BETHEL, Aug 16 — Fifty years ago yesterday Les Poinelli was hitch-hiking to the now storied Woodstock music festival he'd heard about on the radio — and hopped in the car where he would meet his wife.
Today he's returned to the bucolic town of Bethel in New York's Catskill Mountains where his life changed forever, joining droves of ageing hippies donning tie-dye, flower crowns and fringed suede vests hearkening back to the golden age of peace, love and music.
“You couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the crowd and overwhelmed by the generosity of the people,” Poinelli, then 19, told AFP, standing near the site of the stage where rock legends including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Santana jammed before nearly half a million youth under a tremendous downpour.
After spending the weekend with his new sweetheart Gail, the teenagers walked around the back of the stage, as Joe Cocker began to play, to say goodbye before she headed back to Long Island, New York and he returned to Connecticut.
“I gave her a peck on the cheek, and that was our sex for the weekend,” the softspoken 69-year-old said with a wide smile, his framed original tickets in hand.
Two years after falling for each other as they swayed to classic acts including Creedence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat, the pair married and had five kids and 12 grandchildren.
“I remember every moment, it was special,” he said.
Kissing Janis Joplin
Revered by many as the cultural touchstone of a generation, the 1969 Woodstock festival saw hundreds of thousands of people descend on Max Yasgur's alfalfa fields in upstate New York that August 15-18, partying to rock's greats and imbibing in psychedelics as torrential rains swept in.
Despite the mud and warnings of bad acid, the symbol of Woodstock lives -- the festival is venerated as a beacon of hope that emerged out of the tumultuous 1960s, rife with assassinations and riots as the Vietnam War raged.
The historic site is now operated by the nonprofit Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which holds regular concerts and runs a museum to memorialise the Woodstock legend.
Its 50th anniversary commemoration kicks off Thursday with a peace-symbol lighting, after which folk mainstay Arlo Guthrie, who played in 1969 as a baby-faced 22-year-old, will perform for the masses flashing back to their youth.
The concert series will continue throughout the weekend with performances from Ringo Starr, Santana and John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
RJ Pinto makes pilgrimages to Bethel most years, where he says he can feel the aura of camaraderie he felt half-a-century ago.
“Peace, music and love; it's really here,” the biker said emphatically. “It was a world phenomenon.”
Pinto says he saw it all amid the chaos — but stealing a kiss from Joplin stands out.
“She could grab your heart,” he said from his motorcycle. “Janis was the most incredible gal... we surrounded her until I had a chance to hold her hand and give a kiss on the cheek.”
'Where life started'
Baby boomers are travelling from near and far in search of the proverbial Woodstock Kool-Aid: Patrick Depauw made a special trip from Belgium, despite being just 10 years old in 1969.
He saw the 1970 Oscar-winning film that cemented the festival's place as a pop culture phenomenon, which he said was a pivotal moment.
“My entire life was permeated by this event, and I could only think of realising my dream and coming for the 50th anniversary of Woodstock at the original site,” the tie-dye clad 60-year-old told AFP in his native French.
The spirit of Woodstock, he says, is returning “because events on the American continent or in Europe are concerning,” he said. “More and more the world lacks solidarity, and this type of movement promotes, I would say, solidarity.”
As Poinelli does most days, the morning before arriving in Bethel to partake in the festivities the retiree visited the grave of his wife, who died in 2016.
“From Woodstock to forever,” the headstone reads.
Looking around the rolling hills of the former Yasgur farm, where a giant peace sign is mowed into the grassy main lawn, Poinelli smiled: “That's where life started.” — AFP