tagFirst TimeWoodstock 1975

Woodstock 1975

bygunhilltrain©

[This is my entry in the 2018 Summer Lovin' contest.]

Freedom of the Press

When I was twenty-years old I decided to use a newspaper to improve my romantic life. To be more precise, I wanted to create a romantic life where none had existed before. I had gone to the City College of New York expecting to meet girls - or even just one girl perhaps - as well as get a degree to improve my chances for some as yet unspecified career.

By the summer of 1975 between my sophomore and junior years I had made no progress towards the first goal. I had become an editor at one of the five student newspapers that existed at that time. The ratio of guys to girls at this publication was probably about six to one, and most of the women who did join seemed to quickly pair off with someone else. One of them had gotten into a long term relationship with one of the tenured faculty members of the English department.

When I say I used a newspaper, I don't mean the personal ads that existed in that pre-Internet era. The only New York paper that I knew that had them was the weekly Village Voice, where they were in the classifieds section along with job listings and ads for trade schools.

There was another item available in the city, an odd publication called The Zone. It had elements of The Voice, Screw, the defunct East Village Other, Rolling Stone, maybe Ramparts and various other supposedly countercultural periodicals. Calling itself a magazine, it was printed cheaply on broadsheet newsprint.

The writing in there ranged from the occasionally brilliant to the mostly mediocre. Sometime in the early '70s its managers decided to increase its flagging circulation by including erotic photo spreads starting on page 2 or 3 of each issue. These usually were depictions of everyday scenes that somehow degenerated into orgies. This is a standard trope in pornography perhaps but this was an era long before one could punch up porn on a smart phone. For many readers, including me, this feature was quite a novelty.

There were some notable aspects of these photo shoots. For one thing The Zone used amateur volunteers as the models, apparently various college students and other young people they recruited from around the city. The sexuality depicted in the picture spreads was uninhibited, explicit. It seemed that little if anything was faked, and the photographers often got in close to show the action.

Part of the fun of this was reading the breathlessly inane captions appearing in this section. There seemed to be a characteristic unsubtle Zone style that appeared to be created by the same person each time.

All of this was not hard to obtain. The magazine was sold in porn stores, but some news shops also had it in the back along with the much tamer Playboy and Penthouse. There was usually a copy being passed around my college newspaper office so I never had to get up the nerve to buy my own.

These monthly issues were a useful educational resource for someone like me. This is where I could find out about the wide range of human heterosexual and homosexual behavior including my first exposure to BDSM.

BDSM, among a lot of other things, was in the very first issue I saw myself. Jeff, one of my fellow student journalists, had picked up the September 1974 Zone which had a photo spread entitled "Back to College." The setup was basic: a room had been fitted with some furniture and other props to make it look like a classroom at a fictional "Weequahic University." The professor for this class was a woman who appeared to my young eyes to be in her late thirties. You could tell she was a professor because she was wearing mortar board headgear and an academic gown.

Like most erotica/porn, some kind of plot was needed to provide context. The premise was that the professor was going to paddle one the male students for failing to turn in a paper on time. During a sequence of about three photos, she indeed had him bent over her desk in front of the class. A captions read, in typical overheated Zone prose:

"Slothful Young Eric Receives the Wrath of Professor Roston's Thick Yardstick on His Vulnerable Bared Buttocks."

Two of the female "students" were then invited up front to take turns on him with the yardstick. When he was allowed to stand up, he surprisingly had a huge erection. I say surprising because it was a revelation to me that being physically punished like that would have a strong effect on the male libido. My upbringing had never exposed me to the word or even the very concept of a "dominatrix."

Apparently this activity had an effect on the female libido too, because the next caption read:

"The Professor, Lucy and Simone Feel Pity for Poor Eric's Plight and Comfort Him with Their Warm Mouths on His Erect Member."

