Epic festival still resonates as a cultural milestone
Sunday, July 26, 2009
By Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ed Chavern of West Mifflin was only 14 when he made the pilgrimage to
Bethel, N.Y., 40 years ago for a weekend music festival that was
creating a bit of a national buzz.
"My sister just finished her first year at Penn State and came home
that summer with her new boyfriend who was the hippie type," he says.
"In an attempt to get in good with my parents he offered to take me
and my sister. For some bizarre reason my parents said yes."
Yes to An Aquarian Exposition: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair that
would swell to biblical proportions and go down as a historical
benchmark in pop culture that 40 years later would spawn a line of
T-shirts, posters and things for teenage Target shoppers.
For young Ed Chavern, it was a 72-hour crash course in peace, love,
drugs, music, mud and survival -- not all of it experienced
firsthand. For the road trip, he ended up in a car packed full of
people he didn't know, including a new mom who breast-fed her child
along the way. Once they got to the now-famous Route 17B, they joined
the thousands of cars on the road to Woodstock.
Of course, once his parents back home heard the national news reports
that Bethel had become a disaster area, they were flipping out.
But, Chavern says, "Everyone took care of each other. Though I was
only 14, completely out of my element, and frequently separated from
people I knew, I felt safe. I had never seen drug use or naked people
before. I did not do any drugs or anything bad there. A girl in my
tent offered to take my virginity, but I was not so sure about all
that and passed on the offer."
A farmer to the rescue
Most hippies would have said "the hell with it" and kicked back with
a joint and a copy of "Are You Experienced?" some time around late July '69.
But Michael Lang had an excess of positive energy and a can-do
attitude. The 24-year-old Brooklyn native and Florida head shop
owner, with a mop of curly hair and a faraway smile, had recently
pulled off the two-day Miami Pop Festival for 80,000 people and was
determined to do it on a bigger scale with all the major artists of
the day in the Catskills of New York.
He was more a visionary than a businessman, and the festival turned
out to be much more than he and his partners at Woodstock Ventures
bargained for. Exactly one month before the Aug. 15-17 festival, with
the bands all booked and thousands of tickets sold, the people of
Wallkill pulled the permit amid fears it was not the gentle folk fest
they originally imagined.
The ugly politics extended to the music and hippie scenes. Leading
concert promoter Bill Graham didn't want them cutting into his
business, and Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman was extorting money from
them for co-opting a hippie culture that he seemed to think he owned.
Beyond that, there were a multitude of details involved with managing
the money, booking the bands (the Who and the Grateful Dead wanted
cash up front), constructing the stage, fences and other buildings,
and trying to hire security after the New York police withdrew its support.
It was only through the grace of 49-year-old milk farmer Max Yasgur,
who owned 10 farms, including Lang's dream "bowl" in Sullivan County,
that the festival happened.
"Without Max Yasgur, there would have been no Woodstock ...," Lang
writes in his new book "The Road to Woodstock." "He was a man of
integrity and an idealist. I don't believe the money alone was what
motivated him. Max was willing to rent to us to give us a fair chance
to accomplish our dream -- much as he had done with the dairy."
With the help of a pound of cocaine, crew members worked through the
night to construct a stage that was finished at the last minute.
Never completed, though, were the ticket gates or the fences, which
the radical likes of Hoffman and Paul Krassner were tearing down at
night. Many people started arriving on Thursday. By Friday afternoon,
traffic was tied up within a 20-minute radius, according to the book,
and those hordes of people would soon be pouring into Woodstock
through and over the fences.
Lang originally wanted Hendrix to perform an acoustic set on Friday
afternoon, but he hadn't showed, so they recruited Greenwich Village
folkie Richie Havens, who was supposed to be fifth, to hit the stage
at 5:07 p.m., for an expectant crowd that was on its way to 400,000
and was going to need more food, more toilets, more medical attention
and more rain gear than anyone imagined.
