Forty years ago there was this thing on a farm in the small town of Bethel, N.Y. It was called the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and to this day it conjures images: a field of people nearly surrounding the stage — half a million free wheeling, free smoking, free loving, music-loving hippies covered in mud. But besides the mud part, how much of that is true?
Artie Kornfeld was one of the organizers of the festival. For him, the torch burns bright.
"That's still my whole trip, keeping the spirit of Woodstock alive," says Kornfeld.
And that doesn't just mean the good stuff.
"I did have a gun pulled on me by some guy who said I was a hippie fascist," Kornfeld recalls. "And Crosby, Stills and Nash's road manager saved my life by jumping the guy."
But for the most part, Woodstock was an immense gathering of people who were into music, had no idea about camping — but definitely wanted to have a good time. Parry Teasdale went to the festival as a video artist. Today he publishes a local newspaper.
"I think I look like a geezer," Teasdale laughs.
He's wearing chinos and a pressed shirt. Back in 1969, the costume was a bit different.
"(A) large brown kind of Stetson cowboy hat that was punched up in the center, and big motorcycle boots and dirty jeans. And a VW bus full of old video equipment," says Teasdale.
Teasdale's black and white, fuzzy videos almost look as if they're shot in a sort of slow motion. He repeatedly asks the question, "Are you having a good time?" The kids look back, incredulous, as if saying, "Do you have to ask?" These tapes, these documents, seem to validate the Woodstock legend of all free, all peaceful, all love.
Myth And Reality
"That's part of the sort of mythology of Woodstock is that it's free; it's peaceful," says Michael Lang. "I don't buy into that."
Surprising, considering that Lang was one of the producers of the festival. Today, Lang lives near the town of Woodstock, on a 100-acre estate he bought in 1979. It's so big that that a reporter couldn't figure out which building to go to to find him.
But 40 years ago, it wasn't about the money, man.
"Somebody forgot to roll the ticket booths in place in time to beat the traffic," Lang remembers. "And once we focused on that, they couldn't be moved. There were not ticket booths. Most of the people who came were looking for a place to buy a ticket and you could not buy a ticket."
Still, the bands had to be paid. Bill Thompson managed the then-hot Jefferson Airplane.
"I remember saying to Michael Lang, 'How are we gonna to get paid?,'" recalls Thompson. "And he was — I think maybe he was on acid, or LSD. And he said, 'Aw don't worry about it, man. Isn't this beautiful?' Well that was the worst thing he could've said to me. So I got everybody together and I said, 'We should just tell them we're not gonna play unless we get paid.' So they showed up a couple of hours later with cashier's checks for all the bands."
For their gig, the Airplane got $10,000. It was 6 a.m. when singer Grace Slick greeted the crowd: "You have seen the heavy groups," she said, "Now you will see morning maniac music. Believe me."
"The band had stayed up all night," says manager Thompson, "and to be honest with you, did just about every illegal drug known to man. So I think they were a little woozy at first. But then the "black beauties" kicked in — I think those were the Obitrol, speed. And about 20 minutes into the set it was really an excellent set."
The Music Stunk?
Few people claim that the music was very good. It was the context, more than anything. Still, for Bob Solomon, who's now in the music industry in Nashville, sound was everything.
"Musically only one act was passable: Santana," Solomon says. "There were so many drugs floating around the entire farm that everybody was completely out of it; nobody did a very good job."
Back then, Wavy Gravy was called Hugh Romney, and Michael Lang asked him and his commune, the hog farm, to help feed at least some of the thousands, to help with security and — one of the hog farm's specialties — talk people down from bad acid trips.
"I was so transported — kind of like dowsing for the juice," Gravy says. "There is a high there not available in the pharmaceutical cabinet! It's all people pitching in for common good and that's what Woodstock was, except we had a better sound track!"
It's a soundtrack that had a stuttering start. The equipment hadn't arrived and organizer Michael Land needed somebody to play acoustic. He convinced Richie Havens that he was the guy.
And like all Houses of the Lord, the Woodstock story is largely a matter of faith. Charles Hardy is a professor of history at West Chester College in Pennsylvania. He was at Woodstock: 17 years old, cold, wet, hungry.
"Bragging rites are nice nowadays," Hardy says. "Often I don't even mention it because it sounds like bragging. It's only fun when I tell people how miserable it was, which makes it sort of interesting.
But for Woodstock organizer Land, it was a respite from the Vietnam War, the struggle for civil rights, assassinations and Richard Nixon.
"It was this moment of hope in the midst of all this darkness, so hold out hope for this wonderful experience — that's what it was for us," Land says.