I Didn't Go To Woodstock, But I Lived There

When the line-up for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was announced... I'm guessing in late April/early May of 1969, there they were... my heroes, The Who... playing Saturday, August 17th.

I looked at the rest of the bills for the three days and concluded that, while this was one hell of a line-up, I really only truly wanted to see my idols, my gods, The Who. I mean, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Ten Years After, and a few others were very very cool, but, lots of the acts listed meant nothing to me... Joan Baez, Keef Hartley, Ravi Shankar, Joe Cocker, Canned Heat, Sweetwater... Yyyyyyyyyyyaaawn.... Jeez, get away from me.

Plus, I was a total city boy. To this day, I have never pooped in the woods.
 I was a Mod, not a hippie, not even for an hour! Truth is, a one-day stay was all I was down for, anyway. So, I mailed away for a ticket for that Saturday figuring I'd get up to the festival site a few hours before The Who went on and then would hustle myself back to Brooklyn on an Adirondacks Trailways bus in time to sleep in my own bed.

About four weeks later, my ticket arrived and I waited for August.

The Saturday morning of August 17, 1969 was ominously overcast when I woke up. The sky was turbulent and almost the color of slate. Hmmmm... sitting in the rain 100 miles from Brooklyn to see The Who? Well, okay... They're worth it. I got dressed and went downstairs to eat breakfast and get my 16 year old ass to the Port Authority Terminal at 42nd St. and 8th Avenue to catch the bus upstate.

My parents were waiting for me in the kitchen.

My Dad told me he and my Mom had been listening to the radio. The news was about to come on again and they wanted me to hear what they were saying about this festival upstate. I sat down at our dining table as the voice-of-authority newscaster on WQXR (the stuffy classical music station owned by The New York Times that my folks always listened to) sonorously ticked off a litany of horrors that were taking place at this "rock music and art festival in Bethel, New York this weekend...". No food. No water. No bathrooms. No first-aid available. Thunderstorms expected all weekend. The New York Thruway jammed to a stand-still. Cars abandoned. Acts canceling, not being able to get to the site to perform. And... a possible cholera outbreak! They deliberately lied about that to further discourage us leaving-late-ers.

Danger Danger Danger!

Dad announced, "Bink, I think you've seen The Who eight times at the Fillmore East, just in the last four months. I'm sorry, but you are just going to have to accept that you're missing this one show. Your mother and I are simply not allowing you to go. The Who will surely be back in New York in the fall. Please, don't bother trying to argue with us. The answer is No!... and that's final. Sorry, Bunko..."

I put up a token protest for about 60 seconds, really just to save face. But, the truth is... this long-awaited outdoor Woodstock Music & Art Fair show sounded just plain awful to me, even without my parents dictate. I went upstairs, and sorta sulked awhile, and then put on "Tommy" really really loud.

And, pathetically, I have spent the last 40 years feeling like a frickin' wimp and loser. A true-life regret that I wasn't there, literally only to be able to say I was. I do have several friends, and have met many others over the years, who did make it up to that historic event. Most HATED IT! Easy for them to say... those lucky mud-covered jerks!

And yes, of course... I still have my ticket. Whoop-dee-do!

I have to say, I've always been perversely proud of the fact that The Who were the only act to get paid. John Wolfe, their road manager, went into the business-trailer where organizers, Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, et al, were huddled and told them that The Who were ready to go on, opened a briefcase, and indicated that their fee in cash would fit nicely inside it.

Okay, ready... Jumping forward about two decades, my wife and I got lucky and were offered the rental of a little cottage in the actual town of Woodstock, New York in the late 1980's. A casual business friend of Susan's called her outta the blue one day and said, "I remember you telling me how much you wish you had a weekend place in the country. Well, I'm moving out of my weekend place in the country next month and thought I'd offer it to you. The landlady is a dear old English woman who has already approved anyone I recommend sight-unseen, so, it's yours if you want it."

