Revisiting Woodstock with those who went, 50 years later
Carmelo Velez was feeling good sitting in the passenger seat of his co-worker’s station wagon, flying on the freeway toward the Woodstock music festival on Aug. 15, 1969. Velez hadn’t planned on going, but at the last second, a “nerdy type of guy” that he worked with said he had an extra ticket, and Velez didn’t hesitate at a chance to take the ride.
That ride led to Woodstock, “An Aquarian Exposition,” as it was marketed. But the real marketing came from one look at the musical lineup — Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix — which caused people from all over the country to flock toward the Yasgur Farm in Bethel, New York.
Velez was one of them. He was 21 years old at the time and working at a department store on 40th and Wall Street. He had long hair, was a self-described “hippie,” and he was most excited to see a newcomer to the music scene — Carlos Santana.
He was feeling pretty groovy on his way toward the festival until all of a sudden, traffic came to a dead stop.
“About three or four miles from the festival,” Velez starts, in an accent that reveals Bronx roots, “cars weren’t moving anymore, we were stuck.”
POLITICO rated the traffic jam in the lead-up to Woodstock as one of the 10 worst in history. Hundreds of thousands of people descended on the venue like ants on a sugar hill, as four times the amount of people that were expected showed up. Fortunately for Velez, his friend was very organized. They left the car on the side of the road and lugged their tent, water, and food the rest of the way to the festival.
The fact that they had these supplies put them ahead of the curve, as little in the way of food and proper facilities was provided. They stayed ahead as Velez and his co-worker managed to beat most of the masses to the festival and set up their tent within 100 yards of the stage. Velez doesn’t take credit for this, however.
“He was really organized,” Velez says of his friend, with a chuckle. He also claims that no one ever took their tickets. “We didn’t need a ticket, it wasn’t formal that way at all.” Ahem … good for Velez, as modern festivals usually threaten to break the bank.
There are reported cases of thousands of people storming the fences at Woodstock, as a lonely ticket booth was ill-equipped to handle 500,000 people. Although each paid the $24 for the three-day ticket, it never got punched. Hopefully, Velez’s friend kept his because in 2016, an unpunched ticket sold for $1,476.
When the concert started, Velez underwent a transformation, as did just about everyone else that attended the festival. To hear them speak of it brings a floating type of warm feeling, as they describe the openness and togetherness that unfolded.
“The first and second night,” Velez starts, “there was a feeling like we just felt so good like we were in heaven. It was so peaceful and everyone was so friendly. It was unbelievable, the music was truly nice.”
The music is of course what drew everyone to the festival in the first place. Not since the Monterey Pop Festival — the first true music festival held in California two years earlier — had such a lineup been gathered. And with this new format, just like everything else at Woodstock, nothing went according to plan.
Instead of closing down the first night, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane sang everyone awake on Sunday morning.
“Good morning people!” she yelled at around 8 a.m. At that moment, a young couple, not far from Velez, rose off the muddy ground and embraced for a hug and kiss while photographer Burk Uzzle of Magnum Photos snapped what became the most iconic photo of the festival. The love that was synonymous with the festival was personified by the tender embrace of Bobbi Kelly and her boyfriend, Nick Ercoline. Today, 50 years since Woodstock, they are still together.
But calm moments like this were rare, and from 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, until Jimi Hendrix closed out performances on Monday, there were only about two hours of silence.
“I was in another world. I had a sensational psychedelic feeling,” says Velez. “I started relating to people about the establishment, and talking to them about love and peace, no war, and everybody was hugging each other — there was free everything!”
Velez talks of drug paraphernalia being everywhere, and Purple Haze and hashish being passed around among the crowd. He says he got into plenty of that stuff, but stops short of specifics, and says, “From the first day onward I completely lost track of time.” Velez is quick to remind folks that no one was arrested at Woodstock, but there were two curious incidents that give a bit of contrast to love and peace.
The first incident was when an activist named Abbie Hoffman took the stage during The Who’s performance. Hoffman had ingested a heavy amount of LSD, in an apparent attempt to remain awake while volunteering in the hospital tent. During a break in songs, he got onstage and was quickly knocked on the head by Pete Townshend’s guitar.
The second instance came when a hot dog vendor, running out of supplies, raised his price from 25 cents to $1 per dog. In very “hippie-critical” fashion, two of the vendor’s stations were burned to the ground in the night. As for the rest of the festivalgoers, they ate granola, beans, and food brought in from the adjacent town.
“I was visiting from the Bronx,” Velez says. “Going out to the countryside was a different experience, but everyone treated everyone like brothers — no prejudice between blacks, whites, Hispanics … nobody cared.” At one point, Velez remembers up to eight people sleeping or hanging out in his four-person tent, vibing off the music, current politics, and one hell of a party. “There were people all over with no shirts, and no shorts,” says Velez. “And those photographs you see of people sliding in the mud, that was me,” he says proudly.
Rain was a problem for Woodstock, as 5 inches fell on the Yasgur Farm. A crowd tried to will the rain away by shouting, “No rain! No rain!” And Joan Baez even led the audience in a chant of “We shall overcome” when thunderclouds began to collect. Probably the worst effect of the rain was on the performance of the Grateful Dead. One of Jerry Garcia’s friends later said, “It was the worst show of theirs I’d ever seen.” But even he cuts them some slack, because the rain caused their equipment to short-circuit, and each one of them got mildly electrocuted at some point during their set.
“At one point I thought I was in heaven,” Velez reiterates. “I was so relaxed. I could bring myself up or down or mellow; like I could just press a button and boom I’d experience different kinds of moods and feelings.”
The old-timers who visited Woodstock have a hard time articulating what exactly they felt when they were at that special time and place in history, but from the words of Velez, we get the picture.
The music lasted through the evening of the third day, and while Jimi Hendrix was supposed to be the headliner on Sunday night, performances ran so late that he performed Monday morning at around 7:30 a.m. Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is one of the most famous moments in the history of the guitar, as his stringing and reverb created sounds of bombs bursting in the air, and screams from their devastation.
A writer for The New York Post said it was “the single greatest moment of the 1960s.” But just like almost everyone else, Velez missed it.
“I heard Jimi Hendrix, but I didn’t see him,” Velez says. “I was leaving by then.” Only 25,000 people, a fraction of the crowd, got to see Hendrix, but everyone came away with the same hangover.
“The last day I was feeling really bad to leave,” Velez says. “There was a real Woodstock hangover.” That certainly would’ve been shared by the half-million others who attended, but as they reflect on the music festival that started music festivals, 50 years after the famous party, there’s not one regret among them. And if we’re able to truly understand, we’ll just have to hear it from Velez: “You gotta understand, I was feeling no pain. I was in another world! I can’t tell you everything that happened.”