On Friday, August 15, 1969, a crowd of 400,000—an unprecedented and unexpected number at the time—gathered on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York for a weekend of rock ‘n’ roll, the new form of American music that had emerged only a decade earlier. For America’s counterculture youth, Woodstock became a symbol of more than just sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—it was about peace, love, and a new way of living. It was a seminal event that epitomized the ways that the culture, the country, and the core values of an entire generation were shifting. On one glorious weekend, this generation found its voice through one outlet: music.
Back to the Garden celebrates the music and the spirit of Woodstock through the words of some of the era’s biggest musical stars, as well as those who participated in the festival. From Richie Havens’s legendary opening act to the Who’s violent performance, from the Grateful Dead’s jam to Jefferson Airplane’s wake-up call, culminating in Jimi Hendrix’s career-defining moment, Fornatale brings new stories to light and sets the record straight on some common misperceptions. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, authoritative, and highly entertaining, Back to the Garden is the soon-to-be classic telling of three days of peace and music.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Just after midnight on July 27, 1969, twenty minutes into my debut program at WNEW-FM in New York, I did my first live commercial. As instructed during orientation, I looked at the program log, opened up the alphabetized copybook in front of me, and rifled through it until I came to the Ws. When the vinyl record on the turntable to my right ended, I turned on the mic switch and did a quick back-sell of the music I had just played ("Sing This Altogether" by the Rolling Stones, "All Together Now" by the Beatles, and "You Can All Join In" by Traffic). I then proceeded to read these exact words from that copybook:
"The Woodstock Music and Art Fair is a three-day Aquarian exposition at White Lake in the town of Bethel, Sullivan County, New York. Friday, August 15, you'll hear and see Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, and Sweetwater.
"Then on Saturday, August 16, it's Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater, the Grateful Dead, Keef Hartley, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Santana, and the Who -- the hottest group on the scene right now.
"Sunday, August 17, the Band; Jeff Beck; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Iron Butterfly; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Jimi Hendrix; the Moody Blues; Johnny Winter; and that's not all. Tickets are available by mail or at your local ticket agency for any one day at $7.00, two days at $14.00, and for all three days, just $18.00. A special two-day ticket is available by mail for only $13.00.
"For tickets and information, you can write the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Box 996, Radio City Station, New York,one-zero-zero-one-nine, or phone Murray Hill 7-0700. M-U-seven-zero-seven-zero-zero. Remember, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is being held at White Lake in the town of Bethel, Sullivan County, New York.
"They've had their hassles, but it looks like everything's gonna be okay."
That last line was an ad-lib -- a fairly pithy one at that -- but no one had any idea at the time just how important that three-day festival would turn out to be, not only to music fans but also to commentators, journalists, politicians, pundits, sociologists, writers, and members of the youth movement. These were my first few minutes on the air at the most important of the new breed of FM-rock radio stations in the country, and I was talking about an event that would soon redefine the culture, the country, and the core values of an entire generation.
Woodstock was, without question, the high-water mark of the '60s youth revolution -- musically, politically, and socially. A gathering of close to half a million people in one place at one time is bound to get attention, no matter what the reason. But half a million young people gathered in one place at one time to flex their cultural muscle and celebrate their life-altering music sent shock waves from upstate New York to the rest of the country. Even in the technologically primitive stages of our global village, this legendary tribal gathering put Woodstock front and center in the consciousness of citizens around the world.
Without initially intending to, Woodstock made a statement. It became a symbol for all the changes that bubbled up during the first half of the American '60s and boiled over during the second half. Just eight years earlier, John F. Kennedy had galvanized the nation during his inaugural address with his declaration that "the torch has been passed to a new generation." He was talking about the torch handed off by the pre-World War II generation to the men and women who actually fought it. Woodstock was about the passing of the torch to the next generation -- from the World War II veterans to their children, the already labeled "baby boomers," who grew up very differently than their forebears, with affluence, education, television, and, of course, with rock 'n' roll.
