Reviewed here: Back to the Garden, by Pete Fornatale; The Road to Woodstock, by Michael Lang; Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked The World, edited by Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury
So, with 40 years of factual and mythical hindsight strained through the pop counterculture politic behind us, was the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, held in a cow pasture just a few miles south of Bethel, N.Y., from Aug. 15 to 18, 1969, a high-water mark for music, youth and peace, or a poorly staged event that became a disaster area at worst, and, as a local resident described it, "a shitty (muddy) mess."
Based on three new volumes, bits and pieces of all of the above are applicable, along with a wealth of new information on the event that produced what Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman later called "the Woodstock Nation."
While all three books are valued additions to the aging Woodstock scrolls, former disc jockey Pete Fornatale's Back To The Garden captures not only the essence and facts of the fest, but also the general zeitgeist of the times.
- Back to the Garden, by Pete Fornatale, Touchstone, 303 pages, $32.99
Of major note are the pages Fornatale gives over to director Michael Wadleigh's remembrances of the Woodstock film shoot, and eventual production. As great as Wadleigh's Oscar-winning documentary was, in many ways it actually became Woodstock for the tens of millions who were not there. And since there's only so much of a mammoth 31/2-day event that can be captured in a 31/2-hour film, many misconceptions ensued, particularly about the music.
As Fornatale explains, yes, the film begins with the actual festival opener, Richie Havens, and closes with the real finale by Jimi Hendrix, but many acts are out of their actual running order, and in the case of the Band, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and Blood, Sweat and Tears, to name a few, are omitted from the film and original soundtrack(s) altogether. (In a poor career move, BS&T, which received the second-highest performing purse at $15,000, refused to be filmed for the movie when its management deemed the offer of an extra $7,500 too low.) So it is very helpful for armchair Woodstock historians that Fornatale lays out all performers' chronological appearances onstage and their full set lists.
Of particular note: the cajoling and pleading to get Richie Havens not only to go on first, but to keep playing even after he had run out of songs (his improvisation of Freedom/Motherless Child became a festival highlight); Leslie West of Mountain saying he was "scared" by the sound system's megawatt power and loudness; Pete Townshend of The Who calling the promoters "twits," and after Abbie Hoffman jumped onstage and Townshend guitar-clubbed him off, threatening to kill anyone who did likewise.
Yet, despite Fornatale's easy-to-read narrative, it is the varied voices, collected and listed alphabetically, that really tell the story, vividly showing how people who presumably witnessed the same event can have very different memories.
Drawing recollections from many of the original performers, festival money men John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, promoters Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld and John Morris and a handful of original festival-goers, Back to the Garden provides perhaps the biggest and most accurate picture of Woodstock's immense footprint to date.
Fornatale estimates the crowd at 500,000 but notes that Havens (who "has taken upon himself the Olympian task of carrying the Woodstock torch, and keeping it burning for his own and all subsequent generations") thinks that it was closer to a million when all of the people outside the lower stage area are accounted for. And he writes of just how much one had to consider "the man next to you [as]your brother," to make it through the festival.
Watchers of Woodstock know about "Portosan Man," who emptied the portable toilets with a smile and a disinfectant swoosh, yet multiple-split screens could never convey what Fornatale describes as a "virtual bowl of human soup: BO at Woodstock did not stand for 'box office.'" Festival veteran Jim Marion says that "besides the smell of burning joints, my primary olfactory memory of Woodstock was the smell of urine ... and we were concerned about the content of the runoff we were sitting in."
Fornatale also recounts a potential apocalypse that "could have been the tipping point between Woodstock becoming a cultural landmark versus a true, tragic, unprecedented national disaster." After torrential rains had once again flooded the festival bowl on the third day, the heavy power lines supplying electricity to the stage and which ran directly under much of the crowd, were in danger of becoming exposed. If they had been damaged, a mass electrocution could have occurred.
Promoter John Roberts, already shaken by the evaporation of most of the million dollars he had recently inherited and laid out on a financially hemorrhaging Woodstock, made the decision to stop the show for several hours - always a calculated gamble with a large crowd - and redirected the power to the sides of the bowl.
Roberts died in 2001, but told Fornatale in an interview: "I think I had clearly decided at the time ... that if thousands of people were electrocuted, I was going to find a relatively swift and painless way to take care of myself. ... It wasn't a suicide pact of any kind, but it was something that I knew I would never be able to live with." (There were, however, two deaths at Woodstock, a heroin overdose and a sleeping fan accidentally run over by a tractor.) If there was an unsung hero at Woodstock, it was Roberts, who helped to persuade New York governor Nelson Rockefeller not to call out the National Guard on Aug. 16 to "clear the area," leading to the possibility of a riot or worse. That, in addition to Roberts continuing to sign cheques to keep the festival running when most of the money had already run out.
Despite the mishaps, Fornatale leaves the impression that the music was for the most part good, with some - Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Santana and Joe Cocker - otherworldly, and the peace, love and co-operation vibes unassailable.