An amazing array of artists
The faces of Woodstock have been ingrained over the years through
film clips we've seen time and time again: Havens ad-libbing his way
through "Freedom." Joe Cocker wailing "With a Little Help From My
Friends." Santana summoning some pagan god on "Soul Sacrifice."
Country Joe McDonald leading the crowd in the sing-along of
1-2-3-4-what-are-we-fighting for. Jimi Hendrix turning the "Star
Spangled Banner" into a shocking protest anthem. The serene folk of
Joan Baez, the jubilant funk of Sly Stone, the punk explosiveness of The Who.
"The music was wonderful," Chavern says. "The first day we were at
the second row when Richie Havens opened, then it was just an amazing
array of artists. I heard Santana there for the first time and was in
awe. There were only brief times when the music was not on."
A good many of the Woodstock performances went unsung because they
weren't included in the Warner Bros. documentary, such as The
Grateful Dead's "atrocious" rain-drenched performance, according to
Jerry Garcia; The Band's subdued folk-rock set, and Creedence
Clearwater Revival's rousing and hit-filled Saturday night special.
(By the way, The Beatles, who weren't really touring anyway, and the
Rolling Stones weren't considered because Lang thought they would
"overwhelm" the bill.)
Mountain had only played two shows before, and no one really knew who
the New York band was, but it got in due to sharing an agent with
Hendrix. A heavy blues-rock outfit, it was more in line with The Who
or Ten Years After than the San Francisco hippies and folkies.
"I wasn't really even smoking pot. Peace and love? Wasn't into that.
I used to make a joke that somebody would give you the peace sign and
say 'peace and love' while they steal the tires off your car," says
Mountain's Leslie West.
He and the band got there via helicopter from 60th street in Manhattan.
"When I got up there and looked out and saw 400,000 people, I said,
'Holy Jesus, how did they find this place in the woods?' "
Although the crowd was at its peak when Mountain played between
Canned Heat and the Dead on Saturday night, West says, "I couldn't
even see past the first maybe 5,000 people. We got a good slot,
Saturday night just when it was getting dark. You could hear those
people, man. I had been using two stacks of Sunn amps. One of the
roadies took me up to eight stacks of Sunn amps, and all of a sudden,
my guitar scared me. I'm looking at the set list and I don't even
remember that we did all those songs. I wasn't high or anything. I
just don't remember."
The helicopter pilot didn't want to fly in the dark, so Mountain
stayed the night to see Creedence, The Who and other bands. West was
disappointed, though, when the Oscar-winning movie came out and there
was no Mountain. The band had hit a year later with "Mississippi
Queen," but a scene in "Woodstock" would have gone a long way.
"I'm sure it would have," West says. "Look what it did for Ten Years
After. I don't know what happened to the footage. I was young and
naive. I felt bad when I heard the movie was coming out and we
weren't in it. But they released two albums. The first one, and then
'Woodstock II,' which we were on. At least we were at the festival. I
don't think anyone had seen anything like it before and never will again."
For Duke Devlin, a Texas hippie who ventured to Woodstock and never
left, one of the stage highlights was a nonmusical one. "The who's
who of the culture was on that stage, and there were people we'd
never heard of on that stage who are now the who's who of the
culture. I'd almost have to say that my most memorable stage presence
was when the local dairy farmer Max Yasgur got up on the stage and
welcomed us all. He even God-blessed us. It was kind of touching.
Here was the guy whose farm we were on, and he was saying, 'It's OK.
You're welcome here. Have fun, nothing but fun and music.' You really
felt good about that."
Local artist gets on the stage
Colleen Nelson ventured to Woodstock as a visiting artist whose
paintings would be hung in the trees.
In addition to the $18 ticket, the student at the former Ivy School
of Professional Art in Pittsburgh purchased a $2 Artist Pass so that
she could deliver her art, which was strapped to the top of a
Volkswagen Beetle, directly to the staging area.
"On the way we heard on the radio that there were huge traffic jams
as people from New York City headed to the festival," Nelson says.