So now it is forty years later. In some respects, Woodstock is just as much of a mess today as Max Yasgur's farm was on that Monday morning when Jimi Hendrix played his final note. At least figuring it out is. There are still so many stories to tell, even after all of these years. And many of those stories contradict one another. To borrow a phrase from Kris Kristofferson, that baptismal blast in Bethel was "...a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." Woodstock is an elephant. Perhaps even a big pink one, depending on what you were ingesting back then. (Big Pink was even the name of "the trips tent" set up by the Hog Farm at the site to deal with drug-related casualties.) And we are all blind men and women trying to describe this behemoth based on the part of its body that we touch.
In the end, they are all partly correct, but all mostly wrong. So it is with Woodstock. You simply can't make any definitive judgments or observations about the whole of it until you have learned something about the totality of its parts. Jainists call it the Theory of Manifold Predictions.
We have attempted in these pages to avoid the pitfalls of selective dissection by providing as many first-person accounts as we can from every strand of the Woodstock freak flag, every tile of the Woodstock mosaic, and every thread of the Woodstock tapestry -- even when they are totally at odds with one another. But caveat emptor! Even this approach will not solve or resolve a more bewildering, confounding dilemma about the festival -- namely, all of the diametrically opposed viewpoints and anecdotes about the very same "truths" that you will encounter. And I'm not talking about mere mild differences of opinion. I'm talking about wildly divergent, red-in-the-face rants and polemics about everything that happened during those very same sixty-five hours on Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, in August of 1969.
Thankfully, there is a name for this dichotomy as well. It's called the Rashomon effect. It's based on the late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's landmark 1950 film, Rashomon, in which four individuals witness the same exact crime, yet describe it subjectively, in four radically contradictory ways. The idea is that despite our different experiences of the same events, each account can still be plausible. Each person has a unique set of life experiences that influence the way he or she experiences the world.
We hope that providing you with the widest possible assortment of first-person accounts dating back to the historic weekend itself, as well as those sifted through the mists of time during those four rapidly passing decades, will give you very reliable eyewitness testimony upon which to base your opinions about Woodstock. But here too, we offer you this warning. Take the four hundred thousand versions of the truth from the estimated number of persons who attended the actual event, then add to that the accounts of those who swear they were there but weren't. Finally, calculate into the equation the hundreds of millions who experienced Woodstock vicariously through the movie, recordings, documentaries, books, articles, and word-of-mouth recollections that have been bouncing all around the globe for forty years now. Massage the quantitative facts about the event together with the myths and legends, and you end up with some idea of how chameleonlike anything Woodstock-related is. One might even say, "It all depends on what your definition of is, is!"
So let's return once more to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, that weekend in August of 1969 when the shit hit the fan (or, in some cases, when the fans hit the shit) and see what sense we can make of it all on this auspicious fortieth anniversary.
Graham Nash: The legend, the myth of Woodstock has grown. It was undeniably a tremendous social event. A lot of great music. A lot of good times had by a lot of people. I think as we get into the future, the legend, the myth of Woodstock becomes greater than the actual reality.
I think Graham has it exactly right. With each passing day, week, month, or year, it becomes much less important how many nails were used to build the stage at Woodstock, and far more important what people have embroidered in their DNA about the very word Woodstock. The myth making began as early as the week after the festival itself:
The baffling history of mankind is full of obvious turning points and significant events: battles won, treaties signed, rulers elected or disposed, and now seemingly, planets conquered. Equally important are the great groundswells of popular movements that affect the minds and values of a generation or more, not all of which can be neatly tied to a time or place. Looking back upon the America of the '60s, future historians may well search for the meaning of one such movement. It drew the public's notice on the days and nights of Aug. 15 through 17, 1969, on the 600-acre farm of Max Yasgur in Bethel, NY.
-- Time magazine, August 29, 1969
Say what you will about Abbie Hoffman's role as a hippie, Yippie, fighter, inciter, ad man, madman, he was early into the Woodstock myth-making business. He even gave it a name. It's all on the record, either in his book Woodstock Nation or in his public testimony at the notorious Chicago Eight trial, from April 1969 to February 1970, where he and his codefendants were tried for crimes related to the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The following is taken from the transcript of those hearings in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman:
Mr. Weinglass: Will you please identify yourself for the record?
