The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival was an event like no other in the 20th century. Nearly half a million young people gathered in upstate New York on a hot, rainy weekend in 1969 to watch one of the most impressive musical lineups in history. But what they got was much more than a concert- Woodstock was both a cultural milestone and the end of an era.
In the late 1960s, the United States was a divided nation. The war in Vietnam had put people on one of two sides: pro-war or anti-war. And both sides were vehement in their beliefs. By 1969 the anti-war movement felt completely marginalized by the media -it seemed like the only way left to spread the message of peace was through music. San Francisco was the West Coast headquarters of the hippie movement; on the East Coast, it was New York City. But after a while, the hustle and bustle of the cities became too much for musicians to deal with -especially for recording music- so a lot of them started moving to the country.
About 100 miles north of Manhattan, the rural town of Woodstock, New York, had been a pastoral retreat for artists and musicians for nearly a century. Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and Van Morrison, to name a few, decide to build homes and record there. Young people liked Woodstock for its back-to-nature appeal, but the local farmers weren’t too thrilled to see long-haired hippies rolling into town. Because there were only a few at first, the locals just shrugged it off. They had no idea what was about to hit them.
THE FANTASTIC FOUR
There was one thing Woodstock lacked: a state-of-the-art recording studio. In the spring of 1969, four entrepreneurs -all young men in their 20s- decided to build one.
* Michael Lang was a stereotypical longhair, described by his friends as a “cosmic pixie.” A year earlier, he had produced Florida’s largest-ever rock concert- the two-day Miami Pop Festival, which drew 40,000 people.
* Artie Kornfeld, the oldest of the four at 26, was a vice president of Capitol records and an accomplished songwriter with 30 hit singles to his credit, including Jan and Dean’s “Dead Man’s Curve.”
* John Roberts, heir to a toothpaste fortune, was the one with the money. The only concert he’d ever seen was a Beach Boys show.
* Joel Rosenman was a Yale Law School graduate, but he cared more about playing guitar in a lounge band than practicing law.
LET’S PUT ON A SHOW
Kornfeld and Lang were friends who shared a New York City apartment and a love for progressive music. One of their dreams was to put on a huge music festival. When they heard of the exodus up to Woodstock, they wanted to be a part of it, and building a studio would be their way in. They thought a rock concert might be a good way to raise money and generate publicity for the studio- but first they needed money to put on the concert.
Meanwhile, in another New York City apartment, Roberts and Rosenman were busy thinking up new business ideas. They had some money, but true to the times they wanted to use it for some unconventional, cutting-edge venture. But what? They decided to produce a television sitcom about two oddball businessmen who got into a different wacky business venture every week. For plot ideas, they put an ad in the New York Times in March 1968:
Young Men with Unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.
MEETING OF THE MINDS
The show never made it off the drawing board. The ad, however, caught the eye of Lang and Kornfeld’s lawyer, who knew his clients were looking for business partners to put on their concert. A meeting was arranged in February 1969. Although they came from different backgrounds -Roberts and Rosenman were button-down college graduates; Kornfeld and Lang were were tie-dyed flower children- they all agreed that the summer of 1969 in Woodstock, New York, would be the time and place for an unprecedented festival, what they called “three days of peace and music.” They expected between 40,000 and 50,000 people to show up.
FINDING A FIELD, PART I
The four men formed Woodstock Ventures, and in the spring of 1969, started scouting around for a concert site in or near Woodstock. In Wallkill they found an abandoned industrial park that was the right size (300 acres), and had all the utilities in place. Roberts shelled out $10,000 to rent it.
But although the industrial park had all the amenities the four were looking for, the “vibe” didn’t feel right. Lang, for one, hated it: the industrial feeling was a far cry from the back-to-nature theme he’d envisioned for the concert. The people of Wallkill were wary of the prospect of a few thousand hippies converging on them, but Rosenman assured town supervisor Jack Schlosser that it would be a low-key folk festival. Schlosser reluctantly agreed, and so did Lang. Even though the site wasn’t perfect, it was the only one they had.
FINDING THE ACTS
As spring turned to summer, the four men went to work trying to book the biggest folk and rock acts of the day. Performers were understandably hesitant- Woodstock Ventures had never put on a concert before, and now they were trying to put on the largest one of the year. “To get the contracts,” remembered Rosenman, “we had to have the credibility, and to get the credibility, we had to have the contracts.” They got the contracts the only way they could think of: they promised incredible sums of money to performers. First, Jefferson Airplane agreed to play for $12,000, twice their usual fee. Then Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who signed for similar fees. That gave the show the credibility it needed. Other acts soon began to follow: The Grateful Dead and the headliner, Jimi Hendrix. (The musician they wanted most, Bob Dylan, couldn’t make the show- he had already signed on to play the Isle of Wight Festival in England on the same weekend.)
With all the wheels in motion, an army of longhaired hippies descended on Wallkill to begin setting up the site and started construction on the largest sound system ever created. The influx proved to be too much for the already suspicious locals -they reneged on the agreement and ran Woodstock Ventures out of town- one month before the concert was scheduled to begin.