In my view Eric wasn't doing so poorly; in fact, I was envious of the lucky bastard. Sure getting a stick across your ass hurt, but I intuitively I understood that it was not quite like other kinds of pain. It was obviously different, say, from the awful grinding of a dentist's drill.

Anyway, the naughtiness in the front, obviously sanctioned by the professor herself, set off a chain reaction through the rest of the room. This class of young scholars, about sixteen people divided equally between men and women, enacted their own scenes of spanking, sucking and screwing. And although The Zone had some clumsy writers, the quality of the black and white photography was excellent. Five pages of this stuff gave me a fine tutorial in human mating techniques.

Four weeks later another photo essay appeared, "What Really Happened to Patty." This of course was Patty Hearst, although The Zone cautiously never used her last name. At this time, about eight months after the kidnapping, a lot about what really had happened were still unknown, but The Zone just made up the missing details. These were depicted in photos likely shot in somebody's apartment and involved bondage (another activity new to me), sex at gunpoint and the general cavorting of urban guerrillas in their safe house.

The Zone had some flair for satire in these matters, and it proposed that Patty was actually naked under her coat during the Hibernia Bank robbery. She then had sex with ringleader "Cinque" in the fleeing getaway car while some Symbionese Liberation Army flunky did the driving. They also poked fun at the recordings Hearst had released during her SLA days. One caption read:

"Depraved Heiress States During Communiqué from Insane Radicals, 'Death to the Fascist Insects Who Sodomize the Anal Orifices of the Oppressed People.' " (Wasn't that a bit redundant?)

I felt a twinge of sadness for Donald, Willie, Angela and other people identified by their real first names, people who had died in the Los Angeles shootout the previous May. I doubted they would feel honored to be depicted in this bizarre publication, but they were beyond caring now.

However, there was something I was starting to care about for myself; I was desiring an appearance before the lenses of The Zone photographer or photographers. My first choice for a beginning to a romantic/sexual life wasn't necessarily a debut in an amateur porn shoot. I imagined a reliable girlfriend, drinks at the Cedar Tavern, trips to the Cloisters Museum in Fort Tryon Park. But mingling with the wild girls The Zone recruited would be a good way to get some much-needed experience. It was even possible that something longer term might result from it.

Busing to Byzantium

It turned out that my sophomore year was a continuing dry spell. I got an opportunity when the May, 1975 issue was going around the office. Of course there was some commentary about the fall of Saigon but since they didn't have foreign correspondents, or even correspondents in Washington for that matter the article read like the ramblings of some embittered barfly.

Thus I soon was perusing the photo spread, which was somewhat less ambitious than their usual offerings. For this one they had a live recreation - and extension - of R. Crumb's famous Joe Blow incest cartoon from 1969. Obviously they didn't have permission of any sort to use this material so they changed the main character to "Joe Schmo." Many of the captions, however, were taken directly from Crumb's original.

I was reflecting on how they only needed four models for this live version of the cartoon when I noticed a small notice on the last page advertising for volunteer models for the September, 1975 issue. It was sparse in detail; the theme would be "Summer Fun: Woodstock 1975" and the shoot would be on a single day at a location in Sullivan County, New York. A phone number was included and that was the extent of the information provided.

Being young and foolish, I called that afternoon. Besides, I reasoned, they probably had more applicants than they could handle and I would never actually be in this scene. A woman answered and told me to come down the next day to an address in the Garment District in Manhattan.

I had the feeling riding down there that this was some sort of job interview, although undoubtedly a very strange one. At The Zone offices, a very plain set of rooms in a loft building, I met the woman who had answered the phone. Sandra, a short-haired blonde in her late thirties, identified herself as the managing editor of this publication I had been loyally reading for the entire semester.

Like any other interview, the tasks and duties involved were explained to me. They weren't going to attempt to recreate anything close to the scale of the actual festival. Instead they were going to try for one of the sideshows, the skinny-dipping that had taken place in one of the ponds or lakes within the concert grounds. They had obtained permission from a landowner to use a lake in a town called Crockersville in Sullivan County, the same county containing the original site in Bethel.

