The Festival That Wasn’t Here …and how it came to bear the Woodstock name and Michael Lang’s role
It was the culmination of societal and cultural rumblings, of change fueled by the conservatism of the 1950s, mistrust of government in the 1960s and young people yearning for a voice for their generation.
Or maybe a half-million people just wanted to hear some kick-butt rock ‘n roll.
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was a cornerstone of the counterculture explosion. The three-day concert, featuring two dozen acts from Aug. 15-17, 1969, also put promoter Michael Lang on the map as a musical visionary.
But the road to the concert in Bethel, in Sullivan County, NY, wasn’t easy. The concert almost didn’t happen. And when it did, it initially lost money – lots of money.
There are conflicting reports about who had the idea for the concert. Some say it was Lang. Others say Lang and a co-promoter, Artie Kornfield, hatched it together. And to this day, there is still confusion by many who think the concert Woodstock took place in the town of Woodstock, an idyllic artists’ haven in New York’s Ulster County that’s 50 miles from Bethel. Why didn’t it? That’s another controversy. One story has the town backing out because the event was getting too big. Others say it was named Woodstock because Lang’s musical inspiration, Bob Dylan, lived there.
What is true is that planning for the show took Lang to several towns, but municipal officials’ conservatism kept saying no. But credit him for not letting the idea die.
Lang, as a curly haired 23-year-old, had orchestrated the Miami Pop Festival in 1968. He met up with Artie Kornfield and together hatched the idea of opening a recording studio in the town of Woodstock. They joined up with John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, and the quartet created Woodstock Ventures. The goal: Put on a cultural exposition/rock concert/extravaganza.
They unsuccessfully scouted sites in Rockland County before leasing property in an industrial park in Wallkill, Orange County in March. The size was good, 300 acres. The feel, though, was bad. The cement buildings didn’t evoke nature, as Lang wanted. The hesitation was mutual: As word spread, so did opposition. By mid-July, the town said goodbye.
But the publicity over the hubbub was a boon for Lang. Word spread to Elliot Tiber, who had a permit in Bethel to run a chamber music festival. He brought Lang and the others to gentleman farmer Max Yasgur. His milk and cheese farm sloped like an amphitheater; there was a lake. The feel was perfect. A deal was struck for $75,000.
But word got out and opposition mounted, climaxing with a human barricade across Route 17B the day before the concert. But the publicity had worked. They were coming. Car after car after car. And the music ensued, kicking off at 5:07 p.m. on Aug. 15, 1969.
The first act on Friday night: Richie Havens, doing “High Flyin’ Bird.” Twenty-six acts followed, finishing with the Hendrix performance of “Hey Joe.”
And what a party it was. In all, it cost Woodstock Ventures $2.4 million, and they never sold a ticket at the gate. There wasn’t enough food or toilets, but there was plenty of drugs and alcohol. Two died; two were born. Indeed, it was “Three Days of Peace and Music”.
Today, the Yasgur site, at the corner of Hurd Road and West Shore Drive off Route 17B, is a tourism destination, of sorts, a 38-acre international destination for those paying homage to a generation’s voice and power.
Yasgur’s farm was subdivided after he died in 1973, and today it’s owned by Alan Gerry, who has held concerts called “A Day In the Garden” there. And the tourists still come to pay homage to the site that spawned The Counterculture’s biggest statement.