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 suggest he's permanently stoned. In 1969 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 probably 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 46 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 500 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, gatherings and festivals 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 Joel's, it'd be 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 Roberts 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.
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.
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This new quartet of businessmen - Lang, Kornfeld, Roseman and Roberts - were worried. They were worried that they might not get enough people to their festival. Crazy, huh? They genuinely hoped to get a mere 50,000 there and were concerned that might not be be possible because there had been very few big festivals in 1968. No-one was sure in early 69 that the demand was still there for such a thing. So in early 69, they started to advertise it, even though they didn't even have a venue tied down or any bands booked. Ads were placed on radio stations and in magazines and rock press from sea to shining sea. They wanted to make sure they had a crowd…and boy did they ever get a crowd. This was never a small local gig, this was always a national event. As 69 progressed, of course, festivals topped out at an average of 100,000-150,000 - 69 was the year the festival concept became huge.
Anyway, Woodstock Ventures was ready to get to work. The bank that housed the Roberts trust fund was happy to pony up as much cash as was needed, as long as it was secured against his inheritance. This gave them, to all intents and purposes, an infinite line of credit. These dudes would've struggled to spend all that moolah. So they went in search of somewhere to put this thing on.
15 miles from Woodstock was a place called, inauspiciously, Wallkill. That's a downer of a name, man. You don't want to be tripping in Wallkill. It was home to the Mills Industrial Park and the owner said they could rent the space for $10k if they could get the Wallkill Zoning Board's approval. I have no idea what a Zoning Board is. It sounds like a piece of wood you might stare at in meditation, but I imagine in reality it involved men in cheap suits and women in girdles.
So to calm everyone's nerves, Woodstock Ventures lawyers arrived in town and…well…they lied. OK, not quite, but a little. Kinda. Just wee lies, not even lies really…just imagined truths. They said this festival was going to be an arts event with some music, mostly folk or maybe some jazz. It would be cultured and sophisticated. No slammin' power chords played by hairy freaks, man. No sir. Honest. The decent folk of this Zoning Board thing thought it was a great idea and gave them permission to get this gig together.
Within a month, work had begun, roads were paved, fences erected and the site designed. But wait. What's that? It's not going to be a gentle arts fair, you say? It's really going to be a gathering of druggy weirdoes wearing flowers in every orifice and with a predilection for taking off their clothes and dancing like they're made of rubber? Woah neddy. Let's stop this horse right here. We don't want no booby cats getting their freak on 'round these parts, mister.
Wallkill's decent folk - they formed a Concerned Citizens Committee, so you knew they were serious, man - had got wind that this was one of those hippy rock fests and they wanted answers and they wanted the festival called off until they'd got those answers and lets face it, the answers they got were not likely to make them very happy.
The Woodstock Ventures people tried to defend themselves but it wasn't playing well. The Wallkill Zoning Board got a court injunction to ban the festival.
OK so it can't happen in Wallkill, we're still cool, right? Err…dude, like…err…no. It's due to happen in 4 weeks and we don't have a site. Worse still we've…well…we've sold 50,000 tickets, man. $750k has been taken. We can't cancel now. But we have no site. Apart from that, it's all going great!
Bands were being booked and fees offered for their services.
But word got out that the festival had no home and offers came in. One guy said he had a lake that he'd drain to make an amphitheatre! Yeah man, that's some strong medicine you're smoking.
Michael Lang took off on his bike, like some sort of cowboy on a steel horse, out into upstate New York. There had to be somewhere they could hold this thing, right?
The richest and most-loved man in Bethel was Max Yasgur. He had a huge 600 acre dairy farm. This cat had been there since 1948 and had supplied the surrounding area with its dairy needs for a generation. Lang, riding up to Max's house, knew this was The Man and that this was probably his last chance.
Max was, as it turned out, a cool dude with an eye for the Main Chance. The previous year, he'd had the boy Scouts National Jamboroee on his land. He knew kids needed a place to do their thing, and he understood why, he'd also heard that the festival needed a site. He saw a barrel and he thought hmmm, maybe you hippy dudes would like to lie over that there barrel for me and hand me cash whilst you do so.
He said they could have his land for the weekend of 15th August for $50,000 with another $75,000 in escrow for paying for damages etc. Max was well-intentioned and cool but he was no fool. He'd asked for a land rental fee 5 times higher than at Wallkill. But as it turned out, the beauty of the festival would leave Max a bigger glow of pleasure than the money. Sadly, he'd be dead within 4 years at just 53.
The promoters knew they had to go with Max. They had no choice and once agreed, Max went out to bat for the festival, reassuring the locals that they'd all benefit financially from the festival. He told them how it'd inject life into an ailing local economy. And they believed him. And he was right. Bethel backed him. Max had won. The festival was on. Cool.
…and that's where the next set of problems began.
The Woodstock festival was due to start on the Friday, but by Thursday of that week, traffic was in gridlock.
