Collecting Woodstock

“For most of America’s youth of the 1960s, the search for personal identity that varied from the traditional values and aspirations of our parents was the priority of the day,” recalls Don Aters, famed rock music photographer and historian from New Albany, Ind.

“The sixties saw the golden age of rock and roll, the advent of psychedelica, and the turmoil of the most violent times in American history.

The migration to Woodstock was a gathering of ‘Rainbow Warriors.’ We were communal, culturally diverse, and in search of universal peace through the music that defined our generation. With Vietnam raging and shown daily on television as well as the front page of every newspaper, it seemed to us that cultural acceptance was imminent, and that music would be the universal elixir.”

Following his discharge from the military, the sights and sounds of the West Coast and the allure of “hippiedom” seemed more viable to Aters than the death and destruction in Southeast Asia. “I was 21 years old, and earlier that year I was indirectly implicated in a civil rights riot in downtown Louisville, Ky. I was struck in the face with a heavy pipe, spent 14 days in a coma, and given a poor prognosis for full recovery. A few months later I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to join the assumed 25,000 participants expected at the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival. The lengthy sojourn seemed more of an excursion to a tropical rain forest, and when we arrived, the burgeoning crowd was overflowing from Yasgur’s farm. We — nearly 500,000 ‘flower children’ — became a beacon in a sea of despair for a world that seemed at odds with everything, including peace and love. During those few days in August of ’69, the youth of America brought the world to its knees in a humbling display of confusion as to how a gathering of this magnitude could exist without any of the typical confrontations expected from the ‘mainstream.’

“Critics of the counterculture, the cultural revolution, the inhabitants of Haight-Ashbury, and those who attended this historical event are also those who adopted the phrase, ‘Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.’ For those of us who experienced those damp and cloudy days long ago, we represent the majority of today’s population, and we remain as a community of collective souls who embrace our past and look towards the future.”

As in all events, it is the media that holds the power to shape how history is remembered and perceived — making more out of what was less, and, conversely, making less out of what was more. Nowhere is this truer than with Woodstock. In researching Woodstock, Peace, Music and Memories, a consistent theme emerged from those who recollected a time in their youth some 40 years ago: pride in the accomplishments of a generation of displaced youth, briefly showing the world how things could be if they were in charge. And a disappointment in how the media, charged with a mission to reduce the event to “reckless sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll,” irresponsible hedonism, held Woodstock as proof against a youth culture that was questioning authority and threatening the conservative status quo. A symbol of 1960s excess. Unfortunately, as do many historic victims of the media, Woodstock, too, has maintained its well-spun misperception as something more infamous than significant.

As those once youthful witnessess to this event become the more senior members of our culture, it’s time to set the record straight.

“For all those naysayers who know little about what we represented so long ago, we are the Woodstock generation,” says Aters. “The memories remain, as do most of us, and so do our ideals. Now 40 years later, a toast to the most sensational event in the annals of contemporary history, a toast to those who orchestrated the Herculean festival, and most of all, ‘cheers’ to all of us. May we forever be the torchbearers for universal acceptance. Rock in peace!”

On a shortlist of historical events, Woodstock has remained part of the cultural lexicon. As Arnold Skolnick, the artist who designed Woodstock’s dove-and-guitar symbol, described: “Something was tapped, a nerve, in this country, and everybody just came.”

From Aug. 15-17, 1969, the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair held in the Catskill Mountains of New York’s Sullivan County, on Max Yasgur’s farm in the town of Bethel, was mecca to an A-list of the top performers of rock, folk, and popular music of the time. The rural Borscht Belt area, best known for farming and summer vacationing, would be transformed overnight, briefly becoming New York State’s second largest city of more than 450,000 people.

Costing more than $2.4 million, Woodstock was sponsored by four very different and very young men: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld, and Michael Lang. Twenty-four-year-old John Roberts was heir to a drugstore and toothpaste manufacturing fortune and supplied the money. Roberts’ slightly hipper friend, Joel Rosenman, 26, was the son of a prominent Long Island orthodontist and had just graduated from Yale Law School. Roberts and Rosenman met on a golf course in the fall of ’66, and by the winter of 1967, they shared an apartment, contemplating their future. Their thought and hope was to create a screwball situation comedy for television, a male version of “I Love Lucy.” To get plot ideas for the sitcom, Roberts and Rosenman put a classified ad in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in March 1968: “Young Men with Unlimited Capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.”

Artie Kornfeld, 25, was already well established in the music business. He was Capitol Records’ first vice president of rock music, and was the company’s connection to the rockers whose music was starting to sell millions of records.

