Woodstock at 40: Celebrate fest’s B-day with books, concerts & new film

[16 July 2009]

By Jonathan Takiff

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

Several outdoor, multi-day music festivals were held in the summer of ‘69.

All were celebrating a seismic explosion in conscious rock — music spirited by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and “the movements” (anti-war, civil rights, feminist, ecological, psychedelic) and proffered by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Janis Joplin, the Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker and the Band. Simultaneously, this surge of oversized shows served as a coming of age and coming together for the just-emerging baby boomer generation that would embrace its new stars as countercultural heroes.

The biggest, baddest and most legendary music fest of all was Woodstock, a venture “created for wallets ... designed to make bucks. And then the universe took over and did a little dance.”

So quipped Wavy Gravy, performance artist and front man for the famed Hog Farm commune, which gently policed and fed the festival. Woodstock pilgrims — anywhere from 300,000 to “half a million strong,” depending on who’s counting — clogged the New York State Thruway and turned the cow pastures of Sullivan County, N.Y., into an instant city on Aug. 15-18, 1969. They suffered rain and famine of almost biblical proportions — enough for then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to declare the site a disaster area. Yet, through it all, festivalgoers never lost their sense of cool or their kindliness toward one another.

The Woodstock festival wasn’t just the lead story for a day or two. Captured first note to last by sound engineer Eddie Kramer, and visually (pristine fields to muddy mess) by a camera crew led by Michael Wadleigh, the epic event would soar to legendary stature, dwarfing that other historic ‘69 summer happening, man’s first walk on the moon.

Even those in attendance came to rely on Wadleigh’s pointedly political, three-hour film document — first released in theaters in March 1970 — to define what the newly anointed “Woodstock Nation” was all about. “Most of what I know of the festival, I saw in the movie,” said Joel Rosenman, one of the event’s four producers, who was stuck in an office all weekend, dealing with “life and death” issues.

And millions more who would dose just on the movie (considered the best documentary ever) and soundtrack albums would likewise become imbued with Woodstock’s spirit — those calls to rock free, get back to nature, make love, not war, expand your mind ... so much so that, when asked, they too would swear, “Yeah, I was at Woodstock.”

This summer, you can be there too, even better than before. To mark the festival’s 40th anniversary, Woodstock is being revisited and celebrated anew with treasure troves of freshly unearthed performances, insightful books, commemorative concerts and a promising new feature film.

“Woodstock was a ray of hope in a dark time, and today, it can be that again,” believes the festival’s most visible creator, Michael Lang. “It’s telling that Barack Obama’s inaugural celebration was characterized as ‘Washington’s Woodstock.’ “

The place to start our magical mystery tour is still Wadleigh’s documentary, “Woodstock — 3 Days of Peace & Music,” just re-issued by Warner Home Video in a new, high-resolution, Blu-ray disc form (as well as conventional DVD) in that extended, four-hour director’s cut edition first let loose at the 25th anniversary mark.

A limited-edition “ultimate collector’s” treatment packs cute touches like a wrapper of fringed buckskin — a major Woodstock fashion statement. But the really big deal here is a new bonus disc with an extra 2 1/2 hours of concert footage, including a big helping of Creedence Clearwater Revival and a 38-minute grind through the Grateful Dead’s “Turn on Your Lovelight,” two bands missing from the movie due to artistic and business “differences.”

Newly mixed by Kramer in 5.1-channel sound — a neat feat since he only had seven tracks of band music to juggle — and freshly edited and sharpened for high-def viewing (more obviously so than the movie), this extra content brings us closer in spirit and endurance to the six-hour marathon that Wadleigh first intended to foist on the world “in two, three-hour or three, two-hour chunks,” he told me at a recent launch party for the video disc set.

Even 40 years later, this long-haired director still relishes recalling how he stuck it to the man, breaking into a Warner facility and spiriting away the “Woodstock” negative, then threatening to burn it after hearing that a studio exec wanted to cut the movie down to a typical, 90-minute running time.

Also enhancing our virtual festivalgoing experience are a series of five new “Woodstock Experience” CDs from Sony Legacy that deliver the complete Woodstock performances — previously heard only in truncated form — of five label notables. Each is paired with the musical act’s big studio album of the same year.

Janis Joplin’s performance with her then new, soul revue-style band sounds snappier than on-site reviewers suggested. Another Texas bluester, Johnny Winter, was in sturdy form. Best of show Sly and the Family Stone were at absolute peak powers, blazing a funk-rock trail still being tread by the minions.

And the Jefferson Airplane’s trippy, 90-minute, dawn-on-Sunday set was way better than the musicians believed at the time, or their overly fatigued audience could appreciate. Conversely, not all of Santana’s Latin fusion coming-out party at Woodstock proves as legend-making as the fiery “Soul Sacrifice” finale spotlighted in the film.