On the quiet, Lang et al had begun to expect 200,000 to attend because by now they knew that big fests in 69 were pulling those kinda numbers. Besides, all roads were jammed from midweek onwards. But even so, spirits where high. Even on the Thursday it was already dawning on those stuck in traffic on the New York thru'way that this was clearly A Very Big Thing. As the sun rose on Friday morning, it looked like every freak from the right coast was heading to this gig. On top of that, western states folk were arriving in huge numbers too. Those early ads placed months ago had worked. People felt important. There was a sense that history was happening. OK, so everything was broken, but hey, when you're forging a revolution, not everything is going to run smoothly.
Nothing was moving on Friday. People slung their cars on the side of the road and walked. But soon there wasn't even any roadside space. So people just left their cars where they where - right in the middle of the road. For miles around Bethel and White Lake, it had become one big glorified car park.
According to NY state cops, over a million people were now on the roads around Woodstock. 40 per cent of those never even made it within a sniff of the festivals' rarefied air. The sky was full of choppers - army, airforce, media. Everyone knew by Friday afternoon that this was Le Grande Kahuna. And y'know, what a brilliant thing to be involved in.
Back on site, hours before the show was to start, Michael Lang had declared it was a free festival. There was no choice. Fences around the site had all been taken down and the sheer overwhelming amount of people made collecting tickets or money impossible.
This was bigger than all of us. It was out of control…or was it…maybe the Woodstock generation could hold it together and make it happen, despite some being higher than God.
But there's one thing no amount of money can do anything about and thank the lord for that. The Weather. Yeah. Rainstorms throughout the Catskills were forecast across the whole weekend. Could the gig go ahead? You bet. Wires, cables and stage were all given added protection from the rain and buried deep. Did anyone care about the prospect of rain? No. A bit of weather would only make the scene, it wouldn't be a bad thing at all. No-one seemed aware that a lot of water and electricity can be a very bad thing indeed. This was the beautiful naivety of Woodstock.
With so many people now on the site, it was time to play music. They couldn't be kept waiting forever but a lot of the rock band's equipment was stuck in the gridlock traffic along with a lot of musicians. The lucky ones were choppered in. But it made for chaos backstage. 400,000 people sat and waited for the gig to start but there were no bands ready. Since acoustic guitars could be set up easily, Michael Lang began prowling around, looking for solo musicians to open the show. He spied Ritchie Havens who had been set to be fifth on the bill. They were already two and a half hours behind. Haven's didn't want to do it, he suggested Tim Hardin do it but Hardin had split. Havens was an experienced performer and had played many festival stages but this was bigger, much bigger than any of them.
You gotta do it, man, said Lang. So what did he do? He put his head down, picked up his guitar and started strumming in an almost shamanic manner, wandering out to the stage as he did so, to receive a huge welcome. Havens nailed it with a powerful performance, especially with the song featured in the movie 'Freedom'. It seemed to be part of the zeitgeist.
Out on the site, as Haven beat his guitar into submission, more people kept on coming. There was a 45 minute queue for water, an hour for the toilets. Medical supplies were running low already. And still more kids arrived. Everything was groovy - for now, but for how long? From the get-go, everyone involved in putting the festival on knew they were in trouble. There simply wasn't enough of anything, there was thunder in the distance and it was surely only a matter of time before the whole thing descended into anarchy. Michael Lang, the stoner's grin still in his eyes, looked out across the infinite expanse of humanity and must surely have wondered, what hell have I done?
Lang had flown in the Hog Farm commune from New Mexico, a week before the start, to help with security, food distribution and importantly, dealing with people on bad trips. He chartered a 727 at the cost of $17,000 to do it. The Hog Farm's vibe was this - help those who need help and promote love, peace and harmony with nature. What's not to like about that? Their leader was a toothless dude called Hugh Romney, a beat poet, and ex-Merry Prankster who was also a great organiser and a purveyor of the finest of good vibes. As he arrived a reporter asked him how he was going to handle security.
'Do you feel secure?' said Hugh.
'It seems to be working.'
And that was their gig. Not so much police officers and peace officers.
Acoustic Friday continued. A chopper brought Arlo Guthrie in, a huge stoned grin on his face, he told the crowd that the New York thruway had been closed. Freaks were shutting the state down, man. The joy of Arlo is irresistible.
Tim Hardin was found and played a set, as did Melanie and Bert Sommer, Edinburgh's the Incredible String Band, Sweetwater and Ravi Shankar. On top of that was Joan Baez dedicating Joe Hill to her recently jailed husband and wailing at maximum glass-breaking pitch. God love her, she made some piercing noise.
Throughout the Friday performances, rain came and went. Lightening hung around all day and night without actually striking locally. The mud got churned and churned. By the time light was cast upon the new day, the whole place looked like a biblical scene, only there was a distinct lack of loaves and fishes and while there was plenty of water, none of it was turning into wine. Oh yeah, and the whole walking on water thing wasn't working out too well, either. Trench foot looked more likely than a miracle. News bulletins were already calling it a disaster area and you could see why. From the outside it looked like some sort of of muddy hell hole, but on the inside it was different. On the inside it felt like you were a kind of hero forging a new culture. Every time a new chopper flew overhead to capture aerial shots of the crowds of people, it only confirmed everyone's sense of history being made.
Like a Vietnam war movie, helicopters swooped, bringing in medical supplies and taking out people who needed medical attention. The rhythm of the blades a counterpoint to the music on the stage.
But one thing was clear. They were quickly running out of fo
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