The Aquarian Music and Art Festival

The Aquarian Music and Art Festival

Bethel, N.Y.

1969

by Charles Saunders

To say that I first met Jimmy in bizarre circumstance would be a serious understatement. This happened during a period in time which was either referred to as ‘the age of peace and love’ or ‘the descent into the drug culture’; it all depended on your individual perspective. It was the summer of ’69.

Jimmy was a fine musician and a sort of magician, though it was in an American kind of laid back way. He played acoustic guitar; a beautiful little Martin that he had named ‘Shadowfax’ after Gandalf’s horse from the Hobbit. Using his not inconsiderable good looks and charm he had conned a young lovely to purchase it, used, for him. At $300 it was not cheap, especially not in 1969 dollars.

But oh, the tone was so crystal clear, and the sound that he could produce using his long slim tapered fingers was almost magical. He played the penny whistle as well and at that time not many American kids had ever heard that unforgettably high pitched sound. Jimmy was a Pied Piper and Peter Pan sort of fellow, all rolled into one.

All that summer he stayed with his Mom, a divorced nurse and very calm and understanding woman. Jimmy was on parole. He’d been caught dealing that funny tobacco back in St Charles, Missouri and back then the politzei and the judges were not looking too kindly on that.

He wouldn’t discuss it but he’d don a little time and was now on release to his Mom.

I had gotten back from the Nam about a year earlier and was quite the lost little cadet; doing a bit of ‘exploration’ myself. In fact that’s how we met.

One night me and my boys met a guy who sold us some psilocybin, I did not even know what that meant, but it really worked and was powerfully hallucinogenic. It came in a pretty purple pill with a very distinctive indent line across the mid-section. We just called it the ‘purple crap’. It became legend with us because nothing we tried ever again came close to its potency and hallucinogenic properties.

Anyway we took it, found ourselves as high as lab rats, and started seeing through people, right clean down to their skeletons. Sounds weird I know and it probably had no basis in fact but it sure seemed that way to us.

About this time we found ourselves out in a field sitting around a roaring fire. There was an Army guy sitting there wearing his helmet and repeatedly sticking a bayonet into the dirt. That and the look on his face and what he was mumbling to himself proved too much. We started to ‘freak out’, bad, and felt like we were ‘losing it’!

Just as things were starting to look really bad we heard music off in the distance. It was lovely and trancelike and seemed to be calling to us. The music pulled us right up off of our feet and drew us to its source and when we got there, there was this guy, just blowing gently on the penny whistle and sitting motionless.

He knew we were in trouble and used his ‘magic’ to drag us away from what might have become a bad scene. That’s how I met Jimmy and by the early dawn we’d become good friends.

That summer was just slipping by; not much that was notable occurred, life, as it was in those days was easy to live. We didn’t have or really want any money, just whatever part time work would fetch for some stash or a side trip to visit some friends in a neighboring state.

The way young people lived in the late sixties would be unrecognizable today. Young folks today appear to be motivated towards achieving security and success in their future lives. Everybody has their own money, or their parent’s, and nobody would ever think of hitchhiking.

It was way different back then. People shared whatever they had: some food, a place to sleep, their car, lots of stuff.

So you did not need much to live; and oh yeah, we were all sharing something else too, we were looking for something; but nobody knew quite what.

About that time I drove with a buddy down to West Virginia, to see some folks and for a change of scene.

The old VW bus we had broke down on the way home and we left it on the side of the road.

When we got back to West Chester I ran into Jimmy, he was all pumped up about some kind of goings on that was going to happen up in New York State. He claimed that the word was out that everybody, and he emphasized everybody, was supposed to go there.

Being the ‘cheap date’ that I was I said, why not, I’ll go. My boy passed, saying he needed to go back and fetch that old crate we’d abandoned.

So Jimmy and I got ready. Now remember that you didn’t need or want much so even though we’d be gone for the weekend our idea of getting ready was to scout around town for some grass and something to trip on. Well we didn’t come up with much; just two hits of mescaline each and that was it.

We had no water, no food, no sleeping bags, no money; nothing.

We started hitching our way north in mid-afternoon on Friday. Of course we had no map and only a rough idea of where we were headed but so what?

