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Back in August of 1969 Neil Kelleher Jr., currently chairman of the Rensselaer County Legislature, didn’t make rules, as he does now. Then a 16-year-old, his parents made the rules, and he followed them.
But when the chance of a lifetime — though he didn’t realize it then — came up, he did some bypassing after his parents turned down his request to attend Woodstock.
“I asked very politely and very nicely, and I was probably very persistent about it,” Kelleher said 40 years later, “and they told me: ‘Definitely not. No way.’”
“So I went out the door and started hitchhiking,” he added.
Via hitchhiking and a bus trip, he met with two local friends on an overcrowded farm in rural Bethel for what became a defining moment of an era. They joined some 400,000 others who convened on Aug. 15, 1969, in the rawest of circumstances — food, sleep and shelter from bad weather were scarce, Kelleher said, but mud was everywhere — to see three days of music from notable acts like Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
The “peace and love” theme was very real, Kelleher said, and people shared and made the best with what they had.
Wavy Gravy, a prominent hippie movement figure (and an East Greenbush native) who has operated the Hog Farm commune in the San Francisco Bay area for decades, certainly expressed no discontent when he got onstage and proclaimed: “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.”
But there was no breakfast, or much food at all, said Kelleher, who remembers getting half a tuna sandwich from a police officer. But it wasn’t about eating; it was about being there, even if he recalls the dreary weather and poor sanitary conditions more than the music.
“Everybody knew it was going to be a happening,” Kelleher said. “We obviously didn’t know it was going to be the happening that was going to cap the decade, if you will. We obviously had no idea that was going to go on.”
Some four decades later, Woodstock remains 1969’s iconographic musical and cultural happening.
It wasn’t the only milestone in music that year. Led Zeppelin burst onto the scene with their first two albums, I and II, ushering in a new wave of blues-infused hard rock while, conversely, Elvis topped the American charts for the last time with “Suspicious Minds,” capping an older, more restrained musical era.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono married in 1969. The Jackson 5 performed their first show at Harlem’s venerable Apollo Theater. Heavy metal icons Judas Priest and Black Sabbath formed, and David Bowie released his first single, “Space Oddity,” a space-age commentary coinciding with the scientific breakthrough of that year and that generation: the moon landing.
But the rural congregation celebrating the values and sounds of the times is still at the forefront of our collective memory.
This summer, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s radio station, 91.5 WRPI, will mark the 40th anniversary with a two-hour block of live performances from the festival every Sunday night, at 8 p.m., through September.
This month, a film called “Taking Woodstock” will be released. Filmed in Columbia and Rensselaer counties, the film chronicles the festival.
Also this month, the “Heroes of Woodstock” tour will span the nation, its centerpiece being today’s performance at, fittingly, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. Headlined by Jefferson Starship — the later incarnation of Jefferson Airplane—the tour will also feature appearances by other Woodstock artists like Edgar Winter and Canned Heat.
For all the reverent remembrance it commands, Woodstock didn’t appear quite so historic at the time, said Kelleher, who left midway through Hendrix’s set — the festival’s final act — and headed to New York City.
“We didn’t realize we were at some kind of history-making event until we left,” he said. “It’s when we got to New York City and bought a copy of the Daily News — I think the headline said ‘400,000 Mire in a Sea of Mud’ — and we said, ‘oh my God, look at this. We were there.’”
Other turbulent events later in 1969, like a stabbing at California’s Altamont Free Concert, have been described as precipitating the end of the hippie era. Mark Hamilton Lytle concludes in his book America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon that such incidents became “a symbol for the death of the Woodstock nation.”
The U.S. would begin to pull troops out of Vietnam that year, though it would be many more years before that conflict came to a halt. Though Wavy Gravy’s commune still exists, by 1969 the psychedelic scene in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco had already peaked two years prior during the iconic “Summer of Love.”
But Kelleher said that decline wasn’t quite felt on the East Coast, where the times were still a-changing.
“You still got a weird look if you were walking down Fifth Avenue here in 1971 with hair down to your shoulders,” he said. “People weren’t quite used to you yet.”