Monday, August 10, 2009


New books on Woodstock:

Three Days in August

Three Lions/Getty Images
August 9, 2009

Three Days in August

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The Story of Woodstock

By Pete Fornatale

Illustrated. 303 pp. Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. $24.99


By Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren

Illustrated. 304 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $29.99

The Woodstock festival (“Three Days of Peace and Music”) has been celebrated for 40 years as a great moment in American cultural history, although we’ve never quite agreed about why. Sometimes the argument seems to be that it was important because nothing terrible happened.

“It was unique in that there were a half-million people not stabbing each other to death at a concert, and that hadn’t been done before,” said Grace Slick, who sang there with Jefferson Airplane.

“Nobody killed anybody, nobody raped anybody, nobody shot anybody. In the history of humankind, I think it’s probably the only group of people that size that didn’t do any of that,” said David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

We will pause for a moment to contemplate the dark opinion American musicians circa 1969 entertained about humankind in general and their fans in particular.

To really appreciate Woodstock, you have to understand that it was, in many ways, incredibly awful — the rock concert in the middle of nowhere that attracted so many young fans it became a nation unto itself, surrounded by a ring of stalled traffic. The weather was terrible. The lines at the concession stands were endless. The smell from the Port-o-Sans was ferocious. “It was the most horrific stench I have ever smelled in my life,” one woman said. “And once I got done with what I had to do there, I literally had to walk around to clear my head a little bit because I thought I was going to fall down.”

Yet everybody seemed cheerful. Pete Fornatale, in “Back to the Garden,” offers up the Slick and Crosby analy­ses, as well as one from Ravi Shankar, who said of the huge audience: “It was drizzling and very cold, but they were so happy in the mud; they were all stoned, of course, but they were enjoying it. It reminded me of the water buffaloes you see in India, submerged in the mud.”

Not the most flattering description of those of us who were there. But it does put the event into better perspective. Woodstock was unique not because 400,000 people — give or take a hundred thousand or so — refrained from murder, rape and robbery. The point was that they treated one another very kindly under extreme circumstances. They shared food — or drugs, which seemed to be in much more plentiful supply. As they walked back to their campsites in the crowded dark, they refrained from pushing or shoving. And almost every adult they encountered said they were remarkably polite.

“By adult standards the occasion was clearly a disaster, an outrageous upset of all normal patterns,” an editorial in The New York Times said. “Yet the young people’s conduct, in the end, earned them a salute from Monticello’s police chief as ‘the most courteous, considerate and well-behaved group of kids’ he had ever dealt with.” This was the editorial page’s second verdict on Woodstock. The day before, in a piece titled “Nightmare in the Catskills,” it had denounced the “maddened youths” who flocked to the concert and demanded to know “what kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?”

There was a lot of that revisionism going on. The summer of 1969 was, of course, long before the age of the cellphone and laptop. Except for a few extremely overworked pay phones, the kids at the concert were totally cut off from the outside world. A nation of worried parents saw helicopters flying over miles of abandoned cars and listened to reports about doctors treating one drug-overdose case after another. While the concert was under way, the rest of the country presumed the worst. (My own mother, at 85, has wiped out practically every memory of anything unpleasant in our family history. But she still has never forgiven me for taking my 19-year-old brother to Woodstock, while she spent the weekend waiting for a report of his grisly death.) It was only after the music ended on Monday morning and the last of the youths made their trek home that a consensus began to form that the whole thing had been pretty neat after all.

Michael Lang, one of the four Woodstock organizers, and Fornatale, a longtime New York radio broadcaster, have each written a book about the festival to coincide with the 40th anniversary. Fornatale focuses a little more on the music, with back stories about many of the bands and analysis of who stopped the show (Sly Stone, Joe Cocker) and who underachieved (Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead). Lang, who wrote “The Road to Woodstock” with Holly George-Warren, has much more detail about how the whole production was put together and kept running. He is the more authoritative author, although Fornatale’s writing is a bit livelier.