Once we’d entered New York there started to be a buzz; people talking about roads jammed with cars and traffic backed up for over 25 miles away from the farm.

But that did not deter us, we didn’t have any car, so, on we went.

Our last ride pulled up at about the 25 mile out place we’d heard about, so on that late afternoon we stated to walk. We passed hundreds and hundreds of cars. Some had just pulled over and parked and set up little camps. Others were waiting patiently in line hoping to drive up closer. Nobody was up tight; in fact the mood was totally upbeat and real chummy. Jimmy and I got offered slugs of wine and puffs of pot and slowly but jovially the miles went by.

Just after dark it started to rain and it got harder and harder but we kept walking, intent on finding out what the ‘Aquarian Fair’ was on about.

Now my goal was to hear the folk music; Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Doc Watson and all the other usual suspects and they were only scheduled for that night. When we finally arrived all the music was over but not the rain. We holed up in front of an abandoned old shop with a covered porch and a yellow cab out front. That’s where we encountered our first people and I must say they were doozys.

There was a dad, the NYC cabbie, and his three sons. His cab was parked under an alcove which was connected to the old shop. The boys were 8, 12 and 17 years old. They did not say much. The music was over, obviously I’d missed my beloved folk music which was the reason I thought that I’d come all that way, and Bethel was a sopping mess. So we just sipped a few beers and listened to him and the driving rain that beat steadily on the porch roof that kept us dry, as he related the story of their lives in the Bronx.

He started by telling us why he had drug his not too excited boys up from the City. The radio stations and even some of his fares were all full of gab about this hoedown on a farm upstate. He decided that there was something to it and that it would somehow prove historical so he strong armed the lads into coming with him. They looked pretty sullen and disinterested; of course there wasn’t much of interest in a dark, rainy night spent on someone else’s stoop with your dad.

He related how everyone’s big problem back home was a police group called, the ‘Tactical Police Force’, he called them ‘Tasmanian Pig Fuckers’. Hearing that was the only thing that brightened up the boys a bit. The eldest recounted for us he and his friends’ encounters with the dreaded TPF; sounded like they pretty much treated everyone as if they were criminals and were pretty free with their slaps and punches and threats of jail time.

At any rate that’s how we spent our first night. When morning broke so did the sun and we said our goodbyes and headed back into the village and towards the fair site.

The few people we passed all looked like drowned rats and they were totally glum to boot. We did not exchange much with them but did chat a bit with the ubiquitous State Troopers who seemed to be everywhere. They were downright cheerful and friendly and talkative. We asked them what they’d experienced so far. They just reported on a bunch of wet kids with backpacks and ponchos and a little beer and pot. I asked what they were doing about the pot smokers. Their reply was mildly surprising and  somehow sounded promising; “Nothing”, is what they said. Go figure!

We were feeling fairly chipper round about then. We’d had no sleep but as we passed more and more of the drenched disheveled looking fair goers we felt kind of special at being dry and ready for the day.

It wasn’t difficult to locate the concert area. The way in was packed with cars and vans and numerous campsites set off to either side with people in various stages of AM wakeup outside of soggy tents. Time wasn’t much of a factor by then but it was probably around 8 o’clock.

Once we reached the grounds the first signs of a major upheaval became apparent. Where the ticket sales and security entries had been were overturned money stalls and knocked down cyclone fences which had clearly been trampled. But nobody looked too excited about the mess, in fact some official looking types were standing there and under the eyes of the Staties were greeting folks and happily announcing that it was now a free concert. This was quite a pleasant surprise. Jimmy and I had not really developed any plan for how we would get in; of course we had no tickets or much of anything else.

As we climbed a little knoll leading up to some food stands a very peculiar sight met my eyes; none other than Janis Joplin was standing there, alone, arms akimbo and a bottle of Jim Beam in her hand. It was definitely her. Her eyes shone with a kind of demonic, beatific sort of stare. I thought it was a little strange in that she was not only alone but no one seemed to be paying any attention to her at all.

Like everyone else we just passed her by and made our way up and over and there we got our first look at the stage and the audience area.

The sun had been shining brightly for a few hours and pretty much had dried the grassy seating area which was full with a variety of people. There were the, by that time, traditional long hairs with their girls and colorful clothes and baskets and flowers and balloons and pot, you know the usual fare.

