originally published August 15, 2014
“I have come to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning.”
I have been trying to reconcile my relationship with the Woodstock festival for more than 20 years. “These are your grandparents,” I told my daughter as the movie played in our living room this week. But Woodstock reached further than its generation, even beyond the magnificence of its music. It was the temporary realization of pure Utopia – or at least that’s how its legend trickled down to me, some schmuck born 2400 miles away, five years after the last gnarly raindrop had voiced its opinion that the festival ground should be mud.
Perhaps the image of a groovy, grubby, smoky paradise are merely the false concoctions of media (in this case, the documentary film Woodstock) and reputation, but this is the image that tickles my imagination and tilts my longing toward that sensation of community, of parity, and of that shared experience of being billion-year-old carbon in the same cosmic stew with a few hundred thousand friends.
2014 not only boasts the 45th anniversary of the decade-defining event, it also features an aligned calendar, allowing for the three days of the original festival (August 15, 16 and 17) to land once again on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Today I’ll be exploring what built Woodstock from the sloppy ground up; tomorrow I’ll delve into the music and on Sunday the potent culture – real or imagined.
To begin among the festival’s roots, one simply must start with the sitcom.
In 1967, lawyer Joel Rosenman (pictured above) and his friend John Roberts decided they wanted to write a sitcom about two entrepreneurs who fall into wacky weekly hijinks as they try to bring their business plans to fruition. For research they plopped an ad into The Wall Street Journal, claiming to be “young men with unlimited capital” looking for investment opportunities. Two of the men who responded, concert promoter Michael Lang and “Dead Man’s Curve” co-author Artie Kornfeld, intrigued the would-be comedy writers so much they abandoned their plans for television stardom and became the very entrepreneurs they’d planned to depict.
The idea was to build a recording studio in Woodstock, New York – one that could serve the artists who lived in the area, like Bob Dylan and The Band. The concept evolved into a large-scale outdoor music festival, something Lang had orchestrated quite successfully in Miami. Once they signed Creedence Clearwater Revival, a dream-roster of other headlining acts hopped on board. That’s when the investors hit their biggest hurdle.
Wallkill, New York was to be the venue’s locale, but when town residents flipped out over the possibility of 50,000 hippies swarming their streets, they passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering larger than 5000. That’s when dairy farmer Max Yasgur stepped in. Max was the largest milk producer in the county, and he gladly offered one of his fields near the town of Bethel, for a small fee.
For this, Max felt the stinging wrath of his neighbors, who vocally protested the event. Some anonymous callers threatened arson to his land and property. The more resistance he met, the stronger became Max’s resolve. What was first about the money (it had been a cruddy, wet year and hay production was way down, so the concert would be a good wallet-boost) became a matter of principle. Max was not only a champion to the 400,000+ who showed up to party on his farm but he became their most vocal advocate – before, during and after the concert, earning him a lifetime ban from Bethel’s general store.
Swapping locations meant the site wasn’t going to be ready in time for the show. At a meeting on August 12, a decision had to be made: fortify the fence or pour their resources into finishing the stage. That’s how Woodstock became an infamously free festival – the organizers simply ran out of time. The lost revenues were a real sting; at $24 a person for three-day admittance (that’s about $150 in today’s money) they were counting on those gate funds to finish in the black. But those fences were too easy for kids to step over.
Yet if you watch the film, you’ll see a number of interviews near the very beginning (which could be deceptive, as the film is notoriously out of chronological order) with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld in which they openly admit that Woodstock was going to lose a heap of money. They didn’t care; the gathering had exploded into the greatest happening of the decade. It was beautiful, it was peaceful, and the two of them were too busy smiling to get caught up in such petty affairs as profits and losses.
I should point out here that these were the two guys with the vision, not the two who put up the money.
The ugly scowl of truth behind the rosy-eyed gaze of history was that Woodstock was the very definition of a disaster area. Modern festivals are chock full of vendors, trained first-aid staff and sufficient portable toilet facilities that – though they may smell like a demon’s wet fart – provide for functional waste disposal. Woodstock had none of that. Had the local community not chipped in with food and water, and had the US Army not provided a few extra medical personnel, things could have gotten ugly.
Not to say there weren’t a few deaths. Four miscarriages occurred at the site, one man suffered from a heroin overdose and another was sleeping in a hayfield when a farmer accidentally ran over him with a tractor. On the flip-side, there are stories about two babies born at Woodstock: one in a car and one at a nearby hospital after the mother was airlifted out of the crowd. They’re stories though, based on the weird in-film announcement: “City McGee, please come immediately to backstage right. I understand your wife is having a baby. Congratulations!” and John Sebastian’s on-stage echoing of the joy behind the news.
But we’re 45 years on and no one has stepped forward as either of the mysterious Woodstock babies. All we can do is hope the scale of life was balanced that weekend.
For the organizers of the event, the sloppy August disaster provided a happy ending. Three albums and two box sets, along with the Oscar-winning 1970 documentary, provided enough return on their investment that by any standard (except perhaps hygiene), the Woodstock festival could officially be considered a success. The movie even launched two future stars: editor Martin Scorsese, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to win three editing Oscars: for Raging Bull, The Aviator and The Departed – all films that Scorsese directed.
As for Max Yasgur, the man who sacrificed the bulk of his agricultural income for 1969 so that a small city of baby boomer youth could stage the defining event of the decade they had come to culturally dominate, he opted not to stage a sequel the following year. He sold the farm and moved to Florida, where his heart condition caught up with him in 1973.
Max received a full-page obituary in Rolling Stone, one of the only non-musicians ever to earn such an honor. And why not? He offered up the sacred ground and never compromised the festival’s spirit, even at the expense of his standing in the community. Max was the real deal. Max was Woodstock.