The 'Young Men With Capital' Who Started Woodstock Forty years ago, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts were in their 20s when they came into a large inheritance. They decided to take the money and promote a rock concert in upstate New York — an event that later became known as Woodstock.
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The 'Young Men With Capital' Who Started Woodstock

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The 'Young Men With Capital' Who Started Woodstock

The 'Young Men With Capital' Who Started Woodstock

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival and there are plenty of commemorative books, concerts, recordings, and reissues. Rhino Records has released a six disc box set of live excerpts from the concert; and Sony Legacy has issued five deluxe double CDs, pairing what were then the current albums by: Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, the Jefferson Airplane, and Santana with the full soundtrack of their Woodstock appearances.

In a few minutes we'll hear the recollections of two of the concert's original producers, recorded on the festival's 20th anniversary in 1989. But first, rock historian Ed Ward has these reflections on some of the music performed at the event.

(Soundbite of voices)

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of whistles)

Mr. JOHN MORRIS (Woodstock stage manager and announcer): ...to get back to the warning that I've received, you may take it with however many grains of salts you wish, that the brown acid that is circulating around us is not specifically too good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORRIS: It's suggested that you do stay away from that. Of course, it's your own trip, so be my guest. But please be advised that there is a warning on that one, okay?

Mr. ED WARD (Rock historian): A friend of mine who was there, hearing that I was writing about the Woodstock anniversary, said, in no uncertain terms, there was no good music at Woodstock. After listening to most of the six discs of the Woodstock box, plus the entire sets of both the Jefferson Airplane and Sly and the Family Stone, I can't quite agree, but I do see what he meant. And I don't think we can blame the famous brown acid, the flat blue acid, the green acid or any of the other drugs for it, not directly.

Some of the problem was technical, the sound system was cobbled together from movie-theater systems, which was the best they could do at the time. The bands couldn't hear themselves too well in the monitors, and there were lots of outages.

Another part of the problem wasn't as simple, but is glaring today; a lot of the talent was substandard. In short, Woodstock substituted quantity for quality, on the basis of what we can hear today.

The entire first day was almost a total disaster. Richie Havens, called into service to open when the band scheduled to open, Sweetwater, had yet to show up, did a yeoman job. But then Sweetwater showed up and played an incoherent mish-mash of flute and chick-vocal-led junk.

They were followed by the now-forgotten Tim Sommer, whose lightweight songs and voice are entirely unmemorable. Tim Hardin followed him, sounding asleep or, more likely, stoned and then Ravi Shankar came on and did a couple of showy numbers of the sort he knew hippies liked.

He was followed by the worst act of the day, Melanie, whose grating, whining voice delivered, among others, a song called "Beautiful People" with lyrics like, you take care of me, maybe I'll take care of you. Thanks, Mel. The day ended, finally, with professional sets from Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez.

The next day really typified the festival, starting off with another forgotten band, Quill, going to a folkie set by Country Joe McDonald, and then a band on its way up, Santana, whose Latin-rock fusion led the way for the second generation of San Francisco bands. I've never liked them, but their passion is obvious.

Next, John Sebastian provided more folkie sweetness, and then came Keef Hartley, a British drummer with a blues band who's never allowed his set to be used on film or record. He was followed by the Incredible String Band, British psychedelic folkies whose best work was far behind them; after which came another harbinger of the 1970s, Canned Heat, who not only provided 28 minutes of something called "Woodstock Boogie," which I declined to experience, but who also, according to sound man Chip Monck, fried the amps.

Mountain was next, with a proto-metal act complete with portentous lyrics; and then the Grateful Dead, one of the few bands at the height of their powers at the time they performed, with a set Deadheads don't really consider very good.

The best was yet to come, although it was getting late. Creedence Clearwater Revival apparently didn't know there were a half-million people there and did their usual tight set to the darkness and flew back out. After that came Janis Joplin who was apparently channeling a chicken.

