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It All Started With Three Days of Peace and Music : Rock: Although Nancy Nevins of Laguna Beach didn't find lasting fame at Woodstock, her life since has reflected a generation.

August 11, 1994|NANCY NEVINS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

That sweltering Friday afternoon, Richie Havens sang, the Swami Satchedenada chanted, and then Sweetwater dealt with the squawking, archaic sound system and cranked out a sweaty 45-minute show: We were the first rock group to play at Woodstock.

We were first to stumble innocently across the black cables scattered insanely around the makeshift stage, and first to struggle to maintain eye contact across the plywood expanse.

Then, clutching gear and instruments, we were first to struggle up and down the slippery green hill backstage, hoping to catch a helicopter. We were first to make our way back to real life after the helicopter ran out of gas and dumped us onto a tiny, deserted airport runway in the hot country blackness of Upstate New York. Whooping and partying, Woodstock revelers tramped by in the dark woods, while perplexed Sweetwater sweated it out that late Friday night, listening to the happy, anonymous voices.

Finally back at the motel, we were first to collapse from exhaustion, then first to return to L.A. to tell our friends and mothers about entertaining the great swaying pasture of glistening hippies, stunned under the sun and stars by the spontaneous, rainy apocalypse of Woodstock.

But does anybody remember us?

There were posters with our name on it. We received some press. We're even in books about Woodstock. We even created a modest scandal after our set when our flute player, Albert, battered the Holiday Inn entrance overhang by driving the U-Haul truck into it.

So does anybody remember us?

With preparations underway to celebrate Woodstock's 25th anniversary and rock acts being recruited from everywhere ('60s veterans and '90s stars alike), with tons of media coverage and the attendant philosophical debate about combining authentic Woodstock with elaborate hotel/airline packages and cellular phones on site, with all this and more, does anybody remember us?

Eyes glaze when challenged, "Sweetwater, three albums, Warner Bros. Reprise Records, remember?" Sometimes, the hippest (usually oldest) say, "Oh, you-guys-were-great. What happened?"

What happened indeed.

The answer may be that most of us left after our set, forsaking the mud and the photo ops with other performers. Or maybe it was the forgettable sound system we tested for Hendrix, the Who and Joplin's fabulous shows to come. Maybe it was our management (actually called "Shady Management"), or maybe it was the temperament of Martin Scorcese, then editor of the "Woodstock" film, who left us on the cutting room floor.

Maybe we seemed too weird with seven eclectic instruments and no regular electric guitarist. After three technologically primitive '60s albums, maybe it was the missing, magical hit that defeated us. Maybe it was our jazz-rock vision, too fragile to survive the stormy, disco'd '70s.

Or maybe it was that drizzly December evening, four months after Woodstock, when a drunk driver made an accordion out of my Buick, leaving me, the lead singer, with one working vocal cord and petit mal seizures for the next 12 years.

Be it bad luck, the gods, whatever. The point, Woodstock, is that any group can come back when they've had a lot of hits. We want to come back because we belong to you.

We are you, Woodstock.

We survived. Well, some of us survived. Sweetwater has stood over the coffins of its drummer, its cellist, its flutist. And we've lost track of our sometimes-guitarist. But the rest of us still make music.

We survived aging, job loss and parents dying. We became teachers, builders, artists. When another band came along and used our name, we survived that too. Now we pay taxes, and we realize that the immortal feelings of 20-year-olds equal the illusions of the Establishment we once attacked so religiously.

*

Sometimes we shake our heads over really new music and we don't easily understand change like we used to, but we still dream, even though our own angry children sometimes call us foolish.

From Manson to Simpson, we survived the cultural mayhem: the gurus, the discos, the demise of vinyl LPs, the greed, the me-ism, the schemes of the '80s; screaming activists and presidential tomfoolery; acquiring and losing our fortunes; designer drugs; the New Age and our past lives; the movies, the issues, the wars, the guns-riots-floods-fires-earthquakes; the programs and the addictions of 25 years.

In spite of everything, we made good on our baby boomer lives. Not always as we thought we should, but we did. We're still here believing in the universe.

We create each day, although sometimes we creak a little. We have gray hair/thinning hair/no hair, and our waistlines have expanded. But like the best of our '60s dreams, we stayed the same while we grew, and as America approaches a new century, we will be her rock 'n' roll grandparents and great-grandparents.

We are all Woodstock with our clashing lusts for parties, children, money, God, simplicity, sameness, newness, fashion and truth.

And Sweetwater, like classic hippie/boomers, would love to bring our hope, our new drummer and our new music to this August's celebration.

There's much to sing about.

We just don't want to go on first, OK?

Nancy Nevins lives in Laguna Beach.

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