The Witness: My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America.
Mr. Schultz: Your Honor, may the record show it is the defendant Hoffman who has taken the stand?
The Court: Oh, yes. It may so indicate...
Mr. Weinglass: Where do you reside?
The Witness: I live in Woodstock Nation.
Mr. Weinglass: Will you tell the Court and jury where it is?
The Witness: Yes. It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind in the same way as the Sioux Indians carried the Sioux nation around with them. It is a nation dedicated to cooperation versus competition, to the idea that people should have better means of exchange than property or money, that there should be some other basis for human interaction. It is a nation dedicated to --
The Court: Just where it is, that is all.
The Witness: It is in my mind and in the minds of my brothers and sisters. It does not consist of property or material but, rather, of ideas and certain values. We believe in a society --
The Court: No, we want the place of residence, if he has one, place of doing business, if you have a business. Nothing about philosophy or India, sir. Just where you live, if you have a place to live. Now you said Woodstock. In what state is Woodstock?
The Witness: It is in the state of mind, in the mind of myself and my brothers and sisters. It is a conspiracy. Presently, the nation is held captive, in the penitentiaries of the institutions of a decaying system.
We will address Abbie's specific involvement with Woodstock later on, but let it suffice for now to say that he was a controversial, polarizing character about whom widely divergent opinions were held. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that when I met Abbie at a Washington Square concert in the '80s, he called me "golden throat," which edged me closer to the pro-Abbie contingent after years of dismissing him as the clown prince of 1968 politics.)
Let's continue our sampling of Woodstock witnesses with the thenmost trusted man in America. Here is Walter Cronkite's summation of Woodstock on his decade-ending radio documentary called I Can Hear It Now/The Sixties:
Twenty-seven days after "Tranquility Base," on an untranquil sea of mud, there was a walk in space that four hundred thousand long-haired pilgrims in and out of sweatshirts called "the greatest weekend since the creation." It came to be known as the "Woodstock Nation." In search of rock, acid rock, acid, pot, peace, and just being together, four hundred thousand Americans between fifteen and twenty-five flocked to Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, New York, for a weekend with Sly and the Family Stone; Country Joe and the Fish; Janis Joplin; the Jefferson Airplane; Santana; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Who; Joan Baez; and Arlo Guthrie, among others.
The festival was declared a disaster area, and if there had been a riot, the commission that would have investigated it would have probably blamed negligent planning by the promoters; lack of water, food, medical and sanitary facilities; and stormy weather. It would have cited also the abundance of marijuana, some hard drugs, communal living, the exploitation of thousands of turned-away ticket holders who never got their eighteen dollars back. Yet there was no violence, relatively little illness for a population of this size. Three people died, two were born, and in a rare happening, even the police got rave notices. There was some paranoia. The establishment was blamed by some for having seeded the clouds causing the downpour. Some critics of the festival called it an orgy organized by the communists. And the promoters ended up suing each other.
Another early indication of Woodstock's potential as a sociological phenomenon can be found in the attention paid to it by renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead. Her widely respected theories, including studies about the healthy attitudes toward sex held by residents of the South Pacific, made her a perfect candidate to offer insights into the social, sexual, and psychological aspects of Woodstock. She plumbed the event for meaning and significance in the January 1970 issue of Redbook magazine:
I do not think the Woodstock festival was a "miracle" -- something that can happen only once. Nor do I think that those who took part in it established a tradition overnight -- a way of doing things that sets the pattern of future events. It was confirmation that this generation has, and realizes that it has, its own identity.
No one can say what the outcome will be; it is too new. Responding to their gentleness, I think of the words "Consider the lilies of the field..." and hope that we -- and they themselves -- can continue to trust the community of feeling that made so many say of those three days, "It was beautiful."
"It was beautiful!"