Then there were those who could only be described as on the fringe.

One extremely tall fellow dressed in saffron colored robes and sporting a knotted short pony tail was serenely walking up and down the aisles which had formed. He was carrying would could only be described as a ‘bouquet’ of long Peacock feathers. Occasionally he would stop and ceremoniously hand one to one of the crowd.

Another was a mustachioed chap carrying a sign reading, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no one to blame.’ ‘World Peace is on the Way.’ He was distributing pamphlets which described how BaBa Somebody or other had recently revealed the future and everything was going to be just fine. It offered other assurances and mentioned some type of prayer or mantra which was guaranteed to make things right, if repeated often enough.

There were some exotic looking loners who strode through the crowd looking like they were in command of something but it was hard to tell what. Most notable was one of the most beautiful long haired blonds imaginable. She was dressed in what appeared to be a home-made one-piece mini-dress made entirely of buckskin. No one bothered her as she drifted around. There’ll be a bit more on her later.

Up on the stage with its complete retinue of monstrous speakers stacked high upon higher and its band kit and multi microphone and sound board set ups a band was playing. The playing was interspersed with tons of announcements by an announcer sounding type who was passing missing person announcements and other festival trivia along to all and sundry.

One message of interest was made concerning what was being termed ‘the bad stuff’. Apparently some wacko was selling or giving out bunko LSD and a few folks were freaking out. The speaker said that anyone who had a friend in trouble could bring them either behind the stage to a huge green medical tent or take them to the white teepee at the Hog Farm.

At any rate Jimmy and I found an open patch and sat down and just looked around at all the accumulated wonders while listening to the warm-up bands on stage. About that time a sensation was starting to creep up on me that made me a bit uncomfortable. I was having one of those: ‘Is this all there is… together with a smattering of, ‘Why did I come all this way?’ kind of moments. Glancing over at my boy to see what he felt I found him staring at me with a very baleful look.

“Did you hear that announcement?” he asked. All I could do at that moment was to stare back at him with a, yeah, and so what look. “Well didn’t you hear them ask for any Viet Nam vets with experience calling in med-evacs to report to the med-tent by the stage?” he queried. I said again, with another look, “yeah and so what?” “Didn’t you tell me you did a lot of that stuff in the war?” “Yes.” He just tugged on my arm stood me upright and said, “Let’s go.”

He more or less dragged me down to the side of the stage where there stood a high, bolted chain link fence. There was a bearded chap wearing an old Army jungle shirt and looking fairly official. He asked if he could help us. Jimmy blurted out my credentials; at least such as he understood them to be and to my relief the medic responded that they already had a full complement of combat vet volunteers.

It might be helpful at this point to mention that I had nothing against helping people in need. That in fact is exactly what the Marine Corps ‘Semper Fi’ is all about and why we always use that as a greeting among fellow Jarheads. I just didn’t feel in the mood to be too gung-ho at this festival. But Jimmy took care of that right away.

Not knowing him very well I wasn’t sure what he was all about but it seemed that he’d got some kind of volunteering bug in him. The guy behind the cyclone gate told us that he’d heard they might be in need of some help over at the ‘Hog Farm’. He pointed in the opposite direction from the concert area and told us to follow the signs.

I went along with Jimmy since going back and sitting on the grass didn’t seem very attractive. So we headed out. There were little wooden signs on short stakes with the words ‘Hog Farm’ scrawled on them. They led us over another small hillock and led onto a small parking area. It was clear that this side of the stage was much different than the front side; no crowds, very few cars with a few scattered camp sites mingled in, and not many people.

As we walked we approached two different people, one walking towards us, while the other was sitting outside a pup tent across the way. The guy walking towards us was wearing those white cotton string tie pants that Mr. Gandhi had worn. He was very handsome and I thought to myself that he had probably attended the school for the extremely good looking. He was sporting the longest thickest pony tail I’d ever seen. It hung below his waist and was woven from of a triple braid; the guy had hair! [Those who have viewed the film “Woodstock” might remember him as the fellow who was featured as he taught an informal session on yoga]

But as Jimmy focused his attention on him my eye caught the other person. She was topless. Now that was something brand new for me and to get a better look I went over to her and bummed a cigarette. Meanwhile I overheard Mr. Ponytail say something to Jimmy which stopped him in his tracks. His face went pale and he looked shaky. What I heard was something like, “OK brother, now that you got it, be sure to hold onto it.”

