Remembering Woodstock ’94

On the concert’s 25th anniversary, Steve Edwards reflects on the mud, the music, and the myths he lives by.

Steve Edwards | Longreads | August 2019 | 20 minutes (3,632 words)

In hindsight, a tent would have been nice. A raincoat and boots. All I’d brought for “2 More Days of Peace and Music” at Woodstock ’94 was a sleeping bag and a backpack with a change of clothes. I remember thinking that in Indiana, the only home I’d ever known, it was hot as hell in August — how much different could the weather be in upstate New York? None of the people in my life, not friends nor family, found any fault with this logic. I was 19 with a year of college under my belt. I’d been working all summer as a camp counselor at the YMCA, nursing a broken heart. I didn’t care about the details, I just wanted to go.

From my vantage 25 years later, I’m equal parts horrified and impressed by my dumb faith in things just working out. So much has changed. Like everyone else these days, I feel self-conscious if I leave the house without my phone. Somebody now — my wife, my son, my employer — knows my whereabouts at all times.

It makes me wonder what that kid so eager to get to Woodstock would think of me. Would I seem soft to him?

Boring?

I had hair back then, a big bushy head of it. I wore flannel shirts and combat boots, and played bass in a band covering Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana. We played frat parties and keggers and biker hog roasts way out in the country. On campus, fans sometimes recognized me and said things like, “Hey, aren’t you in my math class?” If only I could have recognized myself as easily.

For reasons I’m still unpacking, I always felt like something of an impostor in my own life. As though all I ever did was pretend — pretend to be a good student, a good friend, a good son, humble and kind — while the real me waited and watched from behind the scenes. The real me wanted sex, creativity, a life of the mind to cast off the Protestant shame of my upbringing and live free. The real me wanted to be inspired and to inspire others. To be known. Beloved. Only I didn’t have a clue how to manifest any of that, and I had an inherent distrust of wanting anything too badly for fear of the disappointment of not getting it. Or of getting it and realizing it wasn’t what I thought. What you wanted could hurt you. I’d learned that somehow.

The real me wanted sex, creativity, a life of the mind to cast off the Protestant shame of my upbringing and live free. The real me wanted to be inspired and to inspire others. To be known. Beloved.

Imagining myself as a musician was a kind of compromise, a wall I leaned against for balance. I could have my pretend fame on stage and still dutifully sit in my math class later. But like a wall it kept people out. They knew my surfaces, not me. I walked around in a state of perpetual loneliness, starving for connection, meaning, authenticity, pretending that the lack of those things didn’t bother me. And as cliché as it sounds, grunge music spoke to that. Its sloppiness made it real. In Kurt Cobain’s caterwauling, all my confusion and unacknowledged pain heard an echo of itself. Like a lot of people, I thought maybe music and culture were taking a turn back to the ’60s, when songs had a social conscience and meant something. Any time I caught footage of it on television, I marveled at the original 1969 Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix and Santana wailing on guitar. Joe Cocker’s soulful timbre and tone. The lovers wrapped up in their blankets. The long-haired, lanky young men swimming naked in a pond. The women with flowers in their hair and dresses the sun shone through. They all smiled as though they knew something. Everything I wanted so badly gleamed like a secret in their eyes. And while I knew Woodstock ’94 couldn’t approximate the original, that didn’t keep me from hoping it somehow might. More than the music, it was the thought of all that love and togetherness — the residue of the Woodstock myth — that made me plunk down $135 and drive through the night with some college buddies to New York.

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On the way to Saugerties, I slept in the backseat and woke every few hours to a sky punctured by streetlights and stars. East of Cleveland we joined a convoy of long-hairs in tie-dyed shirts and ripped jeans and bandanas, everyone taking turns passing one another, waving and hollering. In the morning, we stopped at a café where locals eyed us and served us cold eggs. Queueing up for the shuttle to the venue in some auxiliary parking lot later, we lamented to anyone who’d listen that we were from the Corn Belt, where nothing ever happened. Some older ex-Midwesterners in line commiserated, urging us to get our asses out to the coast (either one) while we were still young. It felt like a sign that we’d made the right choice in coming.


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When we finally arrived at the venue in midmorning the place was mobbed, nothing but tents and vendors and people — seething masses of flesh — as far as the eye could see. Every designated camping area was full.

