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Janis Joplin changed my life

Much to my mother’s chagrin

By JONATHAN FOX

BETHEL, NY — I had turned 15 by the summer of 1969, and already considered myself a man of the world. I’m not sure that my parents shared this lofty opinion, but by then I had attended a few concerts. Herman’s Hermits was my first (lots of screaming girls), and I had emerged from seeing Dino, Desi and Billy completely unscathed. So when I mentioned to my mother that I wanted to hitchhike from Seneca Lake to the Catskills to catch my idol, Janis Joplin, I’m not sure how much concern went through my poor mother’s head.

I had, after all, already seen “Hair” on Broadway, and although neither parent was totally thrilled with the overall effect that show had on my psyche, my mom’s crystal ball was in the shop and no one on Earth had any clue what was about to transpire on that beautiful farm just a few short hours away.

With my best friend in tow, we headed off in search of adventure with a few misguided notions, including thinking that I would somehow manage to meet Janis, become her friend and be the envy of all my friends back home.

We knew we would be gone overnight, and considered ourselves fully prepared. After all, we were men of the world. We had our packs, which contained cans of beef stew, some warm beer, the clothes on our backs, a couple of bucks and a ticket. Mom told us to “be safe, have fun” and waved as we wended our way up the dirt road away from Seneca Lake and on our way to White Lake (I mean personal transformation and enlightenment).

As we stuck out our thumbs on SR 414 and caught the first of three rides, we were blissfully unaware that my mother had turned on the television shortly after our departure, to begin a marathon session of screaming, worrying and near-fainting, with some hyperventilating thrown in for good measure. She had seen what was unfolding at Yasgurs farm; we had not.

What should have been a three-hour drive turned into eight as we got closer to our goal, and still, we were merely excited that so many hippies were on the road, rather than concerned that we might never return to my (already screaming) mother.

There was so much traffic that it had come to a complete halt “just a few miles away” from the concert site, according to our last ride, and we were quite sure we were up to the challenge of making the hike in. Aware that the concert was already underway, we trudged the extra few miles undaunted, meeting up with an extremely colorful cast of characters—and considering ourselves more and more hip with every passing mile.

It was on that hike that I decided bathing should be optional and swore to never cut my hair again. I knew my mom would be pleased with those conclusions.

It was late by the time we reached the venue and the gate was already down; there was no one to take our cherished tickets. Mayhem was just around the corner.

My friend and I managed to stay together for the first night—don’t ask me how. The concert was in full swing and we were a bit overwhelmed by what was happening everywhere we looked, although loath to admit it even to each other. I knew we were in over our heads, but secretly pretended I was in the touring company of “Hair” and totally up to the challenge.

There were Honest-To-God Hippies everywhere, and I was thrilled and scared at the same time. Convinced that I looked like I was fitting in quite nicely, I did not object when my friend suggested we split up for a bit. We had been together for 24 hours by then, slept in a ditch and eaten cold Dinty Moore Beef out of the can.

The stage was so far away we could hear, but not see. He went off searching for some friends (really, what were we thinking?). I tripped on a rock and stumbled into a tent filled with strangers who were passing around a bottle of wine that had dozens of tiny pieces of paper swirling around the bottom of the jug. I sipped. I passed, still trying to fit in, and made conversation but not a lot of sense.

The wine, it was explained, was “electric,” and if I wanted to hear Joplin, I had better make my way to the stage. I bid adieu to my newfound friends and wandered aimlessly, tripping my brains out, searching for Janis and my best friend, even though his name had escaped me for the moment.

Joplin was the size of an ant from my vantage point, among the sea of humanity that had sprung up overnight. The mud was running, my friend was gone and I was disoriented. I saw naked people making love in open fields, I watched an insect eat a leaf for several hours, wondering aloud to no one in particular at the marvelous world I inhabited.

I adopted my new mantra: Peace, Love, Happiness. I felt myself change in every molecule of my being and was determined that my life would be forever altered. I was permanently on the road less traveled and a better person for it.

Turns out, we were gone for four days. My mother was in the back yard with a cigarette in each hand, waiting, waiting, to see us emerge from the television nightmare with which she had kept vigil, imagining the worst and hoping for the best. After gathering herself and letting her hold on me relax, she dared to ask, “What was it really like? Was it as crazy as they showed on the news?”

“My life will never be the same,” I responded. “I didn’t get to meet Janis, but I am different now, Mom. I’m a hippie”

“Oh that’s just great” my mother whimpered, as she headed back into the cottage, shaking her head. “That’s just great.”

Contributed photo
Author Jonathan Fox returns to the plaque commemorating the scene of the original Woodstock concert, 40 years after having hitched and hiked to the iconic event in his teens. (Click for larger version)