Signature Sunday: My Woodstock Poster

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August 17, 2014 by billysparrow

DSCN1138I think my sister had the poster first. And because a lot of little brothers want to be as cool as their older siblings (this is the only explanation I can offer for why there’s a picture of me as a child wearing a Bon Jovi T-shirt), I wanted the poster so I could be as cool as my sister.

But I don’t think this poster is hers. I believe I bought my own (or had my parents buy me my own, because I was not a fiscally independent 17-year-old), probably in Saugerties, NY, in the summer of 1994, as that town prepared for the Woodstock 25th anniversary concert. My sister went to that. I watched it on pay-per-view.

In the 20 years since I bought the poster, I’ve lugged it all around the New York City area (and briefly into New Jersey). Because it is a cardboard poster, this has occasionally been a challenge, as it’s not the easiest piece to carry around on public transportation. For a while, I lugged it around in a giant portfolio case, which, of course, I stole from my sister.

It is a little bent at the corners now. Some signatures have been written over because¬† it got hard to avoid doing that after a bit. And there is one signature that is from a musician who wasn’t even at Woodstock (and I think he was the third person to sign it). Plus, the first musician personalized it. And the poster itself is a fake, designed to look like it came from 1969 but really just mass-produced to appear on dorm walls and in man caves across America.

So what I’m saying is it’s an item of questionable value.

Not that I’m looking to sell it. After 20 years and 26 signatures, occasionally getting turned down and kind of threatened along the way, the poster has more value to me than anyone else. Selling it to someone who didn’t put all the effort into it doesn’t seem worth the money. I’ve pondered “retiring” the poster and finally getting it professionally framed a lot, but I think I’m closer than ever now, as I have at least one member of each important band (and some of the not important) on it, save for the Grateful Dead, the members of which I’m fine with not meeting, and the actual dead, whom I’m not in any rush to see either.

So I’m pretty sure I’m done. Maybe.

In any case, here’s a rundown of who’s on the poster, with some stories along the way.

Richie Havens: The first to sign the poster, at a CD/cassette signing at HMV Records on the Upper West Side (72nd St.? It makes me a little sad that I can’t remember). I wish I could say it was intentional that the guy who opened Woodstock was the first to sign the poster, but that is not the case (I may even be making up that he was the first; his and the next five were around the same time). He signed it “To James, A Friend Forever, Richie Havens.” I was too new to autograph collecting to think that the personalization would detract from the poster’s value. I just thought it was cool that the guy who sang “Freedom” was my friend forever. He was always a pleasant guy when I saw him.

Fito de La Parra and Henry Vestine (Canned Heat), Arlo Guthrie, Country Joe McDonald, and Melanie: These five were at one of the Seaside Summer Concerts at Asser Levy Park in Brooklyn. It was probably the first time I went to a concert in Brooklyn and definitely my first real visit to Coney Island (we went on a class trip to the New York Aquarium, but we didn’t see anything but the Aquarium). The concert, as you likely surmised, was a 25th anniversary celebration of Woodstock, and I was pumped to get a bunch of signatures on the poster at one time. Of the five, I had really only heard of Arlo and Country Joe. I knew very little about Canned Heat at the time, but I had read in an article previewing the show that their drummer, Fito de la Parra, was the only member still in the band who had been at Woodstock, so I knew I just had to target the one guy from Canned Heat. But one other guy who was waiting by the rail for signatures assured me that the guitar player, Henry Vestine, was also in the band at Woodstock. I was pretty confident he wasn’t, because I had read that article, but this guy was insistent. And he kept telling me about how he’d always liked Canned Heat and all the shows he’d seen, so I started to question myself. But I still thought I shouldn’t get him on the poster. So Henry came over and the guy told me to get him to sign the poster. In my recollection, Henry was reluctant and asked me if I was sure I wanted him to, so I’m going to absolve him of any guilt. But he did sign it. And I did confirm later (via one of my sister’s books) that not only was Henry Vestine not at Woodstock, but he quit the band right before. Great.

I tried to rub the signature off, but that only really works on glossy surfaces. I even covered it up with a Woodstock postcard for awhile, after briefly considering buying another poster and just cutting out the piece of the new poster where Henry signed and taping it over his signature. Eventually, after many years, I removed the postcard and just accepted it. Still bugs me a little, though.