By the way, Sony Music Entertainment also is the driving force (with Woodstock Ventures) behind a new Web site, Woodstock.com, a place to get back in touch with the music, those still-relevant issues and maybe that hippie chick you lost in the garden.

Along with reissues of the multi-disc “Woodstock” and “Woodstock 2” soundtrack albums that sold millions back in the day, Rhino is about to unload (on the anniversary of the festival’s last day, Aug. 18) “Woodstock: 40 Years On: Back to Yasgur’s Farm.”

This four-years-in-the-making, six-disc, 77-song (plus numerous sound bites) box set is the first to deliver festival performances in precise running order (Wadleigh’s film took liberties to build themes) and includes 38 numbers never heard before.

“40 Years On” co-producer Andy Zax said that on first surveying the tape treasure trove, he contemplated putting out a 30-disc set covering the whole shebang — good, bad, whatever. While sanity finally prevailed, Zax still went for a “warts and all” approach, including unvarnished festival performances of Canned Heat, Arlo Guthrie and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tunes that Wadleigh felt compelled to replace with other recordings for the movie.

Noteworthy here are the Dead’s cosmic “Dark Star” and a raga in the rain by Ravi Shankar that didn’t make the flick because the sitarist ordered cameramen off the stage.

While listening to all that good stuff, dig into one of the new books focused on the festival.

Breeziest read is the handsome coffee table tome “Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World” ($35, Sterling) that also tracks the weekend in chronological fashion, with striking photographs and large-type quotes that are easy on the eyes for the target boomer set and for read-alongs (“Gimme an ‘F’ ...”) with the grandkids.

This is an official publication of the Museum at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, a $100 million facility located on the festival site in New York. Still, the book isn’t a total suck-up, allowing feisty fumers like Pete Townshend and Neil Young to repeat their objections to the star-making machinery. (Townshend’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was a festival retort.)

For those who want to relive the “Hey, let’s put on a show!” thrills and tribulations — and there were many of both — concert brainstormer Michael Lang has at last spilled his guts, “because they asked me,” in “The Road to Woodstock” ($29.99, Ecco). This writer relished the tales of Lang’s run-ins with the fiercely competitive concert promoter Bill Graham, and the down-to-the-wire negotiations with Warner Bros. to fund the film, spirited by festival co-producer Artie Kornfeld and his buddy Fred Weintraub, the newly named movie studio exec who’d formerly run the Bitter End music club.

A fractional share of the film and album profits eventually helped the concert producers wipe out a $1.6 million debt from their reluctantly turned “free” festival a mere 10 years later, Rosenman shared.

“The only one who really got rich off Woodstock was (documentarian Michael) Wadleigh,” claimed Kornfeld.

While not on site, New York FM rock DJ Pete Fornatale was clearly on the Woodstock wavelength: He juggles scores of snappy anecdotes from pundits, performers, production principals and showgoers as “Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock” ($24.99, Touchstone). Oddly, he allows the late Graham to anoint himself a festival savior. But there are other enjoyable stories about talents who fell into Woodstock almost by accident — like John Sebastian, Melanie and doo-wop revivalists Sha Na Na — and came out as stars.

“We were paid $300 for our Woodstock performance and a token fee of $1 to be in the movie, which worked out to 8 cents a guy,” Sha Na Na’s Jocko Marcellino told me. “And while the movie (largely edited by a just-out-of-NYU Martin Scorsese) makes it appear we were on early in the festival, they kept putting us off. We finally got on second to last Monday morning, just before (Jimi) Hendrix. The place was decimated, looked like a refugee camp. But getting into the movie was the best career move ever.”

On Aug. 28, Ang Lee’s film “Taking Woodstock” offers a little-known but true tale of a guy named Elliot Tiber (played by Demetri Martin) who saved the festival by coming up with a permit and new location after the event had been kicked out of two other towns.

That last-minute move explains why small items like ticket booths and a stage roof never got built, and the whole show had to be illuminated by just a dozen or so spotlights.

Both Joel Rosenman and Michael Lang hint that an officially sanctioned commemorative concert will “eventually” be held to mark the big 4-0. Maybe their Woodstock Ventures’ “summer of love” product tie-ins with Target could lead to more?

But the steadfastly cause-centric and image-protecting Wadleigh made a big stink about a soft drink company’s sponsorship of the last, 30th-anniversary-celebrating Woodstock festival, also sadly recalled for its ugly setting (a decommissioned military base in Rome, N.Y.), preponderance of thuddish metal bands and fire-fueled riots.

“There isn’t a single corporate logo visible anywhere in my movie,” Wadleigh snorted.

“Woodstock was the antithesis of what the music industry turned into. And if anyone tries to tie another Woodstock festival to an obnoxious sponsor, I’ll be out protesting again.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/108329-woodstock-at-40-celebrate-fests-b-day-with-books-concerts-new-film/