Wearing Woodstock

A Columbia man got a piece of the musical festival after good deed, now it's a piece of history

  • Bob Somers shows off the Woodstock security team T-shirt he got at the festival in 1969.
Bob Somers shows off the Woodstock security team T-shirt he… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
May 16, 2010|By Jill Rosen, The Baltimore Sun

Like the hundreds of thousands of people who were at Woodstock, Bob Somers has stories. But he's one of the few who also left with a T-shirt, a red one he lucked into and held onto even as he changed from a 19-year-old who skinny-dipped with strangers in the rain into a guy with a government job, a wife he met through golfing, two docile dogs and a tract house in a Columbia subdivision.

Over the past 40 years, that red shirt became a a link to a mystical weekend and a reminder that no matter how respectable, conservative — or, heck, ordinary — he comes to look on the outside, inside there's a shaggy-haired kid who just wants to make the world a better place.

What Somers didn't realize until recently is that as much as the red T-shirt means to him, it's also quite valuable, a social artifact, and this weekend he's donating to the New York museum that's dedicated to archiving the experience that was Woodstock.

In 1969, Somers, his twin brother and a bunch of their buddies in Boston bought tickets to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. A slight, wiry kid, Somers was driving a milk truck that summer. He'd taken a break from the University of Massachusetts: "finding his way," in his words. His boss didn't want to give him time off for the concert, so he quit.

With no idea what he was about to behold, Somers and his friends stuffed knapsacks with trail mix, cooking gear and changes of clothes, then set out for New York. As they got closer to farm country, they noticed more and more folks on the highway who seemed to be heading in the same direction — literally and metaphysically.

"To be surrounded by people like you, who thought like you and looked like you, that was very empowering," Somers remembers. "Kindred spirits."

After first settling in on the grass about 50 feet from the stage, the friends realized they needed to move to higher ground — so they could see and save themselves from being trampled. They found a vending area that had been abandoned when the seller's food quickly ran out and repurposed its wooden table into a sort of lean-to where they stayed for the rest of the weekend.

It was Saturday afternoon when Somers realized that a kid in front of him didn't look right — shaking and twitching, he seemed to be going into convulsions, probably a reaction to drugs, which were everywhere. He grabbed his friend, Kevin, and ran all the way down the hill, fighting through the throngs to get to the medical tent on the far side of the stage. When they got there and told a medic the situation, he replied, "What are you, out of your mind? We can't leave here. Take this stretcher and bring him down to us."

So they did, trudging with the heavy stretcher all the way across the crowd and up the hill and then back again with the stranger. Back at the medics, the doctor asked what the kid took. Somers explained that they didn't know the guy, they were just helping him. "The doctor seemed impressed with that," Somers says. "He said, 'How would you like to help us?' "

And just like that, Somers and his buddy found themselves being tossed the keys to the doctor's pickup and charged with driving about five miles into town to fetch medical supplies.

It took hours, but they did it, and when they got back to the concert, the doctor asked them, "Is there anything I could do for you?" Somers thought about it and said, "I'd really like to have one of those shirts."

Security team members for the festival were all wearing the red cotton T-shirts. On the front was the word "peace." On the back, a dove resting on the neck of a guitar on the back. The doctor tossed them two and went back to work.

"We put the shirts on and walked toward the stage," Somers recalls. "It was like Moses parting the Red Sea."

They not only got near the stage, where the likes of the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who were performing — at one point they got on the stage. They sat quietly in back, counting their lucky stars, thinking, "God, what are we doing here? This is like way cool," as Joe Cocker played his set. They slipped off-stage when Cocker finished — it didn't occur to them that they could have gotten away with more.

Richard Somers, Bob's twin, had been back at the lean-to, waiting and wondering where his brother had gotten to. He can still feel the surge of envy he felt when he saw Bob walk up wearing the shirt. "I'm still envious," Richard Somers says, laughing. "And I still remember how excited they were when they came back."

The fraternal rivalry heightened even more when the Woodstock II album came out, and there on the back cover was a stark photo of the Woodstock grounds after the show, the focus on the lean-to — and a bare-chested Bob Somers standing in a corner of the image.

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