Woodstock – A Time to Remember

12 Jun

They were high times chasing white lines, and we never touched the ground. It was a time to remember, when we burned it from both ends, it might never been that good again, but you should have been here then… –  Robbie Dupree

The picturesque town I loved as a child would soon change, lost with an innocence we once called Camelot.  A decade later Woodstock would receive worldwide recognition, but in 1959, it was still a quaint artist colony, and the perfect destination for a Sunday drive.

My mother always made a point of driving past the legendary coffee house, Café Espresso.  It was known for its live music and bohemian crowd which included many renowned artists.

She would deliberately slow the car to a crawl, hoping to catch a glimpse of the patio through the ivy, and then delight in pointing out the beatniks to me.  I was only eight-years-old at the time, but something about that café’ captured my imagination.  I was mesmerized by the shadowed facesof bearded men sipping coffee under the ivy.

I wouldn’t return again until the summer of 1969 when I was a senior in high school. The beatniks were long gone, replaced by hippies wreaking havoc on everything the 50’s represented.   The Viet Nam War set the tone for what was to follow— mass confusion under the guise of protest and war.    It was a time of revolutionary thinking that challenged every belief and moral we had.

Drugs certainly played a part in it but they weren’t the only factor.  My grandfather used to say: the whole worlds gone crazy. I think he was right.  In 1969 Nixon bombed Cambodia, a man walked on the moon, the Mets won the World Series, a festival changed the world, and I graduated high school and moved 8 miles to Woodstock.

Those of us who called Woodstock home would become forever intertwined.   Some of the most talented musicians and artists in the world descended upon the town.  It was a movement that was bigger than all of us,  set in a small mountain community where everyone was family.  Everything was changing, especially the music, which would soon become synonymous with a generation.

The Bear

In each life there comes at least one moment, which if recognized and seized changes the course  of that life forever    – Ancient Runes

By the early 70’s, Woodstock had expanded from an artist colony into a full blown music scene, especially after Dylan and Albert Grossman moved to town.  Woodstock  became a mecca for some of the most talented bands and musicians in the world.  Albert  was legendary in the music business, and his artists were revolutionizing music.   Peter Paul and Mary, The Band, Butterfield, Dylan, and Janis Joplin had definitely put Woodstock on the radar.

Albert was bigger than life.  He bore a stunning resemblance to Ben Franklin, and his signature wire-rim glasses, red suspenders, and long gray pony tail, made him easily recognizable.  He had set his sights on Bearsville, the tiny hamlet, two miles  from Woodstock which was the perfect place for him to build his empire.  Bearsville, population 146, would soon become home to Bearsville Records and Bearsville Studios, and that was just the beginning.   Then came The Bear.

Albert had a vision, and purchased the 18 Century Peterson farm on the edge of town. He began by transforming its small barn into a  Café.  It was an instant success. The large cobblestone fireplace and mesmerizing view of  the ever flowing stream made it a welcome destination for locals and weekenders.

But what he really wanted was an elegant restaurant  to entertain friends and business associates.   Within the year he  transformed the 18th Century farmhouse into an elegant French restaurant.  He built it and they came.   The town, overflowing with talent in the early 70’s could now eat in style.

I instantly secured a job as a  waitress at the cafe, which was in itself impressive since my only previous waiting experience was at King’s Dinner in Saugerties when I was 16. I only got that job because my best friend Michele Lawless’ father owned the diner.   But  I think my good looks made up for my lack of experience.

Everyone knew everyone else on a first name basis, so it was always like waiting on your friends.  Paul Butterfield especially enjoyed giving everyone a hard time. He liked being combative and  argumentative, but he was a gentle soul, with a kind heart, so most of us didn’t take his jabbing too seriously.

Albert was about to launch the Bear and it was first class, down to the extensive wine list, pewter dishes, and lavishly set tables.  There had been nothing like this in the area before or since.  He opened the Bear at the height of the music revolution, and most of the patrons  were our heroes.

The Bear featured several  individual dining rooms that were quaint and named for their color. Albert preferred the blue room because it  only 3 tables and a very intimate setting.  No one wanted to wait on Albert because it was a nerve wracking experience.   Not only did he own the restaurant but you’d never know who he’d be dining with.  One night it would be Levon Helm, the next, Paul Butterfield.

I was no longer a candidate to wait on Albert. Unfortunately, I fell off the list after I served him his Chateau Briand a few weeks earlier, and to my horror, as he began to season his steak,   a mountain of salt fell on his entree after the cap fell off  the salt shaker.  I had failed to double check the side work before my shift  to make sure the tops were securely tightened.   A fatal mistake.  I often wondered if someone had done it  on purpose. I would never know.

Most nights, I couldn’t wait to get off work and unwind in the Bear’s bar.  The bar was crowded with regulars, many of whom were legends.   The long narrow bar adjacent to the restaurant’s main dining room was the place to be, and most of us were there most nights of the week.  There were no paparazzi to capture the scene,  nor did we have digitial cameras or cell phones.  Most of these moments exist only in our memories.  In 1972, life was one big party— a party that never seemed to end until people started dying.

Concerts known as  “Sound Outs” began springing up outdoors in a country field. You could hear amazing  bands; and outside under the stars,  it was one  big party.   Michael Lang was part of this scene and that is what inspired him to do one on a much larger scale, a concert  he would call it Woodstock.   Side note: After it became obvious that Woodstock could in no way support that large a crowd, it was moved  40 miles south to Bethal.  But regardless, after the festival, Woodstock would never be the same.

Today my memories are intact.  Deanie’s Restaurant  didn’t burn down, it still stands on the corner opposite the Joyous Lake, which  has Butterfied’s Blues Band  blasting from its open patio.   I walk around the corner and down Sled Hill to the  Sled Hill Cafe to hear Ramblin Jack do a set.  The Purple Elephant has a  black board on the adjacent sidewalk  announcing in pink chalk that  Muddy Waters and Richie Havens are playing   The Cafe Espresso is not an art gallery, it ‘s still the legendary cafe my mother would drive by most Sunday afternoons.  It has a band jamming with  Van Morrison sitting in.  One of the town’s first bohemian artists,  Kay Kaz,  sits quietly across the street in her tiny one room  art gallery/ real estate office more interested in collecting art than selling a house to an annoying weekender from the city.    Distant memories of day’s past, of a time that will never  be recreated in history.

Sadly I am brought back to the present as I peek in the window of  the abandoned Bear  bar, and see the shallow, empty shell of  what once was the elegant  Peterson Farm House. I close my eyes and try to imagine the bar overflowing with people.  Albert with his red suspenders,  Rick Danko shouting to the bartender to tell his wife he already left if that’s her on the phone, or Butterfield sitting quietly at the end of the bar nursing a beer.   Somewhere in time, this scene will remain forever etched in my mind. It was a  time to remember.


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