That was certainly one side of the Woodstock coin. The other side wasn't nearly as amiable and benign. That one came from the poison pen of the Russian-born American philosopher, novelist, and playwright Ayn Rand. She originated the belief system called Objectivism, which espouses that all humans must base their actions and values solely upon the tools of reason. Her books The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) were wildly successful in this country and all over the world. She vented her disdain for rock 'n' roll music, the hippies who liked it, and the so-called counterculture in her book The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution.
Seizing on the coincidence of the successful Apollo 11 flight and Woodstock taking place exactly one month apart, she praised to the skies the former and lashed out unmercifully at the latter. Drawing on Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, Rand cleverly used the dichotomy of the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus to frame her attack on Woodstock by contrasting it with the moon landing. Rational, civilized thought is Apollonian; drunkenness and madness are Dionysian. The delicious coincidence of the mission being called Apollo must have made it irresistible for Rand to mount her blistering attack on the hedonism of Woodstock by bashing it with the rational triumph of NASA's accomplishment. On the one hand:
In my article "Apollo 11," I discussed the meaning and the greatness of the moon landing..."No one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being -- an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality."
On the other hand:
The hippies are the living demonstration of what it means to give up reason and to rely on one's primeval "instincts," "urges," "intuitions" -- and whims. With such tools, they are unable to grasp even what is needed to satisfy their wishes -- for example, the wish to have a festival. Where would they be without the charity of the local "squares" who fed them? Where would they be without the fifty doctors, rushed from New York to save their lives -- without the automobiles that brought them to the festival -- without the soda pop and beer they substituted for water -- without the helicopter that brought the entertainers -- without all the achievements of the technological civilization they denounce? Left to their own devices, they literally didn't know enough to come in out of the rain.
Then-President Richard M. Nixon or even Vice President Spiro T. Agnew could not have put it any more condescendingly.
There's a word for this too: dualism. In general, dualism refers to something consisting of two parts. For example, in theology, the concept that the world is divided into opposing forces of good and evil. Dualism about Woodstock began to unfold almost at the exact moment that the event itself got under way. An early testament to the potential hurricane strength of the festival is the roaring battle that was waged very privately behind the scenes and very publicly on the front page and editorial pages of the esteemed New York Times. Woodstock was and had been a magnet for the music journals and alternative papers that had grown up with the rock 'n' roll of the mid-'60s. The establishment press didn't jump on board full-tilt until the event became a legitimate news event because of the sheer size of the festival and the huge number of attendees that it attracted.
The Times had a reporter on the scene filing stories as early as Friday, August 15. The first headline was:
"200,000 Thronging to Rock Festival Jam Roads Upstate."
On the next day:
"300,000 at Folk-Rock Fair Camp Out in a Sea of Mud."
Times rock critic Mike Jahn filed his first review on August 18:
"Rock Audience Moves to Dusk-to-Dawn Rhythms."
Barnard Law Collier's next bylined story read:
"Tired Rock Fans Begin Exodus."
But the real fun began on Monday, August 18, when the Times printed an editorial with the headline "Nightmare in the Catskills," which read in part:
The dreams of marijuana and rock music that drew 300,000 fans and hippies to the Catskills had little more sanity than the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea. They ended in a nightmare of mud and stagnation that paralyzed Sullivan County for a whole weekend.
What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?
The reporters who were on the front lines filing stories were furious with the executives back at the paper sitting in comfort in the Times building passing judgments that were completely at odds with what the troops in the trenches had experienced and tried to communicate in their reporting.
John Morris: I had the New York Times staff in my office. And the ones who went back to New York and went into Arthur Sulzberger's office and said, "We quit!" He said, "What are you talking about?" "The editorial in The New York Times today trashing Woodstock, taking it apart, calling it filthy, mud-soaked is so inaccurate and is so different from all the reports that we've been sending down, and all the things that we've told everybody, that we don't want to work for the paper anymore." And he went, "Ooops!" And they changed the editorial the next day. The New York Times doesn't recant editorials. But they did.
The new version on August 19 was headlined "Morning After at Bethel" and read in part:
Now that Bethel has shrunk back to the dimensions of a Catskill village and most of the 300,000 young people who made it a "scene" have returned to their homes, the rock festival begins to take on the quality of a social phenomenon, comparable to the Tulipmania or the Children's Crusade. And in spite of the prevalence of drugs -- sales were made openly, and "you could get stoned just sitting there breathing," a student gleefully reported -- it was essentially a phenomenon of innocence.
