Jefferson Airplane Recall Woodstock: A New Dawn

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Jefferson Airplane performing at Woodstock, August 1969

Our series on Woodstock, the greatest rock festival of all time, continues with the recollections of all of the members of Jefferson Airplane–and some of their friends and associates. 

By the time Jefferson Airplane took the stage at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on the morning of August 17, 1969, they were understandably very tired. The San Francisco group had been scheduled to perform the night before, a Saturday, but delay upon delay resulted in their set being pushed back again and again.

Following the Who’s well received set, the Airplane plugged in and woke up anyone who’d dared to fall asleep. “Alright, friends,” Grace Slick addressed the sea of humans, “you have seen the heavy groups. Now you will see morning maniac music. Believe me, yeah, it’s a new dawn.”

With Nicky Hopkins sitting in on piano, the Airplane, who were paid $15,000 for their morning’s work, played to the throng but all of the band members later agreed that their performance was anything but inspired. When the filmmakers assembling the Woodstock documentary later approached the group about being included, they were given the thumbs down.

Best Classic Bands’ editor has interviewed all of the members of Jefferson Airplane who performed on that day, some of whom have since left us, as well as others involved in their appearance at the festival. Some of the following recollections appeared in his biography of the band, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane. Others have never before been in print.

As you’ll see, not all of their stories coincide. Hey, it was a long time ago.

Spencer Dryden (drummer): We drove in from Tanglewood [in Massachusetts], where we’d played with B.B. King and the Who, through the Catskills: real pretty, farmland and trees and rolling valleys. We got into the town of Liberty [N.Y.], where there was a big Holiday Inn where everyone was staying. Everybody was in their rooms talking and in the bar, hanging out with Keith Moon.

Some of the guys in the band went [to the festival site] that night, before the thing started, to check out the stage and see what it was like and they came back with stories about how it was amazing—everybody in the world was there. It had rained the night before and there were worries about whether the show was going to go on.

There was a helicopter that was ferrying people back and forth from the hotel to the site and show times were being changed. They’re saying, “You guys gotta get over here right now.” This was the middle of [Saturday] afternoon.

Bill Thompson (manager): The [Holiday Inn] was the great scene. Everybody was staying there. It was Janis, Grace, Marty, [Jerry] Garcia and Pigpen. Keith Moon was in my room all night, smoking pot. We flew to Woodstock in the helicopter. The [promoters] were hoping to get 50,000 people. They weren’t set up for more people than that.

Related: When the Airplane woke up New York City

Spencer Dryden: We couldn’t get a helicopter so we had to drive in.

Grace Slick (singer): We were supposed to go on at nine o’clock at night.

Spencer Dryden: We were supposed to go on at midnight. We finally went on at dawn. And by that time, most of the audience was asleep.

Grace Slick at Woodstock

Bill Thompson: We insisted on closing [Saturday night] at Woodstock. We always closed; we were the headliner. We were big enough at that time to get our way. It was amazing how many people were there, 400,000. We couldn’t believe it. It was raining and muddy. These guys [the promoters] weren’t anticipating it.

Before us on Saturday night, they had Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Who, the Dead. [Before we went on] I went to [promoter] Michael Lang and I said, “Where’s the money?” [He said] “Oh, man, you know, this is so beautiful.” They’d all taken acid and were barefoot. “This is so beautiful, man, all these people; it’s so cool.” “Yeah. Where’s the money?” Finally I went to [managers of other bands] and I said, “Look, these guys are gonna fucking burn us unless we get this. This is bullshit. Look at all this money. They’re making a movie,” and the whole thing. So on Saturday afternoon we demanded the money. And Saturdays, in ’69, used to be like Sundays are now with banks. They weren’t open. But somehow or another Michael Lang got this guy to go in the bank on Saturday and open up the vault and we all got paid.

Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitarist/singer): We went on like 18 hours late, something ridiculous. My wife was there but I had this girlfriend who had also shown up, so I was really concerned with keeping the two of them as far apart as possible. My ex-wife used to claim that one of the reasons I played so long was that I was afraid to face her when I came offstage, and there could have been some truth to this. I could hardly wait to get onstage at this particular venue.