Whatever it was it really rocked Jimmy. I hadn’t known him for very long but I could see that some type of change was happening to him. His eyes were full of tears and he just kept shaking his head in disbelief. That was that. He just looked at me and smiled and said, “Now we can go”, so we did.

We entered a small wooded area that was honeycombed with trails with hippie sounding names that I can’t recall. Little did I know that I would spend perhaps the most significant twelve hours of my life, up until then, in that forest, where I learned how I would spend the remainder of my life.

Along the trails, mainly at the junctions where two paths would meet, there were little rustic looking shops or stalls. Some sold what would later become known as ‘head shops’. They had lots of smoking paraphernalia, along with incense and Indian knickknacks and other stuff. Others had records and cartridge music tapes while others had only pamphlets. These were either religious or spiritual or on some aspect of commune life like organic farming or vegetarian diets. We didn’t tarry in the little forest then, but would become involved in numerous adventures there later.

As we exited the woods we started to bump into some rather peculiar looking people. Some appeared to be in costume, ranging from hippy-dippy outfits to really outrageous combos that defied description. These were the Hog Farm commune members, along with assorted wannabees.

They were scattered around a small cluster of campsites and those VW campers with the small canvas canopies, under which there were tables chock full of personal gear, food and water thermoses. At the center of the camping area stood a very tall white leather skinned teepee. A bit behind it in the distance stood an enormous wooden poled frame; probably about thirty feet high.  It looked like three telephone pole length timbers had been notched at the top and interlocked and lashed together for sturdiness.

Suspended from the frame and secured with trawler thickness ropes hung a very large mainly flat rock. From the look of it, it might have been granite. Sitting placidly on the rock was a young woman. She was clearly meditating or in some sort of trancelike state. Someone referred to it as the ‘meditation rock’, maybe a bit obvious a moniker but who knows. They went on to explain that it was intended for anyone’s use and that its purpose was to both concentrate and store energy in the hopes that that energy would prove a helpful force in securing peace throughout the duration of the festival.

We ambled back towards the teepee and got close enough to hear a quiet chant or prayer, interspersed with some loud moaning and muffled cries, which were drifting out through the opening.

Unbeknown to me Jimmy’s new found resolve immediately propelled him right through the flaps and into the interior of the teepee. I could see him as he took a meditative sitting position and joined in with the prayers.

Still a bit gun-shy, I sat quietly outside attempting to appraise the situation and what the chanting and caterwauling was all about. A very calm appearing young woman exited the tent and looked at me, so I took the opportunity to ask her what was happening.

In some detail she explained that all throughout the preceding days, rumors of dangerous drugs being given to unsuspecting people began circulating through the fair. From the stage the announcers were exhorting the crowd to beware of the ‘brown acid’ which was said to cause what were termed ‘bad trips’. Those affected had begun turning up at the side of the stage where they were referred either to the adjacent medical tent or to the Hog farm and the white teepee. There were two distinctly different types of treatment being employed. At the medical tent the patients were treated with anti-psychotics; the worst cases were medevacked by helicopter to nearby hospitals. Meanwhile those who found their way to the teepee, were treated with spiritual applications, hence the chants and prayers.

And so there I sat just listening and watching as strange moans and loud outbursts of anguish continued to pour from the teepee. This became ‘blended’ as it were with the rhythmic chant which I had been informed was a Buddhist mantra or prayer.

As I continued to sit and ponder my next move two young men sat down next to me. They were exchanging furtive glances and whispering together. I didn’t pay too much attention to them until one of them began to pose questions directed at me.

Tentatively he asked if I worked there and so I said, truthfully that, no I did not. After conferring with his partner he came back with another query. He asked if they could trust me and so my immediate reply was yes. At that there began an emotional outpouring of grief and fear. Again in that whispering tone they took turns relating how they feared that they had dosed themselves with some bad LSD. They said that they were students at the University of Pennsylvania and that on a whim they had driven up here to Mr. Yasgur’s farm.