I don’t recall much of my interaction with Arlo, Country Joe, or Melanie, though Melanie drew a swell candle under her name.

Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson (The Band, duh): Got them to sign before a taping of “Late Show with David Letterman.” I’m guessing it was before this one on January 3, 1995, since I would’ve been home from college at that time. That would’ve been the first time I ever saw any of them in person. I wish I remembered more about it. I know they had a tour bus, and I remember their manager, Butch Dener, was real nice about helping me get their signatures.

Joan Baez and Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane): Both obtained, on separate occasions, prior to shows they did at The Bottom Line. I remember nothing about the Kantner autograph, but I remember thinking that getting Joan Baez was a long shot, because other autograph collectors had told me she was difficult. So as she got out of her car on Mercer St., I approached timidly, along with a few other collectors. And she couldn’t have been kinder or more accommodating. It may have helped that her mother was with her. Or the autograph collectors could’ve been full of crap. Maybe both.

John Entwistle (The Who), John Sebastian, and Leslie West (Mountain): I got all of them, again, on separate occasions, at CD signings at the late, great J&R Music World. It occurs to me that I didn’t buy any of their CDs at these signings. So they just signed out of kindness rather than commerce. Entwistle even signed one other thing for me, plus my sister’s LP of The Who’s Greatest Hits, which I’d already gotten Pete Townshend to sign for her. See what a good little brother I am?

David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Carlos Santana: I got Santana at the Beacon Theater stage door as he was rushing in for a show. That was another one I wasn’t expecting to get. I’ve heard he’s become more difficult as time has passed, too. So, good for me.

As for Crosby and Stills (neither of whom, by the way, I like all that much; at some point, getting more signatures became the end goal and whether I liked the people or not was secondary), I have told that story before. I provide that link not because I don’t think you have everything I’ve ever written committed to memory, but because I like to give my old blog some traffic. If you prefer not to go to that link, here’s the gist: David Crosby said the following to me: “If I ever find out that any of you guys are selling these, I hope your dicks fall off.” Nice guy. And there’s another reason not to sell the poster.

Here’s something I didn’t mention in the initial telling of that story: On that day, I was carrying the poster in the aforementioned portfolio case when I stopped into the McDonald’s near the Staten Island Ferry Terminal before I returned home. I got whatever I got at McDonald’s, walked over to the ferry terminal, and boarded the ferry home. When we got about five minutes into the trip, I decided to take a quick peek at the new signatures on the poster. This became a bit of a challenge when I went for the portfolio case.

Because it wasn’t there.

Because it was sitting on a ledge at McDonald’s.

It was at this point that my insides started churning.

Because I could not ask the captain to stop the boat, I suppressed my terror at having lost this thing I’d put so much work into and tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad that it was gone forever. That convincing session did not go well. So I tried to figure out what to do. In those pre-cell phone days, the only thing I really could do was call Information from a pay phone as soon as I got off the ferry, get the number for that McDonald’s, and call in the hopes that someone had not unzipped the case, discovered the poster with a dozen or so signatures on it, and headed out into the night with it. I honestly cannot recall if I had the wherewithal to do that, or if I just got right back on the ferry to Manhattan and went back in the hopes that the case would still be there, or that someone turned it in. I’m pretty sure I did call, though, because I can’t imagine another 30 minutes of not knowing if the poster was gone forever. The initial 30 was bad enough.

In any case, as the previous words here may have indicated, the case and the poster were indeed still at the McDonald’s and tragedy was averted. But it was an incredibly uneasy ferry ride. Not the only one, for sure, but certainly near the top of the uneasiness list.

Graham Nash: Because he was, we were told, napping upstairs at the Beacon on the day Crosby and Stills signed, I had to wait a few years to get Nash to sign the poster. I finally got him after a concert he did at Town Hall, but not before Art Garfunkel stared me down because he thought I was going to approach him to sign something as he left the theater. I had no intention of doing so. I’ve heard enough bad things about both him and Paul Simon (and one bad experience with Mr. Simon) to know to steer clear.

Joe Cocker: I honestly don’t recall where I finally wound up getting Joe Cocker to sign the poster. I know he turned me down three times outside the Beacon and the Ed Sullivan Theater. One time it was just me and him outside the Beacon and he still refused, because he was “in a rush.” I held so much resentment toward him that I guess I’ve blocked out when he finally did sign. I’m sure I was just glad to not have to see him anymore. And I haven’t.

