I had been living in Chicago for a year and I had made some new friends. We had been running around having fun all that time and hadn’t thought things were going to change but they did. The reason I was in Chicago in the first place is because I was supposed to be going to college. I wasn’t. I was “out in the streets” with my friends.
I started out right. I was going to class every day and doing what I was supposed to do. But once I made new friends and started hanging out with them, my days consisted of working at a part time job for a little money and hanging around Old Town every free moment I had. That was where all the cool people and the hippies hung out.
One of the new friends was an Asian girl named Lori and she and I got to be very close. As soon as I got out of school and she got out of work, we would meet and walk up to Old Town and we’d look in the head shops, the record stores, the boutiques and the bars. I don’t know how we did all the walking we did, but we did it every day and night for months.
We started planning to travel and we had a few trips in mind. I had started cutting classes to work more and get more money. Lori and I decided we wanted to go to London for Christmas and so we saved and we got student passes that allowed us to get stand-by tickets on the airlines for half the price.
Mom didn’t want me to go to London, but I was grown and I could do what I wanted, or so I thought. I went to London against her wishes and I had the best time I’d ever had. Of course, it was my first vacation on my own away from family. We found a cheap hotel with no elevator and we had a blast. This trip was so much fun, we decided we had to take another one and we planned a trip to New York in August.
My parents finally realized I wasn’t attending class and that I was just running wild in the city. I had a job and I was working, but they decided it was time for me to come back home. They came to get me in July and we sat together in a bar and watched the men walk on the moon and then they took me home to Galesburg.
A month later, Lori and I flew to New York. We had a friend who had an apartment on the Lower East Side and that is where we stayed. When we got there, she told us about this big concert that was happening about 60 miles north of New York in this place called Woodstock. The Who were playing and so was Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Sly and the Family Stone. It sounded good till I realized it was going to be outside and that the concert would last 3 days. What the hell?
Look, I admit it. I’m prissy. I don’t like being dirty and I never have. When I was a child, if I was outside playing and my hands got dirty, I had to run in the house and wash them. My Mom was trying to put us out so she could have some peace and there I was coming back in every 5 minutes. I guess it irritated her endlessly.
But anyway, I was going to have to sit on a blanket for 3 days and nights?? Use a port-a-let? What would we eat? Sleep? What if it rained? I said no.
Lori said, “Brenda, it’s the Who. Roger and the fringe. Keith Moon and those eyes. You remember.”
Yes I did. We had seen them just a few months before at the Kinetic and we fell even more in love with them than we had been just listening to their music. And we had gone to the hotel afterwards and talked to them more. Yeah, I remembered.
But did I want to sit outside on a farm in the dirt with ducks and crazy people smoking God knows what and walking around naked and ….well, you know. And no, I didn’t.
Another of our friends agreed with me. She wasn’t enthused about an outdoor concert either. I didn’t mind if it was a concert that was over in one day. I could take that. But three days? The tickets were kind of high for us young chicks to swing especially since we’d just flown to New York and wanted to have some fun there. We could go hang out in clubs in the city and dance and meet cute guys and not have to sit in the dirt.
We talked about it all day long. A friend came over who had a car and he was going. He had room for us if we wanted to go. We looked at each other and asked again. Should we go to Woodstock? Did we want to see Sha Na Na? Did we want to see Canned Heat? How about Ten Years After? We did want to see the newest supergroup, Crosby Stills and Nash. But did we want to see them bad enough to sit in the dirt for 3 days?
Our friend left with two girls and the rest of us stayed in New York. We dressed up and went out that night and had a blast. Later the next day, we heard that thousands of people had shown up at the festival. They were coming from everywhere. The freeway was closed and the concert was free because so many people were knocking the fences down and climbing in. It was all over the news.
Lori said to me, “Maybe we should have gone.” I was beginning to realize I’d been wrong. We should have gone. We thought about hitchhiking up there. Yeah, we did that. It was safer back then than now. But our friend reminded us that the roads were blocked with traffic and that we’d never get there.
And then it rained. It rained and rained all night long. We didn’t go out that night. We ate pizza and sat around listening to music and talking. We thought about what it must have been like to be sitting out there with a howling driving storm like that and once again, we were glad we hadn’t gone.
When our friends came back, yes, they were dirty, but they were lit with a happiness I hadn’t seen in years. They said it was the greatest moment of their lives. They couldn’t describe it, but it had been life changing and though they had been uncomfortable for a short while, the love they felt from everyone, the way they all helped each other and the amazing music they heard made it worth a little dirt. It was one of the biggest events of our generation and we missed it because I didn’t want to get dirty. I was ready to kick myself.
When the movie came out, we went to see it and we must have seen it 4 times in a row. I was ready to cry. I felt the peace and love just watching the movie. I saw the happy faces and I was angry with myself all over again. We just couldn’t believe that we had been so close and had missed that concert. We loved every moment of that movie and I am sure that we all have seen it at least over a hundred times in our lifetime.
Lori was a good friend. She never once said, “Brenda, we really messed up.” She didn’t blame me although I blamed myself and I still do. If I hadn’t been so prissy and worried about getting dirty, we could have been right there at the greatest concert ever like thousands of other people my age had been.
We could have seen Crosby Stills and Nash perform for the first time in front of people. We could have seen Janis Joplin late that night and Grace Slick early in the morning. We could have seen Jimi play the National Anthem. We could have been there for it all. We had no inkling that hot weekend in New York that it was going to be one of those moments that would change everyone’s lives whether they had been there or not. We didn’t know it was the end of an era. We just didn’t know.
Eventually though, I did go to Woodstock. Years later, when I was married, my husband and I visited a friend in Monticello, We were driving around and she took us to this little shop that was a kind of Woodstock museum. The real one hadn’t been built yet and they were seeking donations to make it come true. I bought some posters and post cards and prints and then we drove over to the sight where the concert took place.
There is a huge marker there with the names of everyone that played and I sat there looking at them and closed my eyes and thought about what had happened there all those years ago. This was hallowed ground now. You could still feel the love and peace that had been there. There was no one there but us and I just sat with my thoughts and realized I really HAD made it to Woodstock after all. Many years later, but I had been there. I took pictures of the marker, wiped away my tears and left.
I do wish I had gone with Lori. She died last year and I felt even worse that it had been my fault we missed Woodstock.
I think about something Graham Nash said; if everyone who said they’d been to Woodstock really had been there, the Earth would have tilted on its axis. Well, I’m not one of them. I wasn’t there.
I didn’t go to Woodstock.
Brenda Joyce Thompson, a graduate of the University of Miami, lives in Chicago. She has worked in public relations and has been a college English instructor. She enjoys music, classic rock and old school R&B, reading, writing, traveling and her cat Purrl and her dog Allie.