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Woodstock – A Dream Goes On Forever

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CHAPTER ONE

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.

Michael Lang - The Dude of Woodstock
Michael Lang – The Dude of Woodstock

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.

John Roberts, Joel Roseman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang.
John Roberts, Joel Roseman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang.

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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CHAPTER TWO

Artie and Michael. 2 freaks who made a cultural phenomenon.
Artie and Michael. 2 freaks who made a cultural phenomenon.

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.

Woodstock performers fees.
Woodstock performers fees.

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?

Michael on his BSA, looking for all the world like the hero in a movie.
Michael on his BSA, looking for all the world like the hero in a movie.

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 great Max Yasgur
The great Max Yasgur

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.

CHAPTER THREE

The Woodstock festival was due to start on the Friday, but by Thursday of that week, traffic was in gridlock.

The Woodstock Generation arrives en masse and block the New York Thru'way
The Woodstock Generation arrives en masse and block the New York Thru’way

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.

More people were stuck in traffic than ever got to the festival
More people were stuck in traffic than ever got to the festival

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.

Yeah, that fence was never going to keep anyone out, was it?
Yeah, that fence was never going to keep anyone out, was it?

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.

Richie Havens heading toward immortality.
Richie Havens heading toward immortality.

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?

Wavy Gravy & Michael Lang. What a beautiful photo.

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.
‘Yeah,’
‘It seems to be working.’
And that was their gig. Not so much police officers and peace officers.

The Hog Farm 'peace officers' Man, we need more peace officers like this.
The Hog Farm ‘peace officers’ Man, we need more peace officers like this.

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.

Arlo just being very cool and very stoned.
Arlo just being very cool and very stoned.

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.

Joan, bless her, giving it the full warble.
Joan, bless her, giving it the full warble.

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.

Woodstock from the air
Woodstock from the air

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 food and clean water. What could be done? This is where the straight world decided that rather than be mean-spirited about it and wag their fingers judgementally at everyone, instead, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work. A group of women from local community clubs donated thousands of sandwiches to the Hog Farm(no-one was gluten intolerant back then and only women were allowed to make sandwiches, by law)The Hog Farm gave them away. Concession stands also gave away what food they had left. Local merchants didn’t exploit the situation at all. Some gave supplies away, others donated it for whatever cash people had. No, man, you can’t pay with a debit card. This is 1969 and our lives have yet to be despoiled by electronic money. We’re still humans and not robots, you hep cat.

From the very beginning Woodstock was a colossal mess. It was falling apart from the start. Yeah, but it was all still kinda beautiful.

What few knew was that the rain was making the site ever more dangerous.

CHAPTER FOUR

"Like, I love nature, man...but dude, this rain is a bummer.
“Like, I love nature, man…but dude, this rain is a bummer.

As the rain came down and turned the whole site into a quagmire, the dirt that had covered the main electricity cables was washed away, leaving them exposed. Gradually the insulation on those cables got worn away by the ceaseless trudging of the masses. So now there were thousands of wet people set to be fried. Errr…no pressure man, but we need to make that not happen.  The dude who was the chief electrician and thus responsible for the whole site not turning into an electric fire, got hold of Joel Rosenman and told him that they’d have mass electrocution on their hands here unless they cut the power and fixed that cable. No ifs, not buts, this was time to grow up and get real.

But Rosenman didn’t want 400,000 people sitting in the dark with no music. The vibe had been good, but for how long? What if the beautiful people turned ugly? So what to do? Every minute that passed, was a minute closer to a disaster. Yer man Joel made his decision. “Err…listen, how about fixing the insulation on the cable without turning off the power?”

Yeah, you’d better wear some rubber gloves to do that, buddy. And so the electrician must surely have said a prayer to his God, cursed the day he ever decided to be an electrician and was dispatched to do what he had to do. Would he return or would there be an almighty orange flash followed by the smell of deep-fried human?
Whoever he was, he was an un-acclaimed hero of Woodstock. Somehow, he ran the power from the exposed cables to other lines that were still underground, without so much as an errant spark. And the bands played on. And what music was played.

