“Back To The Garden” by Pete Fornatale Touchstone (303 pages, $24.99)
If you think the media saturation on Michael Jackson’s death is outre, you should prepare for the gates of pop culture to burst in mid-August as the 40th anniversary of Woodstock arrives.
Everyone who was there — or thinks he was — will tell of dropping acid for a ride with the Jefferson Airplane, skinny-dipping in communal baths with 400,000 nubile neighbors and waking up to Jimi Hendrix strangling “The Star Spangled Banner” out of his electric guitar for the finale of the three-day festival of music, mud and bad brown acid.
New Yorker Michael Lang, who in the ‘60s owned a head shop in Coconut Grove, Fla., and who created the Woodstock warmup Miami Pop Festival in May 1968, helped shape the Woodstock Music and Art Fair through persistence, charisma and Herculean organizational savvy. He proves to be a brilliant, amusing raconteur in “The Road to Woodstock,” in which he recounts how the festival came together.
The book’s detail-laden flashbacks from organizers and performers such as hippie goddess Melanie, a newcomer who had no idea what she was getting into; a cranky Pete Townshend, who blasts “the people at Woodstock” as “a bunch of hypocrites”; and a bemused Grace Slick, who recalls singing “sort of half asleep,” are potent enough to give readers a contact high.
“The Road To Woodstock” by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren Ecco/Harper Collins (304 pages, $29.99)
Reading Lang’s book can be a heady experience. He recounts vivid tales of the early days in the Grove — which he describes as “an artsy laid-back vibe, the kind of place where dogs lie down and sleep in the middle of the road.” Lang and his pals spent a lot of time outwitting cops (some corrupt, others of the Keystone variety). One planned bust of a pot party went hilariously awry as a tipster alerted Lang and his cronies to the coming arrests, and word spread along the Grove grapevine: “As a line of police cars raced through the Grove in one direction, an equal number of longhaired cyclists would whiz past them, going the opposite way.”
As the leader of a rag-tag group who had never staged anything of the magnitude of Woodstock, Lang steadfastly believed in his vision even as fate conspired against him. Woodstock wasn’t even in Woodstock, N.Y. The location fell through at the last minute, and as Lang recounts, producers had to go to nearby Sullivan County. They found a large field owned by amiable dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who apparently was someone over 30 whom hippies could trust.
Lang also proves a brisk storyteller in the later chapters, which describe such career-making performances as those by newcomer Santana and Sly & the Family Stone.
“I got to witness the peak of the festival, which was Sly Stone. I don’t think he ever played that good again — steam was literally coming out of his Afro,” guitarist Carlos Santana recalls. However, not every act rose out of the muck. The Grateful Dead had problems. “A combination of the weather and hallucinogenics proved their undoing,” Lang writes.
But chunks in the middle of “Road” feel an interminable slog — like the traffic jams that led to the field at Yasgur’s farm — to anyone uninterested in spread sheets and the headaches with which concert promoters deal. Perhaps this was Lang’s unintended way of making the reader feel as he did 40 years ago: For every one giddy step forward, there’s a corresponding and frustrating step back.
Pete Fornatale’s “Back to the Garden” — titled after a line in Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” — lacks the peaks and valleys and import of Lang’s book. After all, Fornatale, a veteran New York radio personality, merely reported on the event. He relies on about 110 sources — some living (David Crosby, Paul Kantner) and others dead (Jerry Garcia, Abbie Hoffman) to take readers back to Yasgur’s farm in Bethel “when the s—- hit the fan (or, in some cases, when the fans hit the s—-”).
Fornatale’s belief is that “you didn’t have to be at Woodstock to be at Woodstock,” and his mighty task here is to weave the recollections to prove that paradox. “Back to the Garden” is a brisker read than “Road to Woodstock” as it lacks the minutia that sometimes makes the reader’s eyes glaze in Lang’s book. And Fornatale’s conversational style and the assortment of characters he quotes make for a lively read.
Some have fond stories. Original Sha Na Na guitarist Henry Gross, who later had a ‘70s solo hit about a missing dog (“Shannon”), tells of drinking with Hendrix, who had also performed at Lang’s Miami Pop Festival. Others were less than enchanted with the shows: Concertgoer Jim Marion tells of leaving the rain-drenched festival early. Marion would have a considerably better time going back to the garden with these books as guides.