By PETE FORNATALE
Published: August 7, 2009
Just after midnight on July 27, 1969, twenty minutes into my debut
program at WNEW-FM in New York, I did my first live commercial. As
instructed during orientation, I looked at the program log, opened up
the alphabetized copybook in front of me, and rifled through it until
I came to the Ws. When the vinyl record on the turntable to my right
ended, I turned on the mic switch and did a quick back-sell of the
music I had just played ("Sing This Altogether" by the Rolling
Stones, "All Together Now" by the Beatles, and "You Can All Join In"
by Traffic). I then proceeded to read these exact words from that copybook:
"The Woodstock Music and Art Fair is a three-day Aquarian exposition
at White Lake in the town of Bethel, Sullivan County, New York.
Friday, August 15, you'll hear and see Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Tim
Hardin, Richie Havens, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, and
"Then on Saturday, August 16, it's Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater,
the Grateful Dead, Keef Hartley, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson
Airplane, Mountain, Santana, and the Who - the hottest group on the
scene right now.
"Sunday, August 17, the Band; Jeff Beck; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Iron
Butterfly; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Jimi Hendrix; the
Moody Blues; Johnny Winter; and that's not all. Tickets are available
by mail or at your local ticket agency for any one day at $7.00, two
days at $14.00, and for all three days, just $18.00. A special
two-day ticket is available by mail for only $13.00.
"For tickets and information, you can write the Woodstock Music and
Art Fair, Box 996, Radio City Station, New York,
one-zero-zero-one-nine, or phone Murray Hill 7-0700.
M-U-seven-zero-seven-zero-zero. Remember, the Woodstock Music and Art
Fair is being held at White Lake in the town of Bethel, Sullivan
County, New York.
"They've had their hassles, but it looks like everything's gonna be okay."
That last line was an ad-lib - a fairly pithy one at that - but no
one had any idea at the time just how important that three-day
festival would turn out to be, not only to music fans but also to
commentators, journalists, politicians, pundits, sociologists,
writers, and members of the youth movement. These were my first few
minutes on the air at the most important of the new breed of FM-rock
radio stations in the country, and I was talking about an event that
would soon redefine the culture, the country, and the core values of
an entire generation.
Woodstock was, without question, the high-water mark of the '60s
youth revolution - musically, politically, and socially. A gathering
of close to half a million people in one place at one time is bound
to get attention, no matter what the reason. But half a million young
people gathered in one place at one time to flex their cultural
muscle and celebrate their life-altering music sent shock waves from
upstate New York to the rest of the country. Even in the
technologically primitive stages of our global village, this
legendary tribal gathering put Woodstock front and center in the
consciousness of citizens around the world.
Without initially intending to, Woodstock made a statement. It became
a symbol for all the changes that bubbled up during the first half of
the American '60s and boiled over during the second half. Just eight
years earlier, John F. Kennedy had galvanized the nation during his
inaugural address with his declaration that "the torch has been
passed to a new generation." He was talking about the torch handed
off by the pre-World War II generation to the men and women who
actually fought it. Woodstock was about the passing of the torch to
the next generation - from the World War II veterans to their
children, the already labeled "baby boomers," who grew up very
differently than their forebears, with affluence, education,
television, and, of course, with rock 'n' roll.
So now it is forty years later. In some respects, Woodstock is just
as much of a mess today as Max Yasgur's farm was on that Monday
morning when Jimi Hendrix played his final note. At least figuring it
out is. There are still so many stories to tell, even after all of
these years. And many of those stories contradict one another. To
borrow a phrase from Kris Kristofferson, that baptismal blast in
Bethel was "... a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly
fiction." Woodstock is an elephant. Perhaps even a big pink one,
depending on what you were ingesting back then. (Big Pink was even
the name of "the trips tent" set up by the Hog Farm at the site to
deal with drug-related casualties.) And we are all blind men and
women trying to describe this behemoth based on the part of its body
that we touch.
In the end, they are all partly correct, but all mostly wrong. So it
is with Woodstock. You simply can't make any definitive judgments or
observations about the whole of it until you have learned something
about the totality of its parts. Jainists call it the Theory of
We have attempted in these pages to avoid the pitfalls of selective
dissection by providing as many first-person accounts as we can from
every strand of the Woodstock freak flag, every tile of the Woodstock
mosaic, and every thread of the Woodstock tapestry - even when they
are totally at odds with one another. But caveat emptor! Even this
approach will not solve or resolve a more bewildering, confounding
dilemma about the festival - namely, all of the diametrically opposed
viewpoints and anecdotes about the very same "truths" that you will
encounter. And I'm not talking about mere mild differences of
opinion. I'm talking about wildly divergent, red-in-the-face rants
and polemics about everything that happened during those very same
sixty-five hours on Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, in August of 1969.
