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Woodstock—A Cat Who Was There Remembers

September 3, 2009 Issue

The old joke goes something like this—anyone who remembers Woodstock probably wasn’t there (the same applies to the ‘60s in general). Pete Fortanale’s wonderful new book Back to the Garden proves otherwise, and so does local massage therapist Thomas Taylor who stood just feet away from Jimi Hendrix and other relics of the peace and love era on that historic occasion.

Right before Woodstock, Taylor’s band Graffiti recorded their first and only album—“lots of melodies and complex chord structure like Yes,” says Taylor, who still has several unopened copies at the house—engineered by the great Eddie Kramer. As a result of working with Kramer, Taylor and the band got to meet Hendrix “a lot of times. Had lunch with him, smoked dope with him—a real nice guy.” Taylor also spent a lot of time at New York’s legendary club, Steve Paul’s Scene. This is where all the rock greats went after they played their gigs, and Taylor recalls seeing Hendrix jam with Van Morrison and the Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle.

“We thought we would get to Woodstock, because they were only expecting 50,000 people or so,” Taylor says. “You know the rest—500,000 people showed up. There was a lot of anarchy, a lot of drugs, a lot of sex. We thought we could get up on stage because the album just came out, but it didn’t happen. ‘Hey, Eddie, can you get us on stage? ‘You gotta be $*#&ing kidding!’”

Undiscouraged, the drummer from Graffiti concocted fake badges, picked up some equipment and took the elevator up to the stage. “About 30 minutes later, he leans over the edge and says to me, ‘We need you up here,’” says Taylor. “So I rode up there, and we stayed on stage through (Paul) Butterfield, Sha Na Na and Hendrix. I stood right behind Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in the dark when they uttered those famous words, ‘We’re scared #&@%less’!”

Taylor was just 25 feet away from Hendrix when the latter performed his historic set. “I was to the right of the cameraman, so I didn’t end up in the movie. We were onstage for a good 24 hours. There was all this food—ham, watermelon, dark bread, white bread, your mama’s bread—and there were all these people starving down there.”

He spent the first day of the festival in the woods, where Taylor and his pals built a fire and “did a couple unmentionable things my wife would shoot me for, so don’t print that. It was pretty much like everyone has detailed it. It was a cornucopia of naked women. Naked guys, too, but I wasn’t looking at them. All dancing foolish, and I was, too.

“People were blowing marijuana smoke in the cops’ faces, and they couldn’t do anything. I don’t think about it a lot, but it was wonderful. It was kind of like being at the crucifixion. ‘Hey, I was there!’”

After Graffiti folded, Taylor hung around in little clubs and befriended songwriter Townes Van Zandt. “I had long hair and hippie beads, singing protest songs with guys who looked like Jay and the Americans.”

Prior to forming Graffiti—that group sprang from a garage band called the Hangmen—Taylor recorded a couple sides with Collection for RCA. That band did a version of “Age of Aquarius” from Hair that “inspired” the Fifth Dimension’s subsequent hit single. “We were pushing a song we’d written for the A-side, which was a stinker. They shouldn’t have listened to us!”

In the mid-‘70s, Taylor got out of the music business. He was worn out from being on the road and playing big venues with acts like the Doors (“Jim Morrison was really full of himself, but the rest of the band was fine and dandy.”) and Jefferson Airplane. He ended up singing jingles in the ‘80s. “The bass player from Graffiti said the hell with rock ‘n roll and started doing commercials. I kept doing music but got out from under the contracts with labels and management.”

Taylor also spent a stretch in Nashville as managing editor of the Music City Loafer. “I shot photos, did copy editing…you know how thankless that is,” he tells me. He was a forerunner of sorts to this publication’s Roving Rogue, covering the bar and restaurant scene as “The Night Crawler.”

The Graffiti album is hard to find, and Richie Unterberger’s All Music Guide review is maddeningly inconclusive. On the other hand, the Hangmen were recently voted one of the all-time great garage bands and live on through the magic of YouTube. “We were all in our 20s and trying to make a hit record,” says Taylor. “They really were a good band. The drummer went on to play with Nils Lofgren. I’ve played guitar now for 40 years, and I could play for another 40 and never be as good as Nils.” The Hangmen also spawned a fine jazz guitar player in George Strunz.

“We were in Georgetown in the late ‘60s and it was a really hoppin’ scene,” Taylor says of his earliest days as a would-be rock star. “The first group I remember playing with was the Coasters—they all had their hair up in pompadours and smoking reefer, and here we were looking like the Beatles. I’ll never forget those guys—they were cool. ‘You wanna smoke some of this #&@%?’ ‘No, man, I’m still in high school.’ Of course, that changed!”

Getting back to Woodstock, Taylor calls it “a once in a lifetime thing. None of the other festivals had that kind of lineup, that amazing talent. I love John Sebastian, that jug band music, and Blood Sweat and Tears when Al Kooper was with them. I love Santana, the list goes on.” And Taylor goes on, too, still finding time to pick up his guitar each day.

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