On a path in a pine thicket, far out of sight of the north stage, a few dozen of us helped to kick down a chain-link fence. I remember watching it warble, wave-like, and collapse. I scurried across it and claimed a space on the bare dirt of the forest floor for my sleeping bag and backpack. My friends threw down their things, too, and all around us others did the same, quickly setting up tents, lighting campfires and joints, cracking open coolers of food, cases of beer. In the distance, music — I couldn’t tell you the band — blared from giant loudspeakers: electric guitars, thundering drums, and bass. What we talked about in our little circle has been lost to me. Music, maybe. Which bands we wanted to hear. I don’t know whether my friends felt as romantic about Woodstock as I did, or what they hoped to get out of the weekend. I’m not sure what I hoped to get out of it. Some small part of me thought being there might impress the woman I loved in California, the one I’d flown out to see over spring break, who I’d kissed and cuddled, and who’d recently started dating someone else.

Such were the delusions I traded in.

It rained that first night. I don’t know what time it started, midnight or later, but I woke as the first few drops hit my face. The rain smelled good, and the sound of it falling down on the trees reminded me of camping trips when I was a kid. I didn’t know that in the Northeast bands of rain sometimes rolled in, gently, relentlessly, for days at a time. I turned over and went back to sleep, not thinking much of a drizzle.

Saturday morning we learned through old-fashioned word-of-mouth pre–social media gossip that the event’s organizers had given up checking tickets or doing much in the way of security. The chain-link fences like the one we’d kicked down didn’t serve as any kind of deterrent to literal gate crashers. People flowed in freely. A crowd that already seemed gargantuan on Friday swelled like a rotten melon on Saturday. Word going around was that a quarter of a million people might show up. Maybe more. It was thrilling to think that kids like me, from all corners of the country, had felt the pull and were dropping everything to join us. Who knew what could happen?

Against the thrill of that possibility, however, the reality of the mud and the crush of the crowd overwhelmed me. Trash bins overflowed with garbage. Rows of filthy porta potties radiated their stench. Half-naked drunk and drugged-out people laughed and danced and wept and sang. A lonesome, straight-laced kid from the heartland, I had no idea how to feel like a part of all that. As much as I may have wanted to join in, it repulsed me. This wasn’t peace and love but squalor. This wasn’t togetherness but mass escapism. I couldn’t imagine what the ordinary lives of these people were like. Would they go back to work on Monday morning like nothing happened? Or did they live this way? It was disorienting to try to make sense of so many stories at once.

I spent most of the day walking around. I listened to some environmental activists up on actual soapboxes hollering about acid rain and the plight of the whales. I bought a bagel and a hot dog. At a bank of pay phones I called the woman I loved in California and left an awkward message: “You’ll never guess where I am right now.”

The one band I wanted to see on Saturday was Blind Melon. They’d gotten famous on MTV with a song called “No Rain,” whose video featured a little girl dressed as a bumble bee. I liked the band and their music, and my band covered their song “Change” to good effect at frat parties. But what really interested me was their lead-\ singer — Shannon Hoon. He’d grown up in my hometown of 900 in Indiana and gone to my high school, graduating half a dozen years before I’d matriculated. He’d been a pole vaulter on the track team. I may have even been wearing his old uniform when I anchored the 4×400-meter relay.

Hoon represented something for me that I was only half aware of at the time: He’d gotten out. Not just out of small-town Indiana geographically but also out of the limitations a place like that puts on who you’re allowed to be and what you’re allowed to dream. It’s subtle, and maybe only certain people hear it, but there’s this whisper that you’ll always be small, too, and that to want something more from life than what your hometown has to offer means you think you’re better than everyone else, means you’re betraying those who raised you. But I loved my hometown. I didn’t think I was better than anyone else. And while I didn’t have the talent or the drive to become a professional musician, Shannon Hoon’s success meant that I might someday find my own, whatever it happened to be. Part of feeling like an impostor in my own life came from looking around at where I was from and not seeing myself in the lives of others. In Shannon Hoon, I saw that my hometown did have a role for me: I would be someone who left it.

In Shannon Hoon, I saw that my hometown did have a role for me: I would be someone who left it.

