As I walked to the front of the stage to perform "Teen Angel," my head was swimming. My group wasn't a bunch of battle-hardened superstars like everybody around us; we were Columbia University undergraduates playing one of our first professional gigs. Three of us were freshmen!
I faced the ocean of heads and my head spun. Not with stage fright, not with amazement at the still enormous crowd - no, my head spun as I fought off a contact high from the clouds of marijuana smoke emanating from the camera crews. (In the new 40th anniversary edition of the Woodstock documentary you can see me trying to sing without inhaling.)
Still, I thought, this is pretty cool. The biggest groups in rock and roll - and us. And - me. Singing a solo right before Jimi Hendrix. Amazing!
Not six months before, I headed a small campus group, the Columbia College Kingsmen. Your basic school singing club, doing folk-rock at women's colleges and the St. Luke's hospital psych ward. But what some of us sang, walking home from rehearsals under Broadway streetlamps, was Fifties stuff. We loved harmony, and those songs had harmonies. We wangled an audition with a record agent who said he wanted to hear us in performance. But to sing at the bar-hamburger joint on campus, we needed more songs, so we added some Fifties. The agent never showed, but our Fifties numbers struck a real chord, and my older brother George told us he had an idea, which involved costumes and choreography. "I'm going to make you all rock and roll stars," he said. Our unanimous reaction: "Yeah, sure."
Only five months later, I'm sitting in the most insider nightclub in New York City, part-owned by our new pal Andy Warhol, and Jimi Hendrix is teaching me how to drink tequila shots. Jimi told us we were "Right on!" and we figure he got us booked at Woodstock. "Holy smoke," I thought. "George was right!"
I wouldn't fly the helicopter to the Woodstock stage. The pilot's eyes looked like the little pinwheels cartoon people have when they're really whacked-out. I went in a car, which meant driving forever through all the wasteland and wreckage of the one big soggy mess that the festival area had become.
Woodstock was messy, yes, and wet, and muddy, and druggy, but it really was "three days of peace and music." People watched out for each other, fed and clothed each other (a guy I know woke up naked, and the people around him calmed him and chipped in pieces of clothing) and, without any real police or security force, the medics saw no injuries - let alone deaths - caused by violence.
Fired [up] with my generation's hopes for justice and equality worldwide, I eventually would leave Sha Na Na to finish my doctorate and teach at Columbia, travel overseas on a Fulbright fellowship to research languages and culture systems, and spend eight years in Africa and Southeast Asia. At Hofstra, I founded our one-of-a-kind Forensic Linguistics Project, which strives to establish precise and just principles of interpreting linguistic evidence - principles I have now applied in cases from civil contract disputes to espionage and murder.
It's cool - or should I say "far out!" - that on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, Hofstra is about to establish the first forensic linguistics graduate program in the U.S., fueled by steadfast student interest in internationalism and social justice.