David Clayton-Thomas (Blood, Sweat & Tears): Like all teenage boys in the mid-1990s, I was really into Blood, Sweat, & Tears for about a year. And that would be the year I got lead singer David Clayton-Thomas to sign the poster. I know I saw him twice, once at Hunter Mountain and once at one of the free outdoor lunchtime shows at the World Trade Center. I’m going with I got him at the latter.

John Fogerty: I was running late and I wound up missing Fogerty’s arrival for a taping of “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” By the time, I got there, his bus was outside on W. 49th St. and he was inside NBC Studios. It was probably going to be another five hours before the taping ended. Super. For some reason, I decided to linger for a bit, on the teeny tiny chance that he would come back out, maybe to get something on the bus. And then, roughly five minutes later, he did. I think he was bringing his wife down to the bus, but I remember carefully approaching him and him saying, “I’ll only sign one thing.” Which worked out well, because I only wanted him to sign one thing (I did get him to sign his new CD on the way out, though…I walked around the city on a high and came back five hours later to get the CD signed).

Larry Taylor (Canned Heat): I got him to sign the poster outside NBC Studios as well, but after Taylor made an appearance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” backing Tom Waits. While collectors were focused on getting Waits, I was more interested in Taylor and Augie Meyers from his backing band (and I think Meyers was almost as happy that I had an album for him to sign as I was to have him sign it). Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo (who was also playing with Waits) took a peek at the poster as Taylor signed it. Neither had much to say, but it was a pleasant, painless experience.

Harvey Mandel (Canned Heat): Harvey Mandel is the guitarist who replaced Henry Vestine in Canned Heat right before Woodstock, so I gave serious thought to asking him to sign over Vestine’s name to right that wrong on my poster. But I chickened out after his show at Lucille’s Grill at BB King’s Blues Club in Times Square and just asked him to sign anywhere.

Greg Errico and Jerry Martini (Sly and the Family Stone): I was excited to see that The Family Stone was going to play a free outdoor concert as part of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Sounds of the City series. Then the rains came, and the show was cancelled. But, my friend who worked at NJPAC told me, they were going to try to do something since they were there and wanted to play. So he promised to tell me if he heard anything. And soon came word that they were going to do a show at the local radio station, WBGO. The rain had largely tapered off by then, but it was still unsettled enough that I was worried about taking the poster out, lest it get drenched in the rain and ruined. But I wanted to get somebody from the band on the poster, so I took a chance. I waited outside the station, listening along on my portable radio (very hip). Finally the concert ended (the rain largely held off as I waited, save for a few drops here and there) and I was now faced with the task of trying to recognize drummer Greg Errico, saxophonist Jerry Martini, and trumpeter Cynthia Robinson. I got two out of three (I was pretty sure one woman was Ms. Robinson, but I couldn’t muster up the gumption to ask), and they both were really nice. Errico even told me to go to the nearby hotel and wait in the lobby to see if Ms. Robinson would come down, but that felt weird, so I didn’t.

There was a brief, glorious time when I thought it might be possible to get Sly Stone on the poster, but then I saw him in concert and, well, I don’t want to talk about it. Probably the saddest I’ve ever felt at a concert.

Henry Gross (Sha Na Na): The most recent addition, obtained on a whim after discovering that Gross, probably best known for “Shannon,” was not only a founding member of everyone’s favorite Woodstock band, Sha Na Na, but also the youngest performer at Woodstock. So I went to his show at Hill Country BBQ, approached him after his set, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing a Woodstock poster. He kind of halfheartedly agreed and then asked me when I was putting it on eBay. Yeah, Henry Gross, I’ve been waiting to get someone from Sha Na Na on it so I can put it on eBay, Now I can sit back and watch the bids climb.

Anyway, I assured him it wasn’t going on eBay as he was signing and then I feel like I got the old vaguely passive-aggressive “God bless” as he put the pen down and walked away. Then again, maybe I was just peeved after the eBay comment. Whatever. God bless you, too, Henry Gross.

So there you go: a walk through the last 20 years of getting a poster signed. Exciting, no? Well, it was for me. Maybe you had to be there.

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