By the time he got to Woodstock ...

Portsmouth High grad recalls his buddies’ 1969 trip to Bethel, N.Y. to groove with 400,000 music-lovers

By Jim McGaw
Posted 8/15/19

PORTSMOUTH — For 50 years, Jim Lipe has searched for photographic evidence that he was at Woodstock. 

He looked for himself and his friends in the Michael Wadleigh-directed 1970 …

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By the time he got to Woodstock ...

Portsmouth High grad recalls his buddies’ 1969 trip to Bethel, N.Y. to groove with 400,000 music-lovers

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — For 50 years, Jim Lipe has searched for photographic evidence that he was at Woodstock. 

He looked for himself and his friends in the Michael Wadleigh-directed 1970 documentary of the same name — “Saw it seven times in Newport,” he said — and scanned countless newspaper and magazine articles about the festival, which attracted an estimated 400,000 people to Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y.

Scanning aerial photos from that weekend, he looked for the pair of two-tone 1954 Chevys that he and his buddies drove five hours from Portsmouth and managed to park on festival grounds. Surely they would stand out?

But over five decades of sleuthing, he kept striking out. Until last week.

That’s when he picked up a special issue of USA Today that commemorated the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Aug. 15. On page 12, under a story headlined “Mud, music and memories,” is a large, black-and-white photograph of festival-goers gathered on a grassy slope. 

Jim immediately recognized his 18-year-old self and his high school buddy, Peter Sheehan, standing side by side just above the center of the frame. While nearly every red-blooded male in the picture is staring directly at the photo’s focal point — a young woman, naked as a jaybird, facing away from the camera — Jim and Peter divert their gaze.

Modesty? Chivalry? 

Neither, probably. Jim said he doesn’t even remember the moment.  Although he witnessed plenty of naked bodies at Woodstock, there was simply too much else going on: The Hog Farm, the mudslides, the incredible music, but most importantly, the communal atmosphere that came with hanging out with 400,000 strangers who quickly became your friends.

“I’d go to the Hog Farm and eat some rice, then maybe help carry bags of rice,” said Jim, who grew up in Portsmouth but now lives in Tiverton. “You ate rice, you helped out for 10 or 15 minutes. If you saw somebody fall and hurt their ankle, you’d help them. The whole thing was, we’re all taking care of each other.”

Jim, who calls himself a member of the “Class of 69 and a half” because he had to attend summer school before getting his diploma, first heard about Woodstock while attending a music festival closer to home in July. He was 18.

“I was at the Newport Folk Festival and somebody came by and said there’s going to be this massive festival in New York in three weeks, and you should go,” said Jim, who purchased tickets for all three days. “It was so thrilling to get them in the mail.”

Left from PHS

A group of about eight piled into the two Chevys, including Peter Sheehan, Willy Freeborn, Jay Fontaine, Rodney Farias, Linda Marquette, Chuck Forrest and Jim, all from Portsmouth. “We left from the high school gym at 6 o’clock the night before (Thursday, Aug. 14), and drove straight through,” he said.

Though they planned on staying the entire weekend, the group didn’t exactly stock up. “I honestly don’t remember anyone bringing much of anything. I did bring a can of potatoes for some reason. I didn’t even bring a change of clothes,” he said.

There were a few hiccups on the way to Bethel. At one point, one of the Chevys ended up in a ditch next to a narrow road. “About 20 people walked over and picked up the car and put it back on the road,” Jim recalled.

There was also that time they were fumbling for change at a toll booth and ended up tossing some Good & Plenty in the basket instead.

But they made it, and even scored a decent parking spot on festival grounds, unlike many other drivers who had to abandon their cars on the freeway and hoof it the rest of the way. 

“We parked in a meadow that was set up for camping. We ended up close. We could walk from the car to the hill,” Jim said, referring to the section of the farm that sloped down to the stage, turning the festival grounds into a natural amphitheater.

He and his friends soon realized they didn’t need advance tickets after all. The organizers, who hadn’t counted on so many people attending, couldn’t properly secure the area from gate-crashers.

“The very first morning (Friday), Richie Havens just started playing,” Jim said. “I remember walking up and a guy’s standing there, rolling up a fence. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘We’re taking down the fence. This is all a free concert now.’”

Surprise reunion

Although his older sister Sharon — “She was 20 or 21 at the time,” Jim said — went to the festival separately with her boyfriend, they somehow managed to find one another in the sea of 400,000 bodies.

“One of the strangest things was running into my sister. I’m walking through the edge of the crowd going down toward the stage and I hear, ‘Jimmy?’ Of course you know your sister’s voice,” said Jim, who said he shared a patch of grass with her as they slept Saturday night.

