Memories of Woodstock, the rock-‘n’-roll festival he helped create, haunt Artie Kornfeld still: the cops opening fire on the crowd of stunned hippies, body parts flying everywhere, the dying screams of musicians as the stage burst into flames, the rapes and the looting of the dead.
Of course, that Woodstock only happened in Kornfeld’s raving, mushroom-besotted brain, a hellish daylong hallucination triggered by a dose of psilocybin. Only a countervailing shot of Thorazine administered by festival doctors enabled him to stagger out to the edge of the stage to see the transcendent climax of Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix’s soaring sunrise performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“There were a lot of good trips at Woodstock, but there were some bad ones, too,” admits Kornfeld, sprawled comfortably across a couch in a gated Delray Beach, Fla., subdivision a thousand miles and more light-years away from the mud and the dope and the music and the wonder of Woodstock.
As the 40th anniversary of the festival begins Saturday, Woodstock remains a mythic touchstone for both everybody who loved the 1960s and everybody who hated them: three days of rampant drug abuse, outdoor sex and loud rock ‘n’ roll, all blissfully free of adult supervision. Somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 people showed up at an event planned for a crowd a sixth that size, turning an upstate farm into New York’s second-biggest city overnight.
Careers were launched: Woodstock was the first significant public performance by Crosby, Stills & Nash, Melanie and Sha Na Na. Epitaphs were written: Headliners Hendrix and Janis Joplin would be dead of drug overdoses in little more than a year. Politics were embraced: The crowd sighed in sympathy at Joan Baez’s gentle paean to her draft-dodging husband, locked up in federal prison. Politics were rejected: When antiwar radical Abbie Hoffman ran onstage and grabbed a microphone, The Who’s Pete Townshend clubbed him to the ground with a guitar.
People danced and sang and made love. (The producers of the Woodstock documentary were sued by a man who said his on-camera coupling with a pretty girl destroyed his carefully cultivated homosexual image, wrecking his hairdressing business). It rained. It stank. Portable toilets backed up.
There wasn’t enough food (most concession stands ringing the concert grounds quickly ran out when the employees swapped hot dogs and hamburgers for dope; some that didn’t were torched by the crowd to protest capitalist predation). New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller declared Woodstock a disaster area, and the Army and National Guard began airlifting supplies in and casualties out.
With no cops present, drug use reached such epidemic proportions that the festival’s public-address system kept up a running commentary on the best kinds of LSD. (“The brown acid that is circulating around ... please be advised that there is a warning on that.”) The Woodstock medical corps even set up half a dozen “freakout tents” where overdoses could be treated and bad trips waited out.
The immediate reaction of over-30 America, as measured in the news media, was one of horror. HIPPIES MIRED IN A SEA OF MUD, shrieked the New York Daily News. NIGHTMARE IN THE CATSKILLS, added The New York Times over an editorial that demanded: “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?” But as baby boomers aged and took control of writing history, the festival’s image largely mellowed into an echo of Joni Mitchell’s celebratory anthem of cultural regime change: By the time we got to Woodstock/We were half a million strong/And everywhere was a song and a celebration. ...
Today, as the Woodstock Nation tiptoes toward Social Security and Depends, the festival’s place in history remains a matter of debate. “If people tell me how great it was, I know they weren’t really there,” says Barry Melton, lead guitarist of Country Joe and the Fish, who won instant rock-‘n’-roll immortality by leading the giant crowd in a spellout of the word F-I-S-H, substituting some stray letters from “firetruck” for the I-S-H part.
“It was tough out there, man,” recalls Melton, who still does some rock ‘n’ roll gigs but mostly is wrapping up two decades as a criminal defense attorney in northern California. “If you were part of the crowd, there was no water, no place to go to the bathroom. Well, not no place, but not enough places and not very close. Those kind of things like water and sanitation were big obstacles.”
Others remain dazzled by what they experienced. Hallandale Beach, Fla., racehorse owner Joe DeFalco was a middle-age Korean War vet in 1969 whose musical tastes ran more to Sinatra than Santana. But when DeFalco blundered into Woodstock — a celebrity outdoorsman invited along by members of the Grateful Dead after a chance conversation at their hotel about deer-hunting — he was enraptured.
