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The Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan Goes Public

It might be said that over the past few weeks Bob Dylan has gone public. He has shown up to see Paul Smith and Muddy Waters and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; he has sat in at the Other End; he has hung out. One night around three in the morning, after Bobby Neuwirth’s club set, Dylan sat and performed new material for over an hour at the Other End bar — a song about Joey Gallo, a song about marrying Isis — and except for Muddy Waters all of the aforementioned musicians were part of an audience that included more than one journalist and several hundred gawkers. Also present was that old Dylan imitator, Ian Hunter, who was having his head blown off — not only had Dylan identified him as a member of Mott the Hoople (which he’s not any more, as if Hunter could care) but he’d known all the tracks on Hunter’s (or was it Mott’s) first album. Unbelievable.

This is news. For almost a decade, Dylan’s need to armor himself against the attentions of his admirers has played a large part in the way we think about him — even though sightings have been common sine early 1968, it has been the alarming 18-month period of complete seclusion just before then that’s stuck in our minds. Of course, all that began to change subtly after his 1974 tour with the Band. If it’s going too far to say that Dylan has been demythified, then at least what remained of his divinity has dissipated, with all his party scenes and benefits and rumors reduced to the goings-on of a Major Rock Star who can almost keep his co-stars’ groups straight. But since for his acolytes from the folk days these hootenanny visitations seem to portend a New Eden, old friends singing songs of innocence and experience together once again, it is well to remind ourselves that the beginnings of the change were quite unelevated — commonplace almost by definition, since they served to reintroduce Dylan to the commonalty.

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The process began with the tour itself, a Major Rock Event of a familiar kind, and was accelerated by reports of breaches in that magical domestic fortress that had long separated Dylan from ordinary mortals. But it has also involved a fact that is arguably as much economic as it is artistic: a sudden profusion of recorded material following three years of near-drought, years that yielded a total of eight new tracks, a movie score, and a corporate rip-off. In contrast, the past 18 months have brought forth five discs (not counting two halves by the Band) — four albums, two of them doubles: Planet Waves, Before the Flood, Blood on the Tracks, and the newly released Basement Tapes.

The critical front-runner among these albums is clearly Blood on the Tracks. I myself called it Dylan’s best since John Wesley Harding when it came out in January — and then didn’t play it three times before I began to write this piece. Listening now, I am stirred once again by the tact and persistent musicality of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” and by the dovetailing delicacy of “Tangled Up in Blue” (lost love recalled) and “Buckets of Rain” (love’s loss foreseen) — stirred, in fact, by the sheer craft of the whole endeavor. Dylan has never been a confessional writer, but this control of aesthetic distance on Blood on the Tracks is a small coup: “Tangled Up in Blue,” which cannot describe the facts of his life, and “You’re a Big Girl Now,” which can, are both enlivened by the same seemingly autobiographical intimacy, but both are without question comely objects first and foremost.

That’s the critic in me talking, of course, the same fellow who’s always making deadline judgments before the listener in me has a chance to live with the music. The listener admires Blood on the Tracks, likes it a lot, but he thinks: it’s meaningless to call it Dylan’s best album since John Wesley Harding when he never feels like putting it on. To the listener, Blood on the Tracks sounds suspiciously like product, and when it comes to product he happens to prefer Steely Dan to Dylan just as he prefers Hydrox to Oreos or Lorna Doones.

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Not that Dylan is capable of putting out product in the manner of a Major Rock Professional. He has always resisted that. It has been his practice to just go into the studio and cut, so that a lot of what gets onto the LP you buy in the store is first and second takes. Chuck Berry and the early Beatles were recorded this way, but over the past decade it has become customary (if not compulsory) to put more quality control into the manufacture of rock and roll, and Blood on the Tracks sounds as if it consents to what is best about such standards. It has pace, flow, variety; it tolerates few if any gaffes; it is well made. This is partly because Dylan decided to re-record some of the original Eric Weissberg sessions with other musicians in Minneapolis, which enabled him to combine two different musical moods on the same disc. Much more telling, though, is the way the record shifts vocally, from a mock-callow whine to variants on the rounder and juicier rock and roll voice of New Morning and Greatest Hits Volume II.

Dylan’s alacrity in the studio hardly commits him to spontaneity, especially to spontaneity as it is commonly understood — the free play of the undefended self and so forth. On the contrary, Dylan is always guarded — he knows almost exactly what will happen when he records. Each release is intended to objectify a preordained concept that is both quickened and preserved for posterity by his instant studio technique. Particularly since Blonde on Blonde, the vehicle of each concept has been a voice that in some way exemplifies it, the most extreme example being the high lonesome tenor of Nashville Skyline. This is to say that Dylan has continually and deliberately remodeled his singing voice, with a dual purpose: to project himself into the world and to armor himself against it. For him to relax this control on Blood on the Tracks is yet another kind of going public. But it also relinquishes the obsessiveness that makes eccentric records like Planet Waves and Before the Flood so compelling for me.

Unlike many people I admire, I’ve never played my Dylan records repeatedly or even regularly. Their conceptual strictness has discouraged both easy listening — even Nashville Skyline, for all its calculated pleasantness, never fit smoothly into my days — and full personal identification. And so the listener in me subconsciously vetoes the critic; there are times when I crave a specific Dylan record with a fervor of the will no other artist can arouse in me, and I value him immensely for that, but only rarely can he just be part of a stack. Lacking the totally committed professionalism of meaningful/listenable masterpieces like Layla and Exile on Main Street, Blood on the Tracks fails to achieve what I suspect was intended for it — a place in the stack with just such records, all of which it melts or freezes just because it is so distinctively Dylan. I could make up reasons explaining why it’s as precise conceptually as anything he’s done — the many voices of love, something like that — and there’s no way it won’t rank high in my year-end top 10. But it’s a half-measure.

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The Basement Tapes, on the other hand, is no kind of measure at all, and that is its secret. These are the famous lost songs recorded with the Band at Big Pink in 1967 and later bootlegged on The Great White Wonder and elsewhere. Of the 18 Dylan compositions included, 12 have by now been heard in legitimate commercial versions by other artists, and another, “Down in the Flood,” was recut by Dylan himself for Greatest Hits Volume II; one of the remaining five, “Going to Acapulco,” has never ever been bootlegged, and neither have any of the six Band songs, which I would adjudge to be among their very best work. Sound quality has been greatly improved. Greil Marcus, who wrote the notes, tells me he hears instruments that are entirely inaudible on his second-generation tape. All of which begins to sketch in the complicated recording history of work that was never meant to be reproduced at all.

Well, not quite. The Band songs are relatively polished; it is said that the scaricomic “Yazoo Street Scandal” was presented as a demo to Clive Davis, who rejected it. But the Dylan songs are work tapes at best, first stabs at arrangements barely roughed out, preliminary even by Dylan’s abrupt standards. The main reason they were taped was so that they could be transcribed and copyrighted by Albert Grossman’s office. They weren’t ever supposed to go out to other artists, much less be circulated among the faithful as proof that the avatar was alive and creative in Woodstock. So the music is certifiably unpremeditated, a candid shot from a hero who has turned to his friends and coworkers after coming too close to death to enjoy the arrogance of power any longer. The concepts that are to arise from this interaction among equals will eventually take form as the dry, contained John Wesley Harding and the supercharged, eccentric Music From Big Pink; at this juncture, however, artist and group have arrived at a more moderate synthesis, merely simple and quirkish, and couldn’t care less whether they’re only passing through. No organizing principle keeps the music in line.

The basement tapes were the original laid-back rock, early investigations of a mode that would eventually come to pervade the whole music. Not that they suggested any of the complacent slickness now associated with the term — just that they were lazy as a river and rarely relentless or precise. In 1967, this was impermissible. Even the Grateful Dead, who were also trying to meld individualistic musicians into a rocking flow while rummaging through the American mythos with an antirealistic aesthetic, were so fixated on the triumph of Sgt. Pepper that they forsook the sweet relaxation of their debut album for Anthem of the Sun, a technologically brilliant failure. An inspired artificiality was the rule. I suspect that both Dylan and the Band were afraid, if not consciously then instinctively, that their concepts had to be strong and pure if they were to survive this heady competition. So instead of nurturing the basement music, they transformed simple into dry and contained and quirkish into supercharged and eccentric. And maybe they did right. Remember that the bootlegs didn’t show up until 1969; I wonder how they would have been received in late 1967.