Thankfully, there is a name for this dichotomy as well. It's called
the Rashomon effect. It's based on the late Japanese director Akira
Kurosawa's landmark 1950 film, Rashomon, in which four individuals
witness the same exact crime, yet describe it subjectively, in four
radically contradictory ways. The idea is that despite our different
experiences of the same events, each account can still be plausible.
Each person has a unique set of life experiences that influence the
way he or she experiences the world.
We hope that providing you with the widest possible assortment of
first-person accounts dating back to the historic weekend itself, as
well as those sifted through the mists of time during those four
rapidly passing decades, will give you very reliable eyewitness
testimony upon which to base your opinions about Woodstock. But here
too, we offer you this warning. Take the four hundred thousand
versions of the truth from the estimated number of persons who
attended the actual event, then add to that the accounts of those who
swear they were there but weren't. Finally, calculate into the
equation the hundreds of millions who experienced Woodstock
vicariously through the movie, recordings, documentaries, books,
articles, and word-of-mouth recollections that have been bouncing all
around the globe for forty years now. Massage the quantitative facts
about the event together with the myths and legends, and you end up
with some idea of how chameleonlike anything Woodstock-related is.
One might even say, "It all depends on what your definition of is, is!"
So let's return once more to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York,
that weekend in August of 1969 when the [expletive] hit the fan (or,
in some cases, when the fans hit the [expletive]) and see what sense
we can make of it all on this auspicious fortieth anniversary.
Graham Nash: The legend, the myth of Woodstock has grown. It was
undeniably a tremendous social event. A lot of great music. A lot of
good times had by a lot of people. I think as we get into the future,
the legend, the myth of Woodstock becomes greater than the actual reality.
I think Graham has it exactly right. With each passing day, week,
month, or year, it becomes much less important how many nails were
used to build the stage at Woodstock, and far more important what
people have embroidered in their DNA about the very word Woodstock.
The myth making began as early as the week after the festival itself:
The baffling history of mankind is full of obvious turning points and
significant events: battles won, treaties signed, rulers elected or
disposed, and now seemingly, planets conquered. Equally important are
the great groundswells of popular movements that affect the minds and
values of a generation or more, not all of which can be neatly tied
to a time or place. Looking back upon the America of the '60s, future
historians may well search for the meaning of one such movement. It
drew the public's notice on the days and nights of Aug. 15 through
17, 1969, on the 600-acre farm of Max Yasgur in Bethel, NY. Time
magazine, August 29, 1969
Say what you will about Abbie Hoffman's role as a hippie, Yippie,
fighter, inciter, ad man, madman, he was early into the Woodstock
myth-making business. He even gave it a name. It's all on the record,
either in his book Woodstock Nation or in his public testimony at the
notorious Chicago Eight trial, from April 1969 to February 1970,
where he and his codefendants were tried for crimes related to the
riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The following is
taken from the transcript of those hearings in the courtroom of Judge
Mr. Weinglass: Will you please identify yourself for the record?
The Witness: My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America.
Mr. Schultz: Your Honor, may the record show it is the defendant
Hoffman who has taken the stand?
The Court: Oh, yes. It may so indicate ...
Mr. Weinglass: Where do you reside?
The Witness: I live in Woodstock Nation.
Mr. Weinglass: Will you tell the Court and jury where it is?
The Witness: Yes. It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry
it around with us as a state of mind in the same way as the Sioux
Indians carried the Sioux nation around with them. It is a nation
dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people
should have better means of exchange than property or money, that
there should be some other basis for human interaction. It is a
nation dedicated to -
The Court: Just where it is, that is all.
The Witness: It is in my mind and in the minds of my brothers and
sisters. It does not consist of property or material but, rather, of
ideas and certain values. We believe in a society -
The Court: No, we want the place of residence, if he has one, place
of doing business, if you have a business. Nothing about philosophy
or India, sir. Just where you live, if you have a place to live. Now
you said Woodstock. In what state is Woodstock?
The Witness: It is in the state of mind, in the mind of myself and my
brothers and sisters. It is a conspiracy. Presently, the nation is
held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.
