Sunday 22 September 2019

Woodstock at 50: 'Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - without the sex in my case'

Just the ticket: Joe Boland. Photo: Mark Condren
Just the ticket: Joe Boland. Photo: Mark Condren
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

'Groovy, groovy, groovy. How are you? Can you hear? Groovy. Groovy. It's really beautiful to see so many people together. Right? Groovy..."

So began the first and most famous of all the festivals in the history of rock music at Woodstock, with the words of the singer Richie Havens.

Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix

It all happened on a farm in upstate New York, 50 years ago this weekend.

The hippies came together and enjoyed peace, love and lashings of mud.

As the famous line goes: "If you can remember the 1960s, you weren't really there."

That may be so, but Dubliner Joe Boland can remember the 1960s vividly. He was at Woodstock that weekend in 1969, and he has the tickets to prove it.

Looking back as a 68-year-old, Joe remarks: "It was sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - without the sex in my case.

"I was a bit inexperienced at the time."

Joe and his friend Cathal O'Doherty, both teenagers fresh out of school at St Mary's College in Dublin, went on an adventure that summer.

They were working in New York during the holidays, and decided to travel to the festival after seeing a poster on the subway.

Tickets for Woodstock were $7.50 for each day.

"The tickets were very expensive at the time," says Joe, a brother of the Irish Independent TV critic John Boland.

"Nobody knew at the time that it would be an event of such cultural significance. They were expecting 50,000 at the festival and 500,000 turned up."

There is a reason why Joe still has his tickets. They were never checked in the chaos that engulfed the event.

By the time he arrived at the enormous field full of people in Woodstock, the fence surrounding the venue had been pushed down by the ever-expanding crowds and it was a free concert.

Over the weekend, some of the leading acts of that era played, including Jimi Hendrix, who captured the dark patriotic spirit of the Vietnam era with his discordant version of the 'Star Spangled Banner'.

The guitarist was joined on the bill by other rock luminaries such as The Who, Janis Joplin and Santana.

Joe arrived on the bus in the Catskill Mountains on Friday night with nothing but a pair of jeans, sneakers and a white T-shirt.

"It was very hot during the day and extremely cold at night.

"On the first night I slept on a park bench after getting off the bus.

"And on the second night, we slept in the mud. Don't let anyone tell you it was the field of dreams - it was a field of muck."

Before thunderstorms wreaked havoc at the festival, placing some of the leading acts in danger of electrocution, the weather was fine.

Joe joined the hordes of young naked flower children skinny dipping in a pond.

"I don't know how I dried myself, because I certainly didn't bring a towel. It was a pretty interesting experience for two middle-class kids from Dublin."

A good portion of the long-haired crowd was high on acid and seemed to be floating down a river with the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.

"You didn't have to put your hand in your pocket because there was free food and Coca Cola.

"There were these hippy groups like the Merry Pranksters who wanted to feed the masses," says Joe.

The Dubliner remembers a calm and friendly atmosphere of peace and love among the crowd.

"I can't remember any fights or rows at all."

Joe recalls one of the few bouts of trouble during the festival when The Who performed an explosive set in the middle of the night.

"At the time, The Who were my favourite band and they were not flower children at all - they weren't into all that peace and love stuff."

When Abbie Hoffman, a leading social activist of the flower power movement, went on stage during The Who's set to make a pronouncement, guitarist Pete Townshend attacked him.

Joe says: "Townshend smashed him with his guitar and let out a string of expletives."

It is said that Woodstock marked the end of the spirit of the sixties - the peace and love of the festival was followed up by the violence of Altamont Festival in California, when a concert-goer was stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel.

The clouds were already darkening.

Joe, who went on to work in the IDA and now lives off Baggot Street in Dublin, says: "Woodstock was happening when America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and many of the kids there were waiting to be drafted. At the time, all of that went over my head."

Read more: Summer of '69: 'Woodstock gave people hope'

Irish Independent

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