Michael Lang, 24, was described by friends as a cosmic pixie with a head full of curly black hair that bounced to his shoulders and who rarely wore shoes. In 1968, Lang had produced the two-day Miami Pop Festival, which drew 40,000 people. Later that same year, Lang was managing a rock band and wanted to sign a record deal, so he brought his proposal to Kornfeld at Capitol Records in December. Lang knew that he and Artie had both grown up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, and used that as his edge, telling the company’s receptionist that he was “from the neighborhood.”

Woodstock co-creator and promoter Kornfeld remembers: “One day, my secretary buzzed me to say, ‘Mike Lang is here to see you.’ I asked if he had an appointment and she answered, ‘No, he doesn’t, but he said to tell you he’s from Bensonhurst.’ With guys from the neighborhood, you let them in! Michael had all this hair sticking out and I was pretty straight, and to me, he looked like the ‘king of the hippies.’ He had this terrible band called ‘The Train’ and he wanted me to get them a development deal with Capitol. To make a long story short, we took them into the studio and the session was a disaster. Whether we were drinking too much red wine or whatever, the only thing that came out of that was the beginnings of our friendship.

“Over time, Michael ended up staying at my place with me and my wife, Linda, and we’d spend nights talking and rambling until morning.

One night, we were playing bumper pool, smoking some great Columbian, and Michael started teasing that I didn’t go to clubs anymore to see live acts; truth being, after 12 years in the music business I’d become too busy. That’s when I said, ‘Michael, I have a great idea. What if we had all the money in the world — we could rent a Broadway theater, have a concert, and just invite our friends. We could get Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater, Sly Stone, The Beatles, and every other act that we would love to see perform. We won’t charge anything, and it will be one of the greatest parties of all time.’ I thought I’d finally get to see all these acts, and Michael thought we should host our festival in Woodstock, New York. Michael also dreamt of a recording studio in Woodstock. It was a popular artist’s colony. People like Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, The Band, and Richie Havens were also living there, and it had really become the ‘in’ place. We talked endlessly about putting on this show and hoped that maybe 100,000 people would show up, or at least 50,000. My wife, Linda, thought maybe half a million because those love-ins were getting 10,000 people, and if we had all those acts … I would say we dreamt about this for months and figured it would stay just that — a dream.”

Kornfeld continues: “One day Michael’s lawyer called to tell us that there were two guys [John Robert and Joel Rosenman] advertising in the New York Times, who had unlimited capitol for investment, and he convinced me to get in touch with them. We pitched the idea for the recording studio in Woodstock, and John and Joel saw the opportunity to finance it through our idea of a music festival. We got backing for our dream, and the deal was sealed.”

The four met in February 1969, and by the end of their third meeting, the little party had snowballed into a bucolic concert for 50,000, the world’s largest rock and roll show ever, and the four partners formed Woodstock Ventures Inc., named after the hip little Ulster County town.

The team found a site owned by Howard Mills Jr., and for $10,000, Woodstock Ventures leased a tract of land in the town of Wallkill.

“We drove up to Wallkill and saw the property,” Rosenman says. “We talked to Howard Mills and made a deal. The vibes weren’t right there. It was an industrial park,” but Roberts insisted that they needed a site immediately. The 300-acre Mills Industrial Park offered perfect access. It was less than a mile from Route 17, which linked to major thoroughfares, and it had the needed essentials like electricity and water lines. In late March or early April, Rosenman told Wallkill officials the concert would feature jazz bands and folk singers. He also said that 50,000 people would attend, if they were lucky.

In the cultural-political atmosphere of 1969, promoters Kornfeld and Lang knew it was important to pitch Woodstock in a way that would appeal to their peers’ sense of independence. Lang wanted to call the festival an “Aquarian Exposition,” capitalizing on the zodiacal reference from the musical “Hair,” and he had an ornate poster designed featuring the Water Bearer. By early April, the promoters were carefully cultivating the Woodstock image in the underground press, in publications such as the Village Voice and Rolling Stone magazine.

Ads began to run in the New York Times and the Middleton, New York Times Herald-Record in May. For Kornfeld, Woodstock wasn’t a matter of building stages, signing acts or even selling tickets; for him, the festival was a state of mind, a happening that would exemplify the generation. The event’s publicity shrewdly appropriated the counterculture’s symbols and catch phrases. “The cool PR image was intentional,” he said.

The group settled on the concrete slogan of “Three Days of Peace and Music” and downplayed the highly conceptual theme of Aquarius. The promoters figured peace would link the antiwar sentiment to the rock concert, and also wanting to avoid any violence, they thought a slogan with peace in it would help keep order.

The Woodstock dove is really a catbird. “I was staying on Shelter Island off Long Island, and I was drawing catbirds all the time,” said artist Arnold Skolnick. “As soon as Ira Arnold [a copywriter on the project] called with the copy-approved ‘Three Days of Peace and Music,’ I just took the razor blade and cut that catbird out of the sketchpad I was using. First, it sat on a flute. I was listening to jazz at the time, and I guess that’s why. But anyway, it sat on a flute for a day, and I finally ended up putting it on a guitar.”

