Friday, August 14, 2009

The Fourth of July Honor America Smoke-In and Gas-In -- not exactly Woodstock

I missed Woodstock. I had to work. Some surfer friends invited me to drive the 900-some miles with them to a field in upstate New York. They didn't have tickets but didn't see it as a problem. "Hendrix's going to be there, man -- and Santana!" I'd need money for gas and food. Take off a week from work. Sounded tempting, but I said no.

Class of 1969, working to pay for college. I had a ROTC scholarship but I still needed spending money. I needed clothes, too, because the ones I had bought over the preceding months had terminal smoke damage from the fire that burnt half of our house and infused the rest with clouds of smoke. I wanted to spend more time with my girlfriend before we headed off to separate colleges. I wanted to get in some storm surfing, too, as August can bring some big waves to Daytona. I was a hard-working lad, looking ahead with bright eyes and a sense of purpose -- with a bit of fear lurking in the background.

Over the next decade, I went to plenty of small music festivals and lots of concerts. I saw "Woodstock" the movie numerous times. I felt a twinge of regret that I didn't cast fate to the wind and just go. As it turns out, I missed so many of key cultural events of the 1960s and 1970s. I wasn't at Altamont, either. Don't hear too many Baby Boomers waxing nostalgic about that one. I never got to see Janis or Jimmy in concert, but I did see Woodstock performers Canned Heat and John Sebastian. Sebastian was on a concert bill with the Edgar Winter Group, which seems an odd match-up. Maybe that bad juju caused the riot that night at the Orlando Sports Stadium. That, and a group of people climbing the stadium fences to get in for free. We got tear-gassed and two of my friends -- including the driver of our concert vehicle -- were thrown in the slammer. We hitched a ride to the county jail and got the keys from Rick and got home around dawn.

Not exactly Woodstock.

I was tear-gassed at another concert. This was the "Honor America" concert during Fourth of July weekend 1970 on the National Mall in D.C. Paul from Notre Dame and I were on leave from our summer ROTC cruise and hitched from Norfolk to D.C., where both of us had college friends. Our original destination was the Atlanta Pop Festival, but we decided it was too far to go and, in D.C., there was a girl waiting for Paul. So D.C. it was.

Paul went to Alexandria, and I stayed with my friend Pat and his big Catholic family in northwest D.C. Pat and his brother and sisters and parents and grandma all went to the National Mall for the concert. Meanwhile, over the the Washington Monument, hippies were staging a smoke-in. As we settled in to enjoy the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, pray with Billy Graham and hear quips from Bob Hope, Pat and I thought we could smell the smoke drifting over from the monument. That's probably because we both were stoned, having earlier staged a much smaller smoke-in behind Pat's garage.

The crowd for "Honor America" was heavy on families. Who wouldn't enjoy the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and fireworks on the National Mall? We were all having a grand time until the tear gas arrived. Pat and I had been right -- prevailing winds had caused the smoke from the smoke-in to drift over to our crowd. That pissed off the cops and they dispersed the smokers with clouds of tear gas which immediately inundated us. Not too many of the Honor American crowd had been tear-gassed. Pat and I had the benefit of multiple gassings that spring during post-Kent State riots at University of South Carolina. We told Pat's family members to put a cloth over their faces. "Don't run," Pat said. "It only makes it worse."

They ran. Pat and I grabbed his grandma and guided her slowly back to the car. She was having difficulty breathing. You could see panic and tears on the faces of the escaping concert-goers. Later, over a joint with Pat and his brother, we laughed about it. "Welcome to the Fourth of July Honor America Smoke-In and Gas-In." "Our parents warned us about going to those concerts."

Not exactly Woodstock.

Not every concert ended in tear gas. In 1976 in Gainesville, I saw the wonderful Rolling Thunder Review tour with Dylan and Joan Baez and Roger McGuinn and Kinky Friedman. I was at the Eagles Hotel California concert outside in a different stadium in Orlando. I saw Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger at Red Rocks outside Denver in 1972 during a hitchhiking trip around the U.S. That same summer, I saw Quicksilver Messenger Service in Berkeley. I was at three Allman Brothers concerts with the original members, including the amazing Duane Allman.

None of them were Woodstock. But so what? I had fun at most of them. As for the rest -- they make great stories to tell our kids and grand-kids when they ask: "Dad (Grandpa) -- were you at Woodstock?"

Not at Woodstock, I say, but do I have some stories for you.


jhwygirl said...


Quicksilver Messenger Service? Wow. Now there's a band I'da loved to have seen. I can listen to them over and over. Guitarist virtuoso Paul Butterfield, right?

Michael Shay said...

I don't think Paul Butterfield played with them. The most familiar name in the QMS line-up was Dino Valente.

I remember the Paul Butterfield Blue Band. He also collaborated with a lot of other musicians. I'll look up his history.

jhwygirl said...

It was John Cippolino that I was trying to think of....

Michael Shay said...

Oh yeah...