Woodstock remembered

Juneau's Woodstock alumni look back on experiencing one of the greatest moments in music history

Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009

When asked what Woodstock meant to them, four of Juneau's Woodstock alumni say the same thing - it was about the music.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Forty years ago, Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, to be exact, nearly a half million people made the pilgrimage to Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y., to see rock icons perform for three days of peace and music.

Anyone who was anyone at the time was there: Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Janis Joplin, The Who and Grateful Dead.

And for four of Juneau's own, Natalee Rothaus, Chip Thoma, John Hartle and Tom Melville, Woodstock will forever be etched in their memory as a fun, peaceful event all in the name of rock 'n' roll.

"It was a very special moment in time," Rothaus said. "All these people from all over came together for the music, and nobody really had an idea as to what it was going to turn into as far as what they called the Woodstock Nation."

"There were just all these people converging to hang out and listen to great music, and this wonderful event occurred," she said.

Rothaus, a 29-year Juneau resident who grew up in New York City, had just graduated high school and decided to go upstate for the weekend to hang out with "500,000 of (her) closest friends."

"It was an incredibly peaceful event, lots of situations occurred and not everything was perfect," Rothaus said. "But it so overtook anyone's imagination."

Of all the performances, Rothaus praised Santana.

"I remember just as dawn was coming up, there was this amazing sound," Rothaus said. "Here I grew up on the East Coast, and Santana had a very specific, wonderful sound. There was this like amazing Black Magic moment, that quintessential Santana sound just coming out on the horizon, and man, it woke everybody up. People were just up and moving, and it just energized the crowd."

John Hartle, also a fresh graduate that year, said his favorite band was the Grateful Dead. He described the entire concert as amazing.

"The music was fantastic," he said. "It showed the world there was more interest in the ideas than had previously been thought, that 500,000 people would come and have a nice concert."

In light of the 40th anniversary, Hartle hopes to see the 1970 documentary again.

"I always looked for myself," Hartle said. "I think the movie captured a lot of the music."

Chip Thoma, a 38-year Juneau resident, actually worked security during the 1969 festival and seems to be the only Juneau resident who appears in the film.

During Country Joe McDonald's performance of "The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," you can see Thoma wearing a white head band, singing along in the front row.

"My friend, Rocky, and I both appear in the documentary a few times, as we stood right behind the film crew for three days and nights," Thoma said. "We also had 4-by-8-foot plywood bunks under the stage for long naps during the rain."

Within a hour of his arrival on Friday morning, Thoma and his friend were working on the stage as laborers. Then the stage manager, Chip Monck, asked them to be security for the photographer's platform in front of the stage.

"We worked for both Monck and the Michael Wadleigh film crew, primarily giving them space to shoot and preventing the crowd from climbing the 10-foot fence to the stage," Thoma said.

Thoma's most memorable moment at Woodstock was giving shelter to Country Joe McDonald during the worst of the rainstorms.

"Joe sat on my bunk below the stage for about 10 minutes, until the lightning stopped," Thoma said. "I attended his concert in San Francisco the week before, and he was amazed a Maryland guy at Woodstock had been there, at the Family Dog hall."

Thoma also thought much of Jefferson Airplane at sunrise. "Spectacular!" he said.

To Thoma, Woodstock meant that Bob Dylan and The Band would play a concert in some small, New York upstate town, he said.

"Dylan had not performed in public for years, due to a motorcycle accident," he said. "Woodstock was promoted as a 'Welcome Back' party."

Although Dylan never showed, the show was still a good one.

"My younger brother and sisters recall my return to D.C., exhausted after five days of travel, music and rain, and passing out in the family tub in a thick, muddy sea of Max Yasgur's farm," Thoma said. "I viewed Woodstock as a great time to take a permanent break from D.C., and go do something very different."

Like Rothaus, Thoma is looking forward to the music and might even make an appearance at the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock Party, to be held Saturday at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center.

"(It's) the same reason I went there in 1969 - for the music," Thoma said.

And in the end, Rothaus is proud to say she was at Woodstock.

"It was a great time had by all, and I have really fond memories of being there," Rothaus said. "That was a one-of-a-kind moment that can never ever be fully duplicated, nor in my opinion should be duplicated. The music that came out of there was just fabulous. ... But I think it's great that people still love the music."

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or kim.andree@juneauempire.com.

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