Kornfeld adds, “With John and Joel’s initial investment, I had a small budget for advertising, and I couldn’t imagine that it was just hippies in the Village in New York City who had no money, who would be into this. They wouldn’t be able to come up with $8 for a ticket for each day of the festival. I took an ad out in the New York Times, the Village Other, and the Village Voice with a coupon that they had to fill out for more information. When those coupons started coming in, I thought, ‘Wow, 89 percent of these kids are white, middle-class, college types.’ With the money I had left, I went to the radio stations, and with my promotion skills, advertised directly to reach those kids. I researched, so I knew when they would be on the beach or in their car listening, and I used airplanes to pull banners advertising the event.

That ad, which first ran on my wedding anniversary, ended up bringing in a million and half dollars to get this thing up and running.”
Woodstock Ventures was aiming to book the biggest rock and roll bands in America, but the rockers were reluctant to sign with an untested outfit that might be unable to deliver.

“To get the contracts, we had to have the credibility, and to get the credibility, we had to have the contracts,” Rosenman says. Woodstock Ventures solved the problem by promising paychecks unheard of in 1969. The big breakthrough came with the signing of the top psychedelic band of the day, Jefferson Airplane, for the incredible sum of $12,000, double their usual pay for gigs. Creedence Clearwater Revival signed for $11,500. The Who then came in for $12,500, and the rest of the acts started to fall in line. “We paid Jimi Hendrix $32,000. He was the headliner, and that’s what he wanted,” Rosenman says.

The residents of Wallkill had heard of hippies, drugs, and rock concerts, but after the Woodstock advertising hit the major newspapers and radio stations, local residents knew that a three-day rock show [maybe the biggest ever] was coming. Woodstock Ventures’ employees looked like hippies, and in the minds of many people, long hair and shabby clothes were associated with left-wing politics and drug use.

The new ideas about reordering society were threatening to many people, and the Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned Woodstock on July 15, 1969, to the applause of residents. Two weeks earlier, the town board had passed a law requiring a permit for any gatherings greater than 5,000 people.

“The law they passed excluded one thing and one thing only — Woodstock,” says Al Romm, then-editor of the Times Herald-Record, which editorialized against the law.

Paul Novak was growing up in Wallkill and lived about half a mile from what was to be the festival site. “I was only 14 at the time,” remembers Paul. “I was a budding guitar player and totally fascinated with the unfolding events… locals vs. hippies. I remember wandering up to the Wallkill site that summer, and even sneaking into the barn that the organizers were using as an office. From the outside, you could see hippies building a stage, but the inside of that barn was a beehive of activity filled with desks and telephones ringing. All those long-haired folks were so out of place in our little hick town. That stage was already half constructed when Wallkill wanted out.

There were already so many people coming, and this scared a lot of folks. All the work that had been completed to that point was abandoned, and the structure sat for years—an unfinished monument to what might have been.”

Elliot Tiber read about Woodstock getting tossed out of Wallkill. He owned the El Monaco, a White Lake resort of 80 rooms with nearly all of them empty, and keeping it going was draining his savings. But for all of Tiber’s troubles, he had one thing that was very valuable to Woodstock Ventures: a Bethel town permit to run a music festival.

“I think it cost $12 or $8 or something like that,” Tiber said. “It was very vague. It just said that I had permission to run an arts and music festival. That’s it.” The permit was actually for the White Lake Music and Arts Festival, a very small event that Tiber had dreamed up to increase business at the hotel. Tiber called Woodstock Ventures, not even knowing whom to ask for. Lang got the message and went out to Elliot’s place the next day [probably July 18] to take a look around. Tiber’s festival site was 15 swampy acres behind the resort.

“Michael looked at that and said, ‘This isn’t big enough,’” Tiber recalls. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we go see my friend Max Yasgur? He’s been selling me milk and cheese for years. He’s got a big farm out there in Bethel.’”

Yasgur met Lang in the alfalfa field. This time, Lang liked the lay of the land. “It was magic,” Lang said. It was perfect—the sloping bowl, a little rise for the stage, a lake in the background, and the deal was sealed right there on the spot.

Lang recalls, “Max and I were walking on the rise above the bowl. When we started to talk business, he was figuring how much he was going to lose in his crop and how much it was going to cost him to reseed the field. He was a sharp guy, ol’ Max, and he was figuring everything up with a pencil and paper, wetting the pencil tip with his tongue. I remember shaking his hand, and that’s the first time I noticed that he had only three fingers, but his grip was like iron. He’d cleared that land himself.”

