Saturday, August 15, 2009

Back to the Garden: the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock Part One

It was forty years ago today that the single, most famous musical festival of all time began. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, more simply known as "Woodstock," featured thirty two acts, performing everything from folk music (Joan Baez) to Hindustani classical music (Ravi Shankar) to power pop (The Who) to psychedelia (Jefferson Airplane). It would become not only the best known music festival of all time, but a seminal event in the Baby Boom generation and in the annals of rock 'n' roll as well.

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair originated with four young men, the oldest of whom was only 26 in 1969. John Roberts was an heir to the Block Drug fortune (the company that originally made Poli-Grip). Joel Rosenman was a young graduate from Yale. The two had met in 1966 and swiftly became friends. Sharing an apartment in New York City, they became business partners with the goal of becoming venture capitalists. It was in March 1968 that they took an ad out in the Wall Street Journal that read, "Young Men With Unlimited Capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions." It was this ad that attracted the attention of another pair of young men: Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang.

Artie Kornfield had been signed to a recording contract when he was only 16, and had gone onto write such songs as "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean, "The Pied Piper" by The Changin' Times (of which Kornfield was a member--the song was later covered by Crispian St. Peters), and "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" by The Cowsills, among others. When he was only 21 he became the youngest vice president at Capitol Records. He met Michael Lang in 1968 when Lang was managing the band Train. Among his achievements, Lang had co-produced the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 with Mel Lawrence. Kornfield and Lang decided to establish a state of the art recording studio near the small town of Woodstock, New York, an area where such artists as Bob Dylan, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, and Van Morrison lived. There is some disagreement as to who actually developed the idea for a music festival. Roberts and Rosenman insist that Kornfield and Lang simply wanted a party as publicity for heir proposed studio. Lang and Kornfield insist Woodstock was always planned as a music festival. Either way, they eventually planned a rock concert for around 50,000 people. It was in March 1968 that they formed Woodstock Ventures, in which each held 25%.

Of course, holding a music festival meant also finding somewhere to hold it. As the name of the festival, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, indicates, it was originally going to be held in the unincorporated village of Woodstock, New York. Despite a long history as an art colony and having been home to musicians ranging from jazz legend Thelonious Monk to Bob Dylan, Woodstock was heavily resistant to the idea of a music festival taking place there. Others sites were considered, with the 300 acre Mills Industrial Park in Walkill, New York being chosen. Its advantages were that it already had access to electricity and water. It was also zoned for concerts and cultural exhibitions, in addition to industry. The Walkill City Council gave their approval to holding a music festival there. Michael Lang was none too happy with the site, and continued to look elsewhere. There were also those in the Walkill City Council who were none too happy with the idea of 50,000 people descending upon their town.

In the meantime Woodstock Ventures set about publicising the music festival. They developed the slogan "Three Days of Peace and Music." Artist Arnold Skolnick developed the famous Woodstock image of a dove sitting on a guitar. By April 1968 ads were running in such publications as Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. By May ads were running in the more mainstream press, including The New York Times and The Times Herald-Record.

Central to Woodstock's success would be the performers. Woodstock Ventures then began seeking out the biggest performers in rock music. Many acts declined to play at Woodstock. The Doors cancelled at the last moment, perhaps due to Jim Morrison's dislike for performing big, outdoors concerts. Led Zeppelin declined, as their manager Peter Grant figured they would be viewed simply as another band on the bill. The Byrds declined as they thought that Woodstock would be no different from other music festivals (they later regretted their decision). Bob Dylan's son fell ill, so he was not able to perform. The Moody Blues decided to play in Paris instead.

Fortunately for Woodstock Ventures, they were finally able to attract big name performers, but only for what would then be considered large amounts of money. The first big act they signed was Jefferson Airplane, for the then unheard of amount of $12,000. The Who signed for $12,500. Credence Clearwater Revival signed for $11,500. In the end Woodstock Ventures spent $180,000 on performers.

While Woodstock Ventures now had several big acts lined up, it soon developed that they were in danger of losing their site for the music festival. After the ads for the festival had appeared in The New York Times and The Times Herald-Record, it became apparent to the residents of Wallkill that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was going to be a very large, rock festival. This did not sit at all well with the small, rural town. To satisfy the locals, Woodstock Ventures had to hire Wes Pomeroy, formerly with the Department of Justice, to head security, as well as a minister, Reverand Donald Ganoung, to help with the townspeople.

Naturally, Woodstock Ventures wanted a movie made of the festival. They had some difficulty interesting the major studios in such a project. In 1968 the film Monterey Pop, made about the music festival of the same name, had bombed at the box office. Fortunately, Artie Kornfield was finally able to interest Warner Brothers executive Fred Weintraub, who gave Kornfield $100,000 to make the film. Michael Wadleigh, a cinematographer on indie films, was set to direct the documentary.

While Woodstock Ventures already had the performers in place, arrangements for the sound system made, and plans for the documentary film in place, the town of Wallkill became increasingly hostile to the idea of the festival. From the beginning, residents had complained about the festival to Howard Mills, owner of the Mills Industrial Park. Eventually, he began getting threatening calls (sadly, the culprits were never caught). It was on July, 15, 1969 that the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals put an end to Woodstock being held at the Mills Industrial Park. It seemed that two weeks earlier the Wallkill city council had passed a law forbidding any gathering of more than 5,000 people. The city denied that the ordnance was meant to kill the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

With only weeks to go before the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was scheduled, Woodstock Ventures had to find another site fast. Fortunately, they found one in the form of Max Yasgur's dairy farm near Bethel, New York. Max Yasgur was the last person many would expect to be associated with the counterculture. He was a hard working, honest man who was nearly fifty years old. It was perhaps because of his integrity that he saw what the people of Wallkill had done to Woodstock Ventures as an injustice. Although initially hesitant, he offered a cleared alfalfa field for the festival's use. He was paid $75,000 for the use of his field. Ultimately, Woodstock Ventures would have to pay another $25,000 for the use of land surrounding that of Yasgur.