FINDING A FIELD, PART II
Losing the site was a huge blow. The people of Woodstock Ventures were disconsolate; some were even packing up their stuff to go home. But then the press found out about what happened in Wallkill, and that changed everything. The story of the town that reneged on its concert deal made headlines everywhere. Suddenly Woodstock was part of the national conversation. And that may have been the best thing to happen to the festival. Many think that if the concert had gone on in Wallkill, it would have turned out badly -tensions there were high, and some Wallkill citizens had threatened to “shoot the first hippie that walks into town.”
Yasgur’s Farm. (Image credit: Heinrich und Friedl Winter)
But the fact remained that Woodstock still had no venue. Then, sometime during the week of July 20, when most of the people of the world were focused on the first moon landing, Lang heard about Max Yasgur, an eccentric old pipe-smoking dairy farmer in the town of White Lake, who owned a 600-acre farm and might be willing to rent it. Lang went to the field and fell in love with it. “It was magic,” he said. “The sloping bowl, a little rise for the stage. A lake in the background. The deal was sealed right there in the field.”
HERE IT COMES
Rosenman maintained that at most 50,000 people would show up. That’s what he told Wallkill and that’s what he told the people of White Lake, even though he expected five times that many. At that point he would’ve said anything to make the show happen. But Max Yasgur was shrewd -he talked up his expenses for lost crops and destruction of the land and charged $75,000 in advance …and got it. The bands were misled, too. There was supposed to be a $15,000 cap on arrtist’s fees, but word leaked out that Jimi Hendrix had been promised $32,000. Rosenman explained that it was because Hendrix, the headliner, was slated to do two sets. In the end it didn’t matter: few of the acts were ever paid in full, anyway.
A week before the start of the festival, the citizens of White Lake and Bethel realized the full magnitude of what was about to happen. There were at least 1,000 people on the site building the stage, sound towers, clinics, tent cities, and two huge ticket booths. Outside, tens of thousands of people were driving up Route 17B, inundating the small town of Bethel. White Lake town officials “freaked out” and pulled the permits just a few days before the event. But by this point, it was too late. The ”Stop Work” signs were ripped down almost as soon as they were put up. Like it or not, Woodstock was going to happen.
FRIDAY, AUGUST 15
By evening, close to half a million hippies had converged on the site. Estimates say that half a million more tried to get to Woodstock, but never made it past the 20-mile traffic jam leading into Bethel. In the end, thousands of people just abandoned their cars and walked to the farm. And when they got there, instead of going through one of the two gates, the kids trampled the fence and walked right in. While Woodstock Ventures was overjoyed by the turnout, they were equally dismayed when they found out that very few of the concertgoers had paid. The largest concert of the century had suddenly become a free concert. And Rosenman, Lang, Kornfeld, and Roberts had no clue how they were going to pay for it.
When they got the word on Friday afternoon that the bands couldn’t make it through the gridlock, Woodstock Ventures rented a fleet of Army helicopters to ferry them in. But that would take time, and hundred of thousands of kids were screaming for music. The only artist who had shown up -folkie Richie Havens- was ushered onto the stage at 5 PM. His band hadn’t arrived yet, so he played solo …for three hours. Every time he tried to stop, the promoters threw him back onstage. Next up was John Sebastian, who wasn’t even scheduled to perform, but happened to be there. Lang was afraid that if the music stopped, the kids might riot. For that reason, the plan to stop playing every night at midnight was abandoned. If all went well, the music would go on nonstop until Sunday evening.
SATURDAY, AUGUST 16
When the sun rose on Max Yasgur’s field on Saturday morning, Woodstock was the third largest city in New York state. It was also one of the muddiest: five inches of rain had fallen during the night. On the surface, the entire event looked like a mess. Greil Marcus, a reporter who covered the event for Rolling Stone, described the troubles: “The sanitation facilities were breaking down and overflowing; the water from six wells and parked water tanks were proving to be an inadequate supply …the food concessions were sold out and it was impossible to ferry in more through the traffic.”
(Image credit: Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell)
But despite the adversity, the music kept going through the afternoon and people banded together for survival. The Hog Farm, a group of communal hippies, had been hired to manage the crowds, run interference, help people make it through bad drug trips, and keep the message of love flowing. The leader, known as Wavy Gravy, when asked how he intended to maintain law and order, replied, “With seltzer bottles and cream pies.” Instead of the police force, they called themselves the “Please force.” Woodstock Ventures would later maintain that the $16,000 they spent to get the Hog Farm to Woodstock was the best money they ever spent. Even the locals, many who tried to stop the event, pitched in when they heard how little food there was for so many people. Through it all, the music kept playing. And then at five in the afternoon on Saturday, it started raining again. Heavily.
