This Saturday marks the 40 year anniversary of Woodstock, the musical extravaganza that touched off America’s``Cultural Revolution’’, coming as it did in the same year John Lennon recorded ``Give Peace a Chance’’, nearly a month after a race riot in York Pa. led to the shooting death of a black woman; and four months after U.S. troop levels had swelled to 543,400 during the Vietnam War.
Oddly enough, the festival never actually took place in Woodstock N.Y. at all.
Promoters Michael Lang, John Roberts, Arthur Kornfeld, and Joel Rosenman, hoped to hold the festival in upstate New York, but had trouble landing a suitable venue. Their attention then turned to Wallkill, where they stumbled into even more problems. As late as July, Bethel, a hamlet in the Catskill Mountains, 60 miles southwest of Woodstock in Sullivan County was finally settled on; but for reasons that are unclear—everyone, including news organizations continued to refer to the festival as Woodstock.
When I asked Mike Jahn, who was reporting from Bethel in 1969 about his most vivid recollections of the overcrowded drug ecstatic folk and rock festival during the``Age of Aquarius’’, the former New York Times rock critic, responding through an email, wrote: ``Woodstock was far from the mythological wonder, but that 90% of the attending were miserable and would have left after the first night had transportation been available. I spent time with them, not with the celebs backstage where it was dry and there was food and drugs. They were huddled under blankets in the rain, looking more like those photos of the fields of bodies at Gettysburg than like the nudes prancing in the lake or the celebs shouting "far out" at one another and gabbing about the wonder of it all.’’
Jahn, the former rock critic turned fiction writer, who first landed at The Times in the fall of 1968, where he covered a number of musical events, including Elvis Presley’s comeback concert in Las Vegas, maintains a website where he chronicles his first hand recollections of Woodstock, including a recent audio roundtable discussion with two other Times’ reporters who covered the festival as well.
A brief journey back through the archives, shows The Times published a page one story of the festival on August 16, 1969, with first crowd estimates at 200,000 (later revised to well over 300, 000), flooding the Catskill mountain hamlet, causing traffic jams; security problem fears growing more severe, which was further aggravated when police reported the frequency of cars being abandoned on major arteries, while fans walked the rest of the way to the festival.
The mob of music goers grew so thick, Wes Pomeory, director of security for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair told the Times: ``Anyone who tries to come here is crazy. Sullivan County is great big parking lot.’’
The same page one story mentioned the first reports of arrests being made, an estimated 50, mostly for possession of `` LSD, barbiturates, and amphetamines.’’ Those smoking marijuana or grass were largely left to their own devices. As one sergeant of the state police told the Times: ``As far as I know the narcotics guys are not arresting anybody for grass. If we did there isn’t enough space in Sullivan or the next three counties to put them in.’’
Individual tickets were priced at $7, $18 for a three-day pass. But that quickly became irrelevant with such a mass rush of fans pushing through the gates and piling over fences; authorities had no choice but to give up asking for tickets
With food shortages a growing problem, The Times noted that free rice kitchens were opening their doors; as were a number of area restaurants.
When concession stands ran out of food and music fans rationing ran dry, accounts of others sharing peanuts, oatmeal raisins and sunflower seeds became the order of the day. But some fans did resort to other means to nourish their growling stomachs. The Times reported some area farmers complained of corn and vegetables being stripped from their fields.
On August 17th, The Times published another page one splash, writing: ``most of the hip swinging youngsters heard the music on stage only as a distant rumble. It was almost impossible for them to tell who was performing and probably only about half the crowd could hear a note.’’
In addition to the muffled music, damp weather made for an uncomfortable musical experience; fans were reported to be knee-deep in mud after the skies opened and drenched the grounds; mounting food and water shortages became more frequent, so much so that ``enterprising peddlers’’, as The Times described them, were selling glasses of water for 25 cents.
While rock fans continued to press on toward Bethel with cars bumper-to-bumper for 20 miles in all directions, including Routes 17, 17B, 42 55, and 97, police and Woodstock organizers made passionate pleas for fans to stay away. Even the Short Line Bus Company, the only bus service making trips to the 600 acre-farm, cancelled all services at the request of the police
On the final day, The Times page one headline read: ``Tired Rock Fans Begin Exodus’’ reporting that the three day festival resulted in two deaths and ``4,000 people treated for injuries, illness and adverse drug reactions’’. Police were reporting 80 arrests for drug use and distribution, and ``so much grass was being smoked that you could get stoned just sitting there breathing’’ one student from Denison University in Ohio told The Times.
Still, through all of the chaos, the lack of victuals, and stoned visitors, the festival’s driving theme of ``Peace & Music’’ remained unbroken. Almost no incidents of violence were reported. One police officer told The Times that the kids who attended were the ``best kids I ever met in the world ‘’
Financially speaking, Woodstock was a financial flop. Mr. Roberts, the 24 year-old president of Woodstock Ventures Inc, told The Times, the three-day event brought in $1.5 million in sales, but total losses would be about $2 million
The financial concern, though, was far from the minds of the promoters; only the excitement that filled the air for three unforgettable days. Michael Lang, another of the festivals promoters told The Times: ``I’m not thinking about the money yet, there’s time to do that next week. ``Today, the 24 year-old college dropout said ``is a time to think about what happened here-the youth culture came out of the alleys and the streets. This generation was brought together and showed it was beautiful.’’
Despite the mass of youths leading lives of boisterous confusion amidst the soggy mud-filled farmland, the heavy rainstorms, the fog of smoke smothering the air, the drug overdoses, the overcrowded venue; the underfed patrons—still, the chance, if not hear, at least to see the likes of Joan Baez, rock guitar legend Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, San Francisco band Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Texas’s own Janis Joplin, all gathered at one place for one brief shining moment during the summer of 69’— the punishing journey for those who trudged the New York highways and braved the harsh elements—was well worth the effort.