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Kate Walter | Longreads | Month 2019 | 7 minutes (1800 words)
“Want to go to Woodstock with me?” my boyfriend Joe asked.
“Yes!” I screamed at his offer. I was a 20-year-old student at a conservative Catholic women’s college in New Jersey. Joe was my guide into the radical 60s.
We’d met at the Jersey Shore when my sorority rented a house in Belmar, a party town. Joe was four years older than me, already out of school. He had a job, his own apartment, a motorcycle and long hair. My father disliked him. It didn’t help when my mother found my birth control pills in my dresser.
Joe was over six feet tall, with black hair and dark eyes, kinda hairy and a bit chubby, a bear — not my type at all. He had wire-rimmed glasses, like his idol, John Lennon, and wore vests with fringe. Since Joe was the music editor for The Aquarian, a popular underground newspaper, we became regulars at the Fillmore East. Nothing could have kept us two rockers from the three-day music festival in the lower Catskills.
That was so long ago, Joe and I were both still straight. Years later, in the 70s, we came out — first him, then me. (No wonder the sex wasn’t so hot.)
I’ll never forget how early Thursday morning, August 14, 1969, Joe picked me up at the Jersey Shore. Then we drove to East Brunswick to connect with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. They followed us in their car.
Joe drove his black Kharman Ghia convertible, a two seater with a tiny trunk. The tents and backpacks with sleeping bags were in the bigger car in our little caravan upstate. Joe’s Italian mother, a great cook, packed enough food in the cooler to last for days. Good thing because the local stores and restaurants sold out. We never expected to be trapped on this big muddy field with roads blocked, the Thruway shut down.
“Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud,” read the Daily News headline. No wonder my parents were worried.
When we arrived that evening, vehicles were lined up for miles along Route 17B, the road that led to the site in the town of White Lake. We ditched the two cars along the roadside, slipped on our backpacks, grabbed the cooler and tents, and followed the crowds to Yasgur’s farm. No one asked for our tickets.
On Friday, we had plans to meet our friends, Terry and Leslie, who drove up separately. Terry had been drafted into the army, which meant going to Viet Nam. He was scheduled to leave that Monday.
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As Joe and I trudged up a ridge toward the information booths, I remembered the fun times the four of us had at the Jersey Shore, where they’d played matchmaker for me and Joe. What if Terry didn’t come back? Cresting the hill, Joe and I saw the mobbed tables and hundreds of people waiting to use the pay phones. I didn’t call my parents, as promised. I felt rebellious.
It was so crowded we could not make out anyone. We found a spot to watch the music, which provided a decent view when Richie Havens opened the festival with his rousing version of “Freedom.” I was excited as I viewed the freaky crowds. At my religious college, I’d felt like a weirdo, but here were tons of kids like me with wild hair, dancing free form, love beads flying. That night it drizzled and then poured while we huddled together. We lit matches during Melanie’s performance, and laughed with Arlo Guthrie. Drenched, we retreated to the tent.
On Saturday morning, Joe and I slid down a muddy road and we bumped directly
into Terry and Leslie. We hugged and made plans to meet later.
Saturday afternoon, we all sat together, singing along to Country Joe’s “Fixing to Die Rag.” I could not imagine what was going through Terry’s head as we sang along, Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box. One two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me. I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Viet Nam.
It was rainy and slippery, and we were soaked all the time, even in the tents. Our sleeping bags got soggy and I didn’t sleep much. But who wanted to rest while the super groups of rock were playing all night? Everything was behind schedule with the show stopping when thunderstorms and torrential rains hit.
I drank red wine and bummed cigarettes, smoking more when I hung out with Joe. Nobody from our crowd had pot. Joe thought his brother was bringing half an ounce, but his brother thought Joe had it. At first I was pissed. Then I realized it didn’t matter. The crowd passed joints around during the music. We knew better than to take any of the acid.
Santana’s jam on “Soul Sacrifice” was explosive. I was dancing and air drumming along
to the band’s hot Latin percussionists as Carlos Santana’s guitar riffs cut through the air. Joe bounced in his grassy seat, but I jumped into an impromptu conga line snaking around our section.