(Soundbite of "Ball And Chain")

Ms. JANIS JOPLIN (Singer/songwriter): (Singing)....and whoa, ooh whoa, ooh whoa whoa, oh it this can't be, oh no this can't, whoa honey it just can't be rain. No, no, no. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Honey, this can't be no, no, no, no, no-no, no, no-no, no, no. Never, never, never, never, never, never. Oh, never, never, never, never-never. I'm hoping you could tell me. Oh, whoa, I just don't, I got to know why it don't, don't seem I (unintelligible). I feel and I need to know why. Tell me. I want to ask you now. Oh just tell me who I'm gonna lean on. I think I wanna put my arm around. I said I wonder how sometimes.

Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) I need a little help sometime.

(Soundbite of whistle)

Ms. JOPLIN: (Singing) Baby. Baby. Baby...

Mr. WARD: This sort of histrionics, of course, was also going to heard a lot in the decade ahead, although Joplin would be dead in a little over a year.

Following her, came one of the few really historic sets at Woodstock, as Sly and the Family Stone came on and delivered a dose of show-biz at three AM.

(Soundbite of "Dance to the Music")

Sly and the Family Stone: (Singing) ...Come on now. Everybody. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom-boom. Boom-boom-boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom-boom.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Boom-boom-boom. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom-boom.

Dance to the music. Dance to the music. Dance to the music.

Mr. WARD: And after them, the Who managed to play "Tommy," yet another foretaste of the worst impulses of the 1970s.

Had I been there, I would have stuck around until the next morning to see one of my then-favorite bands, the Jefferson Airplane, and I would have been disappointed. The band, apparently heavily dosed on orange acid, battled the sound system and each other to a truce over nearly two hours, a set that left me tense, listening to it 40 years later.

Then, I probably would have left, missing a surprisingly good set by Joe Cocker; Ten Years After's legendary guitar excess, which has been withdrawn from the reissues; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, a terrible version of the Paul Butterfield band; the execrable Sha Na Na's camped-up doo-wop; and finally, Jimi Hendrix battling a new band he'd thrown together for the occasion and dumped almost immediately afterwards.

Excess, histrionics, and pretension, those were the coming trends at Woodstock. Peace, love, and music, the supposed drawing cards, would soon seem quaint relics of a bygone era.

DAVIES: Ed Ward lives in the South of France.

Coming up, some remarkable tales of Woodstock from two of the festival's original producers.

(Soundbite of music)This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were two of the originators of the Woodstock festival. They used the money Roberts had from an inheritance and found themselves in an undertaking far bigger than they bargained for. They collaborated on a 1974 book called "Young Men With Unlimited Capital."

Terry spoke to them in 1989 on the 20th anniversary of the festival. They told her they never planned on hosting a crowd of 400,000.

Mr. JOEL ROSENMAN (Co-producer of the Woodstock festival): Our first go-round we hoped to get about 25,000 people. That was in say, March of 1969. By mid-April, we realized we might attract 35 to 50,000. By say early June, we were looking at 75,000. By late July, we thought, improbably enough, that we're going to have 100,000. And by the day before the concert, we had everybody in America.

GROSS: There's a lot of interesting behind the scenes stories in your book. One of them that interested me was this blackmail call that you got from a member of the New York underground.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it turned out, I think, to be Abbie Hoffman?

Mr. ROSENMAN: It was Abbie Hoffman. Of course, we have a fairly unique and different perspective about Woodstock, having been, as it were, in the boiler room, constructing and running this particular operation. And most people don't know about that story and it's in the book. But the underground had hoped that - the radical underground, I should say - had hoped that Woodstock would be a forum for their political ideas - that we would give them time on stage, that we would allow them to have booths, distribute leaflets, and so on.

And it had been our very firm intention to keep this as non-political as possible. This was three days of peace and music. Abbie Hoffman summoned us down to his headquarters down in Greenwich Village in New York and announced that if we did not come across with some money, and some stage time, and booths, and so on, that he was going to like make our life a misery.