But the rain was the least of their problems. The three main acts for Saturday night -The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and The Who- threatened not to play unless they were paid in advance, in cash. That added up to more than $30,000. Roberts didn’t have that kind of money on him, so he pleaded with Charlie Prince, the owner of a local bank, to give him a cash advance. Roberts promised that he was good for it (he had a $1 million trust fund), but Prince was still skeptical. Then Roberts informed him that if the music stopped, they could be faced with the largest riot in American history. Prince conceded, and the music went on.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 17
As the sun came up, The Who were just concluding the performance of the rock opera Tommy. Arriving by car (barely) the night before, they didn’t realize how big the crowd was until dawn. As they were singing “Listening to you, I feel the music,” the band saw almost half a million people looking back at them. Pete Townshend says it’s one of the most amazing things he’s ever experienced. (Less than an hour before, Townshend had another strange experience: yippie activist Abbie Hoffman ran onstage and started preaching politics. Townshend, not recognizing Hoffman, bonked him on the head with his guitar.)
By noon, torrential rain had given way to baking sun. All of the extra space at the festival, even the dressing rooms, had been converted to hospitals. Someone had spiked the water supply with LSD, so the Hog Farm was helping thousands of kids (and many band members) through bad trips. Local medics were treating people for heatstroke, cut feet (from all the broken glass), pneumonia (from being drenched), and even blindness (several tripped-out kids had been lying on their backs and staring at the sun).
The food situation was dire; supplies were woefully short. And by this time, the portable toilets were unusable. Max Yasgur’s field looked like a disaster area. The situation was so bad, in fact, that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller threatened to send in National Guard troops to break up the festival. But luckily for everyone involved, calmer heads prevailed.
And still, the music went on. Audiences were treated that day and throughout the night to sets by Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Ten Years After, Johnny Winter, and Joe Cocker. Woodstock’s final act, headliner Jimi Hendrix, didn’t even get to start his set until 9 AM on Monday morning. His instrumental version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” woke up the dozing crowd and gave them one last electrifying -but underappreciated- performance as they packed up their muddy belongings and left Yasgur’s farm. The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair was over, but for the four men who formed Woodstock Ventures, that weekend would consume them for years to come.
The largest concert in history also left one of the biggest messes in history. It took several months and $100,000 to clean up all the garbage left behind -and it was years before Max Yasgur’s land recuperated. The festival also left at least three people dead: one 17-year-old boy who was asleep under a tractor-trailer when it started up and pulled away, and two more people who died of drug overdoses. The final tally for those treated for medical problems was around 5,000. There were eight reported miscarriages, along with rumors of several babies being born. And with all of the free love, who knows how many babies were conceived at Woodstock.
By the festival’s end, Woodstock Ventures was $1.3 million in debt. Promotional and production expenses had gone way over budget. Throughout the 1970s, Woodstock Ventures was mired in lawsuits and faced criminal charges for illegal drug use, breach of contract, and even “illegal burning” for the plumes of smoke that rose over the field for weeks as all the trash was burned. Another lawsuit came from the town of White Lake for disturbing the peace (an ironic charge for an event whose goal was to promote peace), but that suit was dropped in 1978. So was it worth it? Yes, says Lang -the whole ordeal of organizing Woodstock was like “living a dream. My idea was to just get it done, whatever it took. We had a vision, and it all came true.”
The saving grace for the concert promoters’ monetary woes came from the movie Woodstock. Warner Bros. made a film of the event (edited by Martin Scorsese) and Woodstock Ventures was entitled to residual royalties. Because of this, Woodstock Ventures broke even -in 1980. (Want to see Mrs. Uncle John? She’s in the movie. She’s the cute brunette behind the guy freaking out.)
Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman in 2009.
Twenty-five years later, on August 12, 1994, around 300,000 people showed up in Saugerties, New York, to attend Woodstock ’94, which was produced by Woodstock Ventures, still headed by Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts.
A CULTURAL LEGACY
Woodstock came at a time when the United States was at a crossroads, but did it really change anything? On the day after the event, the New York Times ran an editorial that called Woodstock “a colossal mess.” But just a day later, the paper changed its tune, calling it “a phenomenon of innocence. They came, it seems, to enjoy their lifestyle that is its own declaration of independence.”
One thing is for sure: as the summer of 1969 came to an end, the optimism that stemmed from seeing men land on the moon and 450,000 people gather peacefully in the rain was running out. On December 6 of that year, the Rolling Stones headlined the Altamont Festival in Livermore, California. The event was scarred by a near-riot and the stabbing death of an 18-year-old man at the hands of the Hell’s Angels. Altamont had since been called "the day the ‘60s died" and "the anti-Woodstock." And as the ‘70s rolled in, the nation would soon be rocked by the Watergate scandal and then an energy crisis, making that weekend in White Lake seem like a distant memory.
WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP
(Image credit: Heinrich und Friedl Winter)
But Woodstock is by no means forgotten. It’s one of the most enduring images of the 1960s. And it’s likely there won’t be a concert again of its magnitude. The original site now holds a monument to the event and an amphitheater that seats 16,000… comfortably. And as for the recording studio that sparked the whole idea in the first place, it was never built.
”I think you have proven something to the world -that half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing BUT fun and music. God bless you for it!”
-Max Yasgur to the crowd at Woodstock
The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges into Music.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!