TO BE FRENCH AND BORN AGAIN IN AMERICA
August 10, 1969. I’m flying from Paris to JFK with my friend Loïc. We’re excited about discovering the land of rock’n’roll. It’s our first trip to the States and we’re the first of our group of friends to cross the Atlantic. We land to refuel in Canada (jets cannot make it non-stop yet) and, as we wait, a young guy asks us if we’re going to Woodstock. This event is news to us but we’re instantly interested – after all, we’ve just seen “Monterey Pop” and “Easy Rider” in parisian theaters to prepare for our great American adventure.
Mark comes to pick us up at JFK to drive us to his cousin David where we can stay until we take a bus to San Francisco. We had met Mark and David when they visited Europe during the summer of ’67 and stayed in touch by mail for a couple of years.
Honky Tonk Women is the first song we hear on the radio on our way to Manhattan where we walk to Central Park and, unbelievable but true, Jefferson Airplane is giving a free concert on the grass. The buzz is: next weekend → Woodstock. David offers to arrange for tickets and carpooling through a local FM radio station if we’re interested. Interested ??? Like we have better things to do ???
Back in David’s house we listen to The Band’s Big Pink and The Beach Boys’ 20/20; later, we visit his friends to hear The Who’s Tommy in its entirety …
We have tickets for Saturday and Sunday. We meet our hosts on Friday night and six of us cram in a white Mustang convertible. We sit like sardines and we don’t mind the drizzle as we ride on New York State thruway until we get stuck in traffic … literally … in the middle of the thruway! So, Loïc, David and I thank our gracious hosts and start walking through the fields toward a country road where traffic is slow but moving. We find a ride, sit in the car, and the rain starts pouring.
As we move like snails, we hear on the car radio that, due to the weather, the concert is canceled and the governor has officially declared the place a disaster area – asking one and all to return to where they came from. We look at each other and ponder what to do. As the rain stops, we get out of the car and David crosses the road to hitch a ride back to the city. I tell Loïc that, since I’m so close to the place, I have to see the stage even if the concert is canceled and the place closed.
Loïc decides to come with me on the long walk to Max Yasgur’s farm. Luckily, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through. Along the way, people are amazingly friendly, giving us biscuits and water.
We finally make it to the gate, show our tickets and enter the arena. What an amazing site! On my first day in America, I get to see Jefferson Airplane in the Park. Now, on my first weekend ever in America, I join a sea of kindred spirits on another planet. I know right away that I’m where I belong.
My favorite moments: Mountain’s thunderous aural attack, Canned Heat’s Boogie at night while small fires are burning on the hills, waking up to the unmistakable voice of Janis Joplin, falling asleep after The Who’s complete performance of Tommy, being awaken again by the call of Grace Slick at the crack of dawn, Alvin Lee’s false start and fiery version of Going Home, Carlos Santana’s hot dance beat, CSN&Y’s melodic but humble beginnings, John Sebastian’s dreamy touch, Joe Cocker belting it out as the storm gathers strength, waking up to The Paul Butterfield Bluesband’s unscheduled performance, standing in disbelief in a field of wet muddy garbage as Jimi Hendrix plays a very long set to a much smaller crowd while a girl keeps screaming “Voodoo Chile, I want Voodoo Chile” until he finally obliges …
The time has come to leave the site and a State Trooper asks us if we need a ride. He stops a car and asks the driver to drop us at the Monticello bus depot. In Manhattan, we take the C train to David’s upper west side apartment. People on the subway are reading daily papers with headlines like “3 Days of Drugs, Sex and Rock’n’Roll”. We stand beaming, a little frazzled, covered with mud. People are watching us as if we were zombies.
Once we realize that this event is not to be repeated any time soon, Loïc and I take a bus to San Francisco to stay at Kathy’s parents. Kathy is our American friend who lives in Paris with a French architect. After a few weeks of bliss in California and our first earthquake in Sausalito, Loïc decides to return home as scheduled while I choose to stay with my new friends for a while.
In December, four months after Woodstock, I go to the Altamont speedway to see The Rolling Stones’ free concert which is already called “Woodstock West”. It’s a disaster but I am happy to have come and witnessed in person how Woodstock came and went, and why it can never be duplicated.
When the artificial re-creation of Woodstock is planned in 1994, I contact all the media of New York City to speak against this fallacy. Nobody returns my calls, the event is a dud, and I hope it never happens again.
I write this story on the day of the event’s 39th anniversary in loving memory of Loïc who died five months ago. Everyone was shocked but nobody was surprised. After major pulmonary surgery, his doctors warned him that air travel, alcohol and tobacco were no longer allowed if he wanted to live. He ignored the warnings and died in Thaïland. It’s better to burn than to fade away ♫ …
I passed a Masters Degree in American studies at the University of Paris in 1971 and eventually became a proud American citizen 25 years ago. Woodstock is where my current life started and the original program of the event is framed along with my very own concert and muddy emergency food tickets on the wall facing me.
There were no drugs and sex for me, but there was plenty of rock’n’roll. The most important is that I was there and that I remember everything - a heck of a field trip!
© 2008 Francis Dumaurier