Jim never made it down to the stage, although two others in his party did. “I spent most of my time at the Hog Farm,” he said, referring to a hippie commune founded by peace activist Wavy Gravy, who was actually charged with providing security at the festival. “That was my wandering area. Those people were absolutely amazing. I slept in the woods next to the Hog Farm a couple of nights.”

He also got to hop on countercultural figure Ken Kesey’s famous school bus that was featured in Tom Wolfe's 1968 book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

“I got on the Merry Prankster’s bus. It had a name: ‘Further.’ They said, ‘C’mon in!’ I probably got like five steps down the aisle. It was like walking into a stranger’s house; it didn’t feel comfortable,” Jim said.

Avoid the brown acid

Captured for prosperity on the Woodstock soundtrack album is a stage announcement from master of ceremonies "Chip" Monck to stay away from the “brown acid” (LSD) that was “not specifically too good.”

Jim said while he never partook in the drug, he and a buddy helped another festival-goer who did. “I remember the announcement,” he said. “Somebody came up to us and said, ‘I just took the brown acid.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s take a trip to the medical tent.’ We walked him in and looked around and said, ‘We’re not staying here. Here, take this guy.’”

While there were some bad trips, the rest of the festival was peace and love, Jim said. He witnessed just one fight, between a hippie and a biker, that was quickly broken up by others. No one hassled you, he said. “You could go to any place you wanted. You’d just meet people — ‘Hi, how are you doing? You want to share a blanket?’”

Even a seemingly ominous moment had a happy ending. 

“At one point, helicopters started flying overhead and a rumor went through the crowd — ‘They’re going to bomb us all.’ And then they started dropping flowers.” (An Army helicopter also airlifted supplies to the hungry crowd, including thousands of sandwiches, water, fruit, canned goods, blankets, and medical supplies.)

Of course, Woodstock is also known for the torrential rainstorms that struck fear into the hearts of organizations but which attendees took in stride. They hunkered down, sang songs and even came up with their own version of a muddy slip-and-slide. Jim walked back to the car and slept in the trunk during the biggest storm, but it was all over soon.

“The rain there was like here — it would absolutely pour, then it would go away and the sun would come out,” he said.

Oh, and the music

Asked what musical acts most stand out for him, Jim vividly recalls Grace Slick from the Jefferson Airplane waking up 400,000 hippies at 8 a.m. on Sunday with a piercing, “Good morning, people!”

Although members of The Who have called Woodstock the worst gig they ever played — they came on at 5 a.m. Sunday after waiting backstage for hours — Jim was impressed.

“I thought it was great. When Roger Daltrey came out and the spotlight hit him, it was like, ‘Whoa!’”

He also enjoyed Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young, which was performing only its second gig. Jimi Hendrix “was amazing,” but by the time he came on —  8:30 a.m. on Monday due to Sunday’s rain delays — Jim said he was exhausted.

He doesn’t remember much about that last day. “How we all got back to the car together, I have no idea.” 

Jim took over the wheel after being asked to drive. At one point, he pulled over somewhere so they could all sleep — only to be rudely awoken by a train that screeched closely by the car. They made it back to the drop-off point: the former Nadeau’s pharmacy on East Main Road, where ACE Hardware is now located. Back then, Nadeau’s was one of the town’s prime hangout spots, and had phone booths both inside and outside, he said.

“I remember walking by the soda fountain and Life magazine had come out, talking about all the dirty people up in New York who never bathed. I’m sitting there thinking, I have to come up with some money to buy this magazine because I might be in it,” Jim said.

No, he had no idea the festival was going to be such a huge, cultural moment. 

“We were from Portsmouth. It was not a big deal to walk down to East Main Road, stick your thumb out and go to a festival. We knew it was going to be big, but it was kind of like going to Newport. It was common,” he said.

‘It was a long year’

Woodstock capped off a compelling period in American history. After graduating from high school, Jim followed news reports about the Chappaquiddick incident on July 19 and then Neil Armstrong stepping foot on the moon the following day. The Tate-LaBianca murders were carried out by followers of Charles Manson on Aug. 8 and 9, and a week later he was at Woodstock. 

“It was a long year, that year,” said Jim, who also served a brief stint in the Marines, as he was shipped to Parris Island not long after the festival.

Now that he’s had 50 years to reflect on the Woodstock experience, Jim was asked if there was anything the movie, the books and the media reports got wrong about the festival.

“Yes and no, because they tried to make something of it. But you couldn’t make anything of it, because it just was.”

Woodstock

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