Alvan Meyerowitz / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images – Everybody Look What’s Going On:
Fans climb the scaffolding to get a better view at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in August 1969 near Bethel, N.Y.
Woodstock. That single word can conjure a variety of thoughts, depending on your age group. Mud. Traffic. Fires. For those born after the last outing 20 years ago it may mean nothing at all. Or it may be one of those rock & roll fables Gen Y and Z hear in passing when older generations talk of life before the internet – back when kids went outside as a source of entertainment.
What you can tell them all is that Woodstock was a music festival with meaning, which allowed this gathering, above others, to take on a mythological status. Like any great story, however, the legend lost some of its shine with two spiritless sequels and Woodstock: The Trilogy doesn’t hold anywhere near the fascination of the original.
Woodstock wasn’t the first music festival in the States or even the first on the East Coast. Thrown-together festivals had been shooting up everywhere since Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, which was the first large-scale outdoor rock festival in the U.S. in June 1967.
Concert promotion was then still the wild west and it seemed anyone with the idea to stick an amp outside and plug in a guitar was automatically a promoter. Of the four Woodstock partners, only one, Michael Lang, had produced a festival – the Miami Pop Festival – the year prior, which lost money due to bad weather and no rain insurance. To the counterculture, Woodstock could have simply been “the next one.”
As offspring of The Greatest Generation, the counterculture had eschewed the ‘50s myth of false American exceptionalism that was projected upon them. Where their parents were unified due to the horrific events of The Great Depression and World War II, the tie that bound this generation was far more uplifting: Rock & Roll. Nursed by Buddy Holly, raised by Elvis and enduring puberty with a little help from The Beatles, this was something that was truly theirs. Something their parents didn’t understand, which made it even better.
Like any great art form, by the late ‘60s rock music had already broken into subgenres, giving the counterculture a musical voice. What made Woodstock appealing was the idea of “3 Days of Peace, Love and Music” and a fantastic lineup that had been locked in thanks to the promoters offering the artists double what they were normally paid.
The original Woodstock, by all accounts, was an organizational disaster. 50,000 people showed up two days before the start of the festival and watched the stagehands finish constructing the stage. (If you build it, apparently they will come – and watch you finish building it.) Some 500,000 people showed up (with less than one-third having actually bought tickets). The sound and production were spotty at best. During the Grateful Dead’s set, they had trouble grounding the electricity so every time Phil Lesh touched his bass, he was shocked. Artists waited around for hours on end before they performed. A hot-dog stand was set on fire when vendors jacked up the price from 25 cents to $1. And that’s just the Cliffs Notes version.
Tucker Ransom / Hulton Archive / Getty Images – Santana
One of the original Woodstock’s music highlights was Santana’s incendiary performance. Seen here performing with bassist David Brown on Aug. 16 at 2:00 p.m. in Bethel, N.Y.
Two things saved Woodstock. First, the festival, for all of its production problems, contained miraculous musical moments that became the archetypes for Rock Star 101 schooling (Roger Daltrey’s lethal use of fringe. Santana’s drummer Michael Shrieve’s drum solo, which should be required viewing for any wannabe rock drummer. Sly Stone playing so hard that steam rose from his head.) Second, Woodstock was the first time that hippies (who called themselves ‘freaks,’ thank you very much) showed everyone that their philosophy of sharing was possible, and that they could amass in a ridiculously large group and not have complete and total mayhem ensue. For these freaks, it was finding strength in numbers.
In Michael Lang’s 2009 book “The Road to Woodstock,” festivalgoer Rob Kennedy realized, “I don’t think any of us believed there were that many hippies in the USA. We were the only freaks in our high school at that time. We knew there were some in surrounding towns, but we had no idea. That was one of the most empowering aspects of Woodstock. We realized we had the numbers.” At Woodstock, they found their tribe.
