A couple weeks ago as Woodstock 40th anniversary-inspired nostalgia kicked into high gear, we asked local musician Muruga Booker to share some of his memories of playing there with singer Tim Hardin. Booker gave us a more elaborate slice ’o memoir than we expected, and it took a little longer than we expected too. But we think it’s too good not to share even now.
I’d have to say thanks to the Chessmate coffee house located on Six Mile and Livernois in Detroit. It all began in 1965-1967. I was in the house band, drumming, backing up acts such as John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Sam Lay, the Spike Drivers, Phil Ochs and Jim and Jean with Harvey Brooks. It was Jim and Jean who first brought me to New York to record on albums for Verve Forecast, the first being Changes in 1965 and then People World in 1966. Then in 1967 and ’68 I was playing with the Paul Winter Consort and living in New York. The group was on A&M Records, and we recorded Something in the Wind, which came out in 1969. One day while in New York City, I went to see Jim and Jean. They were going to a jam at the Café au Go Go on Bleecker Street in the Village, which was the happening hippie place at that time. Buddy Miles, Hendrix, Blood Sweat & Tears all practiced there and performed concerts. The jam they took me to had Harvey Brooks, who was also Dylan’s bass player and who’d recorded with Jim & Jean as well. Jeremy Steig was playing flute, and Tim Hardin was also in the jam, singing and playing guitar. He sounded like a folk-blues version of Billie Holiday.
When the jam was over and Tim was packing and ready to go out the door, I approached him and began talking with him while walking down Bleecker Street. He said if I’m ever in need of a gig to call him, and he gave me his Woodstock home phone number. The very next week, Richard Bock, Paul Winter’s cello player, and I quit Paul Winter to explore more adventurous music, which artists like Hendrix (who even Miles loved) were making at the time. So I took a trip to Woodstock and called Tim, who told me to come by, as he was booked for a small concert at nearby Max Yasgur’s farm, and that other bigger gigs would follow. He hired me to play with his new band that he was just putting together. I also suggested he use Richard Bock, the cellist. We stayed at Tim’s cabin in Woodstock for about four days, two of which he wasn’t there. He left for a few hours and came back two days later! We just kept practicing his songs any way we could under the direction of guitarist Ralph Towner, with Glen Moore on string bass and Gilles on rhythm guitar, Richard Bock on cello and me on trap drums. It was just when the band was getting angry at Tim’s tardiness that he returned home with a big bag of hippie threads, throwing them at us saying, "There will be a bunch of hippie bands playing there." Then we all piled into our cars and drove to the farm in Woodstock.
All of a sudden, we were stuck in a 10-mile-long traffic jam. Thank God we were able to get cars to move over and we snuck through to the motel. I saw Janis Joplin shouting to a band that was on their way to the stage: "If you see a cool guy, bring him back for me!" She was swinging her fifth of Southern Comfort whiskey around, as wild as can be.
As we were waiting for the helicopter to pick us up and take us to the backstage area, I found myself sitting across from Swami Satchidananda, who had about a 15-foot golden aura around him. He was like a Christ-type figure to me. I wanted to ask him so many questions about life and my meditation experiences leaving my body. But then the copter came and took him away. The helicopter then came back to get us and dropped me right by the swami again. He was telling his disciples how he saw me playing the hand drums on the grass like an Indian drummer. So I played for them while sitting on the grass backstage. After I stopped, I asked him, "Swami what is the meaning of life?" He pointed to the crowd of 1 million people and said, "See them, they are energy" — and boy, could you see it was energy — and he said, "We are energy and your energy can make their energy go positive or negative through playing music and the choice is yours."
After Woodstock, I studied with him for many years, and he gave me the name Muruga. At Woodstock, my name was Steve Booker. Meeting Swamiji changed my life, leading to a more spiritual and inventive philosophy. He helped me to see the light of my Christian orthodox faith even deeper and saved my life from the drugs of the ’60s, which we took for mind expansion while seeking truth and god. Today, however, drugs are taken to escape and not taken in search of a greater good. Going through life straight is the best, though. Woodstock led me to seek the spirit and now I am an orthodox priest, who still plays music, teaches drums and still records in my studio. Anyway, Tim Hardin’s set could have been better that day. It wasn’t his best because he was so out of it at the time. The new Woodstock box set album reflects that; he was just too stoned that day — as we all were. But I must say: Get that box set. It’s more of a real picture than words can convey of what really happened, thanks to Rhino Records. It shows what it was about via Tim’s songs of freedom, protesting the war which we all were doing at that time. After playing a fair set, Ravi Shankar played … and it rained. I went to join in on a bonfire to dry out my pants and they caught on fire! I slept in a big tent next to my new Gretsch drums and woke only to hear nearby Arlo Guthrie coughing on some hashish. He shared some with me and then drove me out back to the motel where my car was parked. We then took a limo to the World Pavilion in New York and played a great set. Odetta and the Incredible String Band both opened for us. I gave Paul Winter’s phone number to Ralph Towner and he said he would call him. He eventually did and then, along with Glen, they formed the band Oregon. So as my song says: I was jamming at Woodstock. Tim Hardin, friends and me, a million people in my eye as far as the eye can see. There I met a swami man, who talked to them and me. He said good or bad, you can do, the choice is up to you.It was while I was studying with Swamiji, by the way, that I first had the vision for my Nada drum invention. Also, I wanted to mention that Jerry Garcia and Sly Stone, of course, played Woodstock. Little did I know at the time that 20 years later, I would make a Grammy-nominated album with Garcia and Merl Saunders, Blues from the Rain Forest. Then during in the ’80s, I was fortunate to meet up with Sly Stone while he was collaborating with George Clinton at the Disk LTD studio. Wow, what a journey! We all made music at Woodstock and still made great music years later. I am so thankful to the Great Spirit of light in us all. I now own my own studio and run my own production company, Musart; I have a new album coming out soon with my band, Free Funk (featuring tabla player Badal Roy from the Miles Davis group). I recently performed at the Detroit International Jazz Festival with the Global Jazz Project. You could say that the spirit of Woodstock continues for many of us through the spirit and heart that’s still in the music we love to play.
Muruga Booker and the Global Village Band perform Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Phoenix Café, 24918 John R, Hazel Park; political discussion from 7 to 9 p.m., followed by music; $10 donation; also see murugabooker.com