Wednesday, July 24, 2019

By the time we got to Woodstock

Max Yasgur
Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang's original proposal was to build a recording studio and retreat for rock musicians in Woodstock, New York where Dylan, The Band and other musicians had already set up shop; kind of a rock ghetto, an eastern Laurel Canyon. The idea morphed into a two-day rock concert for 50,000 (25,000 per day) people with the hope that they'd raise enough money for the studio's construction. Along with partners John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, Woodstock Ventures got to work organizing the festival in an industrial park in nearby Wallkill, after both a Woodstock site and a nearby venue in Saugerties fell through. They printed tickets (initially $6.50 for one day, $13 for two days, and $18 for three days - roughly the equivalent of $120 today), which could be purchased in select stores or by mail through a post office box at Radio City Station. Although they were quite savvy organizing the festival itself, despite its pending roadblocks, they had little experience hiring the bands to play. It was part and parcel to the cavalier approach the young entrepreneurs would take.

Michael Lang
As Woodstock Ventures were finalizing their plans, things began to unravel. No matter how the young men and their lawyers spun it, the citizens of Wallkill did not want a "bunch of drugged-out hippies" descending on their town. After much wrangling, and political coaxing by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the town of Wallkill passed a law on July 2, 1969 that banned the concert from the vicinity. Only a month-and-a half before the Woodstock Festival was to begin, a new location had to be secured. Again.

Fortunately, in mid-July Max Yasgur offered up his 600-acre dairy farm in Bethel, some 50 miles from Woodstock, for $15,000; the cost, he said, to reseed and return the property to its pre-concert state. As lucky as they were to have found a new location, the last minute change of venue seriously set back the Festival timeline. New contracts to rent the dairy farm and surrounding areas had to be drawn up and permits acquired. Construction of the stage, a performers' pavilion, parking lots, concession stands, and a children's playground were nearly left undone.


Meanwhile, Michael Lang cleverly surmised that if he could secure at least one major artist, the rest would follow. The first act to sign, at a fee of $10,000, was Creedence Clearwater Revival. It wasn't quite what Lang was after, but the catalyst, nonetheless, to put the gears in motion. Soon after, Janis Joplin, The Who and The Jefferson Airplane signed on, and finally, Jimi Hendrix at an unprecedented $18,000. CCR drummer, Doug Clifford said, "Once Creedence signed, everyone else jumped in line." Despite the $10,000 fee, Creedence would be scheduled to play at 3am on Saturday, August 16th. John Fogherty subsequently declined the band's inclusion in the film. 

As time advanced, more problems arose. It soon appeared that the 50,000 attendee estimate was far too conservative and a new approximation jumped to 200,000. The young entrepreneurs rushed to bring in more toilets, water and food, though based on a sketchy bevvy of vendors, they had to fret over the possibility of having to airlift in rice as a backup food supply. Equally troublesome was the last-minute ban of off-duty police officers working the Festival. Through it all, Lang and his associates remained aloof; Lang riding around the festival grounds on a BSA motorcycle.

On Wednesday, August 13 (two days before the Festival began), 50,000 early arrivals walked through gaps in the fence where gates had yet to be erected. Organizers were forced to make the event a free concert. This declaration had two dire effects: Woodstock Ventures would lose massive amounts of money, and when news spread of a free concert, an estimated one million people made their way to tiny Bethel, New York. Police turned away thousands of cars. The highways in the area became literal parking lots as people abandoned their cars and walked the final distance to the Festival. Traffic was so bad that organizers had to hire helicopters to shuttle the performers from their hotels to the stage. An estimated 500,000 people actually made it to Woodstock. 

Richie Havens & Co.

Despite the organizers' troubles, the Woodstock Festival started nearly on time. On Friday evening, August 15th, Richie Havens got on stage and officially started the Festival, choppered in while Sweetwater, the scheduled opening act, was caught in traffic. Havens would open the Festival with a rousing impromptu and now iconic jam, "Freedom." As a black performer, Havens was a rarity in the folk-dominated Greenwich Village scene. His sandpaper soft voice and percussive guitar playing caught the ear of folk impresario Albert Grossman, who first signed Bob Dylan and helped create Peter, Paul and Mary. Havens had a long career as a musician, but if he had done nothing else, his performance at Woodstock would secure his place in American music history.