"So we took back roads, and it wasn't until we were within a few
miles of the farm that cars were being pulled over and people were
beginning to walk. Police were directing the traffic, and they
flagged us through because we had that little sticker in our window
that was our stage pass. My friends were impressed! We still talk
about that sticker!"
When she got there, she marveled at how colorful everything was and
knew it would be a blast. "The Hog Farm had teepees pitched in the
trees, a huge outdoor kitchen, tables, a fire pit, tents, walkways
strung with Christmas lights, generators humming, kids playing,
wonderful smells coming from the big pots. I had my first bowl of
granola there. Remember Wavy Gravy's line in the movie about
'breakfast in bed'? Well, he and the Hog Farm had been there for
weeks setting up a West Coast hippie dream of camping out and feeding
thousands, providing first aid, a trip tent, doctors ... in tie-dye,
of course. I was taken by the heady energy of these folks who knew
what to do and how to have a great time doing it."
On Friday, she made creative use of the honorable mention ribbon she
won for her paintings.
"I took that big ribbon, pinned it on the front of my shirt and told
the guard at the stage gate that I was part of the crew. He let me
in, and I went on stage and watched the bands set up. Later, I sat on
stage and watched Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie play."
For Nelson, who lives in Greene County and is an outreach worker for
the federal government, along with her art and freelance writing, a
weekend at Woodstock has given her bragging rights for life.
"My daughter's friends think I'm way cool. About a month after I got
home I got a check for $30 in the mail -- my prize money for the art
show. To my mind, that was the coolest part. After all, I'd gone
there thinking it was an art show with some music thrown in for good
measure. Ha! What did we know? Woodstock was the first of its kind.
We saw it all without preconceived notion. And I got paid for doing it!"
Woodstock lives on
Even in the 40th anniversary year, the legacy of Woodstock is still
up for debate. Some say it was the beginning of an era. Others say
that era ended abruptly with the violent Altamont Festival later in
'69 and the drug-related deaths of Hendrix, Joplin and Jim Morrison a
year later. Before you knew it, we were ushered into the Me Decade.
The more idealistic argument, basically, is that Woodstock proved
that nearly a half-million people could endure traffic, rain, food
shortages, overcrowding and other discomforts, and thrive together
without a single violent episode (unless you count the flamed hamburger stand).
Lang quotes John Lennon as once saying, "Woodstock is the biggest
mass of people ever gathered together for anything other than war."
Lang, who sold his rights to the Woodstock name shortly after the
festival, writes that "The spirit embraced at Woodstock continues to
grow. You see it in the many green movements, in grass-roots
organizations like MoveOn, and in what some pundits have called a
Woodstock moment, the election of our first African-American president."
On a more modest scale than world leadership is the fact that the
spirit of Woodstock still pervades a pop culture obsessed with
recycling. Nine-year-olds are wearing Woodstock T-shirts from Target.
Many of the Woodstock artists are touring and making music, even
playing the year-old Woodstock museum and concert facility. The
hippie community of Woodstock, embodied for so long by the Dead and
its followers, is re-created weekly in the jam-band subculture from
Bonnaroo to All Good. Hollywood is getting in on the act with the
comedy "Taking Woodstock."
As for specific Woodstock products, Warner Home Video has released a
four-hour director's cut of the movie "Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and
Music," and Rhino has released "Woodstock -- 40 Years On: Back to
Yasgur's Farm," a 77-song, six-CD collection featuring 38 previously
With the aura of Woodstock still embraced by new generations, it's
likely to live on long after the Woodstock Generation is gone.
"There was magic in the air, and it made folks hungry for more,"
Nelson says. "That spirit of wonderment I believe has become part of
the spiritual underpinnings of our culture. We know it's there. We
saw it, we told our friends, we raised our families and carried it
into our lives. We all have a little bit of Woodstock in our hearts
now. It's part of our cultural soundtrack and a splash of color on
our collective consciousness."
Scott Mervis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576.