Woodstock '69: 'I still have my ticket stubs and my memories'

Robert Kissel of Neosho remembers how he paid for his trip to Woodstock.

Kissel hocked his most prized possession, an original Fender Mustang electric guitar and amp, for $90 to a pawnbroker to fund the trip.

"I wish I had that guitar now, but I still have my ticket stubs and my memories," Kissel said.

He'd heard about the festival, slated for Aug. 15-17, 1969, at Max Yasgur's dairy farm near Bethel, N.Y., from Steve Braun, a classmate of Kissel's at Joplin's McAuley High School, a parochial school. Braun, a native of Galena, Kan., who went on to college at the University of Kansas, called Kissel one summer day and told him about the concert in New York state.

"He said 'Two of us are going from KU. Why don't you come and go with us?' " Kissel remembered.

With that, Kissel took his guitar and amp and headed to Ben Milgrim's, a Joplin pawnshop, and sold them to the long-time pawnbroker.

Goin' up the country

Four young men - Braun, Kissel, KU linebacker Emery Hicks and someone named "Phil" - made the trek in Braun's new 1969 Chevrolet Caprice Classic which, Kissel said, had all of the bells and whistles including an 8-track tape player loaded up with Joe Cocker and Led Zeppelin's self-titled debut album. They traveled to New York City's East Village to meet a friend of Braun's who was living there at the time.

"We were two blocks from the Fillmore East, where all of the rock bands at the time played, there and the Fillmore West out on the West Coast," Kissel said.

After a dinner of Chinese food, the group decided at about 10 that night to head to the festival site, which was about an hour and a half drive away under normal driving conditions.

They were to find out the trek would be anything but normal.

"I fell asleep," Kissel said. "When I woke up, I asked 'Where are we?' and was told we were three miles from where we could park. It was 3 o'clock in the morning. It took us three more hours to drive those three miles."

The crew parked two miles away from the Woodstock site, lugging sleeping bags and other gear into the festival. But they didn't have to walk the entire way.

"What happened was people were really nice," he said. "There were people driving in, trying to get closer, and they would invite you to just hop on the front of the car, or climb on the back of their motorcycle, and they would take you in."

Day 1

The group arrived at the site about 9 a.m. the first morning, Friday, Aug. 15, 1969.

"We couldn't find anybody to take our tickets," Kissel said. "That's why I still have my tickets. We were one of the first on the field of where, eventually, about 500,000 people would be."

The group chose a position on a second knoll in the bowl-shaped field.

"We chose the second knoll because the speakers were so huge, the stand where the stage was so big, that we knew if we got close, we would just get blown away by the sound. You could see everybody on stage."

By 1 p.m., hundreds of thousands of music fans had crowded onto the scene for the concert, which began about 5 p.m. that night. Kissel remembers the crowded conditions.

"You had your own little space and your space was the amount of space that your body took," he said. "People were right up against you."

And then the concert began. Acts performing the first day included Richie Havens, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Arlo Guthrie and a six-months pregnant Joan Baez.

"Richie Havens was great," Kissel said. "The first night, I walked up to the stage because I wanted to see Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. They did acoustic music and it was a softer sound. I remember looking up at Joan Baez. And Arlo, he was just inebriated. He wouldn't do 'Alice's Restaurant.' I think he was too inebriated to remember it all."

Running in at about 18 1/2 minutes and first released in 1967, "Alice's Restaurant" recounts Guthrie's 1965 arrest for illegally dumping trash after finding a town dump closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. It has since become a Thanksgiving holiday staple on radio stations across the country.

People and port-o-potties

Kissel remembers some of the people he met at the festival, including a group from a private school in Switzerland who shared their coolers of food and beer with his group. And he remembers the long trek to the stand of port-o-potties.

Along the way, he said, they counted light posts. That way, when coming back, they could count them again, and when they hit the number, they would call out their friend's names to find their position.

"We would call out 'Steve' or 'Phil' or 'Emery, are we getting close?' and they would answer back 'Over here,' " Kissel remembered. "And Emery, Mr. All-American, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound linebacker, was scared to death! We would go with him because he was afraid of getting lost."

Day 2

The second day brought performances by the likes of Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, Mountain, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin and the Kozmic Blues Band, The Who and Jefferson Airplane.

"It went all day and all night," Kissel said. "We woke up on Sunday morning to Gracie Slick and the Jefferson Airplane. Leslie West and Mountain was just phenomenal. When Leslie West did that solo on 'Nantucket Sleighride,' it was like a symphony. Twenty minutes of high, low, fast, slow. When he was done, everyone was quiet because it was so astounding. But everybody was superb.

"I don't remember Janis Joplin at all," he added. "I think, more than anything, there was so much overload. It was like Christmas day, and every hour we opened yet another wonderful present."

The infamous Woodstock mud was another memory.

"It had rained so hard, there was mud everywhere," Kissel said. "We had plastic we pulled over us and just weathered it out. Our sleeping bags were toast."

'Star Spangled Banner'

The third day, Sunday, was supposed to be the last day of the festival, but extended into a fourth day because of rain delays. The last performer to take the stage was Jimi Hendrix. Kissel remembers hearing Hendrix perform "The Star Spangled Banner" as he and his friends were leaving the festival.

"We were about a mile away from it," Kissel said. "And you could hear that sound coming through the forest, you could hear that coming over the tops of those trees. That was inspiring."

Lessons learned

Kissel said while hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Yasgur's farm for the event, and there were shortages of everything from food and water to portable toilets, the event was peaceful and mellow.

"I never saw an act of cruelty, there were no fights, never a time when someone told someone to shut up and sit down," he said. "People ask me if it will ever happen again. I don't know if it can. It was just at the right time. We had the Kennedy assassination in '63, the Russian missile crisis, Vietnam, the 1968 elections, all those things were coming into fruition.

"My dad was in World War II and Korea, but had about 20 years to mellow. The suburbs were booming, people were making money, kids were going to college, maybe the first generation of their family to do so. It's a cliché, but it was the Age of Aquarius. It was a time when parents would let an 18-year-old kid jump into a car with other 18-year-old kids and go on a cross-country road trip. I think we learned a lot of things, such as tolerance, not to judge, that we could indeed get along with our neighbors if we tried. If it does happen again, it won't be in my lifetime."

Neosho Daily News