Dan Berger was there. And there’s a well-known photo to prove it.
People often get attention for their purposeful endeavors. Their music sets them on the charts; their art finds them featured in a gallery. Once in a while, notability happens by chance. That’s how it went for Dan Berger. It all began with a burning desire to be swept away by Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” in the flesh.
Berger was 16 when he came across an ad for the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair in the Sunday Times. As a kid from Long Island, he’d gained an appreciation for music from his friend’s older brother. He grew fond of Janis Joplin’s edgy, charismatic vocals and Creedence Clearwater’s distinctive, grassy sound. But it was Jimi Hendrix that led Berger to take a Shortline bus all the way to Bethel by himself, and call in sick to work the following day so he could see him play.
When he arrived, he was expecting to buy a ticket, which was a substantial expense for someone who made $1.65 an hour doing manual labor. Much to his delight, Berger was greeted by bands of happy hippies who announced in unison,
“The concert is free!”
Berger stayed for the duration of the festival. As a Boy Scout, he was well prepared, with a canteen, tarps and a sleeping bag in tow. From the vantage point of his makeshift campsite, Berger watched the festival roll by.
“Peace signs were huge,” he remembered recently. “Lots of signs said, ‘Ban the Bomb.’”
Like so many young people who were there that weekend, the Vietnam War had hit Berger personally, as many of his close friends had been drafted. He lived in a split household. His mother was anti-war, while his father supported the efforts abroad.
“I was almost drafted into the war,” he recalled. “I remember thinking I’d move to Canada if I got sent to go.”
There were protests at Woodstock, he said, “but they were all calm. Nobody wanted to cause any harm. They just wanted to be heard.”
And they were. It wasn’t until after the festival that Berger and many others realized how groundbreaking Woodstock weekend truly was. Those who attended remember it fondly, and those who missed it regret it wholeheartedly. Years later, as we embark on the 50th anniversary of the event, photos and recordings of Woodstock are valuable—remnants of a historic moment from a bygone era.
And Berger, now 66 years old, just happens to feature in one of those recorded moments. Some months after Woodstock, Berger discovered his claim to fame. It was by chance that he and his girlfriend stumbled across a poster of the Woodstock album in a Manhattan record store.
Just to the right of the now-famous photo of the couple wrapped in a blanket, was a single knee in a dark green, khaki-colored sleeping bag. Berger recognized it immediately. “That’s my knee!”
His mind reeled back to Woodstock weekend, where he sat from his sleeping-bag vantage point. He remembered the photo being taken; he remembered the announcement over the loudspeaker, “Don’t take the brown acid,” he remembered choosing the spot to set up camp because of the butterfly propped on a stick in front of him, “So I could remember where my stuff was,” he said. And he remembered the couple themselves.
“They were nice people,” he said of Bobbi and Nick Ercoline, who are still together.
Berger’s girlfriend, friends and family had a hard time believing that the knee belonged to Berger. Out of the hundreds of thousands of people who were there, that could have been anyone’s knee, they said. Some 20 years later, an uncropped version of the photo revealed the truth.
“I went to the post office with my kids and they had the poster there for the 20th anniversary,” Berger said. “You could see my face, and I pointed it out to my kids, ‘Hey, there I am!’”
Berger’s knee landed him a news interview and even a few autograph requests from college students who recognized him. Today, he remembers the Woodstock era as a special time to be alive: Vietnam, man’s first steps on the moon and the Civil Rights movement—of which Berger was keenly aware.
He recalls sitting in the living room, listening to a Rangers game with his father when the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination came on the radio.
“My mother kept us home from school for the day of the funeral,” he said, “and I got sent to the principal’s office for it the next day because it wasn’t an excuse to miss class. It was a different time. It was right around then that things started to change.”
It was the music of the era that shaped Berger the most, however.
“It was incredible,” he said, of the Jimi Hendrix Experience at Woodstock. “I still remember it to this day. I had never seen anything like it. I still haven’t.” Hendrix’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” was monumental for Berger, making the rock star’s untimely passing the following spring that much harder to bear. “It hit me hard. It was life-changing.”
The inspiration he felt by it during his youth transcended into his adulthood. He now plays harmonica in a band named Yasgur after Max Yasgur’s farm, the place where his band played their first gig together.
“Back then it was about playing the music, it wasn’t about image,” he said. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Today, Berger lives in Liberty. Fifty years after the original Woodstock left its mark, he and many others celebrate its legacy. His only regret is leaving the khaki sleeping bag in the photograph behind, “My brother is still mad at me for not bringing it home.”