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But I wonder primarily for purposes of argument. I find this music irresistible, and I can’t believe that any slicking up to which Dylan and his boys might have succumbed would have harmed it. Like a drunk falling out of a first-story window, it’s just too loose to break much. Over the years it’s been the more writerly “serious” songs that people have talked about — not only “I Shall Be Released” (omitted here), but “Tears of Rage,” “This Wheel’s on Fire,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “Nothing Was Delivered” — and to this group can now be added “Going to Acapulco,” which I would describe (roughly) as the lament of the singer-songwriter as gigolo, so mournful about “going to have some fun” that he anticipates the watchtower: “Now when someone offers me a joke I just say no thanks/I try to tell it like it is and keep away from pranks.”

Like the others, this is a richly suggestive piece of work, and like the others — especially “Tears of Rage” — it’s all the richer for being surrounded by pranks. The many nonsense songs here are unequalled in Dylan’s work; even Greil Marcus’s comparisons to the likes of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” falls a little short. Could Pecos Bill boast: “I can drink like a fish/I can crawl like a snake/I can bite like a turkey/I can slam like a drake”? Could Carl Perkins tell Sam Phillips: “Gonna save my money and rip it up!”? What are we to make of Turtle, “With his checks all forged/And his cheeks in a chunk”? And why don’t you get that apple off your fly?

These songs are too contemporary to be subject to pop notices of timeliness. Just as “Going to Acapulco” is a dirge about having fun, so “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” is a ditty about separation from self, and when the complementary irony of these two modes combines with the Band’s more conventional (“realistic”) approach to lyrics, the mix that results can be counted on to make as much sense in 1983 as it did in 1967. The power of melody-lyric-performance transcends petty details of sound levels (which vary enough to shock any well-respected studio technician) and shifting vocal styles. We don’t have to bow our heads in shame because this is the best album of 1975. It would have been the best album of 1967, too. The music is so free I bet it can even be stacked, but I’ve been playing it too repeatedly to find out.

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What is most lovable about the album, though, is simply the way it unites public and private, revealing a Dylan armed in the mystery of his songs but divested of the mystique of celebrity with which we has surrounded his recording career for almost a decade. It would be impossible to plan such exposure, and however much the album’s release has to do with generous royalties from CBS or the supposed sagging of the Band, it’s nice to know that he feels secure enough to do it. There he is, folks. When he giggled at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” he was just being coy; the mishap ceased to be a mishap once it was pressed and released. But when he almost breaks out laughing in the middle of “Please, Mrs. Henry,” he’s really there.

The night after Dylan’s impromptu bar concert, I checked out the Other End, not so much for the listener in me as for the critic/journalist, who didn’t expect Dylan to show and would have felt like an asshole to miss him. What all of us got instead was some good music — Jack Elliott and Mick Ronson backing Patti Smith on “Angel Baby” qualifies as a blessed event — and much okay music and Bobby Neuwirth scratching his own back. I found the vibes insular and self-satisfied. But Dylan is reported to be happy to be back on the street again, and if it makes him happy then I’m happy too. Good music happens there.

When I talk about Dylan going public, though, that won’t be what I mean. I’ll be talking about The Basement Tapes, the singer-songwriter exposed in front of hundreds of thousands — I hope millions — of listeners. What a friendly thing to do.

This and other classic Voice stories can also be be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published in 2018.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Woodstock: The 10th Largest City in the United States

The 10th Largest City in the United States
August 21, 1969

The Aquarian Exposition at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was fairly outrageous by anybody’s standards. Stoned silly most of the time, more than half a million freaks from all over the country made the painful pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm to play in the mud.

Although in the beginning the music was a good enough reason for the gathering at White Lake, after the drought, the famine, and the downpour one got the feeling that something larger was at stake. Indeed, most of the people who made the trip seemed to be looking for a kind of historic coming out party of the East Coast freak population. Many of the longhairs who walked up to 10 miles to the fair grounds after abandoning their cars were the only hippies on their block or in their hometown, and the mass rally served as a confirmation of their life style after months of sitting alone counting their psychedelic beads.

White Lake was an ordeal or an ecstatic adventure depending on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. While the faint hearts will complain about the impossible traffic conditions, the lack of planning, sanitation, water, and food, and the general mismanagement of the fair, most of those who came accepted the insufferable conditions as part of the challenge of the outing.

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Now if you can imagine a hip version of Jones Beach transported to a war zone in Vietnam during the monsoon, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what White Lake looked like a day after the long-haired troops occupied the area. The roads were hopelessly botched with no one to unsnarl them, cars moved more slowly than the endless columns of foot-weary refugees walking patiently for countless helicopters ferrying rock groups in and out of the area made everyone feel as if they were out on patrol.

Perhaps most amazing was the physical stamina, tolerance, and good nature of a basically indoor, urban group of people caught in wretched outdoor conditions. It showed more dramatically than any planned demonstration could have that hip kids are fundamentally different from the beer-drinking, fit-fighting Fort Lauderdale crowds of yesteryear. At White Lake people shared what they had, overlooked their differences, kept their cool, and generally smiled all weekend.

From the beginning local residents tried to keep the kids off their land by lining up the whole family in beach chairs along the edge of the property to watch the parade go by, take pictures, and scream at anyone who tried to park a car or intrude. In the end, however, it was like trying to keep the locust off the land, and most of them gave in. Their woods became latrines, trash was scattered everywhere, ponds were used for bathing, and crops were stripped by hungry foragers. In retaliation a few of the local people started selling food and water at outrageous prices, but these were soon outnumbered by the more charitable members of the community, who started soup and sandwich kitchens in nearby Monticello and left the hose running on the front lawn.

By about 1 p.m. on Monday Louis Foschiono, smoking a cigar and describing himself as a “well-known local resident,” turned up at the trailer of the organizers of the fair to report that, “Except for the traffic, all the local residents really liked the fair.”

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Around Saturday afternoon, however, if one had listened to announcements from the one-acre stage in the middle of the fair grounds or to local radio stations, it sounded as if White Lake was the center of a disaster. Much of the talk about emergencies turned out to be either overexcitement, an effort to keep more people from coming into the area, or a plea for people who were already there to keep themselves together.

Rumors spread quickly predicting one kind of epidemic or another while in fact the problems of White Lake were those of any relatively large city. During the course of the weekend three people died (one was run over by a tractor by accident, another died from an overdose of heroin, while a third died from a burst appendix), three babies were born, dozens of miscarriages were reported, more than 400 people were treated for bad acid trips, around 4000 for minor injuries, and about 150 kids were busted — outside the fair grounds — for possession of narcotics.

The pink and white hospital tent near the principal helicopter landing area was a busy place for a while, with doctors treating cut feet and then putting plastic baggies around them so that the victim could walk the 10 miles back to his car without losing his bandages. One of the bearded doctors explained that most of the kids who came in on bad acid trips were just scared they had been poisoned, were suffering from minor stomach cramps, or in some of the younger cases just felt lonely.

Communications were difficult. The crowd was too large to find anyone in, and the loudspeaker was reserved for emergencies. Most calls for volunteers to help fix broken water pipes and sanitation systems were transmitted locally by word of mouth, but occasionally bizarre requests would be aired over the microphone: “Will Daisy Johnson please go to the Hog Farm kitchen? Sammy Cohen wants to marry you.”

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***

“Do you realize that if we all stayed here we’d be the 10th largest city in the United States,” a 17-year-old blond boy wearing a chimney-sweep’s cap and carrying a gallon jug of water suggested.

“Yeah, that would be far-out, man, but who would want to live here?” one of the few black kids who came to the fair said as he surveyed the elbow-to-elbow crowd sitting on a hillside of mud and trash.

Over the loudspeaker a scared voice warns the crowd that someone is selling poison tabs of flat blue acid and that there are already a number of people in the infirmary who are very sick as a result of having taken it.