Along the way they had purchased some hashish which they were convinced had been tainted. We talked for a while and apparently because of my experience with a variety of types of ‘get high’ materials I was able to talk them down. After a half hour or so they became calmed and thanked me for the help. They went back to the music and I, with my newly discovered crisis counseling skills, immediately strode confidently into the teepee.

I was immediately intimidated by what met my eyes. Around the circumference sat a mix of men and women, all dressed in a variety of strange apparel. They crouched in ones and twos and were all quietly chanting the same prayer. In the middle of the space were the stricken and the helpers. The afflicted were clearly extremely distressed; some appeared almost inconsolable.

Some just sobbed almost silently while others were flailing about and wailing aloud. One chap had to be physically restrained at one moment and would then quickly go into a near catatonic state while lying immobile on the earthen floor.

The volunteers who were administering to these unfortunates were clearly a hardy lot. Their main feature was a calm which poured out from them like some sort of balm.

I wedged myself onto the outside circle and sat mesmerized by the strange scene. m

Suddenly a little baby girl waddled in through the flaps. She must have been all of three years old and wore not even a stitch of clothing. She ambled up to the strange shirtless boy lying inert and motionless. Without any warning he bolted upright and jammed his fingers between her legs and physically violated her. Simultaneously the blond braided man, who was the baby’s father, suddenly appeared and serenely put his arms on the boy’s shoulders and said, “There is no place for violence here.”

He said and did nothing else. How he controlled himself and kept from throttling that fool, I’ll never know. Meanwhile the baby ran screaming from the teepee. Only when the boy was becalmed and quieted again did the father go out to check on his daughter.

My eyes and my mind were thrown into such a confused state that I could barely breathe. Looking back it must have been fate which permitted that father to reach the boy first. There’s no telling what myself and the other men would have done, but it would not have been good.

Once that traumatic event passed everyone settled into what now seemed a straightforward process of comfort and healing. I talked a few more distraught folks down but steered clear of the more dramatic cases. Those were left to the more spiritually adept people to handle.

After a few hours tiredness became an issue and to catch a break I wandered around the Hog farm campsite and work area. I came across a mini-stage that had been built specially for those workers who had no time to visit the main music area. The entertainers were taking turns, all voluntarily, to keep the worker bees’ spirits lifted.

Most notable for me was Joan Baez who performed for over an hour. It was quite an intimate little setting, just like the little coffee houses from the beat days.

For no real reason that I can recall Jimmy and I drifted back into the little forest where the long night’s adventure would soon begin. As we approached one of the pathway intersections we noticed a candle shop which had a most curious display front and center on the ground outside the shelter. The owners had located and managed to position a largish slab of concrete which featured a finished surface on its topside, with a rough poured bottom. It looked like a piece of side walk had found its way into this enchanted space.

It sat on quite an angle which allowed for the shopkeepers to line up a dozen or so tall candles. While they burned the hot wax trailed down in even rivulets and formed a beautiful pattern on the concrete surface. The owners, Max and Rose, had been alternating colors and replacing candles which had completely melted down for three days, and the result was a real show stopper.

For some reason I felt compelled to sit down on the grass across from the display. Max and I began to relate our histories and life experiences and soon bonded in a way that probably would not have occurred in normal circumstances. Just as the ticket takers had given up charging admission so had these retailers stopped trying to sell. They were not even trying to make a sale even though this little shop was their only livelihood. Almost everyone who passed by stopped for a sit and a chat before moving off again. So before long we had garnered a lot of the ‘scoop’ on the events unfolding around the farm.

As the afternoon wore on we learned that a group of local farmers had heard about the thousands of kids with no food and they formed a volunteer co-op. A huge open kitchen was set up and a nice plate of fresh cooked veggies and rice was made available to everyone. That was certainly quite a generous gesture by the local people of Bethel. I ambled over and sat off to the side and crouched and watched as hundreds and hundreds of kids passed through the line.

My Marine Corps training forced me to check my own hunger until all the women and kids had eaten. It was nice though to grab a bite after all of those hours of not thinking about hunger.