What helped Woodstock: The Legend grow was a documentary and two albums: Woodstock and Woodstock Two released by Warner Bros. in 1970 and 1971 respectively (every great album needs a sequel apparently). This wasn’t the first time the counterculture was marketed to the masses. Columbia Pictures had released “The Happening,” “Head” and “Easy Rider” between March 1967-July 1969. Warner Brothers rightly thought ‘Why should Columbia have all the fun (and profits)?’ Thus the legend was born.
The documentary didn’t gloss over the hardships of the festival but made it seem like it was a much more entertaining experience than it actually was – a collective musical utopia for freaks united for a common cause (in this case, against the Vietnam war).
Had it ended there, the Woodstock legacy would’ve been a story that the elders told the young’uns around the campfire, right before someone played a horrible version of “Kumbaya” on acoustic. The young’uns could only witness Woodstock for themselves if they had access to a VCR and a Blockbuster membership.
With two anniversary concerts in ‘94 and ‘99, the legacy started to lose a bit of its shine (both lost millions with the latter ending in fires and riots – see page 28). The promoters lost sight of what made Woodstock remarkable in the first place: people unifying for a common cause. With the recent news that Woodstock 50 was officially off, thanks in part to its original partner Dentsu Aegis pulling out, it seemed like the corporations had finally won the war, while the freaks had only won the battle.
But there is a still a chance to salvage the ideals of the original Woodstock. To Michael Lang and its promoters, hear me out.
First, get away from the anniversary shows and having your location firmly planted in New York state. Woodstock’s values are larger than a time or place. Secondly, and perhaps firstly, make sure you get industry pros who understand the ins and out of the live business and do this kind of work every day all year long.
Thirdly, Woodstock should act as a social justice movement for a variety of causes. Anytime there’s a Woodstock-worthy organization in need of help, you’ll be there. Think of it like the bat signal but instead of a silhouette of a bat, it would be a large ‘W’ with an eighth note attached.
Fourthly, hit the road, Jack. Woodstock 50 was supposed to promote HeadCount, an organization that works to increase voter registration and turnout. Fantastic idea. Why would you confine it to only one festival in New York? Or Maryland? Or any one state for that matter? Fuel up those biodiesel tour buses and do multiple shows over multiple months. Forget camping. Instead, hit every type of venue (might I suggest venues with indoor plumbing).
Book the funky, independent theaters hardly anyone uses. Target the secondary markets that don’t typically get shows. Drive in circles around the battleground states. Swing by Charlotte, N.C., Aug. 24-27, 2020, during the RNC convention and Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum July 13-16 for the DNC convention. Voter registration ends in most states in mid-October. This could be one helluva summer/fall tour (and Peter Max’s altered Woodstock design could be doves on a guitar neck holding ballots). For the artists (and their agents and managers) who are reading this and thinking “Sounds great but I’m not a ‘Woodstock artist,’” I disagree. It’s not a partisan politics thing.
If you believe teachers should earn a decent salary, you are a Woodstock artist. If you believe in equal pay for all, you are a Woodstock artist. If you believe people in this country should have access to clean water, you are a Woodstock artist. If you believe in equal rights for all, you are a Woodstock artist. If you believe in the scientific method, you are a Woodstock artist. And if you believe that voter turnout should surpass the 58% of the voting-eligible population that voted in 2016, you are a Woodstock artist.
The lineup could range from Bette Midler to Public Enemy. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young could perform “Chicago” while Jay-Z spits out a new verse for the occasion. Do what you did with the original Woodstock and use artists from every genre for this one cause.
Baby Boomers were going to be the generation that changed the world and in some ways they did. But now they have a chance to unite the generations that followed and continue the mission. Salvage Woodstock. Promote HeadCount. Do so and you can show the world that we can, and have the numbers.
For more, pick up Pollstar’s special Woodstock 50 edition, which also includes: an oral history of the original Woodstock; an in-depth interview with Danny Wimmer Presents’ Gary Spivack, who booked Woodstock 50’s impressive lineup; “When Rome Burned,” an extensive report on Woodstock ’99; an archival photo gallery from 1969, courtesy of the Morrison Hotel Gallery, which is now hosting the exhibition “Woodstock: 3 Days That Lasted 50 Years”; and much more.