Sunday, August 16, 2009

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

More so than most events in the 20th Century, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair has been idealised and romanticised over the years. Indeed, this idealisation and romanticisation began even as the festival was unfolding itself. It has come to be seen, as its slogan said, "Three days of peace and music." The Baby Boom generation regards the festival as a pivotal moment in their history, and there are probably many Baby Boomers who regard it as the pivotal moment. There are those who believe that it encapsulated the Sixties protest movement.

While the Woodstock Music & Art Fair may be all of those things for many, it must be kept in mind that conditions at the festival's site were less than ideal. With a half million people in attendance at the festival, food shortages became an imminent danger. The people of Sullivan County, New York came to the festival's aid, donating sandwiches and other food. Woodstock Ventures (the company organised to hold the festival) estimated that donations of some 750,000 sandwiches were needed. Food was flown in from as far away as Stewart Air Force Base, nearly sixty miles away. The Free Kitchen was organised to feed attendees after it became apparent the caterer hired for the event, Food for Love, could not handle the large number of people.

Medical care for the half million people attending Woodstock presented another problem. Woodstock Ventures hired Dr. Bill Abruzzi, a physician from Wappingers Falls, New York, to run the medical operations for the festival. Wavy Gravy and his fellow members of the Hog Farm collective provided first aid. According to Dr. Abruzzi in newspaper articles at the time, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was initially equipped to treat between 80,000 and 100,000 people. When the number of attendees swelled beyond 150,000, the physicians soon learned they needed reinforcements. Additional medical supplies, needed to take care of a half million people, were also flown in by helicopter. Woodstock Ventures had thirty more physicians flown in from New York City. While Dr. Abruzzi and his medical staff treated food poisoning, minor mishaps, and many instances of cut feet (it was August, so many were barefoot), at no point did they ever treat any injury that was caused by another human being. There were no black eyes at Woodstock, let alone more serious injuries brought on by violence. For those suffering from bad trips on LSD, a "Freak Out Tent" was provided, where members of the Hog Farm collective would sooth individuals' fears with soft words and loving kindness.

Sanitation also proved to be a problem. Woodstock Ventures had not planned for 500,000 people to show up at the Woodstock Music & Art Festival. For that reason there was only around six hundred portable toilets around the entire festival, only one for every 833 people. For water, six wells had to be dug to accommodate the crowd. It was around midnight on the first night of the festival that another complication arrived. As Hindustani classical musician Ravi Shankar was performing it started to sprinkle. By the time Joan Baez finished her set, there was a thunderstorm raging. In a matter of three hours, five inches of rain fell. The torrential rains would continue for the entirety of the weekend. Max Yasgur's alfalfa field soon became a mass of mud.

Surprisingly only one person would die at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Seventeen year old Raymond R. Mizzak was asleep in a hayfield in a sleeping bag when he was run over by a tractor. Another person who overdosed on heroin, did not die at the site of a festival, but at a neighbouring hospital. Given the sheer number of people and the presence of torrential rain, it is perhaps surprising that more did not die. Indeed, it must be pointed out that many of the musical arts played electric instruments, which under the wrong conditions could have resulted in electrocution.

Contrary to popular belief, no one was born at Woodstock, although two attendees did give birth. One gave birth in a car trapped in the traffic jam on Route 17B, which led to Woodstock. Another gave birth in a local hospital after being airlifted out by helicopter. There have been many who have claimed over the years to have been born at Woodstock, but, as pointed out in a recent Associated Press article, their stories never prove to be true.

Despite the various obstacles and less than desirable conditions, the show did go on at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The first day of the festival was devoted to the folk acts, although the bill swiftly changed as the traffic jam was making it difficult to get the music artists to the site. As mentioned earlier, Richie Havens had to perform for three hours before Sweetwater arrived. The rain complicated matters as well. Melanie Safka, for whom Woodstock was her first major performance, went instead of the Incredible String Band, who refused to perform while it was still pouring. Melanie had become very nervous when she realised she would be performing before an audience of a half million people. As it turned out, she had no reason to be nervous. The crowd received her warmly and lit candles as she performed in the darkness of the night. Other folk acts which performed that day were the legendary singers Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie.

Saturday and Sunday were devoted to rock acts. Unfortunately, the traffic jam was still making it difficult to get performers to the site and wreaking havoc with the festival's schedule. Following a set by the Keef Hartley Band, Country Joe MacDonald, of Country Joe and the Fish, gave an unexpected solo performance to fill time while other other acts could get there. John Sebastian, formerly of The Lovin' Spoonful, was not even scheduled to perform at Woodstock. Following Country Joe, Sebastian was tapped to appear before the crowd, whereupon he performed an impromptu parody of hippie conversation. Tripping on an unknown substance, Sebastian still remembers little of his performance to this day, but the crowd loved it.

