A few years ago I wrote a memoir of my life in the 1960's called, A Counterfeit Genius, as a birthday present for my teenage daughter. For years she had asked me to write down the stories I told her as she was growing up. Below is a chapter from the book covering my experiences that weekend at Woodstock. I knew the guys who bankrolled the Concert and had free access to everything. We traveled the secret route in and out of the concert that weekend, sleeping in local motels when we needed to rest. Nobody had a better time at Woodstock than I did:
CRITICAL MASSNew York, August 1969. The Woodstock Festival took place on Max Yasgar's dairy farm outside the town of Bethel on August 15th to 18th, 1969. The farmland's naturally contoured amphitheater was a stand-in, a replacement venue for Wallkill New York, the concert's original site. Wallkill residents feared a hippie invasion and had pulled the plug on the concert's permit just a month before the event. Nervous locals in Bethel were assured by promoter Mike Lang that a ceiling of 50,000 visitors a day would bolster the area's economy over the festival weekend.
Folks in Wallkill must have been laughing through their corncob pipes when a half-million hippies converged on Bethel. Residents woke Saturday morning to a twenty mile long traffic jam extending from the festival grounds onto the New York State Thruway. Youths abandoned their cars en masse and hiked the last miles to the festival site. Authorities estimated 1-2 million people were traveling to the Festival and, desperate to quell the human tide, they ordered the New York Thruway shut down. New York's third largest city had materialized out of thin air, and like dinosaurs wandering the streets of Manhattan, they were free to do whatever the hell they wanted because nobody could stop them.
Woodstock instantly became the party of the century. When the fences surrounding the concert site got ripped down and Woodstock's commercial legitimacy was decimated, when it suddenly became a free festival, all bets were off. Guardians of the public expected unchecked hell to run riot. Governor Rockefeller received briefings on marshalling the National Guard.
Woodstock became famous for what didn't happen. That this army of hippies didn't run amuck was a message that even the most critical skeptics couldn't discount – Peace and Love prevailed. The release of the movie documenting the concert locks that image into the global mind forever.
John Roberts, who financed Woodstock and Joel Rosenman, his partner, spent the weekend holed up inside a trailer behind the stage doing triage over the phone. They reassured Governor Rockefeller that the situation was peaceful and begged him not to mobilize the National Guard. They cajoled and wheedled banks, food vendors and PortoSan suppliers, doing everything possible to salvage an endless list of escalating meltdowns.
Artie Cornfeld and Mike Lang, the other partners, the hippies, hung out onstage and drank it all in. Mike surfed the festival's energy, he was right in the thick of things, while Joel and John isolated themselves to deal with the logistical nightmares inside the communications trailer. To this day Joel and Mike Lang can't stand each other. They're polar opposites, Joel and John were straight businessmen while Mike and Artie were ambitious, streetwise stoners out to do the cool thing. Joel is a really smart lawyer, a Yale Law grad, a control freak always on top of everything. But Mike Lang, the angel-haired hippy who ran a head shop in southern Florida, just jams up Joel's brain at every turn.
“If you remember Woodstock, you weren't there.” The problem with Woodstock is nobody seems to remember anything. I can't remember much more than fragments or images, except for the video I shot, and that covers less than three hours. I spoke with Geri and she told me a bunch of stories, but most of them never happened. A few involved me and were so …memorable that I would have recalled if they had happened. Other stories, because of timing, she could not have been witness to. Marni can't remember anything. A historic bash, the wildest party of the 20th century, and who really remembers what they did there? Talk about the collective unconscious.
On Friday, Geri and I travel to the concert in Ira Schneider's car with his girlfriend Beryl. Marge has to work and plans to arrive on Saturday. (Marge arrives and there's no way for us to connect – never see her – she has a miserable, wet time. Joel Ettleson's there too, don't see him either. Marni's working onsite out of an operations trailer behind the stage. Throughout the weekend she regularly leaves the bunker for a few hours to sample the concert. She gets me on stage and after that I have complete access.
Backstage before the show starts I smoke with Marni and other Woodstock Staff: brothers Charlie and Harvey Tuna, Bobby, a speed-rapping Marine-deserter working security on loan from the Fillmore East and this bearded, trippy artist named Fritz.
The show opens with folksinger Ritchie Havens. There's a platform for photographers just below the front edge of the stage and in the general confusion I have no trouble gaining access and capturing the opening act head-on from 10 feet away. Following Ritchie, Swami Satchidananda and a cadre of followers all dressed in white, plant themselves on stage to deliver a droning, inaudible spiritual blessing while ignoring catcalls and hooting from those antsy for some more music.
I spy a cute young bottle-blond hanging out backstage. My camera lingers on her several times and I finally go and talk to her. She's waiting for Jimi Hendrix to arrive, bluntly identifying herself as “his groupie,” and volunteering, almost immediately that she can't have children because of the effects from an untreated STD. It's peculiar she shares that; obviously a deep disappointment for this beautiful teen who lost life's most precious gift before she even knew it.
The Artists playing on Friday aren't that appealing and I spend the day wandering around. It's like every Be-In or tribal gathering I've attended, just much, much larger. Deep into the night thousands more people arrive and settle in.