For years all I could recall of Hoon at Woodstock ’94 was that he’d worn a white dress. The memory of wanting to see him perform outlasted any memory of the performance itself. According to Wikipedia, he borrowed the dress from his girlfriend and was tripping on LSD. Judging from his stage presence on YouTube clips, I don’t doubt it. He had this Janis Joplin high rasp and wail. With his long hair and that robe-like white dress, he looked like Jesus Christ. Barely a year later, he’d be dead of a cocaine overdose. Fans pilgrimaged to his gravesite in my hometown. Out of curiosity and pity, I went several times myself. It’s hard to explain the pull. I thought maybe being close to him — again, to that residue of myth — some part of it might rub off on me. Inscribed on his gravestone were lyrics from “Change”: “I know we all can’t stay here forever / so I want to write my words on the face of today.” People left behind notes for him, trinkets, beer cans, lighters. On my first visit, I saw what looked like a slightly oversize coin and bent down to take a look. It was a one-dollar token from Woodstock ’94. For all I knew, the person who left it may have been standing in the crowd with me that Saturday afternoon in August. What had Shannon Hoon meant to them? What did they remember of him? Did his music offer some respite from feeling alone in the world? The cemetery felt so quiet that day. Hushed birdsong in the trees. Distant traffic on State Road 38 East. When I next returned, several years later, the token was gone.

***

By late Saturday night, it began to dawn on me that the feeling I’d hoped to encounter when we set out from Indiana — that spirit of togetherness, the peace and love, the romance I’d associated with Woodstock — wasn’t going to happen. The closest I came to feeling it was when Melissa Etheridge growled her way through “Piece of My Heart,” the swelling tide of a few hundred thousand of us singing along. But it didn’t last. Later that night a mud-soaked Nine Inch Nails took the stage, followed by Metallica. The music (which I liked well enough) brutalized a crowd that all day had been soaking up heat and rain. I remember watching bodies in the mosh pits, shirtless young men — white men, mostly — slick with sweat and grime, smashing into one another, throwing elbows, knocking heads, flailing and falling down and getting trampled before bouncing up and diving back into the fray. They moved with a kind of religious fervor, desperate to touch and be touched, violence the only thing that gave them the permission.

They moved with a kind of religious fervor, desperate to touch and be touched, violence the only thing that gave them the permission.

It rained harder that night. I lay shivering in my wet clothes and sleeping bag, listening to Aerosmith on the north stage. I hated Aerosmith. Nine Inch Nails and Metallica may not have fit my vision of what Woodstock should’ve been but at least they had a point of view. Aerosmith was a party band who churned out power ballads and videos, and I resented how effective they were in getting me to lust after Alicia Silverstone.

Uncomfortable in my sodden clothes, I stripped down and spent Sunday morning walking around in a pair of silk boxers and a T-shirt. Skinny, pale, knock-kneed, I trudged through the mud, carefully maneuvering through the crowd, dodging shoulders. On my way to the south stage, I slipped and fell, sliding down a big muddy hill. Directly in my path, a woman at the bottom stood watching with a deer-in-the-headlights expression. Everything moved in slow motion. I called out: “I can’t stop!”

Right before we collided, a muscled-up Marine-looking dude in a cowboy hat grabbed me by the arm and yanked me to my feet.

Mud slathered over every inch of me — arms, legs, neck and face, the dirty curls of my bushy hair — I had been baptized by the church of Woodstock ’94. An old stoner gave me the once-over: “Easy, Mud Dude. Easy.”

But I wasn’t mad. Startled, maybe. A little chagrined by the ridiculousness of being a person. At 19, my indifference to discomfort often saved me. If I were to find myself in a similar situation today — cold, wet, exhausted, in only my underwear and covered in mud — I can’t tell you the fits of rage I’d direct inward. Here in middle age, so much of my time is spent heading off the inevitable consequences of ignorance. When a highway’s slick with rain, I slow down. In winter I keep an emergency blanket in the trunk of my car. But back then, I didn’t care. So what if it rained? So what if I didn’t like some of the bands? So what if the whole event had leveraged my nostalgia for an era I hadn’t even been alive to witness into an elaborate ploy to con me out of $135? I could let things go. I could be miserable at 19 and still have a decent time.