The difficulties with getting performers to the site and the unexpectedly huge turnout for the festival did create major concerns for Woodstock Ventures with regards to the rock performances scheduled for Saturday. Some of the heaviest bands of the time were set perform that day, among them The Who and Jefferson Airplane. Woodstock Ventures worried that as the music grew louder, then the crowd could become less manageable. At the same time, however, the crowd could also get out of control if they remained bored for too long. Ultimately, Woodstock Ventures hedged their bets and decided to keep the crowd entertained. Michael Lang of Woodstock Ventures then asked each of the bands to make their sets twice as long. The rock performers also presented Woodstock Ventures with another complication. The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and The Who suddenly declined to play that night. The managers of each of them wanted cash upfront. With visions of the extraordinarily large crowd rioting if left bored, Woodstock Ventures went to Charlie Prince, the manager of the White Lake branch of Sullivan County National Bank, for help. John Roberts, vice president of Woodstock Ventures, gave Prince a personal cheque of anywhere from 50 to 100 thousand dollars, whereupon Prince wrote out the cashier's cheques for the performers. The show then went on.

That Saturday not only saw the largest audience of any rock concert of all time, but one of the most legendary rock line-ups in the history of the genre. Santana, Mountain, The Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Janis Joplin all performed. The Who not performed some of their early classics ("I Can't Explain," "My Generation"), but songs from their latest release--a rock opera entitled Tommy. Jefferson Airplane played recent songs such as "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and older hits such as "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."

The Who's performance would see what may have been the only intentional act of violence committed at the entire festival. It was just after The Who had finished "Pinball Wizard" that Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies, seized the microphone and began a speech about the imprisonment of John Sinclair of the White Panther Party. By most accounts, Pete Townshend, who was tuning his amp between songs, then ran up and rammed his guitar into Hoffman's back. When Hoffman turned, Townshend then shoved him backwards. In his autobiography, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, Hoffman himself tells the story a bit differently. Townshend simply "bumped into" him. Hoffman referred to it as, "A nonincident really."

Sunday into Monday would see more rock acts, although, with the exceptions of Ten Years After, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix, none of them were as hard as The Who or Jefferson Airplane. Regardless, it was another legendary rock line-up. Crosby, Stills, & Nash was a newly formed supergroup consisting of David Crosby (formerly of The Byrds), Stephen Stills (formerly of Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash (formerly of The Hollies). The Woodstock Music & Art Fair was only their second gig. While Crosby, Stills, & Nash was a newly formed band of experienced musicians, Sha Na Na was a relatively new singing group, having just started performing in 1969. What is more, they were different from any other act at Woodstock. Quite simply, they performed classic rock 'n' roll from the Fifties, dressed in the fashions of the decade. Regardless, the crowd loved them.

Jimi Hendrix was the headliner and the closing act of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Because of the many delays caused by the traffic jam and the torrential rains, he did not take the stage until early Monday morning. By this time the crowd had dwindled to 180,000. The Jimi Hendrix Experience having been disbanded, Hendrix played with his newly formed band named "Gypsy Sun and Rainbows." Woodstock would be their first performance. In addition to Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, & Nash, and Sha Na Na, Joe Cocker, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, and Neil Young, among others performed from Sunday into Monday at the festival.

While music occupies the centre stage in most people's minds when they think of Woodstock today, it must be pointed out that the festival also featured an art exhibition. After all, it had been billed as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. Peter Leeds and Howard Hirsch organised the exhibition, which featured both modern and Native American art. Cahuilla/Apache artist Bill Soza coordinated the Native American exhibit. Contemporary sculptures were produced on the site by art students under the supervision of Professors Ron Liis and Bill Ward of the University of Miami.

The Woodstock Music & Art Fair proved to be one of the big news stories that weekend in 1969. Initially media coverage of the event was fairly negative. A prime example of this coverage could be found in an Associated Press article published August 17, which focused on the shortage of food and medical supplies, the lack of sanitation, the traffic jam, and drug use. On August 17 the headline for The Los Angeles Times story on Woodstock read, "Drugs and Mud Plague 300,000 at NY Music Fair." The next day, The Chicago Tribune featured the headline "Music, Art Fair Ends; 2 Are Dead." Barnard Collier, formerly of The New York Times, has told how he was pressured by that newspaper's editors to make his story on Woodstock about the traffic jams, lack of sanitation, rampant drug use, and the dangers of so many young people gathered together at once. After many arguments with the editors, he was finally allowed to tell the story as he saw fit.

Besides Barnard Collier, another exception to the negative coverage of Woodstock was that of The Middletown Times Herald-Record, the only daily in the region. When Wallkill, New York had banned the festival from taking place there only weeks before its opening, The Middletown Times Herald-Record ran an editorial condemning the town's action. The paper had reporters on Max Yasgur's farm a day before the festival began and also had the only phone line out of the festival's site. Joel Shea, founder of The American Reporter and then a reporter at the paper, was at Woodstock as an attendee when he was recruited to help cover the story. A motorcyclist was hired to get pictures from the site through the traffic jam to Middletown 35 miles away. Having covered the festival before it even took place and with reporters on the site as the festival unfolded, the coverage of The Middletown Times Herald-Record was altogether more positive than the majority of the media at the time.