The books are remarkably similar in structure, relying heavily on the voices of other people who were at the festival, whose reminiscences the authors collected from interviews or previously published work. Many of the same people show up in both books — Lang is in Fornatale’s. Each includes the famous story of how the festival was tossed from Woodstock itself to an abandoned industrial park in Wallkill to, in a last-minute retreat, a dairy farm in the run-down Catskill town of Bethel; the farm’s owner, Max Yasgur, a 49-year-old Republican with a heart condition, became a countercultural hero. There are a number of descriptions by breathless musicians of what it was like to fly over the vast crowd in the helicopters that ferried important people in and out of the site. My favorite by far is David Crosby’s: “Like an encampment of the Macedonian Army on the Greek hills!”

The biggest danger was not crime but the weather, which dumped so much rain that the staff was worried the water would seep down to the power cables that ran right under the crowd. John Roberts, the major financial backer, said later that he had been terrified of a mass electrocution and that he had decided, if it happened, he would commit suicide rather than live with the guilt. Meanwhile, the wind was so heavy that the production manager was worried that the light towers would either fall or drop their massive spotlights on the crowd.

Roberts, a wealthy 24-year-old, was the one who decided to keep the festival going after it became clear that the ticket booths had gotten stuck in traffic and the fences around the site had been pulled down, turning the organizers’ great business venture into a free concert. He also held off Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted to send the National Guard in to close the concert down. Roberts spent the entire weekend stuck in the concert’s business office, trying to keep the operation afloat and rounding up hard cash for acts whose managers refused to let them work unless they were paid in advance — he had a local banker open up in the middle of the night so the Who could be persuaded to play. As a result, Roberts never got to see any of the concert. That seemed both unfair and sad until I read his obituary (he died of cancer at 56) and found out that his own musical taste ran more toward Gershwin.

Among the other semiheroic figures in these books are the members of the Hog Farm, a West Coast commune, who proved to be good at everything from clearing trails to cooking food, and who provided some order after the New York Police Department prohibited its officers from moonlighting as security. Richie Havens saved the day by agreeing to step in as the opening act when virtually all the other musicians were caught up in traffic. With no one to follow up, he wound up singing for more than two and a half hours. When the organizers again needed someone onstage immediately, they persuaded Country Joe McDonald to go out and play — without his band and without his own guitar. McDonald lasted an hour, and a little later came John Sebastian, who was not even on the bill and had the additional burden of having just dropped acid.

“I’d like to sing you a song,” Sebastian burbled. “Actually, I’d like to dedicate it to . . . there’s a cat, and I really don’t know his name, but I remember that Chip said that uh, that uh, his old lady’s just had a baby. And that made me think, Wow! It really is a city here! But this is for you and your old lady, man. And uh. Whew! That kid’s gonna be far-out!”

You’d have thought the new mother would at least have gotten top billing, but the women’s movement had not ­really peaked yet.

Both Lang and Fornatale try to explain what Woodstock meant, besides not killing your neighbor, but neither comes up with much beyond platitudes. “Woodstock was about the passing of the torch to the next generation,” Fornatale says. He also includes some testimony from Abbie Hoffman at the trial of the Chicago Eight, trying to tell the judge that his place of residence was “Woodstock Nation.” Hoffman defined it as “a nation of alienated young people . . . dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money.”

Well, that didn’t quite work out. And Hoffman himself did not exactly soar like an eagle at Woodstock. Both books include a story about the moment he went onstage during the Who’s performance and tried to rally the crowd around the “political prisoner” John Sinclair. Pete Townshend bonked Hoffman on the head with a guitar, and he scurried offstage, never to be seen again.

Lang says the whole weekend was “a test of whether people of our generation really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create. How would we do when we were in charge?” At Woodstock — whose enduring secret might be that the good behavior had to last for only three days — Lang and the fans did great, with a little help from their friends. The organizers kept the crowd entertained, dragging the last night of music on until the middle of Monday morning to make sure that the remaining tens of thousands of fans didn’t all try to leave in the dark. When the food ran out, donations from the surrounding towns were helicoptered in, and everyone was given Dixie cups of granola by the Hog Farm. “What I have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000,” the commune leader, Wavy Gravy, cried. The rather inept caterers had run out of supplies early on, and two of their stands were burned down by customers irate at the high prices — a moment that suggests that even the most mellow event in American music history had its limits.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist for The Times. Her new book, “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present,” will be published in October.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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