And that's how, for three blissful years, we wound up paying $300 a month for a tiny but adorable two bedroom cottage with a porch, a fireplace, a breakfast nook, some funky Art Deco furniture, about a five minute walk from the center of The Hippie Capital of the Known Universe.

We went up there almost every weekend from April through November and once or twice a month during the winter. This was years before the Uma Thurman/David Bowie ultra-glamour-pusses discovered Woodstock, when it was still something of a genuine bastion and enclave for genuine Artists and Freaks of all varieties. Gosh, it was swell.

Our landlord went by one name... Godwin. She was elderly, but feisty and fearless. It turned out that she was kind of the Ancient Queen of the Ultra Hippies. The town was equally divided between people who revered her and people who loathed and feared her. She was a rabble-rouser who often had visitors during the day, all of whom were from the far far left of a far left community.

After several months of going to Woodstock as often as possible, Susan and I got to know the very colorful and jingoistic "townies"... at least by sight. None of them were particularly friendly. The natives really did not like "weekenders". One of the most often-seen bumperstickers on local hippie vehicles said "Welcome To Woodstock... Just Kidding!"

One of these locals was a guy who ran a dilapidated used bike and repair shop. He was disconcertingly frail and gaunt with a full white beard, greasy black hair, stooped shoulders, a weirdly intense stare, and a ferociously fast tilting-forward manner of walking through the town square. He always looked and seemed about $20 away from being homeless. Everyone called him Esposito. There was something about him that bugged me every time I saw him. Something oddly and mysteriously familiar, a feeling that didn't go away.

One early summer evening in 1989, about 15 minutes before dusk, I was sitting on the back steps of my rented cottage. I was alone and I'll admit it... I was "mellow", having just smoked some strong and dazzling reefer. As I was buzzing and enjoying the quietude and the flowers and trees, watching my two cats romp after insects, there suddenly appeared in the garden a frail and gaunt fellow in work pants and an old white t-shirt walking in a ferociously fast tilting-forward manner through my backyard heading towards Godwin's garage/living quarters. I realized it was that Used Bike Guy and... before I even knew what I was doing, on some weird cosmic auto-pilot, I blurted out...

"Are you Mike Esposito from the Blues Magoos?"

This haggard guy instantly stopped in his tracks, turned and strode up to me, stared intently down at me in an almost accusing and searching way from three feet away, and demanded...

"How did you know that!? How!"

"Oh My God, it is you... You are the lead guitarist of The Blues Magoos! Holy shit, Mike, your band INVENTED Psychedelic music. I was a total British Invasion freak. The Blues Magoos were the only American band I ever really loved back then."

Exposition-digression: In 1965 and '66, when the Blues Magoos were creating truly trippy jams like their legendary version of "Tobacco Road" in clubs in Greenwich Village, the Beatles were still "Rubber Soul"-ing, the Grateful Dead were a frickin' jug band! and, I even clearly remember an article in a British music magazine where Saint Syd Barrett said, "Pink Floyd was a blues band until we heard the Blues Magoos." Yes, the Yardbirds got there first when it came to extended improvs or "rave ups", but, the Magoos expanded the concept geometrically.

Anyway, after an awkward few moments, once he realized I was "okay", Mike lightened up considerably and got really chatty.

"Man, I can't believe you knew who I was... and I can't believe you know that it was us that started all that. I don't care what anyone thinks or says, I know the truth... There were nights at the old Night Owl [the legendary club in the center of Greenwich Village] where John Lennon and George Harrison would be sitting at one table and Mick Jagger and Brian Jones would be at another table and the fuckers would be practically taking notes! I lived it, I know it's the truth. You're right, we got there first."

I was just tickled. I told him I played and we started talking about guitars and amps. Mike said he was now playing bass and the one he had was "piece of shit, a shovel..."