Nothing he could do could've made our lives more miserable than they were by that July. We'd already been kicked out of our first site.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So we said essentially, do your worst.

GROSS: Which was what?

Mr. ROSENMAN: Well, his worst turned out to be he jumped up on stage during The Who's performance and was booted off, unceremoniously, by Roger Daltrey. Later on, I think, he did manage to distribute some leaflets. But that weekend stayed, at least for the course of the weekend, resolutely non-political. It was just half a million people trying to have a good time.

GROSS: Well you had hoped to make a big profit on Woodstock and you had printed up plenty of tickets, but the festival ended up a free festival and this is how the announcement of the free festival sounded on stage.

(Soundbite of John Morris)

Mr. MORRIS: This is one thing that I was going to wait awhile before we talked about, but maybe we'll talk about it now so you can think about it, because you all, we all, have to make some kind of plans for ourselves.

It's a free concert from now on.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. MORRIS: That doesn't mean that anything goes, what that means is we're going to put the music up here for free. Now, let's face the situation. We've had thousands and thousands of people come here today. Many, many more than we knew or even dreamt or thought would be possible. We're going to need each other to help each other to work this out because we're taxing the systems that we have set up.

We're going to be bringing the food in. But, the one major thing you have to remember tonight, when you go back up to the woods to go to sleep or if you stay here, is that the man next to you is your brother. And you damn well better treat each other that way because if you don't, then we blow the whole thing, but we've got it, right there.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of cheers)

GROSS: So, in fact, this story of how this got to be a free concert has a lot more to do with fear than benevolence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Could you tell the story of why you were forced to make Woodstock a free festival?

Mr. ROSENMAN: Okay. It's even somewhat of misnomer as described here. As it...

GROSS: You mean because some people had already paid. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROSENMAN: Well, for some people it was not a free festival.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ROSENMAN: Those unfortunate few who actually bought tickets, many of whom never were able to get to the festival because of the traffic. It certainly wasn't a free festival for John and me. It cost us roughly three to four million dollars. But it was certainly a free festival in the legend of Woodstock and it was definitely a free festival for the hundreds of thousands that we just heard in the background while John Morris was making his announcement from the stage.

GROSS: Now you had hoped to have what, about 20 turnstiles that ticket-holders would walk through?

Mr. ROSENMAN: We had them. We built them. The gates were up. The turnstiles were up. Ticket-takers had been identified, and in fact, their uniforms had been designed. It's really... It was really all set. Unfortunately, all of that had been constructed in Wallkill, New York some weeks prior to the actual event. And with roughly 34 days to go, the Zoning Board of Appeals at Wallkill met one evening in response to local pressure and revoked permits that we had had for months while we finished our construction. So an entire festival construction, at great expense and effort, was out the window.

We were booted from that site and with little less than - a little more than five weeks to go, we had to reconstruct the entire festival site in White Lake, New York. Now, this meant that some things had to be done triple time. Overtime was very expensive, even in those days. We hired a lot more staff. We had a hundred - we had a thousand people working at our peak, trying to recreate the festival.

At oh, I guess a couple of days before the event was supposed to start, it really came down to: do we finish the stage or do we try to get the stage even workable, or do we build fences and ticket gates once again? At that point it kind of was put to John and me, are we still in this for the money? Do we take a chance with the crowd? Do we take a chance with what may be the peaceful outcome of the festival, which we had worked so hard to maintain throughout the promotion period?

We thought about it for a millisecond, I think, and said build the stage. Make sure the crowd is taken care of. Make sure the systems are in place to support them, and we'll worry about taking tickets later.

GROSS: Now you had planned to have a lot of off-duty New York City police to come and keep the peace at the festival. At the last minute the police reneged on the offer because the person who had made the offer got a heart attack and his replacement didn't think it was a very wise idea. But while you were still planning on using the New York City off duty police...

Mr. ROSENMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...what kind of deal did you have with them? Were they going to bust people for doing illegal things like smoking marijuana and dropping LSD or walking around naked?

