50 Years Ago

Posted on in On Our Radar by Elliot Cahn

My Woodstock Performance

On August 18,1969, I was a 21-year-old student at Columbia University who on a lark, along with 12 college buddies, had formed Sha Na Na just four months prior. We thought it would be fun to wear gold lamé suits and black leather jackets and bang out loving a capella renditions of 1950s hit records. Sha Na Na was intended to be a one-run campus-only musical review. But it turns out we were pretty good—good enough to extend that into a two-week summer engagement at Steve Paul’s Scene in Times Square, where we rubbed elbows with rock royalty such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Eric Clapton.

One evening at the Scene, a scruffy Michael Lang (the then 25-year-old Woodstock founder) approached our equally inexperienced manager with an invitation to play Woodstock. “What’s a Woodstock?” our manager supposedly responded. Fortunately we ran back to find Lang as he was leaving and became the last act to be signed. We’d get only $300 for all 12 of us but we were delighted.

We were scheduled to play on Sunday afternoon after Joe Cocker. Our idea was to drive up early and catch some acts beforehand. However, by Friday morning the news was full-on about chaotic traffic jams and thousands having abandoned their cars on the New York Thruway, opting to walk to the festival.

Cahn Wedding
Cahn Wedding
Elliot Cahn then
Elliot Cahn then

It took awhile but when we finally arrived at the performers’ hotel on Saturday it was overrun with musicians—and Hell’s Angels. The only way to get from the hotel to the festival was via helicopter, but those rides were reserved for the scheduled acts. Also, our promised hotel rooms had been given away. But because the Jefferson Airplane were stranded at the site, my girlfriend Suzanne and I were provisionally given Grace Slick’s room. Little does Grace know that Suzanne tried on many of her outfits, pretending to be a rock star!

The hotel also happened to be hosting a straight-laced wedding that must have been booked long before Woodstock. I’ll never forget the sight of those horrified wedding guests, especially as the Hell’s Angels (and I mean all of them) decided they should be allowed to kiss the bride! And who was going to stop them?

On Sunday at noon we were finally flown to the festival. I remember catching my first sight of the humungous crowd from the helicopter. It was a living, breathing organic mass. Four hundred thousand hippies on the hillside—breathtaking. Joe Cocker played a brilliant set, and just as we were preparing to go on it started to rain—hard—to the point that the concert shut down for many hours. The backstage was uncovered so we found shelter in an equipment van under some amps. The rain delay irreparably altered the schedule. When performances resumed we were immediately bumped, and then bumped, and then bumped again in favor of bigger acts.

We were told “Sha Na Na, you’re next.” Then, “Sorry, the Band is going on. You’re after them.” Then, “Sorry, Crosby Stills Nash and Young are next.” “Sorry, Blood Sweat and Tears say they’ll go home unless they go now, but you’re next.” “Oops, Paul Butterfield just showed up.” Finally at around 6:30 on Monday morning they told us, “NOW!” My guess is that the only reason we got on at all is that Jimi Hendrix’s contract guaranteed him the closing slot.

We’d been up all night. We were cold, wet, exhausted. Our voices were shot. At sunrise we strode onto the stage. To our dismay we saw that the crowd of 400,000 had dwindled to only a few thousand, most of whom were scattered and covered in mud. We were out of tune but did our best. Upon exiting the stage I remember feeling crushed not to have played for the full crowd.

Though we didn’t play for 400,000, Sha Na Na was fortunately included in the Woodstock triple album and movie, which delivered unimaginably large audiences so that our careers received a major boost. We were told that the film was too long for every act to appear and the producers wanted to cut our segment, except that it consistently received a great audience response at preview screenings. When you watch Woodstock know that our set (and Jimi Hendrix’s set, including the fabled “Star Spangled Banner”) was actually witnessed by only a few thousand mud-encrusted hippies.

Upon looking back, it’s mind-blowing to have participated in something so iconic. Who knew? What I also didn’t know was that Woodstock would mark a distinct turning point—the last hurrah of the ‘60s era peace and love ethos. The Altamount disaster occurred later in 1969—a contrasting symbol, the end of innocence.

As to our $300 performance fee, we got $150 in advance; the second installment check arrived six months later and bounced! I stuck with Sha Na Na for another four years before moving to California to get a law degree at Cal. I later became Green Day’s manager and was onstage with them at Woodstock 25, where ironically Green Day started a gigantic mud fight with the audience.

My daughters both saw the Woodstock film in 7th grade American History class, but had difficulty convincing their friends that Dad actually played there. With great love in my heart, I believe nothing I have done since August 18, 1969, has been as memorable or as impactful—except having those daughters, of course.

Elliot Cahn is a lawyer and music lover. On June 1 he married his sweetie, Lynne Michelson. The couple can be found dancing together in Marin County, where they live.

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