While initial coverage of Woodstock in the media was largely negative, that coverage would take a turn to the positive in only a matter of days. The reason for this was quite simply that those who had attended the festival contradicted the initial reports about it. The Chicago Tribune ran the headline "'Rock' Festival Changes Views of One Mother Toward Youth." A Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) story published on August 27, 1969 took a positive look at the Woodstock Art & Music Fair, complete with a quote from a Sullivan County deputy sheriff who said, "The kids are great" and "...I got to like these people." While The New York Times had resisted Barnard Collier's insistence on reporting the festival more positively, that paper would also take a more positive view of Woodstock afterwards. The headline of a story published August 24, 1969 read "'A Joyful Confirmation That Good Things Can Happen Here.'"

It was not particularly long that Woodstock, as three days of peace and music, came to permeate American pop culture. Joni Mitchell had been unable to go to Woodstock, although invited, because her manager had already committed her to be on The Dick Cavett Show. When told of the event by Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, she wrote the song "Woodstock." As covered by Crosby, Stills, & Nash, it would go onto #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. The documentary film of the festival was released in March 1970. Not only did it do extraordinarily well at the box office for a documentary, but it was nominated for the Oscars for Best Editing and Best Sound. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary. Two albums were released with live performances from the festival, one in 1970 and another in 1971.

While the Woodstock Music & Art Fair would be viewed positively in the end and would eventually be seen by many as a pivotal event in the late 20th century, Woodstock Ventures' problems did not end with the festival. Not only did the company not make a profit on the festival, but they found themselves at least $1.3 million in debt. Eighty different lawsuits were eventually filed against Woodstock Ventures after the festival. Cleaning up Max Yasgur's alfalfa field after Woodstock had ended took two weeks. Woodstock Ventures could even afford to pay the clean up crew after the task had ended. While they eventually received cheques for their job, initially they simply received enough money to get them home. Woodstock Ventures also had to refund the tickets of many who simply could not attend the festival.

Woodstock not only had some dire consequences for Woodstock Ventures, but also for the local government of Bethel. There were those residents who had opposed the Woodstock Music & Art Fair from the beginning. The traffic jam which had inconvenienced many attendees of the event had a disastrous effect on many local dairy farmers. Many milk trucks could not get through to pick up the milk from dairy farms. Ultimately, many gallons of milk were lost due to the traffic jam. It was in November that town supervisor George Neuhaus, who had supported the festival, was voted out of office.

While Woodstock caused numerable headaches for both Woodstock Ventures and the residents of Bethel, it would come to be regarded as a pivotal event of the Sixties. It came to be regarded as a representation of peace, love, and cooperation, one in which togetherness prevailed. With the possible exception of Pete Townshend's blows against Abbie Hoffman, there does not appear to have even one act of violence committed at the festival, attended by around 500,000 people. Many who attended have said that they never even witnessed a serious disagreement. Today that might not seem that remarkable, but one must consider that in the Sixties, violence at music festivals was not unknown. Only less than around two months prior to Woodstock, the Newport Pop Festival saw considerable violence, including a clash between police and gatecrashers. The Denver Pop Festival,held only a little over a month before Woodstock, saw skirmishes between police and 31 people arrested. Woodstock, which saw far larger attendance than either the Newport or Denver Pop Festivals, was then something of a minor miracle. Despite the traffic jam, shortages of food and medical supplies, despite torrential rain, despite delays in the performances, there were clashes with security, there were no riots, there was not even as much as a fist fight.

Even if one does not accept that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was a pivotal event of the Sixties, that it was not a demonstration of the philosophy of peace and love that was dominant at the time, there can still be no doubt of its importance in the history of rock music. The Woodstock Music & Art Fair had one of the most extraordinary line-ups of any rock festival. Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Canned Heat, Mountain, The Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Ten Years After, The Band, Crosby, Still, & Nash, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix performed. Some performers would give the greatest performances of their careers. Richie Havens was well known for his live performances even before Woodstock. At Woodstock not only would he play for three hours, but he kept the audience entranced for nearly the whole time. Ten Years After had performed in their native England and toured both Scandinavia and the United States, but at Woodstock they gave the performance of their career. Sly and the Family Stone gave what may have been their most impressive performance in their entire history. Woodstock would make the careers of yet other artists. Melanie was a newcomer with only one hit, "Beautiful People," in the Netherlands to her credit. Santana did not even have a recording contract at Woodstock, but his appearance there guaranteed him one. Joe Cocker had some success prior to Woodstock, but the festival launched his career into high gear.

Today Woodstock is regarded as one of the pivotal events of the Sixties and of the Baby Boom generation. It is also regarded as a pivotal moment in the history of rock music. Only time will tell if the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was ultimately as important to the Sixties and to the Baby Boom generation as has often been claimed. That having been said, even the ravages of time will not diminish Woodstock's importance to rock 'n' roll. Regardless of any talk of peace and love, of young people coming together, ultimately Woodstock was one of the biggest events in the history of rock music. It boasted a line-up that only a few other festivals could, performed before the largest audience for a rock festival of all time. Some artists gave their greatest careers there, while the festival started the careers of others. While there were rock festivals before Woodstock and there have many since then, none have the significant position in rock history that Woodstock does. I doubt any ever will.

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