Then, out of the blue, he asked...
"Do you know who the greatest British blues guitarist was? It wasn't Clapton or Jimmy Page or Peter Green. Nope... It was Pete Townshend!"

Boi-oi-oi-oing! Now, by now, most of you all know how I feel about Pete...

"What the hell made you bring him up for, Mike??! That's my HERO!"

"Oh, man... we toured with The Who and I can tell you, Pete Townshend was the best guitarist I ever encountered. I don't know why he never played the way he did when he was warming up in a dressing room when he got out onstage, but, he just blew away every white blues guitarist I ever heard. Really nice guy, too."

Mike's eyes kind of glazed over a bit. It seemed like it had been a long time since he'd thought about any of this.

"That was the single wildest tour we were ever on."

If you grab the bootleg "The Who Live at Fillmore East - April 1968" (yes, of course, I was at that show, a mere 42 years ago), you can hear Pete warming up with some of excellent blues playing while Bill Graham introduces the band.

It was remarkable to watch this skinny little old-before-his-time guy, this Magoo, brighten up and stand taller, and get all animated while he talked to me about his old band and his experiences.

If you haven't heard "Tobacco Road" by the Blues Magoos lately, dig it out... It's an incredible and historic piece of music. Organic brilliance!

In 2009, in conjunction with the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock, the festival, The New York Times ran a piece about how the town of Woodstock was dealing with all the knuckleheads coming up there looking for the site of the Big Event that actually took place about an hour southwest of the town of Woodstock... and the main guy the Times interviewed for their piece was... Mike Esposito, lead guitarist of the Blues Magoos. Out of hiding at last!

Speaking of psychedelic, this last little Woodstock vignette is so wild (to me, anyway) that, to this day, I'm still not sure it was an hallucination or actually happened.

A straight line mile and a half west of Godwin's cozy cottage was The Little Bear, a restaurant actually located in Bearsville. It was an expensive joint, but, with nice rustic décor, good food, and a pleasant hippie-ish staff. Susan and I would go there every few months. Bob Dylan's original manager, Albert Grossman, owned it. About a mile away was the world famous recording studio, Bearsville Studios, he also owned. 

The Summer of 1988, REM was up in the Woodstock area for a few months recording "Green", at Albert Grossman's aforementioned world famous recording studio in Bearsville, New York.

Anyway, one night that summer, my soon-to-be-wifey and I decided that it was time to head west for an over-priced meal at The Little Bear. We parked the car, and walked into the Please-Wait-To-Be-Seated maitre d' area. From where we stood, you could see the entire stretch of the bar that took up about a third of the floor-space before you got to the actual restaurant area.

As we waited for someone to show us to a table, I suddenly realized that the two guys standing closest to me at the bar were REM's Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Mills facing me, Berry facing away.

Just as I was turning to Susan to whisper, "Check it out, REM's rhythm section is standing right in front of us at the bar..." my eyes met Mike Mills' and I watched as his eyebrows shot up and as he turned to Bill Berry and said, in a low voice... and I swear this is true...

"Whoa, Binky Philips just walked in."

I watched as Bill turned and looked at me and then back to Mike with a quick little confirming nod.

Needless to say, this was a very very surreal moment. And so weird, so unexpected, that I wasn't really ready to believe it had just happened. But, as I walked by them, the way they looked at me, that sorta stiff la-dee-dah-we're-not-looking-at-you way confirmed that I hadn't hallucinated this wild jarring sorta role reversal.

Sadly, my wife didn't catch it and naturally thought I was being an idiot.

A few weeks later, I was talking to my old pal, Bob Merlis, who worked for Warner Bros. Records at the time and regaled him with this story, frankly, still doubtful that I didn't dream it. He said, "Binky, the guys in REM are walking encyclopedias when it comes to the original Punk scene in New York City. They probably even have bootleg tapes of your band, The Planets. Don't worry, it happened."

And you know what, I kinda liked REM a bit more from that point on.