5 Facts About Woodstock The Hippies Don't Want You to Know
Forty years ago, half a million people gathered for three days of peace, love and letting their private parts flap all over the hashish-covered mud at a place called Woodstock.
This event exists as mythology for most of our readers, who only know it from a series of photographs and wistful documentaries. So let's take a moment to set a few things straight...
Woodstock Was Conceived as a Hippie-Exploiting Cash Grab
If there's one thing hippies hate, it's war. If there are two things hippies hate, they are war and doing things for profit. If we move the discussion up to three things, they would be war, money and 1980s Latin sensations Menudo, but we don't have time to get into that.
If only there was time.
Knowing that money and the pursuit of it is flower child kryptonite, you may be shocked to learn that the concert that defined the 60s owed its origins to some squares looking to make a buck. And not a buck for Tibet, either. In March of 1968, drugstore heir, John Roberts, and Yale Law grad, Joel Rosenman, placed the following ad in the non-hippiest publications of all time: the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times:
Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.
Since this was before the internet was invented, nobody read the ad with a heavy emphasis on the words "men," "interesting" and "propositions" saving the men from the sort of gay escort service spam that will likely flood the comment section of this article. Instead, Roberts and Rosenman were contacted by Capitol Records exec, Artie Kornfeld, and hippie concert promoter, Michael Lang, with the idea of a starting a music studio in Woodstock, New York. When that idea didn't pan out, the suits struck gold with the notion of a three day art and music festival. Pre-sold tickets would go for $18 (that's $105 in today's money, folks) and latecomers would have to shell out $24 at the gate.
Actual photo of the first planning session.
Despite how that plan eventually worked out (hint: it didn't) the original goal was to make a gigantic buttload of cash off of young, middle-class music lovers. Forming the company Woodstock Ventures, the four got to work at putting together a line-up that would draw enough human cattle to make the men a tidy profit.
They thought they could get 250,000 hippies to show up. At the equivalent of a hundred bucks a ticket, it made for an interesting business opportunity that even a non-man-pimp had to waggle his eyebrows at.
The Promoters Lied to Make it Happen
Once the three squares and a little hippie agreed that a three day music fest was the way to get paid, the hunt was on to find a suitable locale. But there was a problem: No one wanted thousands of unwashed, doped up counter-culture ruffians on their property.
So the fat cats started making promises. Wacky promises, like that "there would only be 50,000 concert goers" and "they totally knew what they were doing."
In the spring of 1969, Woodstock Ventures leased Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, New York as the proposed site for the festival. Upon realizing that a place named "Wallkill" was better suited for a three day death metal concert, the people of the town up and passed a "no hippie concerts here" law exactly one month before the festival was supposed to take place.
The official reason for the ban was that town officials had a stinking suspicion that Lang and company hadn't planned their porta-potties properly for the prospective 50,000 people. Undaunted, the fab four kept looking. They were approached by Elliott Tiber from Bethel, New York with the offer of using his 15 acres for the concert. "Too small," they said. So Mr.Tiber put them in touch with one Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer with 600 acres in Bethel. Yasgur agreed to meet with the promoters with the understanding he would be leasing his land for $75,000, once more, for an audience of about 50,000.
That 50,000 number is important. For one, over 150,000 tickets had sold by this point. For two, the promoters had run radio and newspaper ads across the country inviting people to their little hootenanny. They actually expected 250,000 to show up. For three, 250,000 times two came.
Woodstock's Performers Were ALL About the Benjamins
But just because it was a bunch of money-grubbing promoters behind the scenes, doesn't change the fact that it was all about changing the world with music, man! After all, guys like the Grateful Dead and Hendrix weren't up there to get paid! Well, now that you mention it...
Several acts, THE WHOse names we won't mention (until a few paragraphs down) refused to take the stage without seeing a flatbed full of cash first.
Woodstock promoters had scrambled to sign big acts through the spring of 1969. Without big names in the line-up, other big names wouldn't bother signing on. They were in a musical pickle, which could also be called a melodious catch-22. Or maybe a harmonic bind. We could do this all day.
This is also a musical pickle.
Their first big break came when Creedence Clearwater Revival signed on for a whopping $10,000 or $11,500, depending on who you ask, in April of 1969. With a total talent budget of $180,000, Michael Lang set a cap of $15,000 for each performer, big or small. This was fine for the likes of Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Janis Freakin' Joplin. Not for Jimi Hendrix, though.
Hendrix wasn't going for that lowball malarkey after scoring $150,000 for a single concert earlier in the summer. Lang ultimately signed Jimi with the promise of a $26,000 payday, twice what any other act was getting. But when the other money-grubbers (Jefferson Airplane) complained, Lang explained that Jimi was actually doing two sets during the festival (SPOILER ALERT: He wasn't. Hendrix's contract stipulated that he closed every show he performed at. Ever.).
And all those lyrics about peace, love and free nachos for all? BALDERDASH. The three biggest acts of the second night (Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Who) informed Lang and co. at the 11th hour that performing wasn't in the cards until bitches got paid. The Grateful Dead. Seriously. These Pigpen looking, peace spouting, commune dwelling, anti-capitalists wouldn't touch their instruments until cash was in hand:
Mo' Money, mo' problems.