Sandra told me, "Of course we expect that you all will be doing more than splashing around in the water. You've seen our photo spreads, haven't you?"

"Oh yeah, I've been - well reading them since that Weequahic University thing last September."

She chuckled at that, "Weequahic, that's the name of my old neighborhood in Newark. So, what you will be doing, there will be some improvising up there at the lake. The more explicit it is, the more down and dirty you get, the better it is for our circulation."

She then explained the personnel logistics involved. First there would be ten "existing" couples picked for this, thus twenty people to start. Then there would be twenty unattached people, ten guys and ten girls.

Sandra said, "One of those guys could be you. The twenty in that group will make their own picks as to who they want to be cast with." I was trying to imagine how that would work when she continued, "We already have more applicants than we can use. I'll have to get back to you if we want to have you."

I had expected that, but I still felt deflated; how many others had already responded? Dozens? Hundreds? The whole thing suddenly seemed like a shuck and I was losing interest in it, although I didn't tell that to Sandra.

The last thing she did was take a few photos of me with an Instamatic camera. Then I when home, reading a newspaper to distract myself as I rode on the subway.

I had told no one about my interview and I was starting to forget about it a week later when Sandra called me back. I had been chosen for the project; could I come down soon to sign a release and handle other details? As soon as I got to the West 35th Street office I received a piece of surprisingly good news. Because of the distance out of the city all of us would receive $30 for travel and other expenses, about $140 in today's money.

She said, "That should at least cover the cost of gas up there and back and probably lunch too."

"That's great, but I don't have access to a car."

She looked perplexed for a moment and then rummaged through some papers on her desk. "There's a Short Lines bus route up Route 17, it stops at this village called Byzantium. I think it's only about a mile and half walk to the site."

She gave me the schedule to keep, and something about that brought up doubts that I had been repressing about this venture. I asked her, "What's the deal with the twenty individuals, the ones who pick each other?"

"Oh that. Our thinking is that in addition to established couples, we'll have some people who are strangers to each other - like it may have been at the real Woodstock. It will bring some spontaneity to the event, we hope."

"Were you at the real Woodstock?"

"Definitely not. I was thirty then, I just had my first kid. Even so, the idea of spending several days in an open field - that wasn't for me, no matter what bands showed up."

It was somewhat disillusioning to find that this weirdly offbeat magazine was being managed by a sensible, organized young mommy, but someone had to be responsible for keeping it going and she seemed to be doing a good job. I tried bantering with her about how a portion of American youth would have been called the Bethel Generation if that town, the actual location, had been the original chosen for the festival.

Sandra didn't seem to share my idea of humor and instead she quickly wrapped up the specifics of the deal, which weren't many. The date was set for a Saturday in mid-August, nearly two months from now. I would keep in touch with The Zone periodically to confirm that it was still on, and they would call me if there was going to be some kind of bad weather postponement. Other than that, all I had to do was show up and - act like a hippie? Probably fuck like one too, whatever that meant. The previous cohorts of recruits for these photo shoots had just done what came naturally, I suspected, so this couldn't be that complex.

Sandra cut me my $30 check. Just before I left I had to ask, "Why exactly was I picked?"

She was a bit vague about it, "I don't know, you just seemed plausible I suppose. We didn't attempt to deal with everyone who applied. We chose our forty people and then said, 'good enough.' "

On that Saturday morning I was at the Port Authority bus station in Midtown Manhattan. It was a pleasant ride on a nice summer day. I enjoyed sitting by the window as most of my mind remained blank. I noted the passage through the junction of the New York Thruway and Route 17, that one that famously was closed because of the traffic jam during Woodstock 1969.

A Cog in Something Turning

Byzantium had no resemblance to its imperial namesake; it was a crossroads on 17 with two gas stations and not much else. I was supposed to be at the site in Crockersville by noon and I had plenty of time to walk there along a two-lane rural road. It was a clear day, forecast to be in the mid-eighties, and I was accustomed to taking long walks. I was reminded of hiking trips at the Ten Mile River Scout camp at the other side of Sullivan County.