“Wow, can you imagine what it’s like to be tripping and hear that?” a tall girl with braids and a peasant shirt said to her neighbor.

Her neighbor, who was tripping, could well imagine what it was like and calculated that if one out of every 10 people had taken acid that afternoon — a conservative estimate — it would mean there were about 40,000 people spaced out in his immediate vicinity.

“If I caught that bastard passing out bad acid I’d make him eat all his own dope,” a bug-eyed boy in a long black cape said flatly.

A few hours later Hugh Romney of the outlandish Sante Fe Hog Farm Commune got up on stage and invited anyone who was on a bummer to come up to their teepees and sit around and rap.

“That’s almost worth a bad trip,” a commune groupie said as she got up and headed off to find a hog.

“I’ve got acid here, mescaline, and hash,” a dealer with shoulder-length dark hair called to the crowd he waded through like a popcorn salesman at a football stadium. No one was very worried about being busted in the middle of 400,000 freaks, and dealing was done out in the open.

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Public nudity was also pretty cool, and by Saturday couples were swimming together in the lake without anyone stopping to gawk. In a way the nudity seemed more natural and necessary than fashionable, since everyone was constantly getting drenched in the rain and large numbers of people were wearing the only clothes they had. By Sunday, however, the bathers had gotten bolder and were sunning themselves on towels and petting each other as if it were the most natural thing in the world. By Monday a few couples were making it in public, guys were walking around with unembarrassed erections, and one unidentified young man was arrested walking home along the highway with no clothes on.

When Monday morning finally came it was gray and damp and everyone was huddled in soggy blankets. But up on stage Jimi Hendrix, wearing turquoise velvet pants, a studded turquoise belt, a gray suede fringed shirt with turquoise and white beading, a jade medallion on a pink headband, and a pastel tie-dyed leg scarf, played a mixed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps” and ended up with “Hey Joe” despite the audience’s request for Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

When it was time to go, groups clustered around improvised signs for all the different states of the union to get rides home, and even a hungry looking couple from Minot, North Dakota, found a car that was headed their way.

Like the Sinai Desert after the Egyptian retreat, the grounds of Max Yasgur’s farm were covered with hundreds of pairs of ownerless shoes, a good 10,000 soggy sleeping bags, countless toothbrushes, and the stench that any large crowd leaves behind. In spite of the mess, Max was still convinced he’d done the right thing and received the longest, loudest standing ovation of the weekend from his guests.

***

Hare Krishna disciples with shaved heads, flowing robes, finger cymbals, and a vacant faraway look in their eyes weaved through the departing crowds passing out peacock feathers. And hard-working members of Students for a Democratic Society made their way from car to car along the congested highways trying to sell their copies of New Left Notes. They seemed to be meeting with little success.

“Hey, man, stop selling papers and join the revolution,” an outrageous, toothless dope freak said from the tailgate of an overburdened station wagon when he was offered some radical literature. A girl with a fantastic magic marker design centered around her bare navel and a beautiful smile spread across her muddy face offered the vendor half a grapefruit.

A young man with red hair carrying a pair of broken sandals said as he watched the crowd leave, “It’s incredible. Last year, there were less than 10,000 of us in Chicago, and now look at this army.” It’s difficult to say which was the more revolutionary event.

 

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Scenes
August 21, 1969

I KNOW it sounds strange that an event which drew as many people as did the Woodstock Music and Art Fair could turn out to be a financial disaster, but it really seems to be true.

Their original plan was that anyone could attend and camp on the 600 acres, except in the fenced-off natural amphitheatre facing the stage, which was about the size of 30 football fields. For those people who wanted to see and hear the show itself, entrances in the fence, staffed by 300 off-duty New York City policemen, were to be the place for ticket collecting.

As you may have read, the police were pulled off the job at the last minute, so only 30 cops (under aliases) were there. This crew was nowhere near enough to mind the field, especially with the unexpected massive turnout of people.

By Friday morning at 10 a.m. at least 30,000 people had already spilled into the amphitheatre and set up camp. Close to showtime on Friday afternoon, the Woodstock Ventures producers were faced with the problem of collecting tickets.

They had two choices. One was to ask people on the field to kindly leave. The announcement was made, but nobody moved, since they were so permanently encamped. The second choice was to forcibly remove everybody and reinstall the fence, which by now was trampled down. The producers decided against this recourse because it would change the whole mood of the festival to use force.

From that point there was not much mention of tickets, the fences remained down, and the crowds milled in and out at will. Meanwhile, a lot of people with three-day advance sale tickets were turned away by the state police on the highways. Add to that the multitudes already established on the site far exceeded the expected attendance, so double essential supplies had to be immediately bought and flown in.

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If Woodstock Ventures returns the money to people who had paid but were turned away, they can also expect uncollected tickets sent in from those who were there. As of Tuesday, they say they had spent $2.8 million total, grossed $1.3 million, which leaves a $1.5 million loss.

In order to cover the tremendous number of checks they wrote against non-existent bank balances during the three days, Artie Kornfeld, one of the four principals in Woodstock Venture, flew back to the city by helicopter early Monday morning. He appeared, shirtless, leather vest and pants still spattered with festival mud, on Wall Street and secured some fast loans. To further make sure they will not be forced into bankruptcy, he and Mike Lang (Woodstock’s executive producer) say they are personally guaranteeing the debts.

A million and a half dollars is a big chunk to have dangling in red. But the Ventures corporation has several possible ways to recoup. They did have several film crews shooting continuously around the site, and what with the great publicity the event got, the resultant movie should do well, although profits usually do not start trickling in until a year following a film’s release.

Also, every single note of music was professionally recorded, and they’d like to put out a big Woodstock album set. In this scheme, they have a lot of problems. All the performers are signed to different record labels, and negotiations could become a tangle. The main reason why Woodstock Ventures want to save their ass is that they want to put it on the line again. Based on everything that went down last weekend, they should be able to properly organize a festival next year, now knowing the scale to expect. The payoff will probably come on that one.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Letters to the Editor: Woodstock Nation

Letters to the Editor: Woodstock Nation
August 28, 1969

Aquarian Genesis
Dear Sir:

It was the Genesis of the Aquarian Age. And our minds were without form and void, and paranoia was upon the East. Somewhere in the far reaches of the mind of one man was the seed of an idea. And with the seed the man created a world. And he populated it with other men who raised tents and built a city. It was a city of peace. And music. And love.

And the people that lived in the city saw that it was good and they loved their neighbor and shared with him all that they had. And many extended hands to those who were falling and gave comfort to those who needed it. And a large tent was raised so that all who were sick could receive help. And people were born. And people died. It was one hell of a city.

— Betsy Glass
Jane Street

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Thank You
Dear Sir:

All the world needs is love and what a great place it would be!

The people of Monticello, Bethel, and White Lake proved that.

They were so great to us that I just don’t know how to say thank you.

Fifteen miles is a long way to walk, but the beauty of the people made it all worthwhile. Love was there, and its music filled the air.

Peace.

— Ethel Jimenez
Brooklyn

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Hope for America
Dear Sir:

Three days of intermittent attendance at the Aquarian rockets in the Catskills proved to be, literally, a mind-blowing and eye-opening experience. Observing those gentle, courteous, considerate, kindly, caring kids gave one some genuine hope for the future of this country. Th se young people could well be telling us something about the political realities in America today that the violent revolutionaries and fiery tear-it-down militants have yet to comprehend.

In only a few days they succeeded in turning the open hostility, distrust, resentment, opposition, and even hatred of the resident population — mostly conventional, conforming rural types and middle-class Jews making the Catskill vacation scene — into almost universal affection, admiration, and respect. Call it instant conversion, but such radical alternation of attitudes had to be seen to be believed and properly appreciated.

Is it hopelessly naive to argue that the vast social change so desperately needed in this country can be achieved in like manner? Is it perhaps possible that the cultural revolution will, indeed, supply the blueprint for the political revolution?

Bloody confrontations, violent threats, obscene epithets, wild rhetoric, unbridled rage will, admittedly, produce some limited change and movement. But once the repression begins — and begin it will in the face of accelerated revolutionary violence — those one or two small steps forward will instantly be converted into 100 giant steps backward.

