Fender Concert Series: Woodstock Recollections
As part of Fender Concert Series, we asked Fender’s vice president of Artist Relations, Bill Cummiskey, to share his recollections of one of the most popular moments in music history of all time—Woodstock.
I was a 16-year old living in North Jersey the summer of Woodstock, and since my birthday was fast approaching, I decided that the festival should be my present to myself.
It had been advertised like crazy and as a teenage guitar player in a band, I had a fascination with some of the bands that were expected to be there. With Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Jefferson Airplane on that list, there was just a sense that I had to be there. Somehow, I must have done a good job of convincing the parents that it was a safe environment, which was very far from the truth. They didn’t know what I was getting into, and to be honest, neither did I. Festivals were fairly new at that point. There were some on the West Coast, but on our side of the country there hadn’t really been a true festival, and especially not a rock festival.
My cousin provided the ride, driving me and the keyboard player in my band to upstate New York for the weekend. Ideally it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive, but there were pileups on the freeway everywhere and traffic was gridlocked.
We finally made it to the vicinity of the concert, and then were directed to parking out in this field, which on foot was still about another two-hour hike to the concert site. I can remember hauling my sleeping bag and a water jug and it just taking what seemed like forever to get there.
I can’t even recall if we actually had tickets or not, but by the time we arrived on Friday evening, the gates had been crashed and it was irrelevant. We missed the first few acts, but we stayed until the very end because the three of us made a pact to stay until we heard Hendrix.
We plopped our sleeping bags and our tarp in a spot that was still about a mile away from the stage, but I was immediately impressed with the sound system.
|Somewhere in this sea of people is Bill Cummiskey.
Photo by Barry Z. Levin
There were plenty of great performances throughout the weekend; some of them in the middle of the night, some of them in the middle of the rain. It was sensory overload for me as a 16-year old. The first performance where it really hit me that I was hearing something special was when Santana took the stage. I didn’t really know who they were, but they were very strong. All throughout the weekend, I continued to witness brilliance in the performances. As a young emerging guitar player, the live music experience inspired me completely.
There were tons of people, and everyone seemed to be a hippie. I won’t talk about the contraband because that was out of control, and everyone has heard and read too much about that aspect already.
I don’t have any recollections of eating anything for all three days, although I know I must have. I do remember the rain and huddling under this plastic tarp for hours and hours, but most of all, I just remember how incredible it was to see all of those bands. The mud and the rain and all of the other atrocious conditions just seemed irrelevant.
Not everyone apparently felt that way because by Monday morning only about 50,000 of us remained (the estimate of the crowd at its peak topped 400,000). The people who couldn’t hang left with their sagging sleeping bags, allowing us to get within 50 feet of the stage for Hendrix. He was supposed to go on I think around 1 a.m., but they were so far behind it ended up being around 8:30 a.m.
He was the one act that I just had to see, and it ended up being my one and only time ever seeing Hendrix, and it was just a memorable thing. To this day, when I watch the DVD, it just really takes me back there because we were that close and he was that much of an iconic player to me. We had endured three days of rain, mud and craziness and it was all worth it because we got to see him.
Of his set, “The Star Spangled Banner” was not only unique and unexpected, but very, very emotional. The sense I got was that even his band was surprised by the decision, and it definitely was the musical highlight of the event for me.
I could see his movements, I could see his hands, and how he was using the whammy bar. He was extremely animated in his performance and I think there were moments where he just kind of left the earth and was in his own world. There were moments I can remember where I felt like, “Wow, this guy is it.”
Woodstock might very well have shaped my musical life, and put me in a position where I knew I wanted to be involved in music somehow. Interestingly, after joining Fender many years later, the first thing I worked on was a Jimi Hendrix band competition and a Hendrix memorabilia exhibit to support the release of a Hendrix guitar. I even got to view a copy of his contract to play at Woodstock, and it was like coming full circle.
It is absolutely unique to be able to say I was at the original Woodstock. For me, it was a musical experience that really gave me a lifelong quest to have music in my life. Nearly 40 years later, that is something I am still very grateful for.
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