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Rat Files: Looking Back at Woodstock


Woodstock was the buzz. At RAT we were getting calls from underground papers around the country about the “Aquarian Festival”. Abbie chugged into RAT, “What do you think of Woodstock?”

“It will be huge.”

“Yeah, and it will be a disaster. They are not prepared for medical, food, or much else besides music. Let’s go meet with them and help out.”

We picked up a friend from Newsreel and headed up town. We showed up unannounced and soon were meeting with impresario Michael Lang, a tousled-haired guy who was young like us. It was clear they had birthed a giant and didn’t realize their baby was going to grow into incomprehensible size — the largest festival that had happened in America.

“We want $80,000!”

(We dreamed up the figure on the subway headed uptown.

It turned out that was greater than all the money they spent booking the music acts. FYI: Hendrix was paid the most — $15,000.)

“You need help with medical, a bad trips tent, free food, a place for movement city and free buses from New York — we’ll take care of all that."

The arguments flew back and forth. We were called every imaginable name. “Thieves, robbers, hip shake-down artists”, and my favorite — “pirates”. At one point the Woodstock promoters threatened to call the cops and have us arrested. Everyone knew calling the cops would kind of blow their “Peace ... Love ... Aquarian Festival” image, so they kept arguing about what was going to happen.

At that critical juncture, Abbie was at his best. He jumped up yelling, "Hell, call the cops! It doesn’t matter. I’m going

to jail anyway after the Chicago 8 trial. It doesn’t matter to me! Blow your whole festival if you want to.”

Our theatrics had enough truth behind them that the organizer gave in. We agreed on taking $60,000 and did just what we promised to do. Bought bags of brown rice for the Hog Farms' free food kitchen, arranged for the Movement medical team who handled events like the massive Pentagon demonstration, leased some old hippie buses for free rides, rented a huge circus-like tent for all the Movement organization to use, and even brought a printing press which proved essential after a rain storm locked us in. We were almost swimming in the mud. Woodstock turned into a positive, beautiful, mythic event, and after a couple days we even got thanked by the promoters for helping out.


Behind the main stage was a medium-sized cow pond.

After the rainstorm nobody could get in or out of Woodstock for a couple days so we were joyously on our own. The media psycho warp of “Stars”, “Mega Stars” and “Super Stars” hadn’t yet created the alienating separation between musician or entertainer and audience that is now part of today’s commodity culture. Nowadays an artistic human being becomes a brand to sell.

So performers, stage hands, festival staff, even scrubby underground press writers all swam naked in the cattle pond to cool off and thought nothing of it. Imagine today, Lady Ga Ga with her finely commoditized body, stripping off her clothes and swimming with us common people.

I think The Fugs sang something about our bodies, like “fat ones, thin ones, funny ones, short ones, tall ones, hairy ones, hairless ones, amputated ones…” For many, skinny dipping is at first intimidating — then exhilarating because looking about, you realize there are no Gods and Goddesses, just different human bodies.

Frank Zappa wrote:

What's the ugliest Part of your body? What's the ugliest Part of your body? Some say your nose Some say your toes (I think it's your mind) But I think it's YOUR MIND

Preparing the RAT book, I realized there are so few photos of the skinny dipping and not one voyeuristic photo of a famous singer. This was the era before cell phone cameras when there actually was a little privacy. But in the transcendent spirit of Woodstock — we were all in it together.

The underground press photographers had cameras. They had braved the clubs of police swat teams to get their photos taken in the middle of riots, so our photographers didn't fear a few backstage security hippies. And they also didn't dream about shooting exploitative celebrity shots of nude musicians. Did you see a photo of Grace Slick or Jimi Hendrix naked? These would have been worth a lot of money in the pop press for the constantly-broke photographers who often had to borrow money for film.

At that moment, we really were one tribe.


Jeffrey Nightbyrd Shero © 2019

Jeffrey Shero was the founding editor of the original Austin Sun.

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