The great majority of Americans still do not feel oppressed. If we ever hope to win them over, it won’t be done by spitting in their faces and prodding them up against that wall. Maybe the kids really know something about the struggle for men’s minds and hearts. Does the answer lie only at the end of the barrel of a gun? Or is what happened in the little town of Bethel last week the real way?

— Joel Pomerantz
West 58th Street

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Fun for Peace
Dear Sir:

The success of the Woodstock Music Festival should be a lesson to the organizers of peace marches and rallies. We are bored to death of masturbatory speeches which serve only to gratify the egos of the statisticians who make them. Get Janis and Jimi Hendrix and Blind Faith into the Sheep Meadow and you’ll get 250,000 others there too. And it’ll be fun. Yes.

— Gerald Rosen
Grove Street

Consolidation
Dear Sir:

I must thank Steve Lerner for his objectively positive coverage of White Lake (VV, August 21). I was really glad to read the exact consolidation of everything I felt and thought, but which hadn’t quite settled in my head yet. There must be other words for it besides appreciative appreciation.

I only hope that his article falls into the hands of some scornful scowling put-downing square who, suspiciously skimming for sarcastic opportunities, becomes trapped and beguiled and confused and beneficially influenced into having no opinion at all.

— Helene Goodman
Queens

P. S. I also think that Serena Silverstein (Voice Letters, August 21) is allowing herself to become too old and cranky.

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One Opinion
Dear Sir:

You will hear much about the Aquarian Exposition. Here is the opinion of one eyewitness.

Woodstock
It was weird,
and it was wild.
It was freaky,
and it was freedom.
It was lunacy,
and it was love.
It was beautiful.

— Arthur Schreibman
Brooklyn

Tough Luck
Dear Sir:

I really must reply to Serena Silverstein’s letter (VV, August 21) where she bitched about the White Lake rock festival. Serena, you should have parked your car and forced yourself to walk the distance to the music. I can only offer sympathy for your outlook. It was really your tough luck that your head was preoccupied with viewing the festival in terms of the inconvenience which you were exposed to.

Woodstock Ventures should be congratulated and not chastised for giving us smiles, peace, music, and good vibrations. Sorry, Serena, but you truly missed out on a beautiful experience.

— Ronald R. Coles
Sheridan Square

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Congregation of Warmth
Dear Sir:

May I address my remarks to the child of comfort, Serena Silverstein (Voice Letters, August 21), who, upon observing the hardships of White Lake from her well-upholstered tower, missed the whole point?

It is true that “food, water, health and sanitary facilities” were poor, and it is true that a great deal of hard walking was necessary; I, and many others I know, returned home with assorted illnesses all stemming from being wet, and constantly rained upon to become wetter. My normal attire is not mud; I usually get a little more to eat than I did there; and let me tell you, man, my hair still hasn’t completely dried! BUT…

It was much, much, more than the music, Serena. The moment I climbed from my car and began the hike to Max’s pasture on Friday morning, I suddenly knew what it was all about. Didn’t you look around? Couldn’t you see the immense camaraderie which grew among all those beautiful, wonderful people? On the road I was stopped by a fellow for a cigarette, and in return he gave me a joint, with a beautiful smile that made me love him immediately — him and all the smiling “freaks” who are stomped upon at home, but who found, for the first time, a sense of real FREEDOM, and an intense feeling of belonging. We all belonged, to one another, to the place, to the moment. I did not hear one angry word or see one flicker of disgust in anyone’s eyes. All I saw were thousands of strangers becoming friends; all I heard was laughter, singing, words of peace and love. The music was just a part of what White Lake was all about. A little physical discomfort is well worth three days of total unselfishness, total giving, and responding to one’s brothers and sisters who, like us, are searching hungrily for that spark of beauty in man — in the SOUL of man — which distinguishes him from the ape.

We were not “duped.” If we had been any other large crowd assembled to hear music and subjected to untold misery, we would have been “duped, ” and cheated, and used. But we were not any large crowd — we used White Lake to establish a bond of trust and friendship. We turned what could have been an unfortunate, uncomfortable mistake into a congregation of warmth. We gave, we received, we helped and we were helped. Our “image,” so to speak, with establishment people was redefined. The cops and doctors from Liberty could not get over the fact that from among 400,000 or more people, there was not one fight, not one bloody nose, not one stab wound. And the most remarkable thing to me, who was born and raised in Manhattan, was that, with all my conditioning to beware of strangers and to protect myself from potential harm, I did not FEAR — not once, in that wonderful, happy mob of thousands. There was nothing, no one, to fear. Have you once been able not to FEAR, Serena?

To all of you thousands who endured because of one another, and for one another, I thank you for being what you are. I wish you peace, flowers, freedom, happiness.

— Jill Leedman
Queens

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A Beginning
Dear Sir:

In such a large group of teen — and twenty-agers — as there was at the Aquarian Exposition last weekend the atmosphere of cooperation and “let’s enjoy it all despite the elements” was really amazing. As the announcer Saturday afternoon put it, “We’re all glued together and stuck in the same mud puddle.” We showed, perhaps, that things taken from the positive side of “we’re all basically good” rather than the “this many kids have just got to be policed to the hilt” attitude can bring happy results. This is the first time in my life that I have seen so many youths smile, wave, and thank police with no antipathy whatsoever between kids and cops.

The shortages of food and drink as well as the music itself were all peripheral to the tremendous uplifting experience of such a beautiful living-together. Even the use of drugs was almost meaningless — an escape from an uptight world we were proving need not exist. Learning to live together in crowded conditions in real peace and brotherhood is no longer a catch-phrase — it has been accomplished, for however short a period of time. A beginning has been made. Officials have been used — and appreciated — for helping the “general public,” not for hindering them. People walked for miles, hours, days shoulder to shoulder without pushing and shoving — with smiles, songs, and helping each other by offering rides, food, and drink to one another.

Though every one of the hundreds of thousands who spent any time at all at Bethel this weekend will bring some of that brotherly love and concern home with him, it is far from enough to change even New York City. Hopefully, it will not be the only happening of its kind — something to tell our grandchildren about. Hopefully, our grandchildren will live in a world with an attitude similar to that in White Lake, New York State’s third largest city this weekend — where even local residents, who would have had the right to react with an imposed-on feeling, instead donated food and water to those walking the 15 miles from Bethel to the nearest bus stop in Monticello. Can you imagine what the subway would be like with such an attitude?

— Diana M. Donovan
East 80th Street

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Woodshlock Nation: The Myth! The Mud! The Marketing!

Who Owns the City That Never Was?
July 19, 1994

I. THE INVISIBLE CITY
THE RIGHT-HAND TANK IS LEAKING. Twenty­-five feet high, twin to the tank on the left, now half-filled with about 450,000 gallons of water drawn from the Blue Mountain Reservoir, the right-hand tank is, subtly, dripping. Its liner, filled with pinholes, is also leaking. Although it is only mid-June, it is approximately a million degrees today on Winston Farm in Saugerties, site of the Woodstock ’94 festival that will take place here August 13 and 14. Woodstock Ventures, promoter of this festival as it was of the first Woodstock, has until June 30 to fill both tanks with the 2 million gallons of water necessary to cool, slake, and perhaps even bathe 250,000 peo­ple for two days as well as put them out should they catch on fire. The tank on the left is empty.

Michael Lang, the most visible of the three partners who make up Woodstock Ventures — a broody, vest-over-bare-chest, motorcycle-riding presence with Arlo Guthrie hair in the film Woodstock, now a broody, docksider-clad presence with Arlo Guthrie hair on Entertainment Tonight — walks over to where the seepage from the tank is staining the earth, picks up a rock, and draws a line in the dirt. Then he sets the rock on the spot with a little thud. He does this deliberately, but casually. As if, should the water seep beyond this boundary line, there would be any­thing anyone could do about it. As if it is not 1 million degrees. As if the leaks are fixable.

