Watkins Glen , my Woodstock

From the archives, 2009

watkinsnewsOkay. So they had Woodstock. Whoop-de-do. That’s all we’re going to hear for the next week. I wasn’t allowed to go. I was only 13 years old. That was the concert for older kids. Then our time came. That time was July 28, 1973, in Watkins Glen.  Summer Jam, the forgotten bastard child of Woodstock.

It was a one day concert and featured only three bands, The Allman Brothers, The Band, and the Grateful  Dead.  Still, it was our time and what a time it was. We had more people than those losers at Woodstock. The Guinness Book of Records puts the total at 600,000. To this day it is the largest gathering of young degenerates in United States history.

It is unclear why Watkins Glen didn’t take its place alongside Woodstock and Altamont in the pantheon. It could be that by the time it happened, the war was winding down and there wasn’t such a sense of urgency like the one that hung over the Woodstock Nation. There was very little chance that we would be drafted unless Nixon decided to ramp up the fighting again, but that was unlikely.  There would be no Fish cheer here.

Maybe it was a transition from one era to another. If Altamont was the death of the Sixties, maybe Watkins Glen was the wake held by its younger siblings. Whatever it was, it was ours.

The morning of the day before the show, four of us strapped a tent to the top of a Corvair, packed that death trap with a cooler of ice, a carton of cigarettes, two hits of mescaline and five cases of beer. We figured we could buy the rest of the drugs we needed when we got there.

After we got about an hour away from the concert site, we ran into a massive traffic jam. We spent most of the day in that jam and it was sweltering. But it was a party atmosphere. You’d move a few feet and then stop for about 15 minutes. During that time, cars emptied out and people socialized with each other, trading drugs, buying drugs and doing drugs and cooling off with cold beer.

Many decided to ditch their cars on the side of the road and hoofed it to the concert site. Not us. We were going to get there and get a camping space.

When we finally made it to the entrance of the concert grounds, it quickly became apparent that the $10 tickets we bought wouldn’t be needed. There was no longer an entrance gate. In fact, there were no fences or gates or any kind.  Actually, there were,  but they had long since been trampled to the ground. As we inched our way onto the grounds we bought ourselves a quarter pound of pot and six hits of acid. That left us with just enough money for gas to get home.

We made it to the camping area and set up our tent.  So many people arrived the night before, the three bands did shortened sets, basically extended sound checks. People were just milling about, sharing what they had and just having a grand old-time. Everyone was wandering from campsite to campsite. Much to the organizers’ credit, they had an ample supply of cases of gallon jugs of water.

The day of the show, we got up, made some breakfast and prepared for our day. We pre-rolled dozens of joints for convenience sake and packed our “provisions” into our backpacks and cooler. I dropped one of the hits of mescaline and just in case, put a few hits of acid in my pocket and off we went to see how close we could get to the stage.

We wound up nowhere near the stage, but near two speaker towers so at least we could hear. The concert was a few hours away, so we had a great time with the people around us. It was a gigantic sea of stoned humanity. Yup, this was our Woodstock. It was hot and the sky was clear. We were having the time of our young lives. One big, burly, shirtless guy who said he was from Oakland kept doing a thumbs up and screaming. “Tunes are a big plus!” I figured he needed a hit of acid which he excitedly accepted. I decided that what the hell, I might as well do one, even though I was tripping on mescaline.

We watched as a skydiver floated erratically down toward the crowd, laden with orange smoke flares. Even in our drug induced haze we could tell something looked wrong. He looked limp and lifeless. We later learned he died from the flares.

The Dead did their three-hour or so set. Even the acid couldn’t make their endless noodling bearable. I had never seen the Dead before and I wasn’t planning on seeking them out any time in the future. Oakland was a huge Deadhead and was grooving big time. He thanked me again for the acid.  After the Dead and a slight delay as they changed the stage, The Band took their turn. In the middle of their set, the sky darkened and opened up. It seemed to be a given in that day and age that at any big outdoor rock show it was going to rain and rain hard.  We were soaked in a minute but it didn’t matter.

We decided to go back to the tent.  So there we were, four soaked and stoned  teenagers, in a tent and trying to figure out what to do. I decided we should eat something. I turned on the gas camping stove. I spaced out until someone said, “Maybe you should light the stove.” As I lit the match I saw God. I’ve never seen such a colorful,  massive flame in such a confined space.

We all sat in stunned silence for a few seconds until we recovered and someone said, “Man, that was pretty cool.” But we removed the stove from the tent anyway to avoid another “pretty cool” moment.

We heard The Band begin to play after the rain, but we decided to remain at the campsite and take a break.

It was dark when the Allman Brothers Band finally took the stage. Nobody wanted to go see them with me. They were too involved in their trips to physically motivate. So, alone I headed out with a bottle of whiskey and a jug of water. It seemed to take forever to get to the concert area. It was tough going since I was still tripping my brains out. The mescaline high had worn off and I was now in the midst of  the acid trip. It was slippery and muddy and I kept falling in the mud.

I finally arrived and was able to get almost near the stage. I was still damp and covered in mud. I started talking to a girl who turned out to be from Pittsburgh. She had a blanket wrapped around her and offered to share. We were both wrapped in the blanket, watching, drinking and smoking. She accepted a hit of acid.  At some point I must have decided I needed a nap because I woke up on the ground wrapped in Pittsburgh’s blanket.  I got up and apologized and she said not to worry. I looked like I needed the rest.

As it turned out I was out for the bulk of the three hour set. The good thing is that all three bands did a long encore together. After that, I bid goodbye to Pittsburgh and meandered back to our tent, which amazingly enough, in my incredibly stoned state, in the dark, I was able to find.  .

I awoke all fuzzy, blurry and out of focus. It was Sunday. We lingered in our post drug haze, smoked a couple hairy dogs, made some breakfast and waited for the bulk of the people to leave. We meandered out to the concert area and looked at the gigantic mess that was left behind. It was hard to believe that hundreds of thousand of people were there just one day before.

The ride home was painful and long. Even young, healthy, teenage brains and bodies have their limits. When I finally arrived home my parents were sitting in the kitchen. They looked at me and laughed. I took a shower and went to bed for a day.

I eventually fell out of touch with my Watkins Glen cohorts when I moved away.  I do know the kid who owned the Corvair joined the Army and was blown up at Fort Dix in the early 80s. He was part of a team that disarmed dud explosives on the practice range. One exploded unexpectedly and he was one of four who were killed. He was the one who was pretty much the straight one in our group of drug degenerates.