WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — "You know, the Indians had a legend that, if you passed under the shadow of the mountain and came to Woodstock, you would have to return someday," said Jerry Mitnick, owner of the Tinker Street Cafe. "Could be a blessing. Could be a curse. But you had to come back."
And they do, almost every day.
This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the biggest pop music blowout of all time: the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. And even though it happened 60 miles to the south--on Max Yasgur's farm--the faithful citizenry of the Woodstock Nation make their pilgrimages to Woodstock itself.
And to a large degree, the festival lives on in this tiny town in upstate New York, where hippies who once tripped out to three days of high-decibel Pied Piper rock are now adults running the town or supporting it by buying bumper stickers, T-shirts and other memorabilia.
Currently the festival occupies the attention, too, of Woodstock survivors who don't live anywhere near here: its original underwriters, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, who say they never made a dime off of it; Warner Bros., which owns the film, merchandising and recording rights to the festival and hopes to make millions; and those keepers of the Woodstock flame, such as Hog Farm commune founder Hugh "Wavy Gravy" Romney who still speaks wistfully of that August weekend in 1969 as "the greatest rush you can have this side of a pharmaceutical gathering."
On a recent weekend, a Honda Accord with Virginia license plates pulled up to the curb next to Mitnick's cafe and a family of four piled out. On the rear bumper was a purple and white bumper sticker commemorating the 20th anniversary of Woodstock.
The family settled in at a table across the way from where Mitnick was sitting on the front porch of the cafe. They scanned menus, and the mother, who once wore love beads at Woodstock and now is a data processor in Arlington, ordered the Max Yasgur Chef's Salad with low-calorie dressing.
Her husband had purchased the bumper sticker for 99 cents at the Flying Watermelon tie dye shop, just down the street from the cafe. Woodstock anniversary T-shirts also are on sale there for $12 and up. One popular shirt bears a "Ripley's Believe It or Not" inscription over a map showing the location of the town of Woodstock in the center of New York state and the location of the Woodstock festival at White Lake, N.Y.
Former Blues Magoos guitarist Michael Esposito hunched over confidentially next to Mitnick, stroking his graying beard while he raised his voice above the reggae din coming from inside the cafe.
"Couples would come here to find themselves after Woodstock," he said, laugh lines crinkling the edges of his peanut eyes. "And they would! They'd discover who they were. Really. Raise their consciousness. Then they'd split up."
His nervous giggle rolled across the dining room/porch of the legendary night spot where Bob Dylan met the Band, Joan Baez met the New Age and a host of other '60s folkies hatched the music that would become the glue that briefly held together the Woodstock Nation.
"Dylan used to live upstairs," Esposito said with an expansive, parchment-colored grin.
Ex-Band members Rick Danko and Levon Helm, who live part of the year in Woodstock, still float in for an occasional jam. Mitnick, who plays bass for his own band, the Human Condition, sometimes sits in with them. The Band was at Woodstock, he said. The festival, that is. Not to be confused with the town.
"The town didn't want it held here," Mitnick said.
And they still don't. The original promoters paid $50,000 just to clean up Yasgur's farm after the festival. And most of Woodstock's current 7,000 residents aren't eager to see how much clean-up would cost if it were held today.
Still, there are those who would welcome a second Woodstock, and this time in Woodstock itself--and not in a hay field halfway across the Catskills.
"The town didn't want it to happen the first time either, but it did," said Day Yusco, owner of a hair salon that has become something of a national clearinghouse for information on New Age events. Yusco, who had a vision of world unity shortly after the festival, came to Woodstock and established the Rainbow Tribe--a national mobilization organization that musters its members whenever an anti-nuclear or save-the-earth rally crops up.
Yusco's Cut & Dry beauty salon is merely his day job.
Yusco, for one, plans to welcome returning Woodstock alumni on the 20th anniversary this Aug. 16. He'll be beating a drum in Magic Meadow just outside of town and paying homage to a full eclipse of the moon, which is supposed to occur that same evening.
"We're going to be hosts whether we want it or not," he recently told the weekly Woodstock Times. "We will party all summer, keep the drums going. The brothers and sisters are coming home. We're going to welcome them."