Sunday, August 10, 2003
Bethel, N.Y. Duke Devlin was among the 400,000 people who converged on Max Yasgur's farm for three days of Woodstock in 1969. Unlike roughly 399,999 others, though, he never left.
Visitors to the now-preserved hillside stand a fair chance of meeting Devlin, who resembles Santa Claus crossed with a Harley rider. Woodstock left a deep impression on Devlin, and he's taken it upon himself to tell tourists what it was like at the legendary festival, which went down 34 years ago on Aug. 15.
"It's like hearing it from the hippie's mouth," he explains.
Devlin, who turns 61 today, figures he stops by maybe five times a week -- often on the way to and from his home six miles away.
On one recent perfect summer day, Devlin chats up a dozen visitors in about an hour. He shows an aerial picture to a trio of retirement-age visitors from Tennessee and makes small talk about Dolly Parton.
The guy looks at the photo and asks Devlin, "Where were you here?"
"I was so high," Devlin jokes, "I took the picture."
Later he gets photographed with visitors from Fort Lauderdale. Smiling at the camera, Devlin tells them, "Give the peace sign, huh?" They all do.
In August '69, Devlin was a 27-year-old hippie living on a commune in the Texas panhandle, growing soybeans and sweet potatoes. He said OK when a friend asked him to go to Pennsylvania with him to visit a girlfriend because "in those days, longhairs were like nuns. You've got to travel in pairs."
The girlfriend wasn't there. But they decided to hitchhike north to a rock festival they heard about in New York's Catskills. Devlin imagined something ordinary, like bands playing at a drive-in.
What he experienced was three days of nonstop music, fun and camaraderie. He gave out oatmeal with sugar and raisins to the masses and rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.
After it was over, Devlin hung around to help pick up the mega-mess. Then, to save up enough money to leave, he got a job down the road milking cows. Then he made new friends. He grew fond of this countrified corner of New York.
Before he knew it, snow was falling. He never left.
Devlin eventually got married and helped run a farm stand for many years with his ex-wife. He landed a maintenance job with local schools. He has been in recovery for 23 years. And he has remained, at heart, a hippie.
Devlin worked with the media for the 1994 and 1999 Woodstock anniversary concerts as what he calls a "token hippie," providing an authoritative Aquarian voice for reporters.
But his lasting contribution to the Woodstock legacy might be volunteering as an interpretive guide at the concert site, which today is owned by the nonprofit Gerry Foundation. The group plans to build a performing arts center up the hill by 2005.
Right now, a corner of the concert site is open to the public with a slab of a monument listing the original Woodstock performers. Devlin calls the monument the "tomb of the unknown hippie," and says people need more information. Devlin has hobnobbed with so many visitors, he has worn out at least seven laminated concert photographs.
Devlin says he's just doing what Yasgur did before he died in 1973. Bethel constable Ray Neuenhoff, another concert veteran who helps visitors, calls Devlin a historian performing "Woodstock duty."
Friendly with everybody, Devlin has ingratiated himself with Gerry Foundation officials and shared emcee duties for a 1999 concert at the Bethel site featuring Woodstock veterans Arlo Guthrie and Alvin Lee. He remembers seeing Lee -- whose inspired guitar performance at the '69 show stood out in Devlin's mind -- revisit the famous site.
"He looked like an old guy," Devlin says. "And he looked back at me and saw an old guy."
Yesterday's commune hopper is now a retired grandfather with a creaky back who has been to the site enough times to see countless photo snappers and guitar strummers. He has seen couples marry at the site and girls spread their fathers' ashes there.
But maybe the most meaningful visits are the ones he makes by himself, late in the day. Sometimes, just for an instant, it will all come back: the rain, the love, the sharing, the caring, the sense of community.
"You can actually smell it and feel it, maybe," he says. "I don't know what happens. It get this feeling like 'Wow!' and then once you've got it, it's gone."