Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Isle of Wight Music Festival,1970

 In the summer of 1970, I was twenty-nine. My life was going in the right direction. I had received my PhD from the University of Minnesota the previous year and I was in my second year as an assistant professor at Cal State. 

I had also become a US citizen a year earlier. I was ecstatic. I had waited ten years to be naturalized. Before that, I was a stateless United Nations refugee, ever since my family fled from Hungary during my early childhood. My legal status was a monumental pain. It made international travel almost impossible. My family and I had settled in Holland, but even a foray into neighboring Belgium required a visa and other paperwork. I had been admitted to the US on a Fulbright student visa after waiting five years, followed by another five years on a green card. 

To celebrate my new status and all the things it made possible, I went back to Europe for the summer. I had not seen my family in five years. 

By then, my sister Juliette had moved from Amsterdam to London, so after seeing my mother in Holland I went to Juliette in England. Madeleine, my other sister, was also visiting there. 

As it so happens, the Isle of Wight Music Festival was scheduled to take place between August 26 and 31 of that year, and my brother-in-law Iain had secured tickets for the four of us. 

So we grabbed our sleeping bags, a tent and some supplies, drove down to Portsmouth, crossed over to the Isle of Wight and made our way to the festival site. The 1970 Isle of Wight festival turned out to be a Woodstock repeat a year later, a Woodstock on steroids. It became the largest rock festival of all times, with an estimated attendance of 700,000. It was a surrealistic experience. 

It took nearly a day just to get in and settle down on the grass somewhere in the middle of the field. The seven hundred thousand other hippies around us could only be described as an OCEAN of people. The population was almost as large as San Francisco’s. It temporarily increased the Isle of Wight ‘s population sixfold. The field was a rolling hill, so that you couldn’t see the end of the crowd. It literally stretched to the horizon. The stage was half a mile away and you needed binoculars to recognize the musicians, although loudspeakers broadcast their sounds loud and clear to the farthest corners of the enclosure. 

There were some small tents, but most people slept in their sleeping bags under the stars, as we ended up doing. Luckily, I don’t remember it ever raining. Most of the time the sky was clear, especially at night. Our group planted a tall US flag to identify the spot. We rolled out our sleeping bags at the edge of the group. For four days and nights, we listened to the music, occasionally sharing a bit of marijuana with each other, but not with neighboring groups, whose hygiene we were not sure of. The four of us had little interest in more than a modicum of cannabis, just to be part of the culture. The total amount of drugs consumed by the full crowd during that four-day period must have exceeded that of the rest of the entire country put together. While LSD and Mescaline were probably ingested by a large proportion of the people, we didn’t see anyone shooting up heroin and other hard drugs. We did see some odd behavior here and there, guys mumbling nonsense syllables, girls crying for no apparent reason, things like that. 

For four days and nights, the audience was treated to the non-stop performances of one famous group after another. The music covered the entire gamut. There were British groups and American groups. There was the old-fashioned fifties sound of groups like Sha-Na-Na and Ten Years After, the lyricism of Donovan, the poetry of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, the far-out guitar of Richie Haven and the great Jimi Hendrix, the pounding rhythms of the Doors and of Sly and the Family Stone, the nubile voices of Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell, the jazz of Miles Davis and Chicago, the rhythm and blues sounds of the Moody Blues, the gripping melodies of Procol Harum and Jethro Tull, the humorous silliness of Tiny Tim, and many others. 

The music never stopped. It went on day and night. Sometimes I would doze off, and then suddenly wake up in the middle of a wild performance by the Who, or by Kris Kristofferson, or some other celebrity. Once, I was half asleep and it was dark. Joni Mitchell was on stage and she broke down and cried. It seemed that she had gotten into some spat with the audience. 

Going to the bathroom was a complex operation. On the second day, I had to go. There was half a mile of outhouses at the edge of the field. To reach it, one had to step over thousands of people lying in or on their sleeping bags. This took several hours. If everything went well, you could be back to your group in three or four hours. However, the trick was to find your people again. While our group had erected a flag as a rallying point, so had hundreds of others. 

After I went to the bathroom, I sloshed for a couple of hours among the hundreds of thousands of people and the vast amount of detritus which they had created. Many people didn’t bother to use the porta potties, certainly not for urination. And there were mountains of garbage everywhere. In many places, the grounds were a stinking mess. 

I was not finding my people, and it was getting dark. I began to panic. I sat down somewhere in the multitude for a rest, next to a group. I was tired, dirty, sweating and discouraged. One of the hippies asked me, “What’s up, dude?” 

“I can’t find my people,” I replied. 

“Bummer, man,” said the hippie, as he handed me a joint, adding, “here, have some weed, man. You can crash with us.” 

But I wanted to forge ahead. I described my group to them - told them that they were a bunch of Hungarian-born Dutch Anglo-Americans. One of the hippies thought that he had heard some such talk a few hours earlier. He pointed the way to me, and I started in that direction. Lo and behold, twenty minutes later I saw our flag in the distance! 

Two days later, the concert was over and nearly three-quarter million people started to stream towards the exits. Miraculously, the crowd was able to get off the island unscathed. There were some tense moments, when pushing, shoving and getting on the ferries became scary. I even remember my brother-in-law Iain assuming the role of improvised traffic cop at some point. All ended well. 

A few days later, I flew back to California to start teaching my fall classes. This was the heyday of the Counter Culture. Four students at Kent State and two at Jackson State had just been killed. The turmoil, youth protest and cultural revolution were still accelerating. As a sociologist, it was incumbent on me to try to incorporate current events and trends into my classes. Which I did. I assigned Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counter Culture in one of my courses. The Isle of Wight music festival was an invaluable experience from this standpoint as well. 

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