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Linda Goldman, in her own Toronto garden. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Linda Goldman, in her own Toronto garden. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

At Woodstock 45 years ago: ‘It was magical ... but it was scary’ Add to ...

‘The muck is atrocious.” Toronto’s Linda Goldman, a Woodstock survivor, is reading an entry from a journal she kept while attending the Woodstock Music & Arts Fair, a phenomenon of innocence which occurred 45 years ago this coming weekend. Of the Aquarian Exposition that happened on Aug. 15 to Aug. 17, 1969, the troubadour Joni Mitchell would later sing about getting back to the garden.

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For Goldman, then a shy 18-year-old art student whose summer job was selling flowers at the corner of Bay and Queen streets, just getting home in one piece was her concern.

“I was excited, it was magical,” the retired library supervisor recalls, sitting in her own garden behind her house in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. “But it was scary. I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to get out of here? How am I going to get back to reality?’”

Post-Woodstock reality was in question then, and it is still up for grabs now. Carlos Santana, quoted in festival organizer Michael Lang’s 2009 book The Road to Woodstock, interpreted the three-day concert as a “collective adventure” one which reverberated in iconic events to come: the falling of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the turning of the century in the year 2000. “Woodstock,” says Santana, “is still every day.”

Pete Townshend of the Who remembers the upstate New York festival with a more anti-Aquarian sentiment: “What they thought was an alternative society was basically a field full of six-foot-deep mud laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in, then [screw] the lot of them.”

Goldman remembers that by the time Richie Havens began singing the festival-starting Freedom, the portable toilets already reeked and the supply of food and water was thin. “Nobody had thought of food,” she says. “We brought butter but, of course, it melted in our backpacks.”

Much mythologizing and romanticizing of Woodstock has occurred in the 45 years since it went down, and it didn’t take long for a heavy revisionism to begin of what happened at Max Yasgur’s farm. On the Monday after the festival, The New York Times declared it a “colossal mess.” One day later, the newspaper of record decided it had been virtuous affair in which a generation had gathered to enjoy its own society, and to “exult in a lifestyle that is its own declaration of independence.”

The truth? Probably somewhere in the middle, or all of the above.

When Goldman watches Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary Woodstock – which she will on Aug. 15, at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – she takes note of a tower in the middle of a sea of people in the natural amphitheatre. She was sitting in front of it. “One of those dots,” she says, of the individuals in the blur, “is me.”

And so, if there are 400,000 stories behind Woodstock (and 400,000 interpretations since), Goldman has one of them.

Clutching tickets to the festival (which she bought for $18 by mail, through an ad in the Village Voice), Goldman left Toronto with a friend on the Thursday, one day before the event. They took a standby flight to New York City ($16) and then a bus to Monticello, N.Y. From there they hitched a ride partway to the Bethel site, before walking the final 10 kilometres when the traffic piled up.

That Thursday night, they found a spot for their sleeping bags. They woke up the next morning to the sight of the concert ground filling. “Abbie Hoffman walked by us, wearing an American flag across his shoulders,” she remembers.

As for food and shelter, Goldman was lucky enough to be taken in by members of hippie-dippy Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm commune, from New Mexico, who had been hired to provide whole grains, take care of the toilets, administer a medical tent, and calm the bad-acid trips. “They were the nicest people, and I enjoyed hanging out with them,” Goldman says of a Mexican-American family, part of the Hog Farm staff. “One night I babysat their children, so the parents could enjoy the music.”

But Goldman was taken aback by the rampant drug use and nudity: “I was a member of the Yorkville scene in Toronto, and I enjoyed being hip and groovy. But I was also young and naive. What was happening at Woodstock was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.”

In our conversation, Goldman recites from her journals but often didn’t need her notes. She remembers the rain beginning to fall as Joan Baez started to sing and the helicopters, which were arriving constantly with food and medical supplies, dropping flowers at one point.

Musically, she recalls the Band singing The Weight. “I just wanted to hear that song,” Goldman says, “and everything would be okay. It was a magical moment. The echo of it – I remember like it was five minutes ago.”

Put the load right on me. When I ask Goldman at the end of our garden-set chat about her Woodstock takeaway, she refers to the Hog Farm commune family.

“They were total free spirits, who shared their food, their space and everything they had with strangers, asking nothing in return,” she says. “I look at them and Woodstock as a life lesson, and I believe the experience made me a better person.”

In its post-Woodstock coverage, the Times forecast the event’s legacy in Shakespearean terms: “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a-tiptoe when this day is nam’d.”

Count Goldman among those who survived, and who still align themselves in full height as a generation. She remembers the rain, the mud and disorganization, but she also sees Woodstock as a one-in-a-million event and a touchstone of an era.

“Young people afterward wear tie-dye and the bellbottoms,” she says, “but they’ll never know what it really felt like to be part of the sixties.”

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