Around midnight, trying to stay awake, Joe and I got up and boogied to Credence Clearwater Revival. After their set, we retreated to our leaky tent, exhausted. We could still hear the music, so we hung out near the flap, drinking wine and listening. Janis Joplin whipped herself into a frenzy on “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain.” I loved Janis and wanted to be watching, but we’d been out in the rain and mud for 12 hours.
I slipped on my last dry T-shirt and passed out. We were too tired to do more than kiss good night. The next morning, we crawled from the tent, dirty and thirsty, when the Jefferson Airplane jolted us to life, Grace Slick ripping into a fantastic set with “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
We left Sunday afternoon, with no dry clothes left. I was wearing Joe’s bell bottoms, rolled up. He had brought more outfits than me. The concert was still going on. I wanted to stay longer, but he had to work Monday and it was a long hike back to the car. I left the Woodstock Festival feeling incredibly high and elated.
We turned on the FM radio as we got closer to the city and heard that a million people had attended the festival. Something inside me shifted. I felt powerful. Together Joe and I had been part of history.
Three years after Woodstock, Joe and I were walking through the woods when he told me he liked men and didn’t want to keep stringing me along. He explained how he’d gotten out of the draft by telling a shrink he was gay. (I’d wondered about that.) He apologized for the deception and said he hoped we could be friends after I got over being mad at him.
I was upset about losing my boyfriend, but we remained close. A few years later, when I came out, having gay male pals made the transition easier. Joe escorted me to gay bars and was my queer wing man, hooking me up with my first lesbian lover.
I moved to the East Village, cut my hair short and began freelancing. Joe got a crew cut and contact lenses. He lost weight and quit cigarettes. Moving to the Upper West Side, he worked as a trade magazine editor. I thought we’d hang out more, but he was involved with his Fire Island friends and I lived downtown with my partner. We stayed close over the years. He lived for his summer house in the Pines and loved the rampant sex.
It’s hard to conceive now how innocent we were at Woodstock. At the festival, we were terrified about our friends getting killed in an unpopular war in a foreign country — although Terry got a last-minute deferment. We had no idea what other kinds of dangers lay ahead: Twenty years later, right in our backyard, the AIDS epidemic wiped out a generation of gay men, including Joe. If the government had been more responsive to finding a cure for this plague in the early ‘80s, Joe and I might be attending Woodstock reunions together.
In August 1994, I went back to Yasgur’s farm on the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. It wasn’t the same without Joe. For many years, my former partner, Slim, and I had rented a rustic cottage in Sullivan County 20 minutes from the field. That Saturday we took off for White Lake, where 50,000 people were camped (illegally) for the reunion, a far cry from the original 500,000. (It turned out the initial radio report we heard in’69 citing a million attendees had been wrong.) This time we parked close to the site. Local bands played on a rickety stage. Rumors flew that The Stones would show up. They didn’t.
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As we walked around, I remembered how Joe felt so connected to the scene that he thought he’d die at 27, like Janis, Jimi and Jim. He was relieved when that birthday passed.
Visitors made little shrines with stones, crystals, flowers, love beads, photos, notes. I spotted an ACT-UP sticker. A local artist set up a huge piece of poster paper, urging those who attended the original festival to sign our names and record a message for those missing this reunion. I wrote:
Joe & Kate 69
Joe fought a two-year battle against AIDS, filing stories until the end, and dying at 43 in 1989. When I visited him in the hospital, I made him laugh. At his funeral, a priest called him “Joseph.” I wanted to scream, “His name is Joe!”
At the concert site, I imagined Joe coming down the path. I thought it might be fun to return, but it depressed me. I felt old. I felt queer. Everyone looked straight. I wondered how many others who attended the festival later came out like we did?
It hit me that the Stonewall Riots and the Woodstock Festival occurred the same summer, 1969. Stonewall got less publicity, but now it seemed clear that the six days of fighting in Greenwich Village were more prescient and impactful than three days of peace and love.
In the summer of ’69, I was a naive college kid who had my mind blown at the most memorable concert of my generation. Fifty years later, I still recall Joe when I hear The Who. He loved their lyric, “Hope I die before I get old.” Tragically, he fulfilled that classic rock-and-roll wish.
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Kate Walter is a Manhattan-based freelance writer and the author of the memoir Looking for a Kiss: a Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing.
Editor: Sari Botton