The kid I was back then — I don’t know. I think he’d have liked the current me, even if maybe he pitied me a little. My baldness and bad hip. My fretting over bills. When I really slow down and let myself reinhabit his world, I’m struck by all he still has to teach me. It’s probably true for any of our former selves. Lurking in the past between the grand dramas and fateful decisions that become the stories of our lives is the person — familiar and inscrutable — who those stories happened to. And no matter the before or after, that person is enough. It would be unfair to look back, knowing what you know now, and judge yourself by virtue of all the hurt you could have avoided. That kind of thinking props up the fiction that you’re no longer in danger of making terrible mistakes. That after a certain age you stop growing. But the second you think you’ve got everything figured out — that’s when you’re most in danger of fucking up. Imagine instead a kind of looking back whose purpose isn’t to fix old mistakes, or even necessarily to understand them (though this can be important self-work) — imagine just remembering what the old you felt and thought and perceived. What it was like to be in a band and play music for a big crowd, or to be on a road trip with one arm strung out the window coasting on waves of air. Such remembering is an act of compassion. And who knows? It could help us find some for who we are now.

Lurking between the grand dramas and fateful decisions that become the stories of our lives is the person — familiar and inscrutable — who those stories happened to. And no matter the before or after, that person is enough.

One of the last things I did before leaving Woodstock ’94 was buy a piece of jewelry — an ugly metallic necklace with a heart on it — for the woman I loved in California. This was sometime after I’d fallen down the muddy hill. The sun had come out. I could feel the whole weekend folding in on itself like a cheap tent. I didn’t know what the future held for the two of us. All I knew was that I loved her and had to win her back.

So I bought the necklace.

A few weeks later, when she came home to Indiana for college, I gave it to her. And somehow I won her back. We started dating for real and fell in love and got married at 22. And because this is how life happens sometimes, I messed everything up and broke her heart. We were divorced by 23.

But before all that it was a Sunday in August in upstate New York. Sunlight had turned the world glorious again — the sky and clouds, the overflowing trash bins like beautiful and grotesque flowers in bloom, the long shadows scissoring between the legs of thousands of aimless walkers like an impossible-to-decode message. I pulled the last of my Woodstock tokens from the wallet I carried in the waistband of my boxers. I bought the necklace and stood holding it, full of hope and sadness and possibility. And for a moment that was me — all I had ever been and ever would be. The necklace was smooth and clean in the palm of my hand.

It’s taken me years to return to that moment — to reclaim it as pure. As far as Woodstock ’94 memories go, it’s about as inconsequential as it gets. It wasn’t the Green Day mud fight. It wasn’t Red Hot Chili Peppers taking the stage dressed as lightbulbs. Somebody who lost a tooth in the mosh pit during Nine Inch Nails might not even think it was worth telling. But it matters to me. Such moments are when our lives change.

Or don’t.

The hand that clenched itself around that necklace belongs to me still — and part of me holds that necklace still.

I remember on the way home from the concert, covered in three days of mud and grime, we pulled into a service center on I-90 to gas up and grab snacks for the road. There we met a man from Denmark — a journalist. He and his wife were traveling the country in an RV, gathering stories about America. He wanted to know if we felt like the concert represented something bigger about our generation, the way the original Woodstock had represented the ’60s. I had no idea how to answer that. I doubt my friends did either.

Such remembering is an act of compassion.

In my heart of hearts, the whole thing had felt like a farce. My generation? We were shallow, self-aggrandizing, vapid: the Aerosmith of generations, sellouts all. Or maybe that was just my bias showing. Maybe if I’d been able to cut loose and smoke a joint and get pummeled in the mosh pit, I might have felt differently. It’s painful to look back and realize how little I knew about anything then, and how uncomfortable I felt in my own skin, and how vulnerable that all made me to a life of pretending. But sometimes pretending is all we have. It might be all we ever have. It’s what my friends and I were doing as we chatted with that journalist, recounting the mud and the crowds and the music, bluffing our way toward understanding something of the weekend’s significance. It’s what I’m doing now, reconstructing and reflecting upon memories of events from 25 years ago in order to imbue them with meaning. It’s probably what I’ll always do. Not all pretending is bad. When I think about the necklace I bought for the woman I loved in California, or Shannon Hoon looking Christlike in a white dress, or the feel of cool raindrops on my face — I think of these moments as gifts with which I am courting a story, the one I want to tell myself about myself. And though it’s a story I may never fully understand, I love it and am always working to win it back.

***

Steve Edwards is author of Breaking into the Backcountry, a memoir of his time as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead in southern Oregon. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son.

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Editor: Krista Stevens

Copy editor: Jacob Gross