We get back into Lang’s Range Rover and continue our tour of the still mostly empty 840-acre site — the beautiful vis­tas of the South Stage, the flat, green table of the North Stage, the area for one of the two field hospitals, the bands’ com­pound, the staging areas, a heli­pad site, a backstage area as big as the Ritz, multiple camping fields, another thousand acres of miscellaneous terrain outside the site, which will be fenced. Through those woods, Lang tells me, will be the Surreal Field, a virtual reality and interactive arcade; closer in, the Eco-Village, with booths from Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network. And over there, he says pointing to a mysterious declivity in the center of a field, is a wetland. Woodstock Ventures will install 10 miles of road, eight bridges, and 12 miles of fencing on this hilly site ringed by forest, plow it with 900 food booths, wire it to the outside world with so many phone booths they’ve tapped out the allotted number of phone lines for all of Ulster County, evacuate its waste with 3000 Portosans, tend its possible wounds with 500 medical personnel, and patrol its borders with 1500 security people. Lang, a man in whom natural reticence and cagi­ness appear to be seamlessly entwined, declines to specify the num­ber of ATMs they’re planning to install, but one can imagine it will be: several.

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The metaphor for Woodstock ’94 that one hears again and again is that they’re building a city for two days, but this is more like a small country, an off-shore island of the PolyGram music corporation. It will have its own electronic newspaper, published on-site by Apple. It will have its own currency in the form of scrip-tickets, like the ones you’d get at an amusement park, which concert-goers will use to buy food, souvenirs, and camping equipment. In fact, cash will be accepted only as payment for rolls and rolls of scrip. In fact, the Woodstock ’94 festival will have many of its own laws, such as: once you enter its borders, you can leave only once, on Saturday, and return on Sunday. You can bring your own camp­ing equipment, but not the kind with stakes. No alcohol will be served. You are discouraged from bringing your own food. You are discouraged from bringing your children. When you get there, you will park your car in one of 17 parking lots in places like Rhinebeck (about 20 minutes away) and Albany (about 45 minutes away) and then be bused to the site, wrist-banded for identification. You cannot bring your own camcorder, although you will be able to buy a disposable camera with some of your scrip, which you can then hang over your wrist­-banded arm and with which, from the non­alcoholic, child-free safety of your non­-staked tent, you can get a good picture of Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, or Nine Inch Nails while drinking Pepsi out of a limited edi­tion, commemorative Woodstock can.

“Woodstock is a state of mind that can­not be appropriated and packaged as a sort of corporate commodity… It cannot be copyrighted or trademarked. In short, it cannot be owned and it cannot be sold back to us without its meaning and content.” That’s from a position paper issued by Free Woodstock, a local activist group that has printed up T-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers featuring the words “Woodstock Occupied” overlaid by barbed wire. Anoth­er group, the Sprockets, has made T-shirts with two vultures fighting over a peace sign. The vultures represent Woodstock Ventures and its rival Sid Bernstein, who is attempt­ing to stage his own festival on the original land, Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel, with some of the original performers. (Sid has been hav­ing a hard time: he got Fleetwood Mac, but without Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, or Christine McVie.)

But states of mind can be owned, too, and T-shirts have become weapons since local T-shirt printers discovered that Wood­stock Ventures considered both the dove­-on-guitar-neck logo and the name “Wood­stock” as it related to the festival their intellectual property, and was prepared to get litigious about it. (Licensed T-shirts are available from, among others, Dr. Sha’s Collectibles at 1-800-WOODSTK.) Local businesspeople who expected to be able to sell food at the event found that, in addition to paying $3000 for a booth, they would be expected to turn over 31 per cent of their gross to giant commercial food vendor Fine Host. In the end, Fine Host got 870 booths. Local businesses have 30. It’s been a long spring. By May, union workers were picket­ing the festival site, which is being built by nonunion contractors.

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Lang uncomfortably acknowledges that the demonstrations of corporate ownership have “created kind of a difficult percep­tion.” “When a corporation protects its rights,” he says, “it’s this big looming fig­ure. They’re not careful enough to avoid that, and it could be avoided. Easily.” It’s hard to see how. Just during the short time I spend with Lang, a middle-aged man turns up at the Woodstock Ventures offices with the little guitar-shaped wooden key rings he wants to sell, British MTV appears unan­nounced, an aspiring singer, learning that Lang is there, speeds over with her tape, and a barefoot woman comes by to ask politely but with some panic, “I live a mile from the site with two small children. Dur­ing the festival, are we going to be allowed to leave?” Duke Devlin, the official archi­vist, a Woodstock festival veteran who sports an enormous tattoo comprising the words “Woodstock 1969,” the dove-and-­guitar, and various other actionable sym­bols on his left arm, tells her, “You can leave once.”

Under such bombardment, defenses quickly become apparent and Lang, who has a tendency to mumble and a way of not meeting your eye, has the media-un­friendly air of a man wishing desperately for a motorcycle to ride away on. “If I had my complete druthers,” he says as I push the tape recorder closer and closer, “I would, of course, rather not have a corpo­ration behind this. But this time we need­ed that financial partner.” A heavy part­ner it must be. Corporations are brilliant at erecting instant cities — Olympic Vil­lage, the Gulf War — but not so good at populating them. PolyGram has provided the walls, both literally and figuratively, for this city, but to Lang has fallen the considerable task of gathering, feeding, and controlling the citizens while convinc­ing them that they’re having a great, spon­taneous time.

The first Woodstock was also frequently compared to a city. In the recently rere­leased film Woodstock, a bearded man calls it the “second largest city in New York”; it was also a national disaster area. “As we come over the top of the hill,” writes Patri­cia Kennealy in Strange Days, her account of her life with Jim Morrison, “I see it for the first time: The city is there. It looks like the biggest gypsy camp in the world, the bazaar at Samarkand, both Fillmores, a Third World disaster area, the New Jerusa­lem and London during the blitz.” “I was emotionally prepared for a breakdown in services and a major riot,” Ellen Willis wrote in The New Yorker upon her return from the festival. “The only… real surprise was that there was no riot.”

But in accounts of the festival, no matter how jaundiced or sour (rival promoter Bill Graham compared it to Poland), there is the feeling that the first festival was some­where between a city policed only by good vibes and a looting spree. While the kids ate muesli supplied by the Hog Farm Collec­tive, rock stars dined on steak and straw­berries and cream, the mud and champagne flowed, everyone was high, everyone was naked. “At the first Woodstock,” says Marty Carey, a longtime resident of Wood­stock who went to the festival with his wife Susan to sell tie-dyed goods but traded them all away for hash and acid, “someone had lobsters. Lobsters!”

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The glow of the first Woodstock, apart from the drugs, seemed to have been brought on not only by what had, to every­one’s surprise, been built, but by what was breaking down, which was: everything. No food, no water, no soap, no phones, no cars, no parents. A lobster, a miracle, in the mud. “The New York State Thruway is closed,” people keep remarking in the film with a sort of pride. Helicopters whirr over­head bringing rock stars instead of wound­ed. The beauty of the young men is pierc­ing. The film can’t take its eye off them, both as performers and concertgoers, each one haunted by the soldier that he is sup­posed to be, but is not. Even Janis Joplin looks like a beautiful young man. Michael Lang is one of those young men, riding around on his motorcycle, blowing off re­porters who obviously, hopelessly don’t get it, saying things to them like, “It’s just, you know, music.”

But to me, looking at it through the prism of its representations, Woodstock seems to have had not so much an Aquarian transplendence as a deserter ambience, a cocki­ness that said: We fuck in your uniforms. We do drugs in your helicopters. We play in your fields. This is our city, say the arro­gant, beautiful young men. Fuckability be­comes an act of defiance. When Roger Dal­trey sings “See me, feel me, touch me,” it is in opposition to the other uses the culture would make of the bodies of young men like himself.