The music itself was surely a prime attraction. Where else could aficionados of rock expect to hear in one place Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, and all those other lineal descendants of the primeval Beatles?
Yet it is hardly credible that they should have turned out in such vast numbers and endured, patiently and in good humor, the discomforts of mud, rain, hunger, and thirst solely to hear bands they could hear on recordings in the comfort of home. They came, it seems, to enjoy their own society, free to exult in a life style that is its own declaration of independence. To such a purpose a little hardship could only be an added attraction.
Now that's duality!
Here's reporter Barnard Law Collier's take on the dustup:
Every major Times editor up to and including executive editor James Reston insisted that the tenor of the story must be a social catastrophe in the making. It was difficult to persuade them that the relative lack of serious mischief and the fascinating cooperation, caring, and politeness among so many people was the significant point. I had to resort to refusing to write the story unless it reflected to a great extent my on-the-scene conviction that "peace" and "love" was the actual emphasis, not the preconceived opinions of Manhattan-bound editors. After many acrimonious telephone exchanges, the editors agreed to publish the story as I saw it, and although the nuts-and-bolts matters of gridlock and minor lawbreaking were put close to the lead of the stories, the real flavor of the gathering was permitted to get across. After the first day's Times story appeared on page 1, the event was widely recognized for the amazing and beautiful accident it was.
As blindly as the straight press pounced on Woodstock's inadequacies, Rolling Stone, the most successful "serious" rock magazine, trumpeted its glories:
Chicago was only the labor pains. With a joyous three-day shriek, the inheritors of the earth came to life in an alfalfa field outside the village of Bethel, New York. Slapping the spark of life into the newborn was American rock and roll music provided by the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
And Dylan's Mr. Jones, who has, indeed, been aware of what is happening, but has preferred to denounce the immorality of fucking around with his values, is now forced to acknowlege [sic] both the birth and its legitimacy...
Out of the mud and hunger and thirst, despite the rain and the end-of-the-world traffic jams, beyond the bad dope trips and the garish confusion, a new nation had emerged into the glare provided by the open-mouthed media.
So far, we've heard from some journalists, an anthropologist, a philosopher, a social scientist, a network news anchorman, and a Yippie. Now let's put Woodstock on the couch. The late, renowned psychotherapist Rollo May mused about the festival in the November 1969 issue of Mademoiselle magazine:
We're living in a transitional age, and the young people are developing the new myths and symbols by which people can communicate. Bethel is a way of forming the symbols of community. It's not the answer to everything, nor a blueprint for the new society, but it is a valuable signpost. I hope it's the forerunner to a new age. But what this age will be -- beyond something that comes out of the absolute needs for humanness, something that puts more emphasis on love and community and less emphasis on money and machines and trips to the moon -- I just don't know...
Of all the "in the moment" instant analyses of the "meaning" of Woodstock, Dr. May's might just be the most honest, accurate, and disarming of all. Why? Because the true test of Woodstock, the real proof in the pudding about it, could not and would not really be known until the march of time did its tricky business. It would not be until decades passed that one could look back at actual societal changes, not projected or imagined ones, and come to some completely objective and accurate conclusions about how the festival did or did not affect the unfolding of American history.
Many of those changes will flash before your eyes as you read the testimony gathered here. Interwoven throughout the text are opinions, indictments, and glorifications of all things pre- and post-Woodstock. Our primary focus will be on the music and musicians, but none of their stories can be told without a clear-eyed view of all the societal, technological, and generational changes that have taken place between August 15, 1969 and August 15, 2009.
In the end, the single unifying thread that continues to make Woodstock a subject of intense fascination for the ages, and that made this project such an exciting and affirming one to undertake, is this observation from the late Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth:
People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Apart from everything else you can say about it, Woodstock made us feel the rapture of being alive. It's time to get back to the garden.Copyright © 2009 by Pete Fornatale