As might be expected, there was resistance from the city of Bethel, despite Max Yasgur's reputation in the community. Many in Bethel shared the same fears that the people of Wallkill had. A petition circulated around the town against the festival received over 800 signatures. Allegedly, one prominent resident of Bethel even tried to solicit a bribe from Woodstock Ventures to see that the festival took place. It was at this point that Max Yasgur became more than the festival's landlord; he became its champion. Despite threats of boycotts of his milk products, Yasgur fought to insure the Woodstock Music & Art Fair would take place. He quieted the fears of those Bethel residents he could and ignored the rest. Eventually his respect for the people behind Woodstock became such that he appeared before the gathered festival goers himself with the opening words, "I am a farmer...," making his now famous speech in which he hailed the festival as a triumph. In the end, Max Yasgur, the hard working farmer from Sullivan County, had become a champion of the counterculture.

While there were those in Bethel, New York who were opposed to the festival, this was hardly true of the entire town. Then President of the Bethel Businessman's Association, Ken Van Loan thought the Woodstock Music & Art Fair could provide a much needed boost to the local economy. In fact, the Bethel Businessman's Association voted on July 28, 1969 to support the festival. While there were those who opposed the festival, it seems that the town of Bethel, New York was altogether much more receptive to the idea than Wallkill had been.

Regardless of how the town of Bethel, New York felt, by August the Woodstock Art & Music Fair had become inevitable. At that point even it seemed that even its promoters could not stop it. In fact, it seems likely that even the promoters were not prepared for what ultimately unfolded. While two weeks before the festival 180,000 tickets had already been sold, it seemed that many, many more people would be in attendance. Cars began arriving at the site of Woodstock as early as August 12. By Thursday afternoon, there were 25,000 people there. And more were coming. A full 24 hours before the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was set to begin, a traffic jam had developed on Route 17B leading to the site. At times the traffic jam extended as far as twenty miles. Many simply abandoned their cars. The traffic jam prevented a few people who had wanted to attend the festival from doing so. It also made it very difficult for anyone to get out of Bethel, New York.

The traffic jam was as much of a headache for Woodstock Ventures as it was the festival goers and the residents of Bethel. In order to get both artists and much needed supplies to the site, the festival's promoters had to rely on helicopters. In fact, the traffic jam would even force a change in the Woodstock Music & Art Fair's bill. Psychedelic band Sweetwater were the first artists set to perform at the festival. Unfortunately, the traffic jam caused them to be late. Very late. Folk guitarist Richie Havens went on first instead, playing for a full three hours.

The sheer number of people attending Woodstock would also create another sort of problem. It was only on Friday morning that Michael Lang realised there were no ticket booths. While there were to be ticket booths in place, the traffic jam made it far too difficult to put them in position. Without the ticket booths in place, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair made no money whatsoever. In effect, it became the biggest free concert of all time. This was complicated by Abbie Hoffman and the Youth International Party (the "Yippies"), who had set up what they called "Movement City." There the Yippies and other left leaning groups could distribute literature and hold workshops. Among other things, Hoffman urged festival goers not to pay for tickets! Allegedly the anarchist collective Up Against the Wall Mother******* cut the fence at Woodstock to further encourage people to attend for free. As it was, the sheer number of people who attended Woodstock made it impossible for anyone to collect tickets. There were simply too many people.

Indeed, complaints about the large number of people gathered at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair even reached Governor Nelson Rockefeller. John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were even receptive to the site being declared a disaster area; such a declaration would limit the liability of Woodstock Ventures in lawsuits. In the end, it was decided that declaring Woodstock a disaster area would not be a good idea. It would mean bringing in the National Guard, opening up the possibility of armed confrontation, not something desirable only a year after the debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Additional security was provided in the form of 20 Rockland County deputies mounted on horseback. Security was already being provided by Wavy Gravy and his fellow members of the Hog Farm Collective, as well as a few New York City police officers. The NYPD had warned officers that anyone taking part in the festival would be subject to censure. For that reason, nearly every NYPD officer who worked security at Woodstock did so under an assumed name.

The sheer numbers of people gathered at Woodstock would also give Sullivan County a chance to show what good people lived there. When residents of the county heard that there was not enough food at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, members of the Monticello Community Jewish Centre set to work making sandwiches, using 200 loaves of bread, 40 pounds of cold cuts, and two gallons of pickles. Not only food, but medical supplies and physicians were flown in by helicopter.

In the end, around 500,000 people would attend the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Woodstock Ventures had only expected 200,000. With a half million people in attendance, in conditions that would be less than desirable, one would have expected catastrophic consequences. Amazingly enough, none came to pass. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair would unfold without any incidents of violence, let alone a riot.

1 comment:

Holte Ender said...

Can you imagine in 2009 such a thing happening, what with email, twitter, facebook, etc. 5 million people would turn up. But perhaps they would not turn up, perhaps only a few thousand would turn up and the rest would watch it on tv.