What The F Happened? How Artists Dealt With The W50 Debacle

Woodstock 50 Lineup
Eric Renner Brown
– Woodstock 50 Lineup
L-R: Alan Zweibel, Andy Bernstein, Common, Michael Lang, and John Fogerty announce the Woodstock 50 lineup March 19.

When the Woodstock Festival rolled into Bethel Woods 50 years ago this weekend, it was billed as offering “three days of peace, love and music.” The fourth edition, which imploded three weeks before the anniversary it was pegged to, could forever be tagged far less romantically  – four months of in-fighting, confusion and chaos.

While the logistics seemed iffy from day one – there was no actual site confirmed, for one thing – signing on seemed like a no-brainer for big names like Jay-Z, John Fogerty and the Killers. Payment in full up front was great incentive, and, historically speaking, the geographic uncertainty was nothing new: The 1969 fest couldn’t make it to the actual Woodstock, and the upstate town of Walkill likewise closed its doors before Max Yasgur opened his farmland to the some 500,000 revelers that attended over those three days.
Fielding Logan of Q Prime South, who works with the Black Keys, says the duo became the first A-list act to bow out of a slot due to a combination of factors – the chaos surrounding the staging as well as the band’s own unrehearsed state, post-hiatus. Logan says, “After five years off, we realized we weren’t going to be able to reactivate the way we wanted to at such a high-profile event. Pulling everything together a month before the tour itself wasn’t feasible.
But even while weighing their options, teams behind the bigger names that hung on a bit longer than the Keys kept one eye – and eventually both eyes – on the calendar’s turning pages. An agent who declined to name his artist noted that Woodstock 50 had no plan in place to actually get fans through the gates – wherever those gates were. He said, “Look at any festival of any size, and onsale dates are months out – with some of the country festivals, it’s a year. With Woodstock, it was always ‘next week,’ then ‘in two weeks.’ After a while, you felt like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football.”
Country Joe McDonald, one of a handful of holdovers from Bethel Woods, has been outspoken in expressing his disappointment over that football trick, referring to the event as “a sinking ship” even before the plug was pulled. In the aftermath, he says he was particularly stung by the lack of communication from Michael Lang, noting, “I never had any personal contact at all, just a generic announcement. It was kind of … yucky.”
McDonald insists he didn’t approach Woodstock 50 with illusions that he and his peers were going to recapture the original vibe. Speaking via phone from his California home, he says, “The original festival was all about the counter-culture, not a music-industry approved group of bands and artists. It was as much a gathering, a family picnic, as it was a place to see music – as great as the music was.”
The 77-year-old, whose f-bomb enhanced intro to “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” remains one of Woodstock 1.0’s most iconic moments, says he remains hopeful that there can be another galvanizing get-together, since “there’s a counter-culture again, made up of people who feel disenfranchised … [like] during the Vietnam War.”
Lang made some effort to append a bit of social consciousness — albeit a less revolutionary stripe — to the proceedings by teaming with the voting rights group HeadCount on a plan to donate a sizeable percentage of ticket proceeds, and urging acts to do the same. Upon announcing the cancellation, he stuck to that admonition, asking artists who had been paid to pony up 10 percent of those fees: As of press time, it was unclear whether any had done so.
The social consciousness and zeitgeist tapping may have separated Woodstock from events like the Miami Pop Festival – another Lang production in 1969 – but the lineup was stellar, top to bottom. (For proof of that, just browse through Rhino’s exhaustive 38-CD chronicle of the entire bill.) That cachet proved to be a siren song for artists of varying vintage who remained steadfast in their desire to perform this August, even after the event’s final evolution – into a free show at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. 
Chris Tuthill of The Rocks Management, who manages the Zombies, says the resurgent British band was on board this edition of Woodstock to the bitter end after declining an invitation to the first for the most valid of reasons – they no longer existed at the time, despite having the No. 1 song in the country with “Time of the Season.” Tuthill relates the story, saying “Chris White and Rod Argent were in New York, putting together a deal for [what would become] Argent. They got an offer for a version of the Zombies to play, and even though they liked the message, they turned it down because it sounded like too much of a hassle.”
This time around, the reformed band – which also includes original lead vocalist Colin Blunstone – opted to make time, carving out some dates around their planned run with Brian Wilson. Tuthill grants that it was “something of a leap of faith” to have the Zombies stick with the program through all its permutations, but insists “it didn’t unfold as much like a debacle as it’s been made out to be: At the first sign of trouble, everyone was paid and it seemed to me that Lang was sincere, so why not?”
Israeli singer-songwriter Ninet Tayeb, one of the lesser-known acts who’d locked down spots on the three-day bill, expresses a similar swing-for-the-fences attitude. Now based in Los Angeles, the 35-year-old says that the spectre of the legendary festival lingered in her homeland, despite a homegrown rock scene that’s not among the world’s more vibrant.
“Doing a show of that size was a big deal for me and my band, and the fact that it was Woodstock took it to another level,” she says. “Woodstock is a serious thing. It still means something. It was a festival of pure music with pure intent, and I think a lot of the people taking part this time felt the same way.”
It’s doubtful that Woodstock 50 would have carried the same cultural relevance as the original – bigger, flashier festivals have been unsuccessfully trying to capture that ever since (the New York hamlet of Watkins Glen, which rebuffed Lang back in June, hosted one in 1973). But it’s a safe bet that, had it gone off as planned, it would have rinsed away the sour taste left by the forgettable 25th anniversary version, not to mention the riot-scarred, nu-metal-tinged 1999 model.
No one’s expecting a Woodstock 60, and Lang hasn’t made any grand statements about future festival plans. But Tuthill, who has the Zombies playing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland the weekend of the anniversary, believes there’s still room for some commemoration of the event, even if it’s not time-stamped. He says, “[We] did it out of respect for the memory, and to create a memory. There’s still room for that to happen, as long as it’s done well, done on a scale that’s workable. A lot of people would like to see that happen.” 

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.