Cement Their Place
in Rock History
It was three thirty in the morning and the Who were about to go on, so I said, "Look, Abbie, whoever you saw is gone, so let's just go watch some music and chill out for a few minutes."
He agreed and we headed back up to the stage to sit with musicians from various groups who'd gathered to watch. Abbie kept fidgeting next to me. He couldn't stop talking. "I've really gotta say something about John Sinclair! He's rotting in prison for smoking a joint!" Sinclair, the manager of the radical Detroit rock band the MC5 and the founder of the White Panther Party, was set up by the cops and sentenced to ten years in prison for the possession of two joints.
"Okay, Abbie," I tried to reason with him, "there will be a chance later on, between sets or something."
But he persisted. "No, I really gotta say something! Now!"
"Abbie, the Who is on," I reminded him — they were about halfway through performing Tommy in its entirety, so I don't know how he failed to notice. "You can't make a speech in the middle of their set — let them finish! Chill out!"
Just after "Pinball Wizard," Abbie leaped up before I could grab him and rushed to Townshend's mic, while Pete had his back turned and was adjusting his amp. Abbie started earnestly beseeching the audience to think about John Sinclair, who needed our help. He was in his element, berating everyone for having a good time. "Hey, all you people out there having fun while John Sinclair is being held a political prisoner . . ." WHAM! Townshend, turning back to the audience and seeing Abbie at his mic, whacked him in the head with his guitar.
Abbie stumbled, then jumped to the photographer's pit, dashed over the fence, and vanished into the crowd below. A pretty dramatic exit. That was the last I saw of him that weekend.
Early in the set, Townshend had already kicked Michael Wadleigh in the chest while the director crouched in front of him with his camera. Now Townshend was over the top with fury. "The next fucking person who walks across this stage is going to get fucking killed!" he yelled as he retuned his Gibson SG. The audience at first thought he was joking and started laughing and clapping. "You can laugh," he said coldly, "but I mean it!"
The Who continued with their exhilarating performance of Tommy, and just as the sun rose, they played raucous rock and roll classics from their days as mods: "Summertime Blues," "Shakin' All Over," and "My Generation." They were astonishing. Later, I couldn't believe the band thought they were subpar and that the audience didn't get into Tommy.
BILL GRAHAM: The Who were brilliant. Townshend is like a locomotive when he gets going. He's like a naked black stallion. When he starts, look out.
ROGER DALTREY: We did a two-and-a-half-hour set . . . It made our career. We were a huge cult band, but Woodstock cemented us to the historical map of rock and roll.
From The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren, Ecco/HarperCollins, © 2009 (used with permission)