Within days after meeting Yasgur, Lang brought the rest of the Ventures crew up, but by then, Yasgur was wise to Woodstock and the price had gone up considerably. Woodstock Ventures kept the negotiations secret, lest it repeat what had happened in Wallkill. The Woodstock partners have since admitted that they were engaged in “creative deception.” They told Bethel officials that they were expecting 50,000 people, tops, when all along they knew that Woodstock would draw far more.

“I was pretty manipulative,” Lang admits. “The figure at Wallkill was 50,000, and we just stuck with it. I was planning on a quarter-million people, but we didn’t want to scare anyone.”

With Yasgur’s assistance, the appropriate permits were obtained, but as news of the festival spread, it stimulated local opposition. An anonymous party erected a 2 1/2 -by-4-foot sign that read, “Local People Speak Out/Stop Max’s Music Festival/No 150,000 Hippies Here/Buy No Milk.” The Yasgurs had been having second thoughts about their decision to lease their land, but after they saw that sign, they were determined to go through with it.

As July became August, Vassmer’s General Store in Kauneonga Lake was doing a great business in kegs of nails and cold cuts. The buyers were long-haired construction guys who were carving Yasgur’s pasture into an amphitheater.

“They told me, ‘Mr. Vassmer, you ain’t seen nothing yet,’ and by golly, they were right,” remembers Art Vassmer, owner of the store. Abe Wagner knew that little Bethel, with a population of 3,900, wasn’t set to handle the coming flood of humanity. Two weeks before the festival, Woodstock Ventures had already sold 180,000 tickets, and a week before the festival, Yasgur’s farm didn’t look much like a concert site. “It was like they were building a house, except there was a helicopter pad,” Vassmer says.

As Aquarius rose in Bethel, Artie Kornfeld had bigger fish to fry. “What was paramount to the success of the festival was the need to ensure that the festival would be peaceful,” Kornfeld says. “At that time of unrest in America, I knew that I had to go meet with the Black Panthers, the SDS, and Abbie Hoffman, and become friends to divert any possible trouble prior to the concert. It took time, but I was able to get guarantees that ‘Three Days of Peace and Music’ would be just that.”

Harriette Schwartz, 19, was born and raised in the Bronx, New York, and landed a great job after high school with Warner Bros./Seven Arts in the city. Because of this position, she learned of the plans for Woodstock. Michael Wadleigh, the filmmaker for the Woodstock documentary, and his crew had been given offices there in the Tisch Building at 666 Fifth Avenue.

“They were a bit different, sitting on their desks with their feet up on their chairs, but always pleasant enough,” Schwartz remembers. As often is the case in the workplace, everyone knew why they were there, and when a good-looking guy from the mailroom named Alan asked her to go to Woodstock, she said yes. Alan was from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, and they drove up to Bethel the weekend before to check things out.

“Little did I know the prequel I was witnessing,” Schwartz says. “It was a huge, open, grassy cow pasture onto which these huge metal stanchions were being erected. It was a hilly, tranquil, and placid venue. The day was sunny, the sky was blue, and you never would have guessed that such a peaceful setting would become home to half a million celebrants dancing in the rain and mud, just one week later.”

Lisa Law, 24, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, remembers that at the 1969 Aspen Meadows Summer Solstice in New Mexico, Stan Goldstein [campground supervisor for Woodstock] asked the Hog Farm and the Jook Savages to handle the coordination of the campgrounds at the festival.

“Since we were a large communal group,” Law says, “he thought we would know how to take care of masses of people, especially if they were taking drugs, as we were well-versed on the subject. We agreed. Our party of about 85, with 15 Indians from the Santa Fe Indian School, turned up on the assigned day at the Albuquerque Airport to take the jumbo jet the organizers sent to fly us to the festival. [My husband] Tom and I decided to take our tepee. The handlers at the airport looked like Keystone Kops loading the poles into the baggage compartment. That had to be a first.”

Jean Nichols, 24, was returning to the United States from Vancouver, Canada, after the birth of her daughter. On the way, they stopped at Merry Prankster leader Ken Kesey’s farm, and from there she met up with the Hog Farm. Jean remembers, “We were told that we’d be setting up a place where the people would be camping, the free stage, plus we’d have our own space.”

Thirty-three-year-old Hugh Romney [later taking the name Wavy Gravy, given to him by B. B. King], first among the commune’s equals, donned a Smokey-the-Bear suit and armed himself with a bottle of seltzer and a rubber shovel. When they stepped off the plane at Kennedy Airport on Monday, Aug. 11, the Hog Farmers were met by the World Press, who informed them they had also been assigned the task of doing security.

“My god, they made us the cops,” Wavy said. “‘Well, do you feel secure?’ I asked. The guy answered, ‘Yeah,’ so I said, ‘See, it’s working already.’ That’s when he asked what we were going to use for crowd control. I told him ‘cream pies and seltzer water.’” He and the members of the New Mexico commune constituted themselves as the “Please Force.”