And remember, there were 500,000 hungry, sweaty, dehydrated, mud-caked would-be rioters in the audience. Not keeping the music going could have induced a Lord of the Flies breakdown in civilization out there. So Woodstock Ventures emptied their pockets and discovered their pooled resources amounted to $1.25, three LSD tabs, an orange rind and Grace Slick's fake phone number.
The panicky promoters begged a local banker to put up the money, based on the fact that Richie Rich Roberts had a $1,000,000 trust fund he could use as collateral. Mr. Banker said, "Cool," and proceeded to get in his car and drive to the bank, which would have been hella easy since this is what the roads looked like up to 10 miles away from the concert:
Yet somehow, he did. Mr. Banker made it to the bank, counted cash on hand, kindly accepted Robert's personal check for "50 or 100 thousand dollars." Only that kept the "three days of peace, love and music" from grinding to a silent halt as the bands went on strike, mid-concert.
The Logistics of Providing Health and Safety of 500,000 People Were Pretty Much Ignored
Imagine the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: hot, humid, hundreds of thousands of people stranded without enough food or water. Now imagine that scenario, but with Joe Cocker flailing bluesily in the background. Congratulations. You've just imagined Woodstock.
Let's talk about numbers. From the beginning, Lang had planned on 250,000 coming to the festival. About three times the number of people who attended his largest concert to date, The Miami Festival. So the guy was in over his head from the get-go. Wallkill residents took a look at Woodstock Ventures sanitation plans for a crowd of 50,000 and shook their heads in bemused disgust. One resident summed it up best:
I was in the Army when divisions were 40,000 or 50,000 men. Christ almighty, the logistics involved in moving men around... I said at one point, "I don't care if it was a convention of 50,000 ministers, I would have felt the same way."
Knowing now that Lang secretly expected five times as many as he planned for, and that his potty plans were crap to begin with (get it?!) and that 10 times as many as he expected came, it's a wonder the event didn't end in concert goers flinging human feces at each other in a degraded tribal meltdown.
On top of the fact that there were -3 toilets for every 10,000 concert goers, a torrential rain started slushing that port-a-potty overflow into one nasty poop stew by Saturday.
This guy just relieved himself. Also, two rows back and to the right: Geraldo Rivera.
But the problems were bigger than just the collective digestive waste of 500,000 people. The traffic started slowly piling up outside Bethel on Tuesday, five days before the concert was to start. Thousands of cars were abandoned for up to 20 miles from Yasgur's farm, as kids gave up on driving and decided to hoof it to the festival. Local residents were trapped. Performers had to be helicoptered in (often in military copters, LOL IRONY.)
Pictured: Either a tragic massacre about to happen, or Carlos Santana about to land.
And remember that cute idea of selling tickets at the gate? What gate? The gate, fence, and all semblance of keeping Woodstock anything but an open invitation to anyone with warm breath in their bodies was plowed over early in the game.
So not only were concert goers, the surrounding townspeople, a mess of poop and a whole lot of dippy metaphysical rhetoric trapped at Woodstock by an army of abandoned vehicles, the promoters severely underplanned concessions for a three day romp on a farm. The original concession services ran out of food early, and its reinforcement truck got raided by unchill hippies (unchillipies?) on the way in to the concert.
Is this a flute or a hot dog? I'm going to taste it.
By Friday, THE FIRST DAY OF THE ACTUAL FESTIVAL, Woodstock Ventures was out of food. Then they had the gall to ask their confined neighbors for sandwich donations. About 750,000, if they didn't mind. Some locals felt so sorry for the hungry kids that they did what they could to help. Members of the Monticello Jewish Community Center started making sandwiches with 200 loaves of bread, 40 pounds of meat and two gallons of pickles. Food was being airlifted from in from a nearby air force base. It must have been cool to have your communist free-for-all ideals materialize in the form of pickle sandwiches prepared by your square neighbors.
To be fair, only three died. Though that is two more than how many died at the helter skelter rapefest known as Woodstock '99.
Sacrificing babies during "Bawitdaba."
Let's break down the Woodstock death toll:
One burst appendix
One heroin overdose
One kid run over by a tractor
One of these deaths is not like the others. The burst appendix... that's just crap luck, right? Having an unnecessary organ explode in the middle of half a million people? That's like trying to having a baby during the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. Good luck getting some attention.
The overdose was an 18-year-old veteran of the Vietnam War, which sucks even more. He was given care at an impromptu clinic set up at a school outside Yasgur's farm (which was probably better than the OD's treated at the Freak Out tent, a makeshift infirmary where nurses and veteran trippers talked down twitchy, paranoid jokers who took the brown acid).
Hundreds of other medical cases treated involved kids showing up with severely cut feet. Others showed up temporarily blinded from staring at the sun. But that's probably an issue at any large gathering, right?
But the strangest death was the 17-year-old kid who was snoozing in the mud, cuddled up in his sleeping bag, oblivious to the noise and vibrations and exhaust of the tractor that ran over him in cold blood. The driver was never identified, but what are you going to do? It was muddy. He didn't know. Come on, you're driving a tractor through Woodstock, what are the odds you're going to run over a hippie?
Still, that kid died at Woodstock, unlike 497,000 of his generation who will most likely die of heart disease, complications stemming from Type 2 diabetes, dementia, inoperable tumors, elder neglect/abuse, suicide, freak tractor accidents, freak kidney failure accidents or AIDS. Which would you choose?
When not planting potatoes, then digging them up, then eating them, Kristi Harrison writes about potatoes at Here In Idaho.
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