Writer Gary Vikan–director of the Walters Art Museum from 1994-2013–reflects on his quick trip to Woodstock, a glorified study break during grad school, and what happened on the stormy way home.
“Wanna score a lid – $25?” Elana and I were in a small, old-fashioned grocery store attached to a gas station, on a rural highway in southern New York State. It was late morning, Sunday, August 18th, 1969. It was sunny and mild. We had stopped to gas up my 1968 red VW Beetle – the one that had yellow and lavender teardrop-shaped psychedelic decals in its rear windows, until a heavy-handed “pig” made me peel them off, claiming that they somehow blocked my view of the road. That VW was our understated hippy-mobile, and Elana and I were its understated hippies, on our way that morning to Woodstock. We had bought tickets just for Sunday, the last day of the festival, because Friday and Saturday, even in the dog days of August, were study days for grad-grind PhDs-in-the-making like us. The tickets, which I still have, were $7 each. That entrepreneurial hippy was offering us weed at what I knew was an inflated price because, I assumed, he had figured out we were Woodstock bound, and he guessed that we may not have planned ahead. A clue to our destination was the God’s eye, woven out of multi-colored yarn around two matchsticks, which Elana was wearing around her neck. She had picked it up the previous September somewhere between Big Sur State Park and the Esalen Institute, on California Interstate #1. We were hitchhiking, on our way to be part of the fifth annual Big Sur Folk Festival at Esalen. A small band of potheads in a VW van had picked us up; they were busily churning out God’s eyes in the intervals between stopping, in their paranoid delirium, once again to check out that odd knocking sound under the hood – a noise they heard but we could not.
I was unusually prudent for a 22 year old by the standards of the late ‘60s. Which means that I would never have set off for Woodstock that morning but for the fact that the main road heading north out of Princeton, Route #206, could take us most of the way to Bethel, New York, and Max Yasgur’s cow pasture, where Woodstock was underway. Just over 110 miles and, without traffic, a bit less than three hours. We would go as far as we could, I thought, until the traffic came to a halt, and then we would turn around and go home. Simple as that. After all, it was a sunny Sunday, and so what was to be lost? Why did I expect to have to turn around? The same black and white 19-inch RCA in my dorm room that brought me coverage of Ted Kennedy’s misfortunes on Chappaquiddick Island one month earlier was now broadcasting live helicopter shots of the New York State Thruway, which made it look like one long parking lot. Arlo – Alice’s Restaurant – Guthrie, whom Elana and I had seen perform poolside at Esalen a year earlier, appeared on camera, gleefully announcing that the highway had been shut down, as if it were the end of the Vietnam War. That was Saturday, and we had no reason to believe that Sunday would be any different. But then, if we stuck to these little back roads, how bad could it be? And we were pretty sure we would never get there.
We were wrong. Oddly, I recall no traffic at all. And there we were, coming to a halt on the small paved road that gave access to the even smaller dirt road that led to Yasgur’s pasture. I could have parked right there, but I did not. Too much trash piled up, and I was all but certain that the hot undercarriage of my VW would start it on fire, and our ride home to safety would burn up. So I drove 100 yards or so up the hill and parked there. By then it was about 3 pm. The road to the pasture was muddy and slick, and dazed and dirty hippies in various degrees of undress were everywhere. Stinking and filthy. The weather had turned hot and humid, and black clouds were in the distance, coming our way. The pasture was shaped like a huge bowl, and I was convinced that all of the 400,000 anti-war miscreants that NBC News claimed were there were in fact there. Right in front of us.
We found a spot at the top of the bowl, took photographs of one another, and sat down to look and listen. As we did, Joe Cocker, one of the 32 acts scheduled over those three days, was nearing the end of his 90-minute set. (For which Joe was paid $1,375; Jimi Hendrix got $18,000.) In fact, I can only recall one song, his last, which was the most famous of his career: a raspy, spasmodic, sweaty, and, at the same time, electrifying eight-minute interpretation of the Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends.” It seemed as if Joe would never stop, and no one wanted him to stop. The mud, the stench, the garbage all disappeared for those unforgettable eight minutes.
And then suddenly, the distant black clouds were upon us. The wind picked up and the two enormous scaffolds that held the loudspeakers, to the left and right of the stage, began to sway. Someone picked up a microphone and begged the crowd to move back, and in a stumbling, dopey way, it did, forcing Elana and me up and out of the pasture. But no matter, those clouds opened up into an enormous deluge. We quickly took shelter under a semi-trailer that was parked nearby – the one that I assumed had delivered the pieces of that precarious scaffolding that seemed on the verge of collapse. We waited – and it rained and it rained. There was another, even younger couple under that semi with us. They passed around an apple to share, and then fell into loud whispering, describing in vivid detail their exotic sex life, which was fueled, I assumed, by their own lid of weed. Finally, when there was a brief break in the rain, and with no hint that the concert would continue any time soon, we made a run for it. (The concert resumed nearly three hours later, with Country Joe – “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box” – and the Fish). We raced to our car and took off for Princeton, stopping only twice, to pick up and then drop off a hitchhiker, who was on his way back to his summer job at Brown’s Hotel, that famous Borscht-Belt rendezvous for New York Jewish families. I wanted to stop in to have a look around but, ever prudent, kept on course for home.
We still have those two Woodstock tickets, now on our stairway, framed with our two photographs; the one of Elana shows black clouds rolling in. The clever producers who organized the festival, if “organized” is the right word, found the crowds so large and unruly that they couldn’t take tickets – which means that there are lots and lots of Woodstock tickets still floating around out there among people my age. When someone tells me that my two tickets must be worth a small fortune I invite them to visit eBay. A single ticket trades in the $40 range. This is odd, given that their face value of $7, adjusted for inflation, comes out to be $46 nowadays. Maybe there’s a lesson there.
I can still hear Joe Cocker’s version of the first line of that single song, mostly because it captured the essence of that day: “What would you do if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me?” Well, in a sense, that is exactly what we did. Woodstock, for Gary and Elana Vikan, was, musically speaking, exactly eight minutes and one unforgettable song long. And then we stood up and walked out.
Gary Vikan was director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore from 1994 to 2013. Vikan’s recent books include Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art (2010); Postcards from the Walters (2012); From the Holy Land to Graceland (2012); UNRAVELED: When, Where, and How the Shroud of Turin was “Made by Human Hands” (forthcoming), and his memoirs, Byzantine Tales: Back Stories from my Life Art Museums (forthcoming). Vikan lectures extensively on topics as varied as Byzantine art, Elvis Presley, the Shroud of Turin, looted art and cultural property policy, neuroaesthetics, and art forgeries.