As I walked past the windows of Macy’s and saw the display for the “Summer of Love,” I’m not sure what freaked me out more — that Woodstock occurred 40 years ago this August or realizing that Joe has been dead two decades. The two are connected in my head since Joe was my boyfriend who took me to the legendary festival. We knew each other so long ago that we were both still straight.
We met at the Jersey Shore in 1968 when my sorority rented a house in party town Belmar. Joe’s best friend Timmy was dating a sister, and the guys visited on weekends.
Joe liked it when I was at the house because I brought cool records — like Cream’s “Wheels of Fire.” I liked it when Joe was at there because he brought pot. He was older than me, out of school, had his own apartment and drove a motorcycle. Joe said he dug me as soon as he read the bumper sticker on my car, “Stick it in your ear.”
Joe was over six feet tall — black hair, dark eyes, kinda hairy and a bit chubby — a bear (not my type at all.) When we first met, his locks were longer than mine. He had wire-frame glasses, like his idol, John Lennon, and wore vests with fringe.
Once we started dating, Joe became my guide into the radical ’60s. He led me from the repressive climate of my Catholic women’s college with its soirees and corny tea parties into the exciting world of alternative culture. Since Joe was the music editor for The Aquarian, a popular underground paper, we went backstage at concerts and were regulars at the Fillmore East. Nothing could have kept us two rockers from this three-day event. We even had tickets.
Joe picked me up at the Shore in his black Kharman Ghia convertible on August 15, 1969. When we arrived Upstate late Friday afternoon, cars were lined for miles along Route 17B, the road that led to the site in White Lake. We dumped the car along the roadside, trying to remember where we parked, sighting a red barn up the hill as a marker. We grabbed our camping gear and followed the crowds on down to Yasgur’s farm.
That evening Joe and I trudged around looking for Timmy and his girlfriend. We had plans to meet at the information center. Timmy had just been drafted into the Army, which meant going to Vietnam. He was scheduled to leave that Monday. We had to find him. But as we crested the hill, I saw the mobbed information tables and hundreds of people waiting to use the pay phones. Forget calling my parents as promised. Forget finding friends in this sea of look-alike people, so we dejectedly gave up, got a good spot to watch the music.
I became totally excited as I viewed the freaky crowds. At my conservative college, I felt like a weirdo, an oddball, but here were tons of kids like me. Later that night it started to drizzle and then pour while we huddled together and watched Melanie and lit candles in the rain. When we got too wet, we retreated to the tent.
The next morning, Joe and I were sliding up a muddy road and through synchronicity, we bumped directly into Timmy. We started hugging, switching off.
“We got stuck in crazy traffic last night,” he said. “Every f—–g freak from the Northeast must be here.” It was rainy and slippery and we were wet all the time, even in the tent, which was collapsing. Our sleeping bags got soggy and I didn’t rest much. But who wanted to doze while the super groups of rock were playing all day and night. Everything got behind schedule because they kept stopping the show for thunderstorms and torrential rains.
By late Saturday night, we were exhausted and retreated to our leaky tent. We could still hear the music, so we hung out near the flap, drinking red wine and listening. Janis Joplin was whipping herself into a frenzy on “Piece of My Heart.” I loved Janis and wanted to be outside watching, but my head was nodding. We’d been out in the rain and mud for over 12 hours. I’d slipped on my last dry T-shirt and passed out. We were too tired to do more than kiss good night. The next morning, we crawled from the tent, dirty and starving, when the Jefferson Airplane jolted us to life as Grace Slick ripped into “Somebody to Love.”
We left Sunday, early afternoon, with no dry clothes left. I was wearing Joe’s bell-bottoms, rolled up. He had brought more outfits. I wanted to stay later, but he had to work Monday and it was a long hike back to the car. I left the Woodstock Festival feeling elated: We could change the world, rearrange the world, just like Crosby Stills and Nash sang. Something inside me had shifted. I felt powerful. We turned on the FM radio as we got closer to the city and heard a million people were at the festival. We’d been part of history.
* * *
Three years after Woodstock, Joe came out. I was confused because he wanted men, not me. Although I was upset about losing my boyfriend, we remained friends. We were attracted to each other’s personalities, interests, tastes and sense of humor. A few years later, I came out too. (No wonder the sex with Joe was never that good.) Having gay male friends made the transition easier. Joe escorted me to my first gay bar.
I moved to the East Village, cut my hair short and began freelancing. Joe got a crew cut, contact lenses and lost weight. He moved Uptown and became a trade magazine editor. I thought we’d see each other more, but Joe was involved with his Fire Island friends and I got “married” to a woman. Although Joe and I didn’t hang out that often, we stayed in touch over the years. No question my life would have been different if we hadn’t met. While I was still in college, Joe got me started as a music reviewer, which launched my career.
It’s hard now to conceive we were so innocent at Woodstock. No one would have believed that 20 years later, a sexually transmitted disease would kill off a generation of gay men, including Joe. It’s ironic that we were worried about our friends getting killed in an unpopular war in a foreign country. But in both cases, it took too long for everyone to wake up. If people had been more responsive in the early ’80s, Joe and I might be sharing Woodstock memories or checking out a new gay bar in Asbury Park.
* * *
In August 1994, I went back to Yasgur’s farm on the 25th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. But it wasn’t the same without Joe. For many years, my partner and I had rented a rustic cottage in Sullivan County 20 minutes from the field. So that Saturday we took off for White Lake, where 50,000 people were camped (illegally) for the 25th anniversary.
A decent-sized crowd, but nothing like the original and, contrary to rumors, no big groups showed up. We hit a little traffic, but this time we parked close to the site.
As we walked around, I was flooded with musical trivia about Joe: He felt so connected to the scene that he thought he’d die at 27, like Janis and Jimi and Jim. He was relieved when that birthday passed. His favorite group was The Who, and Joe missed my college graduation because he had tickets. I was pissed. We’d already seen them many times together. Joe loved that line “Hope I die before I get old.” It dawned on me that in a weird way, my friend Joe, the music fanatic who took me to Woodstock, fulfilled that classic rock-and-roll wish.
Visitors wanted to be photographed next to a huge commemorative plaque dubbed the “Tomb of the Unknown Hippie.” Lots of families with kids. Middle-aged people touched the stone, made their babies touch it. Like a shrine, people left flowers, love beads, pictures, notes. I even saw an ACT-UP sticker. A local artist had set up a huge piece of poster paper, urging those who attended the original festival to sign our names and record a message for those missing this reunion. The poster was going into a county museum I wrote the following:
Joe & Kate ’69
Kate ’94 Act Up.
Fight Back. Fight AIDS!
Afterward I wondered what Joe would have thought of my message. He was not that political in his later years. Joe lived for his summer house and the St. Mark’s Baths. After getting infected, Joe fought a brave two-year battle against AIDS, filing stories until the end, and dying at 43.
Back at the site, my partner wanted to take pictures. I was seeing ghosts as I imagined Joe coming down the path. I thought it might be fun to return here, but it made me depressed. I felt old. I felt queer. Everyone looked so straight. I wondered how many other people who attended the festival later came out like we did.
I could not help but note the Stonewall Riots and the Woodstock Festival occurred the same summer — 1969. Stonewall got less publicity then, but it seemed clear as I trekked through the crowds as an out gay person that the fighting on Christopher Street had more lasting impact than three days of peace and love. Yes, I had a blast at Woodstock, but part of me felt that in the summer of ’69, we’d missed the real revolution.