I eat in the performers' tent, located right behind the stage. It's a free, 24-hour-catered service run by David's Potbelly, a favorite West Village all-night hangout. When it rains I have access to that tent or our car (a few steps away from the stage). When the camera's batteries need charging we know the secret route out and drive to a motel, crash and recharge. Friday night we stay at the nearby Holiday Inn where the Jefferson Airplane, Sly Stone, Janis and others playing the festival stayed. I don't know how we got those rooms, because many stars, like Arlo Guthrie don't and end up crashing on chairs in the lobby. The place is crammed with rock stars.
The next morning a convoy of performers assembles to drive the secret route into the festival site. The lobby's jammed with famous musicians as well as a wedding party booked at the motel by a local couple who must treasure some incredible reception photos! So there's this squad of pastel suits for the wedding mingling with the cream of hippy hip. Waiting in the lobby, Geri spots this black guy, a singer with Sha Na Na, dressed all in white leather with white boots exiting the elevator towards the lobby. She yells, “Here comes the bride!” This Brother appears all in white and is greeted by a chorus of laughter – he stands there clueless and bewildered.
Saturday night. I've been on stage all night and it's chaos packed tight, I can't move or my position will be forfeit, so I'm pretty much locked in place most of the night until The Who finish their set just after dawn.
…Standing on stage, engulfed in the ROAR from almost half a million people. The audience occasionally rallies to sing a chorus, but the over-the-top moment is around 2 AM Sunday with Sly and the Family Stone chanting, “I wanna take you higher!… HIGHER!” It's thrilling – the stage is dead center to a vortex of giant waves of unison human sound echoing Sly's chants. The band has a horn section that can whip-up a cyclone and Sly's throwing it out there with all he's got and this monster crowd disappearing into darkness thunders back his call, again and again, a rhythmic tsunami – unlike any sound I've experienced before or since. Nobody there had ever heard a bigger chorus.
Following Sly, Janis Joplin takes the stage, a homely chick wearing a tie-dyed velvet pantsuit. She seems wasted, but then begins singing and transforms into the most desirable woman there, wailing like her heart is being torn, projecting naked emotion better than any singer I've ever heard. After hours of holding the camera my arms are aching, but the energy is awesome!
The Who were the band I was waiting to see. Just a few months before Woodstock they'd released an ambitious, ground-breaking two-disk rock opera, Tommy, their first album to become a top 10 seller. For once they were getting some critical respect. Until the release of Tommy, the group's media coverage featured trashed hotel rooms, fist fights and stories of rowdy performances which ended with them smashing instruments and amps. After Janis finishes up an hour or so before dawn The Who leave their trailer for the stage. “Peace & Love” goes somewhere and takes a nap.
Pete Townsend executing a series of windmill power chords is a sight to behold – he's the Bruce Lee of guitar, a full-on musical gladiator working strings with such force and athletic abandon that his fingers are sometimes bloody by the end of a set. He's soon complaining about the crowd on-stage and off-mike threatens everyone surrounding them to keep their distance. Moments later, at the close of an instrumental, he boots cameramen Mike Wadleigh as he converges on vocalist Roger Daltry. Then, during a break between songs, activist icon Abbie Hoffman wanders up to Pete's mike and begins ranting to the audience about John Sinclair's recent ten year jail sentence for handing two joints to an undercover cop. Townsend storms up behind him and without a word, clocks Hoffman's noggin with the headstock of his guitar.
Wearing a chest-baring fringed leather jacket. bantam-weight vocalist Roger Daltry struts like the embodiment of rockstar ego, vigorously twirling his mike by the cord, then grabing it in mid-air, continuing to sing without missing a beat. Keith Moon attacks his drum kit like he's beating a mastodon to death. Most bands are lucky if they have one member who commands attention on stage, The Who have three. John Entwistle, the bassist, is the least expressive, but creates innovative, even legendary baselines. He mostly stands there watching the other guys while playing lines that blend perfectly with Townsend's magic. They're soloists united, forging a harmonic blade to slay the largest crowd they'd ever faced.
About three-quarters of the way through their set the sun begins to rise and it's a glorious dawn, capping the most excellent, mind-blowing, music filled night of my life…
Monday morning we head back to the city, missing Jimi Hendrix's closing set. Later that week I rent two large video monitors and host about 100 people to screen the videotapes in my rented loft on Horatio Street in the West Village. Woodstock is all over the media – but there's no stage footage showing on the news, just helicopter fly-bys and traffic snarls. My tapes show Woodstock's performers up close, and there is little other video that exists from the festival. This is before the era of video reporting. Outdoor events like concerts got filmed, Video was confined to interiors because the networks enormous cameras weren't portable. Remote feeds were rare. Audiences viewing raw video is something new. A few artists work in video, but as a widespread, accessible medium, video hasn't yet penetrated the culture.
Joel and John visit my loft to watch the videotapes. They are maneuvering to sell whatever they can, trying to raise money to pay off the huge debts for their ‘free festival.' They're working on some kind of TV deal and ask me to hold off marketing my footage.
They invite me to a screening at Reeves Actron studio to view the other video shot at the festival. Some production company arrived at the festival in a semi-trailer filled with video equipment. They placed a mechanical dolly right off center about 20 feet away from the stage. It supported a camera and operator and could telescope about 10 feet off the ground. Their whole crew had dropped acid and the guy on the board mixed the footage live. He didn't bother to separately record each camera's input and all they had when it was over was visual garbage.