"Apart from everything else you can say about it," he writes, "Woodstock made us feel the rapture of being alive."
If you are more interested in the nuts and bolts of how Woodstock '69 came to be, festival promoter/partner Michael Lang's The Road to Woodstock is an interesting and useful guide. Although Lang, now 64, failed in his attempt to stage a Woodstock 40th-anniversary concert ("no sponsors"), he has produced a insider's view (albeit a subjective one) of how the improbable festival became a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
- The Road to Woodstock: From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival, by Michael Lang, with Holly George-Warren, Ecco, 304 pages, $38.99
The Road to Woodstock is also a mini-biography of Lang, the guy millions of Woodstock viewers would recognize as the curly-haired cherubic kid on the BSA Victor motorcycle roaring around the festival grounds.
Raised in New York City, Lang was into the Greenwich Village folk scene but eventually split for south Florida, where he would open his first head shop, dispensing Mary Jane paraphernalia and trinkets and posters, and, most important, start to organize music shows.
After just a few small gigs, Lang, impressed by the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, came up with the idea of a multiple-act concert at the Gulfstream Racetrack, just outside Miami.
Staged in May, 1968, the event drew an estimated 25,000 to hear headliners Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and Jimi Hendrix. In a portent of things to come, the mini-fest was plagued by rain and financial meltdowns.
But Lang was undaunted, and when an ad in The Wall Street Journal appeared boasting of "young men with unlimited capital" looking for business opportunities, Woodstock Ventures was born, a partnership with John Roberts and Joel Rosenman as the young men with money, and Lang and Capitol A&R man Artie Kornfeld as the guys with the vision.
As a child, Lang spent summers in the Catskills near the eventual Woodstock site, knew the location would be a "back to nature" experience and, hey, Bob Dylan lived there! (Lang writes that he should have tried harder to get Dylan to play at Woodstock.) But the bummer was the actual location, location, location. Because the promoters were first refused the Winston Farm in Saugerties, N.Y., then kicked out of Mills Park in nearby Wallkill, before finally finding Max Yasgur's alfalfa field near White Lake, the timing was off.
The refusal of the Wallkill city council to grant a permit even after work had begun put preparations a month behind schedule, and extensive parking and crowd-control measures were never implemented. So even though a little more than 160,000 tickets had been sold, there were no ticket booths to take them, or for those wishing to purchase them at the site, so it became a "free" concert.
Lang details the many dramas played out among the partners, especially Roberts and Rosenman, who had little use for the footloose Kornfeld. But despite Lang's efforts to keep the various personalities together, he was shocked when the partnership blew up weeks after the festival amid threats of lawsuits and bankruptcy.
Accordingly, Lang writes, he "never saw a dime" of the estimated $50-million (U.S.) generated by the movie and soundtrack, while Roberts and Rosenman would add considerably to their fortunes. Lang's total take, he notes, without bitterness, was "a whopping $31,750."
Lang also provides a very tasty anecdote about Joni Mitchell's ode to the festival, Woodstock. Originally supposed to perform, Mitchell was persuaded by her manager to stay in New York so she would not miss an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show on Aug. 18.
Still, she was hearing the reports from the concert site and from returning musicians about the grandeur of it all, and so wrote her defining tune, Woodstock, recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Lang writes that two months after Woodstock, he was driving in Los Angeles and was waved over by Stephen Stills, who told Lang to follow him to Stills's home. There, along with bandmate Dallas Taylor, Stills played Lang a rough version of Mitchell's song.
"I was completely overwhelmed," Lang writes. "That feeling of hearing that song for the first time that way has remained with me to this day."
Finally, if you dig your Woodstock coffee-table-sized and jammed with gorgeous, 35-mm colour shots of the bands, grounds and general goings-on, then W oodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World could be your trip. Skillfully edited by Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury, and easily the most handsome of the three books, the volume contains more than 300 images, some rarely or never before seen, as well as photographic reproductions of festival memorabilia.
- Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked The World, edited by Mike Evans and Paul Kingsbury, Sterling, 287 pages, $38
Particularly stunning are inner front and back cover spreads featuring a tie-dye-brushed Janis Joplin and a glowing-orange, buckskin-frilled Roger Daltry of The Who, a group shot of Santana, and several of Jimi Hendrix in full flight, as well as dozens of crowd scenes, from the mundane, to the wild and crazy. There is also, as Back to the Garden, a complete rundown on each festival performer, and their set lists.
Whether you believe that Woodstock was the counterculture and rock music's finest 72 hours, or perhaps even a bad brown acid, flower-power, FUBAR gathering of the great unwashed hairy tribes, the fact that it has never been duplicated, let alone topped, says that something very, very special happened on Yasgur's farm.
Three days, man. Three days.
Terry Ott is a Hamilton-based writer and webmaster who, over the course of 10 days in the summer of 1970, saw the Woodstock film three times and was never the same again. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.