We will address Abbie's specific involvement with Woodstock later on,
but let it suffice for now to say that he was a controversial,
polarizing character about whom widely divergent opinions were held.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that when I met
Abbie at a Washington Square concert in the '80s, he called me
"golden throat," which edged me closer to the pro-Abbie contingent
after years of dismissing him as the clown prince of 1968 politics.)
Let's continue our sampling of Woodstock witnesses with the then most
trusted man in America. Here is Walter Cronkite's summation of
Woodstock on his decade-ending radio documentary called I Can Hear It
Twenty-seven days after "Tranquility Base," on an untranquil sea of
mud, there was a walk in space that four hundred thousand long-haired
pilgrims in and out of sweatshirts called "the greatest weekend since
the creation." It came to be known as the "Woodstock Nation." In
search of rock, acid rock, acid, pot, peace, and just being together,
four hundred thousand Americans between fifteen and twenty-five
flocked to Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, New York, for a weekend
with Sly and the Family Stone; Country Joe and the Fish; Janis
Joplin; the Jefferson Airplane; Santana; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the
Who; Joan Baez; and Arlo Guthrie, among others.
The festival was declared a disaster area, and if there had been a
riot, the commission that would have investigated it would have
probably blamed negligent planning by the promoters; lack of water,
food, medical and sanitary facilities; and stormy weather. It would
have cited also the abundance of marijuana, some hard drugs, communal
living, the exploitation of thousands of turned-away ticket holders
who never got their eighteen dollars back. Yet there was no violence,
relatively little illness for a population of this size. Three people
died, two were born, and in a rare happening, even the police got
rave notices. There was some paranoia. The establishment was blamed
by some for having seeded the clouds causing the downpour. Some
critics of the festival called it an orgy organized by the
communists. And the promoters ended up suing each other.
Another early indication of Woodstock's potential as a sociological
phenomenon can be found in the attention paid to it by renowned
anthropologist Margaret Mead. Her widely respected theories,
including studies about the healthy attitudes toward sex held by
residents of the South Pacific, made her a perfect candidate to offer
insights into the social, sexual, and psychological aspects of
Woodstock. She plumbed the event for meaning and significance in the
January 1970 issue of Redbook magazine:
I do not think the Woodstock festival was a "miracle" - something
that can happen only once. Nor do I think that those who took part in
it established a tradition overnight - a way of doing things that
sets the pattern of future events. It was confirmation that this
generation has, and realizes that it has, its own identity.
No one can say what the outcome will be; it is too new. Responding to
their gentleness, I think of the words "Consider the lilies of the
field ..." and hope that we - and they themselves - can continue to
trust the community of feeling that made so many say of those three
days, "It was beautiful."
"It was beautiful!"
That was certainly one side of the Woodstock coin. The other side
wasn't nearly as amiable and benign. That one came from the poison
pen of the Russian-born American philosopher, novelist, and
playwright Ayn Rand. She originated the belief system called
Objectivism, which espouses that all humans must base their actions
and values solely upon the tools of reason. Her books The
Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) were wildly successful
in this country and all over the world. She vented her disdain for
rock 'n' roll music, the hippies who liked it, and the so-called
counterculture in her book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.
Seizing on the coincidence of the successful Apollo 11 flight and
Woodstock taking place exactly one month apart, she praised to the
skies the former and lashed out unmercifully at the latter. Drawing
on Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of
Music, Rand cleverly used the dichotomy of the Greek gods Apollo and
Dionysus to frame her attack on Woodstock by contrasting it with the
moon landing. Rational, civilized thought is Apollonian; drunkenness
and madness are Dionysian. The delicious coincidence of the mission
being called Apollo must have made it irresistible for Rand to mount
her blistering attack on the hedonism of Woodstock by bashing it with
the rational triumph of NASA's accomplishment. On the one hand:
In my article "Apollo 11," I discussed the meaning and the greatness
of the moon landing ... "No one could doubt that we had seen an
achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being - an
achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication
to the absolutism of reality."
On the other hand:
The hippies are the living demonstration of what it means to give up
reason and to rely on one's primeval "instincts," "urges,"
"intuitions" - and whims. With such tools, they are unable to grasp
even what is needed to satisfy their wishes - for example, the wish
to have a festival. Where would they be without the charity of the
local "squares" who fed them? Where would they be without the fifty
doctors, rushed from New York to save their lives - without the
automobiles that brought them to the festival - without the soda pop
and beer they substituted for water - without the helicopter that
brought the entertainers - without all the achievements of the
technological civilization they denounce? Left to their own devices,
they literally didn't know enough to come in out of the rain.
Excerpted from Back to the Garden by Pete Fornatale