A History of the Woodstock Festival - Part 1

A History of the Woodstock Festival - Part 1
Authored By John Nicholson

If you've seen the Woodstock movie, you'll have seen Michael Lang, one of the guys who helped put Woodstock on. A forever hipster riding a horse or a motorbike, with wild hair and one of those beatific smiles that suggests he's permanently stoned. In 1970 he seemed like a new type of business dude who was interested in art more than bread. A man who spoke the language of the alternative community. A man who knew a good vibe from a bad vibe. And, in some ways, that's exactly what he was and continues to be. And we should celebrate that.

But even the most stoned immaculate visionary couldn't have imagined what was to happen in August of 1969 in upstate New York, nor how it would become iconic, not just of an era and of a culture, but of a whole way of thinking about life. Seldom can a 3-day event have come to symbolize such a huge disparate movement and, even over 50 years later, send a beacon of positivity out into the universe. To this day, people still try and grab one of its sunbeams and take it to their heart.

Woodstock was bigger than any of the people who put it on, any of the people who filmed it, played at it, bought the record and lived the dream. It quickly ascended to being a living, breathing myth. If everyone who said they were there, had really been there, it'd have been 50 million in that field. People just wanted to be part of it. Woodstock became infinitely cool, it became the ultimate festival brand. Even to this day, festival will have 'stock' added as a suffix, in the same way 'gate' is added to political scandals after Watergate. It's that big, that profound.

But while Michael Lang was the freaky deaky head that the organisational vortex swirled around, this most bodacious of festivals would never have happened at all were it not for two straight guys: John Roberts and Joel Rosemann. Roberts was loaded. With a trust fund of over 4 million dollars from his parents cosmetic company, he was looking to get involved in something that would be fun and make a profit. Joel was Roberts buddy, a Yale Law School graduate with a wealthy dentist father. They hung out and decided to put an ad in the New York Times. It said Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting and legitimate business enterprises

Well, we can only imagine the sheer amount of wheelers, dealers, two-time losers and gamblin' men that came out of the woodwork when they saw that. Rich kids looking to splash cash. Wow. It was a gift. In less than a week they got nearly 500 enquiries. But these two were no schmucks. None of these 500 caught their imagination.

Then one day, they were introduced to two 'shaggy-haired men' who need a project backing. This was Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld. And you know what they wanted to do? The crazy thing is, it's a very modern idea. Maybe the drugs had let them see the future or maybe they helped create it. Their idea wasn't to hold a festival, no, their idea was to build a rock star retreat in New York State which would have living accommodation, a recording studio and a peaceful vibe where creatives could create. They suggested it should be near Woodstock, which was a kind of counterculture hotspot with Dylan, the Band and Tim Hardin all living in the area. It was only two hours north of The Big Apple, so it was isolated, but not too isolated.

Kornfeld suggested that once it was all built, a massive concert and huge press party should be held to announce this new upscale facility to the world. Now, Mike and Artie had come together when the former was working at Capitol Records and Lang had gone to him with a tape of a band he was managing. Kornfeld was actually producer and lyricist for The Cowsills, who were a 60s top 40 band. Lang was a head, who'd run a freak store and taken up managing rock bands, though what managing actually meant in this context was pretty imprecise. Trouble was, they lacked cash to put this rock star retreat together. They had the music business connections and they knew what was going down in rock 'n' roll, they just lacked the big thick wedges of green to make it happen. If Roberts and Rosenman would stump up the wonga, they'd split the profits 4 ways,

But this money wouldn't be Joels' it'd be John Robert's trust fund. Generously, he decided to cut his room-mate in on any deal he was doing with his money. He was only 24 but Roberts was no dope. He knew that handing over several hundred thousand dollars to some hairy freaks was madness. But he dug the idea, nonetheless. So Joel came up with an alternative idea and in doing so, he invented a cultural phenomenon.

What if they expanded the concert idea into a rock festival and used the profits to fund the rock star retreat and recording studio? Not a bad idea, huh? Roberts said he'd fund it but to a smaller amount than originally imagined because, after all, the profits would top up his investment.

Lang and Kornfeld, like every stoner, chancer and fly-by-night who ever lived for now, because now is all we've got, thought, dude, we have nothing to lose here, man. Let's do it. Rosenman had even less to lose. He'd just get a cut of the sweet meat, if there was any.

So the four of them agreed how it'd work and Woodstock Ventures Incorporated came into existence. The cultural tectonic plates shuddered a little. This thing was going down.

Part 2 will be published on Sunday. 

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