Watch Jefferson Airplane perform “Volunteers” at Woodstock

Marty Balin (singer): Woodstock was a lot of fun. It was a muddy mess at times. I remember it being something really spectacular for me, the stage and the lights at night and the performances. But we didn’t get to go on until morning, and by then we had been drunk and re-sobered up and drunk again and sobered up. I mean, it was terrible by the time we went on. The sun was coming up, people were asleep in the mud. It was a corny time.

Grace Slick: Woodstock everybody remembers with a little more fondness than I do. I have a bladder about the size of a dime and you couldn’t get off the stage to go to the bathroom. It was not that well organized. I don’t think they expected as many people as they did.

Glenn McKay (light show operator): I always had a bad taste about Woodstock. I waited the whole fucking night. I even cut holes in my $2,000 screen so that the wind wouldn’t take it away. And then the Airplane comes on and the sun comes up. [A light show] can’t compete with that.

Spencer Dryden: Paul [Kantner, guitarist/singer] had said, “Well, if we can’t go on at midnight, we want to go on as the sun comes up.” Unfortunately, the Who were playing and they were in the middle of their set when the sun came up and they didn’t care a whit whether the sun was coming up or not.

Jorma Kaukonen: I wish that I had more significant memories of Woodstock. I didn’t have any grand epiphanies or moments of extreme clarity. But I do remember thinking, this truly is unbelievable. Because it was, just the mass and the feeling of “usness.”

Paul Kantner (guitarist/singer): It was a little harsher than normal but fun, interesting. The edge, dealing with the unexpected. I like that, particularly if you deal with it semi-successfully. We didn’t necessarily deal with being onstage semi-successfully. We were pretty ragged.

Bill Thompson: Paul killed [the band’s appearance in the documentary film]. He thought the performance was bad, because they had taken every fucking drug around them. He was very adamant about it. So we didn’t get in.

Marty Balin: It was a mess for our performance but it was the beginning of what music can do politically and as a force.

Related: Our tribute to Balin, who died on September 27, 2018

Jack Casady (bassist): There were plenty of things wrong with it, but basically Woodstock was a great event that was full of chaos and full of aspects where nobody knew quite what was going to happen next. It became a media phenomenon. It’s not my most favorite performance, by any means. Everybody’s dog tired, out of tune and had been awake for about 24 hours. It wasn’t the optimum time. I guess we played OK.

Watch the Airplane perform “Somebody to Love” at the festival

Spencer Dryden: I don’t remember it being one of our best shows. I do remember [pianist] Nicky Hopkins being on there [sitting in with the band], which was nice, because if anything else, he helped glue the band together. And then I remember that we drove back to the hotel, no more helicopters, and Nicky didn’t have a room so he stayed with me and [Spencer’s wife] Sally. And Nicky is the loudest snorer I ever heard in my life.

Nicky Hopkins sitting in with the Airplane at Woodstock

Nicky Hopkins (guest pianist): I did the [Airplane’s] Volunteers album, then they said, “Can you come and do this open-air concert with us in the east? It’ll be about three days.” I sort of liked the idea and I said yeah, I’ll come down. So I went with them and it turned out it was Woodstock. I sat in with them—there was some talk at that point about me joining them, which never happened. Then I did a TV show with them afterwards.

Spencer Dryden: [After Woodstock], we got back in the cars and we had to go to New York to do The Dick Cavett Show that night. Hendrix was supposed to do it but he couldn’t so Joni Mitchell did it because she couldn’t get to Woodstock, so there was just this big multi-proportional screw-up, logistics gone bad. Joni was very afraid and had stage fright and David Crosby kind of helped calm her down.

Related: Behind Joni Mitchell’s song, “Woodstock”

Grace Slick: Woodstock was unique in that there were a half million people not stabbing each other to death. That was its main claim to fame. And it was a statement of, look at us, we’re 25 and we’re all together and things ought to change.

Jorma Kaukonen: I think it would have been hard to overhype Woodstock, just because of what happened there. Woodstock was a significant event.

Watch Jefferson Airplane perform “White Rabbit” at Woodstock

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Willydog
    #1 Willydog 4 July, 2018, 03:49

    I was just 17 (and you know what I mean) but the Airplane were already one of my favorite bands. I had a “thing” for Grace and I STILL do! (Hi Grace! Love you Honey!) I remember gently stepping over a thousand sleeping beauties to get close to the stage (and Grace) for the Airplane’s set. Maybe it wasn’t one of their greatest performances, but 49 years later it’s still burned into my brain. Jefferson Airplane loves me and I still love them

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