In Michael Cunningham’s novel A Home at the End of the World, Bobby, a credu­lous character with a heart of gold, spends his whole life trying to get to the real town of Woodstock, where people listen to groovy music and do acid all the time; Bob­by refuses to believe that it could be any different. Just so goes the culture. (Bobby is also a big fan of Tower Records.) The first Woodstock succeeded because it broke down. The emergencies invented the myth. What would it have been without its rainstorm? “By Sunday,” Willis writes, “I couldn’t help suspecting that some of the beautiful, transcendent acceptance going around was just plain old passivity.” “Woodstock was horrible,” Pete Town­shend has said, “…a terrible shambles. Full of the most naive, childlike people. We have a word for them in England. Twits.” Townshend distinguished himself at Wood­stock by hitting Abbie Hoffman on the head with his guitar; a group of ad-hoc activists burned down the commercial food conces­sion. (Fine Host, take note.) If Woodstock was a city, it was a city during a blackout, a city during a riot, a city on the edge of disaster. At one point, promoters feared a mass electrocution from fraying cables and rain. They didn’t stop the show.

Woodstock was a temporary city of stolen pleasure that shamed the brutality and waste of the ongoing war; it seems to have had the vertiginous feeling of a plundered city enjoying a brief ceasefire. Without Vietnam, without the threat of electrocution, starvation, and bad acid, Woodstock would have been just a poorly planned, overlong rock concert. “Nobody played well at Woodstock,” writes Kennealy. The Band, with their soulful ballads, felt imperceptible to a stoned crowd that had already been “hammered by weather and music” for three days. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young redubbed their performance in the studio. No one cared. Music wasn’t really the point. Neither, exactly, was politics. “Move­ment City,” a radical enclave erected within the Woodstock Festival, had nothing to do. Woodstock was a city of found lobsters.

Now, 25 years later, the right-hand tank gently weeps. The left sighs a cavernous sigh. Because Woodstock was almost immediately a metaphor about youth, it is now a metaphor about aging. Roger Daltrey, who kept his curls, looks like a spinster. Half of CSNY is bloated, the other half hollow. They look like people cursed by the gods. For 25 years, Woodstock has drifted through the culture in a vaguely sentimental purple haze. Probably the most surprising thing about this second festival is that it hasn’t happened before. Actually, in 1987, Michael Lang was ready to stage the second Woodstock — on top of the Berlin Wall. East Germany had agreed. West Germany had agreed. Warner Bros., however, which then owned the rights to the name, did not. After that, Woodstock Ventures paid millions to regain the rights to two words: Woodstock Festival. Now, of course, where the Berlin Wall used to be there is only an empty field like this empty field in Saugerties next to the New York State Thruway, a field that the festival has saved, temporarily, from be­ing used as an enormous megadump.

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II. THE VISIBLE CITY
WOODSTOCK IS NERVOUS.
“At least it’ll be easier to pick out our Woodstock from the couple of dozen others around the country on a map,” wrote Geddy Sveikauskas in a Woodstock Times editorial recently. “Ours will be the one with the cute little R in a circle after it.” The actual town of Woodstock, like the actual Bob Dylan, wasn’t part of the first Woodstock; unlike Dylan, it won’t be part of the second one either. The first Wood­stock took place in Bethel, 60 miles away. The arriving one will take place in Sauger­ties, less than 10 miles away. Nevertheless, Woodstock is both blessed and cursed with its legendary name, a name that began this century signifying a decorously utopian arts colony ambience and is ending it by signify­ing the commercialization of youth culture. (The first Woodstock Festival, even after it moved to Bethel, kept the name both be­cause of the town’s history of music festi­vals and friendliness toward alternative cul­tures, a friendliness somewhat strained by the arrival of clans of hippies in the mid ’60s.) Woodstock, hospitable but edgy, is eyeing Woodstock ’94 as one might a long­ lost, ne’er-do-well sibling. It is possible to discern, under its breath, the wish that the festival had just stayed lost. “We’re expect­ing this to be almost like a wartime situation,” commented town justice Frank En­gel, addressing the town board in April.

Undergirded by the painterly spirits of Philip Guston and Milton Avery, cooled by rivers of free-thinking money and hushed by the same, Woodstock was not particularly prepared back in the late ’60s to become the Tigris and Euphrates of one lush strain of popular culture. It had its own history of music festivals: the Maverick festivals, the Sound-Out festivals, and even annual Woodstock festivals. John Cage composed here, as did Aaron Copland. In fact, the Woodstock Police Force badge is embla­zoned with an easel, a lyre, a quill pen, and the masks of comedy and tragedy — but not, you might notice, an electric guitar.

Woodstock did not anticipate, when Bob Dylan quietly arrived in town in the early ’60s, that the combined influences of the Band, and Van Morrison, and manager Al­bert Grossman’s leafy stable of hippie stars would soon make this place an eidetic mem­ory for legions of teenagers who, like Cun­ningham’s Bobby, had never seen it. Some­how, Woodstock became a place you could get back to even if you’d never been there. Three of the records that came out of the scene here — the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Van Morrison’s Moondance, and Dy­lan and the Band’s Basement Tapes — form a triumvirate in my mind that I think of as the Woodstock sound: wheezy, male, with an undertow of sadness and yearning. De­serter’s songs. “I decided to come to the country instead of going to the Democratic convention in 1968,” says Marty Carey. “To this day, I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do.”

To this day, Woodstock still isn’t sure if any of it was the right thing to do. In the center of town you can find a tie-dye store, the Flying Watermelon; a pizzeria with a peace sign-shaped pizza logo; and a Village Green — not much bigger than the fountain in Washington Square Park — where local teenagers smoke and flirt and play music. All these things have the feeling of props.

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“Most reporters,” says Gale Brownlee­ real-estate agent extraordinaire, born and raised in Woodstock, official town photog­rapher, in her youth a two-time winner of Miss Woodstock and one-time winner of Miss New York, airplane and helicopter pilot, former bridal model, former press agent, flight instructor, and the driving force be­hind bringing Magic the educational horse to town (“Just Say Neigh to Drugs”)­ — “Most reporters,” says Gale, “come here for the afternoon and don’t see deeper than the Green.” Gale, still quite slender, attired in white with red pumps, and with a ciga­rette-raked voice as deep as the ocean, is telling me this rather pointedly, I think. This suspicion is confirmed when, on the way to feed Magic some carrots, we take a circuitous route past the house where her grandfather, Woodstock’s town doctor, lived; past the site of the community-funded Woodstock Playhouse; past the Woodstock Historical Museum; and past the Zena cornfield, a plot of land bought by the town so that it would not be developed. Buying a Magic button out of the trunk of Gale’s car for $2, I take the hint.

Over at the Woodstock Library, a dove that looks suspiciously like the prototype for the trademarked one rises triumphantly out of a pre-Lang, 1966 music festival post­er — part of a subversive exhibit of memora­bilia, posters, and programs from Woodstock’s extensive history of music and art festivals. Rumors are already circulating of residents coming home to find strangers eating in their kitchens, camping in their yards. Police chief Paul Ragonese, a retired New York City cop whose autobiography is called The Soul of a Cop, has constructed an elaborate traffic-flow pattern that in­cludes a provision for shutting the town down altogether. Personally, the chief be­lieves that the real spirit of Woodstock is to be found at Sid Bernstein’s concert in Bethel. “That’s where the sacred land is,” Ragonese says. “That’s where Melanie and Richie Havens are. My daughter tells me some of these guys going to Woodstock urinate on stage. Why would I pay $135 to watch five guys urinate on stage when I can go to Bethel and see John Sebastian?”

“They’re cutting a major incision here, busting the town wide open. It’s going to take a lot of time to heal,” says John God­sey, owner of the Blade Runner lawn ser­vice and a founding member of Free Wood­stock, which comprises about 35 active members and another hundred or so on standby. John ended up here because some­one stopped him 23 years ago on his way to help survivors of the India-Pakistan war and suggested he wasn’t looking so good himself. Another member of Free Wood­stock who wishes to remain anonymous, a man I’ll call Roger who got lost on the Thruway 25 years ago and now runs a busi­ness here, says, “We’re going to be left with these wounds. It’s like those movies where the devil comes to town.”

Both John and Roger are what might be described as old hippies. But they aren’t very old and their earnestness, on men with shorter hair, would probably be read as civic pride — except for the fact that what they are defending is not the soundness of roads or the stability of businesses, but a phantasm of a community that existed in the minds of boys dreaming their chemical dreams for three days in the mud, an hour away from here. John and Roger believe in the lobster and, talking to them in the steadily rising heat, I, too, can almost make out one claw.

