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Woodstock was a myth. Sha Na Na's Henry Gross, who played before Hendrix, wants to bust it.

Henry Gross, who played with Sha Na Na at Woodstock, will perform at Hippiefest at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Aug. 16. [Courtesy of Henry Gross]
Henry Gross, who played with Sha Na Na at Woodstock, will perform at Hippiefest at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Aug. 16. [Courtesy of Henry Gross]
Published Aug. 7, 2019

Henry Gross could tell you all the Woodstock stories you want to hear.

He could tell you about splitting a bottle of Jack Daniel's with Jimi Hendrix. He could tell you about smoking up and holding court backstage with Jerry Garcia. He could tell you about the joy of watching Carlos Santana and Alvin Lee play guitar, or the religious experience of watching Joe Cocker sing.

"I was 20 feet away," he said, "and if that didn't lift you off the f---ing planet earth, you're not human."

He could tell you all this stuff. He could.

Or he could tell you the truth. Which is that Woodstock, the iconic festival that took place 50 years ago next week, isn't everything the world thinks it was. It wasn't then, and it isn't now. Not the way he sees it.

"When I see the promotion of all this stuff with Woodstock, I think, you know, is it great to promote to this generation that we had something better that was magical that you don't have?" he said. "I don't know. I think they have magic that we didn't have. There's magic in everyone's lives if you want it, and there's also a sea of s--t. Am I wrong?"

Maybe not.

Gross was 18, the youngest performer at Woodstock, when he took the stage with Sha Na Na just after sunup on Aug. 18, 1969 — right before Hendrix and his Star-Spangled Banner. Almost exactly 50 years later, he'll perform at the Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre's Hippiefest on Aug. 16, alongside fellow Woodstock veterans Ten Years After, plus Vanilla Fudge and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

For a lot of those 50 years, Gross has had a chip on his shoulder about Woodstock. The festival's golden anniversary seemed like a good time to let it fly.

"When people talk about the 'Woodstock spirit' — what 'Woodstock spirit'? It was a gig. It was entertainment," said Gross, now 68. "The musicians were playing very expensive guitars and wearing very expensive clothes in a roped-off backstage area. How is that different from today's political debates, or whatever you want to compare it to? There were people standing there: 'My group is not going on until we have cash.'

"The 'Woodstock spirit,' " he scoffed.

Woodstock is a brand, he said — has been ever since the documentary and soundtrack were released in 1970. The experience has been repackaged and resold time and again, through books and merchandise and revivals in 1994 and 1999. A planned 50th anniversary mega-festival was set for next week, featuring Woodstock veterans like Santana and Dead and Company alongside Miley Cyrus and Chance the Rapper, before it was canceled amid financial and organizational chaos. Didn't matter to Gross, though. He said he never got a call in the first place.

"There have been a million horses--t discussions about Woodstock, and how frivolous and stupid Sha Na Na was," he said. "Twelve guys did a great show, an earth-shattering show, at 7 in the morning, not even slept for a day and a half, and got a check for $300 that bounced. Billions of dollars were made; I never got my $20. Doesn't that tell you something about the myth?"

If Gross sounds like a "miserable cynic" — his words — it's not without reason. Sha Na Na might well be the most historically maligned artist at Woodstock. They were college kids, Ivy Leaguers mostly, who dressed like greasers and sang peppy, half-joking covers of nostalgic pop ditties like At the Hop, Get a Job and Teen Angel. They were at the forefront of a '50s revival that spawned Grease, Happy Days and their own variety show. They did not, in other words, fit the typical Woodstock mold.

"In the face of everything that was the same — hippiedom, long hair, this and that — we used to joke that Sha Na Na could make a group after this called the Tomato Spaceship, and we'd be the biggest thing in the world," he said. "And the fact is, the Tomato Spaceship was on every base, in every position in the outfield and the infield. The entire show was the Tomato Spaceship."

Ironically, if you go back and watch old clips of Sha Na Na at Woodstock — clips where you see a bemused Hendrix watching sidestage — their over-the-top campiness stands out. It wouldn't be inconceivable to pluck that band off Max Yasgur's farm in 1969 and plop them on stage at Coachella in 2019. In a modern festival landscape dominated by pop and hip-hop acts, they might fit right in.

"We were a glitter rock band," he said. "We were theatrical. No one had ever seen that. There were 12 guys up there. All right, most of them weren't great singers, most of them weren't terrific musicians. But that wasn't what we were selling. We were selling this experience of being somewhere that you maybe wished you had been, and now you could be there. It opened the door for all kinds of things in rock and roll that became possible. You could argue that Sha Na Na predated Beyoncé's show."

He doesn't stop there.

"I submit to you that Sha Na Na should have been one of the first people, if there were a legitimate Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to go into it," he said. "If you want entertainment, the original Sha Na Na cannot be beat."

Gross has had a lot of time to think about this. He left Sha Na Na in 1970 to embark on a solo career, highlighted by the 1976 hit Shannon. Watching Hendrix follow Sha Na Na at Woodstock had a lot to do with that.

He's making music only he can make, Gross remembered thinking. Life's short. I need to do that.

Rock's arbiters of cool will never embrace Sha Na Na for much more than a novelty act; Gross knows this, even if he doesn't understand it. Yet Woodstock only seems to get more mythical with age. It's an "absurd and sad puppet show," he said, kept alive by gatekeepers with something, always to gain. No one remembers it his way.

"There was a lot of great things that happened," he said. "But that's not what I object to deifying. It's the mythmaking and the branding of everything. ... There was a joy to it. I'm just wondering if musically, it was a joy, or it was a business?"

Woodstock at 50. After all these years, it's still muddy.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Hippiefest

With Henry Gross, Ten Years After, Vanilla Fudge, Big Brother and the Holding Company. $45 and up. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16. Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater. (727) 791-7400. rutheckerdhall.com.