Saturday dawned and with the exception of tie-dyed, ex-Lovin Spoonful dude, John Sebastian, it was all rock ‘n’ roll.

The genius of the lens - Henry Diltz's spine-tingling shot of John Sebastian
The genius of the lens – Henry Diltz’s spine-tingling shot of John Sebastian

Canned Heat, Janis, Country Joe and the Fish, The Who, the Grateful Dead, Keef Hartley, Sha Na Na, local Boston band Quill, Santana, Mountain and Sly and the Family Stone made up the bill. Saturday gave the festival and the movie some of it’s most iconic and thrilling performances. Santana were especially breath-taking featuring a young Michael Shrieve on drums with an expression somewhere between disbelief and ecstasy.

19-year old Michael Shrieve plays the gig of his life
19-year old Michael Shrieve plays the gig of his life

These bands had all played festivals all summer and were tight and together and man, did it show. What it sounded like out in the fields, who knows, but on record and in the movie it all sounds magnificent, from Carlos’s piercing guitar, to Leslie West’s steamroller riffs.

Leslie West with Mountain. Their set was stunning
Leslie West with Mountain. Their set was stunning

A fewer hours before sunrise, Sly and the Family Stone took the stage by storm, whipping up everyone into a frenzy and they were followed by the ‘orrible ‘Ooo all the way from Shepherds Bush. Hitting the stage just as the sun was rising, they turned in a performance that, even now, beggars belief. For a start they’d all been dosed up with acid, against their wishes. Daltrey looks incredible in the fringed jacket, Townshend leading proceedings with a performance of such physical and musical prowess that it is scarcely believable.

The Who at Woodstock - a force of unstoppable nature.
The Who at Woodstock – a force of unstoppable nature.

He writhes and slams and beats the guitar, wrestling amazing noises out of it.

Pete sculpting sound into profound noise.
Pete sculpting sound into profound noise.

Moon, unfazed by anything, gives it 100 percent rock n roll as per usual. All pinned down by The Ox’s resolute bass. At one point, Yippie leader, Abbie Hoffman gets hold of a microphone to protest about MC5 manager John Sinclair being in jail. From the blackness you can hear Pete shouting, in a distinctly London accent, ‘get off my f*cking stage’ and whacks him with his guitar. You don’t get in the way of The Who when they’re working. Of course, it’s all pure rock ‘n’ roll, raw and magnificent and crackling with intensity. These were defining moments of the classic era of rock music.

It was now Sunday. The last day. Wavy Gravy was on stage. “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000…we’re all feedin’ each other. We must be in heavin’ man! There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”

Hugh Romney is your server this morning.
Hugh Romney will be your server this morning.

OK so brown rice and beans might not be your idea of good breakfasting, but I’m sure it was welcome nonetheless. Thankfully, the toilets had been cleaned out – just as well with all that brown rice in the collective digestive systems.

Jefferson Airplane kicked off the ‘morning maniac music’ playing Volunteers, stoned and immaculate. Grace Slick like a darkest white angel you ever saw.

If this doesn't make you shiver, this Woodstock thing ain't for you, baby.
If this doesn’t make you shiver, this Woodstock thing ain’t for you, baby.

They were followed by Joe Cocker with the much underrated Grease Band who delivered a performance of unreconstructed hypnotic tie-dyed magnificence.

Sheffield's finest gives it the full tie-dye rockage.
Sheffield’s finest gives it the full tie-dye rockage.

As he did so, thunder rumbled in the distance. Oh man, here it comes, this is The Big One
The infamous chant went up. “No rain, no rain, no rain” did it help? No, of course not. You can’t stop or start weather by chanting, any more than you can alter it by wearing a hat – just in case you didn’t know that.

This time, the downpour was torrential. The road crew tried to cover the stage and equipment as much as possible. Everyone hunkered down and waited for it to be over.

Artie and Michael in the rain as flowers drop from the sky
Artie and Michael in the rain as flowers drop from the sky

As Lang and Kornfeld are interviewed in the movie, both starry-eyed and understandably astonished by what they have helped create here, helicopters drop dry clothes and, of course, flowers. Because when you’re living like a refugee, flowers are what you need. Edible flowers, preferably. The thing is, despite the desperate circumstances it is, in a very unique way, beautiful. The look on the two fella’s faces is priceless. It did prove that a large of group of people can get along and don’t need to be policed. OK, you need helicopters to drop food and clothes and flowers but hey, better they do that than drop bombs, man.

