As the whims of fate would have it, this second day of Woodstock — a “day” that didn’t end until almost 10:00 the next morning, after sets by the Grateful Dead, CCR, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, the Who, and the Jefferson Airplane — was also the day of the Beckenham Free Festival. Which, if you don’t know what that is, it’s OK, really. As noted authority Chris O’Leary says,

Where Woodstock has an acre’s worth of film and audio footage to document it, the memory of the Beckenham Free Festival, held at the Croydon Road Recreation Ground on 16 August 1969, only survives because of one person who performed there.

That person would be… drum roll please… David Bowie, who was one of the organizers of the festival, played at it, and later in the year wrote a song about it. Change one word, and the lyrics could apply to Woodstock just as well:

The children of the summer’s end
Gathered in the dampened grass,
We played our songs and felt the London sky
Resting on our hands
It was God’s land
It was ragged and naive
It was heaven

Touch, we touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life
We claimed the very source of joy ran through
It didn’t, but it seemed that way
I kissed a lot of people that day

But… “in reality,” says O’Leary, “Bowie, who’d buried his father only five days before, had swung between near-catatonia and a foul temper, calling his partners ‘materialistic arseholes’ for profiting off hamburgers and concert posters, complaining about the PA system and skipping the after-party.”

And though Bowie seems to be trying his damnedest here to write a gauzy fantasia that ends with a rousing chant, the bittersweetness keeps seeping through. Which makes it the perfect soundtrack to this point in history. The last summer of the “the greatest decade in the history of mankind” (says Danny) was coming to a close, and there were gonna be a lot of refugees. Truly, it was the end of an age.

Hmm, we’re wandering pretty far afield now. What were we talking about?

Right, the Beckenham Free Festival, I remember. It seems to have been quite the happening; according to Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now,

There [were] numerous side events, including Brian Moore and Barbara Cole’s Puppet Theatre, street theatre demonstrations, an exotic tea stall, a Tibetan shop, jewellery and ceramics stalls, the Culpepper Herb & Food Stall and an “assault course” for kids.

History does not record whether Bowie was billed above or below the puppet show. The Strawbs also played, as did numerous other acts, and David’s future wife Angie Barnett cooked hamburgers in a wheelbarrow.

I’d love to think that one or more of The Beatles, who were notoriously absent from Woodstock, were there. It’s highly unlikely. But who knows, maybe George Harrison is back there somewhere in sunglasses and a trenchcoat, digging the new kid….

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