The waitress at the Woodstock Pizza Theater could not have been more emphatic as she shot down my statement that it was nice for me to be "in the country."
Woodstock, she stressed, "is not in the country."
Well, that all depends on your point of view. For this man from Manhattan, it sure seemed that way last Sunday, when I took a one-day sojourn to the historic town, about an hour and forty minutes by Amtrak.
The train dropped me in Rhinecliff, the nearest station, and I was met there by my pal Andy, who has lived in Albany for several decades. We drove the 18 miles to Woodstock and did what any self-respecting Seventies kids would do: Search whimsically for the ghosts of Bob Dylan and The Band, the fabled musicians who decamped to this then-sleepy town in the 1960s and made the notion of leaving the city to "find yourself" groovy. (Dylan left in 1969 and The Band split in 1973. They all sought to find love and peace in Malibu, in sunny Southern California, though a few Band members eventually returned to the mountains).
Woodstock is a very small town, countrified or not. For visitors, the action takes place mostly on Tinker Street, the main drag. You can get anything you want on Tinker. The aforementioned pizza parlor was terrific – and remember, I live in New York City, the snobbish pizza capital of the world. Likewise, the ice cream at Nancy's, a few doors down, was terrific.
If the weather had been more hospitable to a walking tour, my friend and I would have ventured further afield from Tinker. But with the temperature soaring above ninety that afternoon, it made more sense to do less exploring and more chowing down. Plus, Amtrak arrived twenty-five or so minutes late, which cut down on our opportunity to look around in depth. I only had four hours in total up there.
As you might expect, the Spirit of the 1960s predominates, everywhere you look. There are a lot of people peddling bootleg vinyl albums, photos of musicians and tie dye anything under the sun.
Woodstock's charm was ruined on a weekend in 1969, when the famous three-day music festival attracted half-a-million people to listen to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Sly and the Family Stone and others. The promoters originally wanted to hold the festival smack in Woodstock proper, as a way to woo its most famous resident – namely Bob Dylan – to play. But Dylan wanted no part of the pandemonium and declined to show up. Then, the townspeople all but kicked the festival to the curb, forcing the promoters to hold it down the road in Bethel N.Y.
But the name remains and it has been worth, probably, billions of dollars in the sales of all kinds of memorabilia and fashion items.
Bob Dylan's shadow still looms long in Woodstock, believe it or not. He left Greenwich Village soon after making it big with "Blowin' in the Wind" to find a calm place. Greenwich Village was becoming intolerant for him, as fans besieged him for The Answer to the meaning of life. Up in Woodstock, he lived among trees and forests and blended into the rustic surroundings (Can I call Woodstock "rustic," then?)
But Dylan's music, wild and revolutionary at first, lost its edge. He set out to reclaim it when he took his wife and children back to Greenwich Village in the fall of 1969. Within a few years, they were all living in Los Angeles. It's probably hard to find your edge when you're living out in the exurbs or the country.
All in all, I had a nice day in Woodstock and am looking forward to returning. It's a short train ride, really (when Amtrak runs on time). The people up in the mountains are quite solicitous and hospitable. My friend and I never did get around to driving past Big Pink, the house where the members of The Band lived and Dylan and the musicians recorded “The Basement Tapes” songs in the spring and summer of 1967.
Next time. I'll be back. As Joni Mitchell, who didn't perform at the festival in 1969 but wrote the famous song bearing the festival's name, put it, I want to set my soul free.