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“They injuncted the printers and that’s when the rebellion started,” says John.

“They’re strip-mining a cultural icon,” says Roger. “It’s like selling Jesus back to us. It’s an insult to just steal this thing. The original Woodstock put out a call, like the Pied Piper, and the people who heard that tune came and a lot of them stayed. But PolyGram has sent out a call to everybody and everyb0dy could show up. My power and the town’s power has been taken away.”

“We are being used,” says John. “The abili­ty of the town to grow organically and project itself into the universe is being lost.”

(The spirit of the universe is where you find it. When I ask Gale how the oncoming festival has affected her, she replies careful­ly, “I am surprised that we have not done as many summer rentals as usual.”)

John and Roger’s despair and anger, along with Gale’s more ladylike one-woman action, emanate from different sources but speak to the same point. What happens when the myth of a particular place is trademarked by a corporation? Can you trad­emark Detroit? What about Stonewall? Moreover, what happens when the myth is trademarked and moved out of the town that birthed it to be rebuilt in a poorer, cheaper town? Because the really cutting issue, of course, is that it’s not Woodstock that will have the R after it, but a sort of Ikea-esque imposter town erected for two days in Saugerties, which bears roughly the same relationship to Woodstock that New Jersey does to New York. Even Roger re­marks in a somewhat noninclusive tone of voice, “If I wanted reality, I’d live in Saugerties.”

But reality, like the water tanks, is leak­ing everywhere these days. Unemployment in the Hudson Valley has swelled to 11 per cent and rising since IBM pulled out of the area. Felony arrests in Woodstock have more than quadrupled in the last three years; crimes against property are particu­larly on the rise. If Woodstock is a little hungry, Saugerties is hungrier still. Faced with the prospect of being the dumping ground for the entire county forever, the littler town chose to lay itself open tempo­rarily to the brunt of Woodstock ’94’s crowds, noise, and trash, perhaps in the hopes of grabbing some of Woodstock’s in­visible cachet, maybe even a bit of its very visible property values. There’s also been talk of turning the festival site into a perma­nent performing arts center. Documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who has been filming in the area since February, has been moved and amazed by the level of commu­nity involvement in Saugerties. “Many of these people consider it to be the town’s last hope of economic stability,” she says. “Lonesome Suzie,” sings Richard Manuel on Music From Big Pink. “Lonesome, lone­some Suzie. Never gets a break.” Suzie could be Saugerties, where Big Pink actual­ly sits, although no one ever seems to be on the road to Saugerties.

Who owns Woodstock? The citizens of Woodstock proper are on their guard against a possible onslaught, but the deeper anxiety concerns a bigger felony: soul stealing. “I feel like a bastard child,” says Ra­gonese. “He’s using our name.” Ragonese can defend his adopted town against traffic jams, but he cannot prevent the last tie-dye scrap of the Woodstock myth from being carried away by Woodstock Ventures and PolyGram. Woodstock ’94 will take place neither in Woodstock nor in Saugerties, but in the electro-chemical air of pay-per-view, celluloid, and vinyl. Michael Lang mentions the prospect of a chain of Woodstock Cafes, like the Hard Rock Cafe, a Woodstock line of clothing.

Earlier this year, Lang gathered a Bud­dhist monk and a Mohawk leader to bless the festival site. Showmanship, and perhaps a genuine act of appeasement.

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III. MY HOUSE
MY HOUSE IS UP A HILL just outside of Woodstock, then up another hill. Gale sold me this house. John Godsey mows my lawn. The Careys are down the road. It’s hard to write about them. They know where I live, but then again, I know where they live, too. I don’t know about sacredness, but if the place where you live builds itself into little bits of your soul, then this place is sacred to me. During the time that I was interviewing people for this article, an unearthly green moth with wings as long as human ears fastened itself to my front door. I thought of it as my conscience. (I also half-suspected that Gale had sent it.) PolyGram may not be the evil empire, but it is not particularly accountable to the town whose name it is selling, nor to the town on which it is build­ing its invisible city.

At the same time, I am a citizen of the invisible city we all inhabit these days and that city sometimes feels an awful lot like home. Woodstock was an idea somebody had, got up to look like a place. It was a middlebrow pop culture event, much be­loved by middlebrow believers like Cun­ningham’s Bobby, rather routinely scorned by those in the know even at the time. And perhaps it was, certainly it was, inherently corrupt, not particularly revolutionary, commercial, secondary. But Woodstock is what we have and for myself growing up, watching the ’60s float by in their second­hand way on big and little screens, I didn’t exactly get that it was the past. I thought it was the future. Woodstock is our Virgin Mary in a tree, our much crumpled thing, our velveteen rabbit, our Yellow Brick Road. I love it like I love myself at 15: earnest, stranded, in an Indian-print shirt.

And with this second festival, aren’t we getting in some measure what we yearned for? As much as I want to be entirely on the side of the home-grown Woodstock revolu­tionaries, I have to admit to myself that a large part of the longing set up in the post­-Woodstock generations, we who never made the trek through the mud, we who saw the movie and listened to the record and made out to “Wooden Ships” with boys who didn’t really look like those 1969 boys at all, was exactly for the fleeting qual­ity of that experience, the bright smear of the city that goes up for only a moment. Like a movie you’re in. Getting to Wood­stock was the mark of Bobby’s naiveté — he thought the point was to get to the city. But the point is that the city disappears. ■

Research assistance: Justin Hartung and Liz Vederman.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Woodstock a Month Later: Going Back to See Max Yasgur’s Farm

The Undulating Hillside: Going Back to Bethel

I went back to Bethel a couple of weeks ago.

I said to myself, I’m visiting friends nearby and I might as well go back to the incredible undulating hillside. But maybe I went up to see those friends because they were so close to the site. Maybe the experience of the Woodstock festival remained undigested, and there was some part of me that had to be satisfied that the hillside actually was a part of the real world after all.

I parked my car on Hurd Road and watched the scene. Two workmen dismantling electrical equipment where the stage had been, a large bare spot in the ground around them. Piles of garbage up and down the hillside, one still smoldering. Alfalfa — greenness — struggling back to dominate most of the amphitheatre.

And the parade. They came by in sedans, in sports cars, in taxis, in trucks. Most middle-aged. All staring at the alfalfa field like it would tell them something — something about themselves, something about their kids, something about the life that has been too easy and without meaning.

“Where was the stage?” they’d ask. Always the same question.

There was Allan Swartz, 21, of Albany, showing his parents the site of the festival he almost went to. “I wanted to come down, but I wasn’t going to sit in my car for seven hours.”

Down by the pond where — well, the famous pond — three kids from Port Jervis, were poking around. One had been at the festival and decided to show it to his friends.

And walking back from a swim to resume loading logs onto the back of his father’s electrical contracting truck was Robert Pantel, 20, of South Fallsburg. He had been working around the site since weeks before the festival. “Used to be three tractors a day past here would be a lot,” he laughed. “Now it’s turned into a tourist attraction. We already have scroungers. They take blankets, sleeping bags, ponchos, anything that might be usable.”

A passing truck stopped. Its elderly driver knocked on the door of the nearby empty office trailer, then turned to Pantel. He explained that he had provided something for the festival and had never gotten paid.

“They’re good for it,” the bearded young man said. “They seem to be quite a responsible outfit. You’ll get the money.”

A garbage truck rumbled by, loaded to above the brim with filled green bags of garbage — the green bags passed around the audience enthusiastically a few weeks before. Along the sides of Hurd Road and the other roads in the area was more garbage. There were more piles of garbage in the woods on the way to the Hog Farm area, as well as huts and lean-tos, wooden booths, and thousands of flies. The Hog Farm area itself was empty and clean except for a few portable toilets, some scattered farm implements, and metal fence posts and tent poles. “Happy Birth” read a section of red snow fence.

“The cows thought it was great. And they’re fine. All 71 head of them.”

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They looked contented, being milked mechanically in a barn on West Shore Road, as John McAdams lavished praise on the Hog Farmers. McAdams is in charge of Max Yasgur’s dairy barn on the farm — one of 10 farms Max owns in the area.