It was late afternoon when I found my way back to the candle shop and my seat across from Max and Rose. They had a little baby, Isabella. She was probably about a year and a half old and very well behaved. It was about then that I noticed that both parents appeared to be a little drowsy. Something made me offer to watch the baby so that they could nap.

To my surprise they readily agreed. Rose spread a baby sized quilt out where I sat and little Isabella and I played games and chatted for a couple of hours. I say chatted, but she wasn’t speaking yet; not in the conventional way. But that didn’t stop us and we shared a truly great time just blabbering and chuckling up a storm.

When they awoke, refreshed and ready for more I noticed that they had begun to treat me a bit differently. I guess that they were grateful that their trust had been well placed.

By nightfall we began to notice the music drifting over to us from the stage which was just a quarter of a mile distant. At one point in the middle of the night I drifted over to the forest edge and watched and listened as the sounds of the Who’s rock opera Tommy poured over the teeming audience. Townsend had asked everyone to hold up a match or candle or flashlight and the cumulative effect of it all was breathtaking.

Back at the shop I resumed my post and since Max and I were alone I asked him if he wanted to share one of my two hits of mescaline. He agreed and once the effects had kicked in Max shared with me what he had learned about the spiritual nature of human beings and the love which was meant to be shared among us all. Whatever it was that he shared it pierced me to the quick and I have never been the same since that night. I had found my avocation and my path in life and to this day I try my best to stay on that path.

His message was that people are indeed the most elegant part of the Creation and a part of each of our lives should be dedicated to embracing and sharing that reality.

At one point that beautiful blond with the woodsy leather costume wafted her way through the forest. She stopped for a few moments and sat with us listening to the conversation and sharing glances with each of us. And then she was gone.

At dawn Jimmy turned up again. I’ve never learned how he spent the night and never wondered about it at all. At about that time he told me that he was actually on probation and was never to have crossed the Pennsylvania state line. He said that it was time for us to leave and so with a heavy heart I shared my good-bys with Max and Rose and Isabella.

The sun had just come up as we left the woods and passed around the edge of the audience. Jimmy Hendricks was onstage and he was rendering the strangest and most beautiful rendition of the National Anthem that I’ve ever heard.

We walked for miles along the car strewn country road that led to the highway. As we passed the vans and campsites I asked if anyone had any acid. I thought it would be nice to cap off our never to be forgotten weekend with a trip. To my utter and complete surprise we found a man and a woman sitting in the back of a VW van, looking happy and sleepy all at once. The walls and ceiling of the van were lined with Persian looking rugs; quite attractive!

I repeated my request to him and he just pointed to two very large Igloo water thermoses perched on the back edge of the van. He said, “The lemonade has acid in it and the cranberry juice has mescaline, your choice buddy.” He told me that a little two ounce cup would be enough and he was right. I selected the LSD and once it kicked in I spent a wonderfully whimsical few hours hitchhiking across New York and into Pa.

Our first ride was undoubtedly the best. A carful of hippies stopped and the driver told us to hop on. So without a thought or a care in the world Jimmy and I clambered up onto the hood of the car and sat with our backs pressed against the driver side windshield. We were traveling at a pretty steady clip by then, probably about 25 miles per hour. The NY State police who lined the way never said a word.

Of course the spirit of Woodstock only went so far and once we had cleared the immediate area things became normal again.

But not for me, that event was the signal element in my life. Once I got back to Philly I began to spread the word. I convinced 12 of my friends to establish a commune, which we did.

The bizarre thing about it was that we were city kids so our idea of a commune had nothing to do with farming. We rented a three story at 41st and Chester Avenue, just a stone’s throw from the University of Pennsylvania. Word traveled quickly throughout the city and soon young people from every corner of Philly came to visit us at all hours. They’d heard about what came to be known as ‘the House’ and they wanted to see for themselves.

In case you’re wondering ‘the House’ did end as an abysmal failure, with friendships destroyed and heartbreak abounding.

But the next time you switch on your solar panel fueled electricity or enjoy your organic whole grain breads and chemical free food products; or even as you gather up your Yoga mat on your way to class remember that all of that started with a bunch of kids who hungered to learn and to grow and to love on that long weekend at Max Yasgur’s Farm.

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