It was when I reached the lakeside that I started to think again about why I was there and what I was supposed to do. I began to get the first real doubts about what I had gotten into. The Zone minions had set up minimal facilities for their one-afternoon operation. I first walked past several dozen cars parked haphazardly in an open field.

At the lake there was a tent covering a table with some sodas and bottled water in ice chests, and that seemed to be the extent of the catering services. The staffing was minimal too - it appeared to be just Sandra and two men with cameras around their necks. After I reintroduced myself to Sandra I tried a joke about the lack of infrastructure, "Did you guys think of renting some port-a-potties?"

"You've got the woods over there if you need them."

I thought about the instructions in my old Boy Scout handbook about how to dig a field latrine but I didn't think Sandra would want to hear about that right now. She directed me to join the rest of the cast sitting around on the grass overlooking the lake.

I was one of the last arrivals among the ten couples and twenty individuals enlisted for this scene. As I seated myself on the ground I noticed that there didn't seem too much social interaction going on here. No one greeted me and I said nothing myself. I had a few minutes to ponder my own growing uneasiness.

I had never met anyone who had been at the real Woodstock so everything I knew about it came from the voluminous press coverage at the time. I assumed that with a half-million people around for the better part of four days some sexual activities had gone on but these were not of the public, out-in-the-open variety. Even the famous nudity in the lake photos showed people just splashing around. I guessed those who wanted to get it on went into the bushes for a bit of privacy and protection from the prying lenses of the photographers.

Based on The Zone's photographic history I knew this reenactment would be different. Before I could get further into these thoughts Sandra came up to us and started issuing instructions. The first order of business was matching up the twenty loose individuals. Sandra told us to get up and make our own choices, figure out the pairings for ourselves.

In the few minutes I had been there I hadn't dared glance over at the ten female options available to me. Before I could do that there was a flurry of activity and in less than a minute everyone was paired up except me. Well, unless Sandra was still waiting for a late arrival there had to be another wallflower here. In a moment she stepped in front of me.

"I guess this is Sadie Hawkins Day," she said.

That sounded familiar but I couldn't place it. "What does that mean?"

"You know the L'il Abner comic strips? That's the day when the girls in town can chase after the guys for a husband."

I did remember it now. "Oh yeah, it was in The Daily News, my dad used to buy that."

She must have looked me over when I had been sitting there because now she gave me a few moments to check her out.

She was looking me level in the eyes, so she must have been about five-eight. I focused on this girl with a round face, dark frizzy hair and dark eyes. She was wearing glasses. I glanced down at her sturdy body - she was definitely not petite or delicate. Her clothes were simple: a sleeveless blouse, a short cotton skirt and sandals.

I hadn't prepared myself for this moment - maybe I had deliberately avoided thinking about it - and my first thought was not What do I think of her? but rather Does she think I'm acceptable for her? After all, I had been the last one left to pick. But then again, so was she.

I looked back up and saw a bemused but perhaps skeptical expression on her face. She said, "You look a little flummoxed."

I should have finessed a better answer, but all I could say was, "That's because I am." I could have followed that up with, In this situation, how about you? but I couldn't' think that fast.

She said, "If you don't want do this with me, then we might as well both go home now."

"No, you're fine. . ." Jesus, don't put it that way. My lack of experience was getting me even more flustered. "Sure, it's okay."

Fortunately she seemed amused by my fumbling response. Then Sandra said to her assembled group, "Okay, guys, relax for a while and get used to each other. Say thirty minutes or so." So we had a half-hour before we all stripped and jumped into the lake.

When we sat down my new partner took a couple of things out of her purse, two brownies in fact. She gave one to me and I thanked her.

She said, "They're pot brownies, you do know that?"

"Should we be getting stoned here?"

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