” turned this Catskill Mountains town into a hippie mecca, it was a refuge for painters, musicians, actors, anarchists, bootleggers, Utopians and all variety of eccentrics. But none made quite the impact on the place as four rowdy, road-worn Canadians who checked into the Woodstock Motel in early spring 1967.
Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson —— the Hawks —— had been touring since most of them were teenagers, backing rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, then Bob Dylan on his 1966 electric tour. Dylan lived in Woodstock and had recently bought a house in the artist community of Byrdcliffe, where he was recuperating from a motorcycle crash. The accident led him to cancel his 1967 tour plans, leaving the Hawks aimless. When Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, suggested the group come to Woodstock, they liked the idea: The place offered cheap rent, space to work on their music, and after years on the road, says Hudson, the chance to “get reacquainted with screen doors and dishwashers and going to the dump.”
The band (whose drummer Levon Helm was living in Memphis but would rejoin the group in Woodstock that fall) took to mountain life. They grew beards, split firewood, collected antique rifles, planted marijuana in the woods and began dressing like nineteenth-century frontier gunslingers, in wool vests and denim shirts and cowboy boots. “They looked unlike anyone we’d ever met,” remembers folk musician Happy Traum, who moved to Woodstock the previous year, “like something from another world.”
Despite its history as an arts colony —— everyone from painter Milton Avery to composer John Cage, jazz musician Charles Mingus and actor Lee Marvin had lived there — Woodstock was mainly working-class and conservative, and locals weren’t thrilled about the longhaired hippies and folk musicians who’d started to move in. The Hawks were different – they fit in. “You’d see them at the hardware store, or drinking beer with firemen,” remembers one local. “They lit up the town.”
Favorite Hawks hangouts were the Cafe Espresso, a Greenwich Village-style beatnik coffeehouse where Danko ruled the checkers table (and where Dylan wrote Another Side of Bob Dylan in an apartment upstairs), and Deanie’s, a piano bar and burger joint where Manuel would jam with Paul Butter- field and other musicians after-hours.
The band made friends easily. “What happened when the guys came is that it became impossible to fall in love with any woman around here,” remembers Woodstock Town Supervisor Jeremy Wilber, who was seventeen at the time. “Because the girls were all in love with them.”
Admits Robertson, “We were the only show in town.”
In addition to the ladies, Danko and Manuel got to know the local cops pretty well —— they always seemed to be crashing their cars late at night.
Hudson, Manuel and Danko rented a suburban-style split-level house, painted pink and set on 100 acres, for $125 a month; Robertson opted for a cabin nearby with his girlfriend. They’d get up around noon, Manuel cooked breakfast, Hudson did dishes — then they’d smoke a joint and go down to the basement to work on songs. “This ugly pink house became our clubhouse,” says Robertson. “It felt like what the Dead End Kids would have in the city, or the Bowery Boys — a place to go every day and hang around.”
The basement was made of cinder blocks with a cement floor; the furnace had to be shut off when they played. Hudson installed a two-track recorder, a cheap Kagra mixer and several high-end Neumann microphones. After Dylan recovered from his injuries, he joined the sessions most afternoons. In tapes Hudson recorded in late spring, most of which have never been officially released, you hear a lazy sense of fun and experimentation as Dylan leads the band through folk and country standards, Appalachian tunes, blues, gospel and improvised goofs like “See You Later, Allen Ginsberg.” “A lot of the songs were just cracking us up,” says Robertson. “We loved the idea of having the liberty and freedom to make music that nobody would ever hear.”
There were two typewriters upstairs, and soon Dylan began pecking out new songs, sometimes several in a day. “It amazed us,” says Hudson, “to watch Bob go upstairs and type out a tune without any erasures or backspaces, then he’d come downstairs and we recorded it.”
By the end of summer, Dylan had recorded more than thirty new songs, including “Million Dollar Bash,” “Tears of Rage” (co-written with Manuel), “This Wheel’s On Fire” (co-written with Danko), “I Shall Be Released” and “Quinn the Eskimo.” It was the most prolific run of new material in his career. “That’s really the way to do a recording,” he told Rolling Stone in 1969. “In a peaceful, relaxed setting-in somebody’s basement, with the windows open and a dog lying on the floor.” (There was, in fact, a dog – a rangy black mutt named Hamlet who Dylan had been unable to train, so he left him at Big Pink with Danko.)