Eventually, when the big storm had passed through, many decided that, man…that was enough with the mud and precipitation now. Even the most dedicated festival-goer can only stand so much rain. A steady stream of people began to leave the site and in doing so, missed the legendary CSNY (“We’re scared shitless, man”) and Ten Years After performances along with The Band and Blood Sweat and Tears.

As Alvin Lee stands at the microphone to announce ‘I’m Going Home by…helicopter’) his breath comes out in steamy gulps, the air sodden with the remnants of the storm. He proceeds to tear it up in a performance that would become the defining moment of his life.

He was "going home in a...helicopter"
He was “going home in a…helicopter”

By the time Jimi Hendrix took the stage on Monday morning, only 25,000 were left to see him wrestle ‘Star Spangled Banner’ out of his Stratocaster. It was a performance of great symbolism and power but was witnessed by relatively few people. The movie made Hendrix At Woodstock into A Thing. On the day, though, the feeling that it was all over and the vibe had gone, was powerful.

Jimi plays to the 30,000 left on Monday morning.
Jimi plays to the 30,000 left on Monday morning.

CHAPTER FIVE

As volunteers started cleaning up the media swung into gear, quickly painting it as a ‘nightmare’ in the New York Times. They called the fans ‘lemmings’ and asked what sort of culture could create such a colossal mess?

But the trouble with taking that angle was this: it didn’t sell. People felt good about Woodstock, not bad. Monticello’s police chief praised the kids as “most courteous, considerate and well behaved”. The day after festival, the Times softened its stance and praised the communal spirit. Almost overnight, Woodstock became more than just another festival that came and went. It became emblematic of something. Significantly, with the exception of Rolling Stone, it was the event itself, the people and conditions that attracted the most discussion.

Rolling Stone cover for their Woodstock issue.
Rolling Stone cover for their Woodstock issue.

Some saw it as a modern day quasi-religious event with the crowd as seekers and the musicians some kind of prophets. Only rock music could have drawn all these people together like this, so you could see their point but already, in some ways, these cultural observers were reading too much into it. This wasn’t A Movement nor some sort of new religion. It was all much more disparate than that. Mostly people wanted to hang out with like-minds, have some fun, hear some music and then go back to their lives. The alternative lifestyle isn’t called alternative for nothing – few wanted to, or could live like that. Most wanted to get a satisfying job and earn a living. The Hog Farm lifestyle wasn’t for everyone.

So in the days and weeks and months that followed, while many sought to answer the question ‘What Did Woodstock Mean?’ there was no answer because while it was inspiring and exciting, in and of itself, it was 400,000 different things and not one unified cultural ball of wax which could be shaped by the collective mind into anything other than, perhaps, increased record sales.

After the event, the promoters claimed to have lost $1.3 million. There was some cynicism at this. And anyway, there was so much media interest in Woodstock, the movie and record sales would wipe out any debt. In fact, the bread heads were already drooling with the smell of lush green. Astute people knew that there was major financial killing to be made here. Dylan’s owlish manager Albert Grossman even wanted to buy into Woodstock Ventures and take part of the debt on, against future earnings. He wasn’t doing that for no reason, clearly, he felt there was serious money about to wash out of the record stores and cinemas.

The 60s great manager, Albert Grossman
The 60s great manager, Albert Grossman

The film, made by Michael Wadleigh and Bob Maurice and was an absolute triumph. Wadleigh had a $100,000 contract with Warners. The film went on to gross over $17 million back when 17 million was a lot of money and not a bankers’ lunch change.  It opened in March 1970 and set house records. Tickets were $5.00  as though it was a gig. Well, it was 3 hours long, so it kind of was.

It was 3 hours long, but it's OK you could smoke in the movie theatre back then.
It was 3 hours long, but it’s OK you could smoke in the movie theatre back then.

