April 13, 2010
 

BROKAW ON WOODSTOCK WITHOUT MOBILE

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(Please click above to turn on a video of Hendriks' laying the national anthem, as well as other shots below to turn on videos of other artists who played at Woodstock.)

Over the past 40 years, people have asked what I remember most about my "three days of peace and music" on Max Yasgur's farm in August of '69. The surface answer is that it was the largest, longest, cheapest, wettest, muddiest and most peaceful rock concert I've ever attended. But the subtext is more subtle and contains a far more powerful truth, and that's the key reason it stayed such a contained and sustained, low-key and cohesive universe for over one hundred hours. One of the untold secrets of Woodstock's success, even its mystique four decades later, is that none of us 450,000 fans had a cell phone or mobile device of any kind.

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Think about the impact of that. Imagine yourself today going without an IPhone, Blackberry, laptop or any communications instrument for a day and night. Picture yourself surviving three or four days and nights. Only a few of the promoters and medical staff had primitive walkie-talkies and emergency phone lines. While a small number of portable pay phones were hauled onto the periphery of Max's farm on the second day, the lines were endless and the vast majority of people didn't bother. What everyone depended on for basic info regarding the performers, food, water, drugs, sanitary facilities and the outside world was one lone figure up on stage--the indefatigable Chip Monck. He would become the Walter Cronkite of Woodstock.

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Assisted by Wavy Gravy and members of the Hog Farm Collective who patiently ladled out tubs of rice and other staples to hungry people, Monck was our long distance operator, newsboy, weatherman, drug counselor, cheerleader and confidante. Every note that got passed to him somehow got announced or answered. He had that easy, reassuring authority that comes from knowing how to nail up a light platform or ease down an acid tripper. After Alvin Lee's inimitable guitar rave on "I'm Goin' Home" blew away just about everyone still standing, and Alvin staggered away carrying a watermelon--a watermelon of all things, that someone had pushed up to him--Chip's voice followed him off with an oh-so-gentle, beautifully modulated "Ten-Years- After" because what else could you say after all that except the name of the band.

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I never missed a phone at Woodstock, and I was one of the few people there on business.

There I sat in Max's muddy fields, the 31-year-old creative director of RCA Records, and my job--indeed, my sole reason for being there in the first place--was delivering a piece of cover art backstage to Jefferson Airplane for urgent approval and production. I'd abandoned my rented car a few yards off the longest traffic jam in New York state history, and hoofed eight miles into the site about the time Tim Hardin was starting his set. It took another three hours of maneuvering in the dark to find the backstage area, figuring I'd get a helicopter ride out. But of course that never happened, so I just piled back into the crowd and hunkered down to watch it all.

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Night became day became night became day became night, and what was slowly dawning on everyone was this had to be the largest congregation of rock fans ever. Chip and Arlo and John Sebastian, Joan Baez and Max and Country Joe kept telling us how good we were doing, and hell, that worked for me. It worked for most everyone. When the promoters announced the makeshift fences were down and it was a free show, they seemed genuinely happy about it and that intensified the closeness. We basked in an ever-expanding but essentially closed universe, because we couldn't report out to anyone nor could anyone report in to us how hour-by-hour the world was slowly shifting its gaze toward a cow pasture in upstate New York.

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Concerts today aren't the same when every moment and every event, planned and unplanned, can be taped, phoned, texted, twittered, emailed and posted to anyone while it's happening. We have social networks and business networks but Woodstock without mobile was a human network-- a delicious cultural exercise in making it up and making do without wireless, keyboards, corporate sponsorships or printed instructions.

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It really took Marty Scorsese and Michael Wadleigh's other crack editors cutting together the three-hour "Woodstock" documentary for many of us to begin to realize the width and bredth and depth of what we'd experienced, going up the country. That guy Monck reached out and touched half a million souls, keeping everyone in touch with each other through three long days and nights, without so much as a single touch-tone phone.

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Happy anniversary, Chip.

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