Forty years after Woodstock, reporter recalls his kazoo-fed moment of fame
Stars and Stripes August 11, 2009
YOMITAN, Okinawa — It’s the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, the outdoor concert that was the high-water mark of the "Peace and Love" generation.
So where’s my ruby?
OK, rubies are just for 40th marriage anniversaries. In any case, I’m still waiting for my royalties from the Woodstock album and rockumentary. You see, I can be heard playing the great kazoo intro to Santana’s famous "Soul Sacrifice" number.
Actually, I was going to wait for the 50th anniversary before I got real pushy. I considered all those years of back payments as a retirement plan. But a mild heart attack in May made me rethink whether I’d be around to collect what’s due to me if I waited that long.
The New York Times is making a big deal out of this anniversary, asking readers for pictures and accounts of what they did during the chaotic weekend of music and mud at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in Bethel, N.Y. So, they also must think a lot of us won’t be around for the 50th.
I was 21 years old in August 1969, just out of the Navy and contemplating college. New York rock stations were hyping this three-day concert in upstate New York and my best friend Jim Thoms and I had nothing much else going on.
We thought it’d be a fun, relaxing musical camp out. Something like a Central Park "Love In."
We were wrong. It turned into the most bizarre weekend of our lives.
We drove to Bethel in Jim’s rusty old white-and-black Blatz beer truck, which Jim loved beyond all reason and somehow managed to sneak onto the festival grounds.
Besides Jim, who was also fresh out of the Navy, the "Blatz crew" included my brother and sister. Kathy, 19, called herself "Sunshine" back then and later landed in a commune in Lincoln, Neb. Chuck, 17, was known back on Long Island as "Little Brother Charlton," lead singer for his garage band Psychedelic Freight Train.
Jim and I camped out in the beer truck. We didn’t see Chuck or Kathy again until Monday.
My memories of the weekend are a haze of music mixed with adventuring to the far corners of Max Yasgur’s farm, listening to the impromptu tunes at the Hog Farm’s free stage; skinny-dipping in the lake; hearing the freaked-out rants of the brown-acid victims; tripping over the bodies of lovers in mud-caked sleeping bags; walking down a woodsy path lined with makeshift booths where hippie trinkets and drugs were sold; and piling into a semitrailer to get out of the rain and discovering stacks of undistributed festival programs.
That’s where my beef with the festival promoters comes in.
A dozen or so folks had made it to the trailer before us and before too long the bottles of wine were being passed around and, as Joni Mitchell later sang, we were stardust, we were golden.
At some point, Jim started beating on an empty wine bottle with a stick and some others joined in and broke into the now famous "Rain Chant."
Now hold on, you’re saying to yourselves. We saw the movie and the rain chant scene showed mud-caked people singing under a cloudy sky and sliding through the muck.
Sure, I say. But look closer — the music doesn’t match the scene. We had a sound crew in the trailer with us; they were walking around collecting random sound clips for the movie. They caught our chant on tape: "Whoa-o, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Peace, peace, peace, peace."
And if you listen carefully, especially to the first Woodstock album, a kazoo picks up the chant. One long buzz followed by four short buzzes. Toward the end, the kazoo is clearer and louder and leads straight into the intro to Santana.
It’s a great segue. I salute the guy who mixed it. But I never saw a nickel for helping Santana out. On each anniversary of Woodstock I play the album and watch the movie and damn the fates. I could’ve been a rock star. I could be palling around with some of my favorite acts from that weekend, maybe opening for The Who or Arlo Guthrie.
Instead, I’m a reporter. Now is that fair?
But what really makes me want to scratch my head bald is that my sister is in the movie. During one of the film’s rain sequences, the screen splits. One half shows the stage crew scampering to protect equipment from the deluge. The other half shows the soaking-wet crowd hunkering down in the pouring rain.
All except for one dancing blonde flower child, her arms raised and welcoming the cooling shower. That’s my sister.
So it goes. But this year I’m letting bygones be bygones. I’ll hunker down in my Pacific island home with a bottle of wine and watch the movie again. Maybe I’ll even wear my old hippie embroidered Cossack shirt — if I can lose a few pounds before then.