Mr. ROSENMAN: No, they weren't. We had rather extensive interviews and rehearsals with the off duty policeman that we selected. In fact, we had applicants, I think, over a thousand applicants for about 300 places. And we would pose questions to them such as, if a young man with long hair comes up to you over the course of the weekend and blows marijuana smoke in your face, what is the correct reaction? If the policeman said, I'd take my night stick and wop him one then we would look for another candidate.

If he said, I'd smile and walk away, then we probably had the right guy. What we wanted there was not a group of people to bust the crowd. We wanted people who were tolerant, who would keep the peace, who would see that people do not hurt each other and who basically had brought into the dream and the idea of three days of peace and music.

GROSS: What did you do for replacement?

Mr. ROSENMAN: Well, believe it or not, most of them showed up anyway. And it was really quite amusing because they didn't use their real names. They would sign in as Mickey Mouse or Pluto or Batman or something like that. And matching up Batman with the money he was owed was as I recall one of the more interesting tasks after the festival. So, I would say of the 300 we hired over 250 actually showed up and they did a fine job.

GROSS: The first night of the Woodstock festival, that Friday night there was a terrible thunderstorm on stage...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...it sounded something like this.

(Soundbite of Woodstock Concert)

Unidentified Man #1: It looks like we're going to get a bit of rain, so we would like to cover up. If you got (unintelligible) it'll be okay.

(Soundbite of thunderstorm)

Unidentified Man #2: Sit down. (unintelligible) Hey, if you think really hard, maybe we can stop this rain.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #2: No rain, No rain, No rain...

Unidentified Group: No rain, No rain...

GROSS: While that was happening behind the scenes, you were all worrying about mass electrocution...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What had happened, electrically, that was the worry?

Mr. ROSENMAN: It was a nightmare. We had - it really was, it probably was the bleakest moment of the festival for me. We were sprouting walky talkies from every ear at that point and dealing with a dozen problems every minute or two. And on top of it all the phone rang, the chief electrician was calling from backstage. I asked him what the problem was, he sounded pretty shaky actually at the time, even for a man who was going through what he was going through.

He said, with the rain and all of those hundreds of thousands of feet scuffling over the performance area, the main feeder cable supplying electricity to the stage - the musicians, the amplifiers, whatever has been - unearthed. And with additional abrasion from these sneakers and whatever, sandals, it may wear away the insulation on these cables. I'm worried with all those wet bodies packed together that we may have something approximating a - and he paused for a moment and I couldn't believe that he was searching for the words that he came up with. But he came up with mass electrocution.

And I thought to myself this is the incredible, this can't be happening. He said, what do you want me to do, should I shut down the power to the stage? Now we had had a philosophy there at headquarters that one of the reasons that this festival was proceeding so well in spite of the adversities that everybody there was facing, the weather, the tremendous crowds, the strain on all facilities, was that the music was so mesmerizing. It was wonderful talent, brilliant artists performing - the kids were just in love with it.

The thought of shutting the power down in the darkness, in the rain storm struck me as an invitation to chaos. Nevertheless, the thought of a mass execution posed additional moral problems. At that point, I remember breaking a two-year moratorium on smoking. I think I lit up three or four Camels at once and stuck them in my mouth and tried to think this one through. Finally, the electrician helped me out. He said, look I think there's a chance that in the next 20 minutes I can work a shunt from the power source to the stage that bypasses those main feeder cables. And maybe that will solve the whole problem.

I said, give it a try, and hung up. And for the next 20 minutes, John and I sat there looking at each other. I guess we were waiting like in the movies for the lights to dim a little bit, the way they do when they throw the switch in the electric chair chamber. And I think it probably took a hundred years for those 20 minutes to pass. The phone rang and it was the chief electrician again. He said, I did it, I did it, everything is fine.

DAVIES: Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, two of the original producers of Woodstock speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. John Roberts died in 2001. Joel Rosenman lives in New York and runs a venture capital firm. Coming up, David Bianculli on the new season of "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.

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