LOS ANGELES — As the reports rolled in, one thing was clear: Woodstock (shown here) was a disaster, a swirl of mud and hunger, chaos and confusion.
“The New York Daily News headline (said), ‘Hippies mired in sea of mud,” recalled Joel Makower, whose book is the basis for a PBS documentary Tuesday.
Other headlines echoed that — “Rock Crisis” and “Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest” and more. They set a grim tone, as festival founders had their post-Woodstock meeting with bitter bankers. “The last headline we had read was ‘Nightmare in the Catskills,’” Joel Rosenman recalled.
Then things rebounded, he said. The bankers compromised. “And the next headline we saw, which we thought was going to be worse, was, ‘Miracle at Bethel.’”
Maybe it wasn’t miraculous, but at least the festival was a happy surprise. “You people have proven something to the world,” landowner Max Yasgur told the masses. “A half-million young people can get together and … have nothing but fun and music.”
It might have been fewer than that – 400,000 or so – but it was way more than the first prediction of 20,000. That was when two young guys planned a celebration in Woodstock, NY.
John Roberts was a trust-funder, working on Wall Street; Rosenman was fresh from law school. Neither wanted a suit-and-tie life. They created a successful sound studio in Miami, then were asked to do the same in Woodstock; the idea also called for a music celebration,
But the celebration site (10 acres) was too small. They moved to a sprawling spot in Wallkill. As the summer neared, they began building faciliies and hiring the bands.
“The Who and Jefferson Airplane came aboard early,” Rosenman said. “Before that booking, we couldn’t get (anyone). We were nobody.”
Soon, they had almost everyone. Stories and ads were in alternative papers. And then — five weeks before the festival — Wallkill banned the event. Promoters said they had to abandoning $500,000 in work and start over – somewhere. They found Yasgur’s dairy farm, near Bethel.
Three days before the festival, they were told there wasn’t time to build both a stage and fences; they chose the stage. “Experts” had their solutions, Rosenman said:
— The sheriff told him to “tell the cars to turn around, go back to … wherever they came from.”
— Bill Graham, a concert promoter, had an alternative to fences: “Make a perimeter of trenches. You fill the trenches with oil. You patrol it with German shepherd, and if it goes sideways, you light the oil.”
He followed neither plan. People poured in, many of them unpaid; traffic stagnated.
“Were we going to get the musicians in? Yes, helicopters finally solved that,” Rosenman said.
But that would take a while. On opening night, they couldn’t get anyone in to perform. Suddenly, Richie Havens showed up early and was thrust onstage. He did everything he knew, he says in the film, then concocted a song. “’Freedom’ was created right there on the stage. I made it up.”
Over three days, the music continued, often at odd times. Jefferson Airplane started at 6:30 a.m., with some of its fans asleep; Jimi Hendrix’s classic riffs came as many people were leaving.
The food ran out, but people improvised, Makower said. The “Hog Farm,” a hippie collective, started a free kitchen. Neighbors pitched in. “Local churches and schools and PTA’s came together to make sandwiches (and) hard-boiled eggs …. People come together to take care of these people in need.”
The aftermath has brought a movie, books, albums, even a museum in Bethel.
People “remember fondly the music,” said Barak Goodman, who directed the PBS film. “But it wasn’t really the music” that made this. It was “the experience of being with each other. It was he way it crystalized something real about the counterculture.”
— “American Experience: Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation,” 9-11 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 6 ), PBS
— Joel Makower’s book is “Woodstock: The Oral History”
— Joel Rosenman’s book is “Making Woodstock.”
— As the 50th anniversary (Aug. 15-17) nears, there are other books, albums, the “Woodstock” movie (1971) and more. An anniversary concert was scheduled, but then cancelled.