Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Woodstock: Fact or Fiction?

Woodstock, or as it was billed, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, did, in fact, happen.  However, there are a number of anecdotes connected with the festival that are just plain myths, outright lies, or blurred facts of the kind that worm their way into just about every historical event.  In order to debunk these hardy weeds of history, please allow me, Ex-Prof, free access to the natural amphitheater-bowl on Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Upstate New York, so that I may drop the historian's equivalent of Agent Orange on the sea of mud left after the last flower-child pooped her last poop into the Porta-San, stamped-out her Panama Red joint, and departed for the next "happening" during the Summer of '69.

1. Woodstock happened in Woodstock.  ><ah-OOO-gah!>< Lie.  The concert promoters had talked initially about a small outdoor festival there, but the Woodstock selectmen voted down their permit application.  The Town Board of Bethel, where the festival was eventually held after some last minute realtor shenanigans, tried to do the same thing, but by then it was too late.  The stage had almost been constructed and bunches of fans had already started to show up, so to prevent the riot that would have happened if the concert was shut down, the building inspector, Tom Clark, wisely did not enforce the Stop Work Order he had been given by the Town Board.

"Oh, Mama, could this really be the end?
To be stuck inside of England with the QEII Blues again?"
--> So why was it called Woodstock?  Because a) that's where it was originally planned, b) Woodstock is the nearest largish town, and c) it's where Bob Dylan lived.  By the way, Bob Dylan was a no-show to the festival.  He was bugged that hippies had begun turning up at his home to begin with, and he was booked to play the Isle of Wright Festival that summer, so when the ultimate "happening" of the 1960's was getting started, the Zimmerman (Bob's real last name) family was boarding the Queen Elizabeth II for their trip to England.

2. Woodstock was a free concert.  Partly true.  The promoters clearly intended to make money off of it.  Tickets were printed and sold, posters and other advertising had been purchased, bands had been hired and paid, Porta-San toilets had been rented, so there was way more good old American capitalism at the start than most would readily admit.  It turned into a free concert when promoters realized that they had resources for either a kick-ass stage and sound system, or a fence and ticket booths, but not both.

--> So how much money did they make?
 Not much.  In fact, if it weren't for the film and record album, they wouldn't have made any money at all.  Let's face it: there wasn't a whole ton to be made on what inexorably became a free concert.  To be honest, if I were one of the dopes who bought tickets in advance, I'd be pissed!  Still, wish I could have been there, although I don't know how much a four-year-old would have gotten out of it all.

Note the complete absence of a t-shirt vendor in this pic.  Amateurs!

3. So many people showed up that the New York State Thruway was closed. ><ah-OOO-gah!>< Lie.  This one came straight from Arlo Guthrie's mouth when he declared on stage that "The New York State Thruway is closed, man!  A lotta Freaks!"  While the interstate highway had severe backups and local roads were overwhelmed by rain, mud and throngs of concert goers who just drove as far as they could, abandoned their cars and hiked the last bit, the Thruway never closed down.  New York Governor Rockefeller almost sent in 10,000 National Guardsmen to keep order, but the organizers persuaded him to not do that.

Even this one was abandoned!  Zoinks!
-->So how did the acts get there?  At least one act, Joan Baez, was flown in by National Guard helicopter.  Most of the others were really, really late.  Richie Havens, the opening act, had a two hour set, mainly because there was nobody around backstage to go on next!  One act, John B. Sebastian, was attending the concert and agreed to perform because the Keef Hartly Band (ever hear of them?) were late.  The first big act to sign, Creedence Clearwater Revival, went on so late that almost everybody in the audience was asleep! By sunrise on the third day, almost everybody had left, leaving Jimi Hendrix to belt-out his psychedelic Star Spangled Banner to the clean-up crew and only 10,000 hippies who had slept in late that day.  Afterwards, Bethel and surrounding towns had to deal with lots and lots of abandoned vehicles.  Concert goers left stranded cars and vans stuck in the mud and hitch-hiked their way back home.

4. The conflict-free, caring atmosphere of the concert was a demonstration of the pure, peaceful power of the "Age of Aquarius."  ><ah-OOOOOOO-gah!!!!  BIG  LIE.  If anything, the concert demonstrated peaceful affect of a much maligned herb, Cannabis Americana.  Most of the attendees were well-prepared, if not for the rain, mud, and lack of food --they brought lots of pot with them.  Those who didn't could buy loose joints or take a toke off a buddy's spliff.  In fact, the only ones who walked away from the festival with more money than they started were the bands who had, in fact, been paid, and the dope-dealers.  Can we now dispense with criminal sanctions for pot growing, selling, possessing and using?  Oh, the other reason the statement is a lie?  The Age of Aquarius either happened in 2012, or it will happen in 2597.  Woodstock happened in 1969.
I call this batch the "Age of Aquarius Peacemaker" because --wait, what?  Aw, fuck it.  Anybody got a Zig-Zag and a light?

-->So what about the harder drugs?  Yes, there was a fatal heroin overdose.  Also, according to the stage announcer, "The brown acid is specifically not too good.  Stay away from the brown acid."  Finally, Yippee front-man Abbie Hoffman dropped a few hits of acid and ran onstage during The Who's set,  He tried to get the crowd to chant Yippee slogans, but was instead smacked off the stage by The Who's Pete Townshend.  So yes, the more serious drugs produced problems which, thankfully, were mitigated by all the stoners.
"Gimme an F!  Gimme a toke! --no, wait, Gimme a U!"

5. Every band that was there became instantly famous.  Partly true.  Sha-Na-Na, the 50's-style doo-wop band, wasn't too well known outside of their niche in the music industry.  The exposure they got from Woodstock drove their success into the early 80's.  Some acts like The Who, Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead were already pretty famous, so Woodstock was merely one more notch on the necks of their guitars.  For one act, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, it was their first gig together as a group.  The constituent members had known each other for a while and had been in other groups like Buffalo Springfield, but had not performed together until Woodstock.  And some groups like Country Joe "Gimme an F!" MacDonald and the Fish were lucky to stay together through parts of the 70's.

-->So what about the bands who were invited, but didn't come?  Some were sorry they didn't make the scene.  Dylan was on the way to England; The Doors thought it would be Monterrey Pop all over again, and regretted their non-appearance.  Lead Zeppelin were at the Asbury Park Convention Center in The Boss' neighborhood.  Chicago's manager substituted Santana, a band he also managed, and booked what was still called The Chicago Transit Authority for the Filmore West that weekend.  Joni Mitchell missed because she was booked to do the DicK Cavett Show, but made up for that by writing that great song, "Woodstock," and letting Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young record it later.  And Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention?  Frank declined, later saying, "A lot of mud at Woodstock."

6. One-half a million attended Woodstock.  Who the hell knows?  Maybe.  Probably not.  Besides, people came, went, came back with friends, two children were born, there were two deaths, so yeah, a half-million is a stretch.  More like 350,000-400,000.

-->So, what's YOUR Woodstock story?  Were you there? Were you prevented from being there?  Want me to research a myth/truth for you?  Let's hear some comments on this one, people!  So until we meet again, Peace, Love and Dope!
...and birds!  Don't forget the Bird!

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