“If you’d offered me $10 million, I couldn’t have picked the Grateful Dead guys out of a crowd,” recalls DeFalco, now 80. “But when they started to play, and I looked out over the audience, I was spellbound. The people were singing along, clapping along, not one person missing a beat, guys holding girls up on their shoulders to get a look. ... It wasn’t about the entertainers; it was about the people.”
The afternoon at Woodstock left such an imprint on DeFalco that years later, after making millions as a developer, he tried to buy the festival site to turn it into a memorial park.
The site nearly became a graveyard for the finances of the four men who produced Woodstock — including Kornfeld, back then a Capitol Records vice president and the writer of some very un-Woodstock-like songs like “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Follow Me, I’m The Pied Piper.” As the swelling crowd first climbed the fences at the festival site and then tore them down altogether, the producers swallowed deeply and declared it a free show. They were left well over $1 million in debt back when that was real money. It took nearly 10 years to erase the last of the red ink.
Kornfeld, though, was neither cowed by the debt — he was confident it would be erased by revenue from the movie deal he had negotiated — nor surprised by the size of the crowd. “I always knew it would be huge,” he says.
Kornfeld is sometimes referred to as the Father of Woodstock, which might be an exaggeration, but he was certainly there at the moment of conception. It took place during a conversation between Kornfeld, his wife Linda, and Miami head shop operator Michael Lang, who had organized a 1968 rock festival at Gulfstream Race Track in Hallandale Beach that, though disastrous, had left him with a yen to produce more.
“Michael came up to New York to promote a band, and he met with me, and I liked him right away because he had good pot, and mine was really lousy,” recalls Kornfeld (whose book, “The Pied Piper of Woodstock,” will be published later this month). “One night we were all smoking, and I started talking about throwing a big party on Broadway with all the Capitol Records groups, the Beatles and everybody. Michael said, right away, ‘We should use the name Woodstock,’ which was the town where Bob Dylan and The Band lived and was getting a reputation as really hip. And then Linda said, ‘What if you moved it outdoors? How many people do you think would come?’ Michael said 5,000; I said half a million.”
A few months later, Kornfeld and Lang met hip, young investors John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who were exploring the idea of building a recording studio in Woodstock, and the half-baked idea of a festival went back into the oven. The group started to look for sites near Woodstock (eventually settling on a farm just outside Bethel, N.Y.). Despite Kornfeld’s grandiose vision of a crowd of 500,000, the initial planning was for an audience of about 25,000.
When the surging crowd overwhelmed Woodstock’s primitive logistics, it actually helped Kornfeld, who was engaged in a last-minute marathon negotiation with Warner Bros. over film rights. The Hollywood people were skeptical; documentaries didn’t sell. “Look, everybody thinks the festival is going to crash and burn and end in a giant riot,” argued Kornfeld. “Just think if they’re right: You’ll be there, and you’ll have the biggest disaster movie in the history of Hollywood, and we’ll all be rich!”
A suddenly enthusiastic studio forked over $100,000, and Kornfeld headed for Woodstock in a limo, which he abandoned miles from the concert in a hopeless snarl of traffic. He got there after an exhausting hike, then was trapped in a chemical nightmare of rape and murder when he tried to pep himself up with diet pills but mistakenly took the hallucinogen psilocybin instead.
For all that — as well as the damage drug use would do to his life later, when his daughter died of a cocaine overdose, and Kornfeld himself struggled through a 15-year addiction — he still believes in Woodstock as a moment that set the world spinning on a kinder, gentler axis.
“You know my best Woodstock memory, my favorite thing?” asks Kornfeld. “It’s in the movie. You see a kid taking a bite of a sandwich, and passing it to the next kid, who takes a bite and passes it, on down the line until 12 kids have had a bite. Sharing, that’s what Woodstock was, people helping one another. Yeah, there were problems, but people got together and got through them… . It was a moment to escape from a horrible president and a horrible war that was going on, a moment to share.”
ABOUT THE WRITER
Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at ggarvin AT miamiherald.com.