Wadleigh’s 25-man crew had captured so much great music, but also the festival atmosphere and, more than anything else, the people. And it did so in an uncritical style, letting the people speak. It was a fly-on-the-wall style that would become the default for such documentaries. The images of the bands were so powerful and strong that many became totally defined by Woodstock and to this day, live on in the popular imagination, as they were that weekend.

Of course, the Grateful Dead were unhappy with their performance, and wouldn’t allow Wadleigh to use footage of them in the movie, or on the record. That was onery to the point of silliness partly because the Dead were a fine live band as the bootleg of their performance at Woodstock shows, but mostly because it was an entirely sympathetic platform for their work.

Jerry man, it was a good gig. Don't get so stressed, baby.
Jerry man, it was a good gig. Don’t get so stressed, baby.

The two albums – a triple and a double – also confirm the high quality of the music. Both made the top ten album charts in USA. On the cover of the first record, in an image that became iconic, not just of the festival, but of the late 60s as a culture, a couple embrace, wrapped in a muddy blanket. That couple are still together today – which, in a way, is part of Woodstock’s beautiful legacy.

The Woodstock album cover. They're still together, y'know. Beautiful.
The Woodstock album cover. They’re still together, y’know. Beautiful.

Looking at it now, the movie evokes warm feelings of nostalgia, but also of sadness that all the hope was dashed on the rocks of reality. You don’t need a lot of romance in your soul to see why Woodstock was and is such a brilliant thing to believe in.

Meanwhile back in the business world, Woodstock Ventures ended soon after the festival with Mikey and Artie parting ways with Joel and John. They were always strange bedfellows and tensions had apparently existed from the start. Roberts and Rosenman took $31,250 each to leave Woodstock Ventures, which seems like a cheap pay-off for Artie and Mikey.

And what of Max Yasgur? Well, you might remember him from the movie. He seemed like an old dude but was, in fact, just 49.

Max Yasguar and his missus. How is he only 49? Cool guy, though. Coined it
Max Yasguar and his missus. How is he only 49? Cool guy, though. Coined it

He was minor celebrity in and around Bethel for the following few years. A testimonial dinner was given for him by friends in Bethel. Woodstock had helped restore the local economy. He did the chat shows and was unstinting in support of what happened at Woodstock and of the people who made it happen. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in February 1973 just 53-years old. Time magazine called him ‘the patron saint of the counterculture’.

Woodstock would live on at a million rock nights at cinemas all over the world. I first saw it at the Haymarket in Newcastle in the middle of the night, sandwiched between Pink Floyd at Pompeii and The Song Remains The Same. It still speaks to people today of all ages. I think it’s because it lacks cynicism, which is now deeply embedded in us. We’re so busy being post-modern and ironic that we’ve forgotten to believe in anything. At Woodstock people believe in something. Not all in the same thing and not all to the same degree but they are willing and open travellers on the path to enlightenment, they are active in their own quest and not mere bystanders as life passes them by. That is inspiring.

And maybe most important of all, man, the music is so wonderful. My personal favourites are Santana and Mountain and The Who but I’m not sure anyone turned in a less than great set of music. When you think what they were battling against and the limit of technology, that was an astonishing achievement, forged by road-hardened professionals who know how to rock ‘n roll.

Interestingly, Woodstock doesn’t yield any of its power to the jaundiced 21st century eye. To be dismissive of its spirit is too difficult and too much of an act of misery to sustain itself as a viewpoint. It’s like trying to tell someone that the sun shining is awful, or that flowers are a bad thing. When I was younger and more impressionable, I thought the Woodstock generation were my people. A lost army of long hairs and freaks. I know now that is hopelessly romantic, but I’m not the only to have felt that watching the movie. And even now, as I watch the low sun shining on an army of lean, tanned men, stripped to the waist building the stage out of plywood and tree trunks with their bare hands, as CSN’s ‘Long Time Gone’ plays, and Michael Lang rides his horse around the site, I’m a believer all over again.

Building the Woodstock stage without an ounce of body fat on them.
Building the Woodstock stage without an ounce of body fat on them.

Woodstock is a flower that refuses to wilt and die and it’s one that we should all take pleasure in watering with our dreams. Peace.

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