“Those Hog Farmers watched our barn for us and I’d have them back anytime. Why, first they had those $50-a-day New York City cops supposed to be watching the barn. Well, the foreman caught them sleeping on the barn floor and threw them out, and we brought back the Hog Farm. We had no trouble after that.”

McAdams said most of the farm had been rented after the festival to a farmer from Knoxboro named George Peavey. Peavey’s lease doesn’t include the dairy herd or the alfalfa field amphitheatre. “I guess he’ll take some of the load off Max,” McAdams said.

Max Yasgur lives in a pleasant white wooden house on the crest of a long sloping lawn overlooking Route 17B. Behind his house is a house for some farmhands. Mrs. Yasgur answered the door, a smiling, gray-haired woman. “How has Max’s life changed? Well, there have been a lot of people by, mainly reporters, but Max better tell you himself. He should be at his office.”

The office of the Yasgur Dairy is in one of two barn-like buildings just down Route 17B. The milk bottling building has a room where visitors can watch the whole process through plate glass. Max himself, 49, gaunt, two fingers of his right hand taken off in a long-ago accident, was getting ready to take his station wagon home.

“I’m getting close to retirement age,” he said, after a few minutes of conversation. “If I had a job where I could work with those kids on a national level — gratis — I’d do it.” The father of two, he has “worked with kids all my life — the 4-H, Boy Scouts. I think there is a rapport between kids and me. I went out on a limb for those kids and they bore my faith out.”

Since August 15 he has received 1500 letters from kids (“Dear Max, We have proved to the world that you can’t enforce peace”), invitations to a lot of television talk shows, and some requests for autographs (“a bunch of kids mobbed me on a street in New York”). He has appeared on one television show and has decided in the future only to go on “thought-provoking shows, not on entertainment shows.” Milk sales have gone up.

Max said he couldn’t believe the stories about widespread dope use — “addictive dope, that is” — at the festival.

Next year? “We proved the point. Let well enough alone. Any rock festival this close to New York will draw a million and a half next year. You’d have to have 10,000 acres.”

Back along Route 17B the only remaining sign of the highway happening was the “Parking $2” painted on a shack in an empty field. At Esther Manor, a football squad was working out on the lawn. About a hundred long-haired kids cavorted on the rocks and in the water where the road from Fallsburg to Woodridge crosses the Neverink River. They wore bathing suits.

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The Divine Katey Sagal Kills at Karaoke in Always Woodstock

2014 has been a good year for redemption-through-music stories, with high points such as God Help the Girl and My Little Pony: Equestria Girls — Rainbow Rocks and lesser efforts such as Rudderless.

Rita Merson’s Always Woodstock lands somewhere higher up on the list, and not just because any film justifies its existence when it gives Katey Sagal a chance to sing. After a very bad day in which she gets fired from her position as a burgeoning executive at a major New York record label — this right before discovering her fiancé with another woman — twentysomething Catherine (Allison Miller) decides to move upstate to the family home in Woodstock.

She intends to follow in her late parents’ footsteps and become a songwriter, and is aided by quirky (but not too quirky) barista/bartender Emily (Rumer Willis), as well as reclusive local singing legend Lee Ann (Sagal). After belting “Love Is a Battlefield” at karaoke, Catherine also has a drunken meet-cute with hunky town doctor Noah (James Wolk). Unlike the tonally muddled Rudderless, Always Woodstock chooses comedy and sticks with it.

The rom-com elements don’t always work, and the conclusion is a bit pat, but Always Woodstock is never less than charming and funny along the way.

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FREE LOVE

For many of us who didn’t get a chance to experience the true spirit of the free-love movement, the hippie era, and the experimental sounds of the ’60s—Woodstock, the Michael Wadleigh–directed documentary—is as close as we’ll ever get. Just like the 1969 concert itself, the film, which screens tonight as a part of Oscar’s Docs series at MOMA, was plagued by several difficulties (such as the last-minute departure of the original directors, Albert and David Maysles) and was almost never made. Remarkably, many filmmakers and editors on the film were first-timers, including some young kid named Martin Scorsese. But, of course, what we’ll always remember when we think of Woodstock are those three summer days and nights of amazing performances by rock legends such as the Who, Joan Baez, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, and Janis Joplin. Wear a peace sign.

Fri., Feb. 3, 6 p.m.; Wed., Feb. 8, 6 p.m., 2012

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ON THE EDGE

Growing up in New York in the ’70s, music photographer Laura Levine got her start by sneaking her camera into concerts and going backstage with a homemade press pass. Before long, she was shooting the biggest names in rock for The Voice, Rolling Stone, and New York Rocker, where she eventually rose to photo editor. Now, at Steven Kasher Gallery, check out her photos of everyone from a young Madonna (circa 1982) to Joey Ramone sitting on a kitchen floor to a scantily clad Björk in Woodstock. The show coincides with an equally cool exhibit at the gallery, Rude and Reckless: Punk/Post-Punk Graphics, 1976–82, which features more than 200 rare posters alongside fanzines, flyers, clothing, badges, and stickers promoting legendary groups such as the Buzzcocks, the Slits, and Killing Joke.

Aug. 10-19, 2011

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Ellen Willis, Anthologized

Ellen Willis was the first person to be given the pop-music beat at The New Yorker, and five years after her death in 2006, some of her work—including a few essays written for this paper—has been collected into a single volume. Out of the Vinyl Deeps (Minnesota) is a seemingly bottomless treasure chest filled with new insights on pop. “Like great singles, they get better if you ask more of them. Play them again and again,” current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones instructs the reader in his preface. He’s not wrong.

Willis’s work is crystalline enough that reading each essay takes the reader on a trip back to the era when it originally appeared, but it’s a testimony to her intellect and talent that those journeys look completely unlike any hagiography you might stumble across. She cuts through clichés nimbly, whether they’re about the utopian nature of Woodstock or the prescribed feminist reactions to outrageous manifestations of male-dominated culture, and the essays—even the getting-to-know-you pieces about artists who have been elevated to the canon and featured ad nauseam in nostalgia-jangling commercials—vibrate off the page.

Most of the essays in Out of the Vinyl Deeps were new to me, and it was tempting to contrast Willis’s work, particularly the pieces from the ’60s and ’70s that make up the bulk of the book, with the State of the Music-Writing Union today. The sheer length of most of the pieces, and the amount of intellectual calisthenics that long word counts provide, is one thing to sigh over in the 140-character era. But most striking—and inspiring—is Willis’s willingness to engage with herself as she tries to grapple with the cultural artifacts she covers. Yes, when she has an opinion, she isn’t afraid to matter-of-factly state it. But there’s a strong intellectual through line in the book, and it’s brightest when Willis is debating herself—a quality that’s lacking from too many writers right now, when brute force seems to count more toward one’s intellectual heftiness than any sort of conviction or willingness to learn. Whether it’s her struggling with the gap between her intellectual-feminist and primal-fan reactions to the Sex Pistols’ brutal “Bodies” or noting that New York’s frantic pace made her more likely to require that the music she listened to grab her right away, to read her work is to watch someone bristle against the idea of a music journalist merely serving as an objective pair of ears. The idea that music is the most subjective of all cultural products is one that isn’t discussed much of the time—although the difference in reactions to the word “soundscape” and a concrete description of a music-inspired emotion should serve as closure for any argument—but Willis’s writing was aware of and honored that fact. The result was criticism that not only places music into contexts both (to borrow a phrase) personal and political, but it helps the reader—even those reading her words well after the fact, which in this moment of endless newness is supposed to be an anomaly—understand why she chose to engage with it.

On Saturday, April 30, NYU will host ‘Sex, Hope & Rock ‘n’ Roll–The Writings of Ellen Willis,’ a three-panel conference devoted to Willis’s work and influence; register at ellenwillis2011.blogspot.com

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Johnny Winter

Certainly appropriate for this time of year, the club is billing this Woodstock veteran’s weekly January residency as “Four Weeks of Winter.” He has long outlived any accusations about authenticity, not only because many of the classic blues practitioners are gone but also because he’s been at it for so long and his playing can’t be called into question—even if, like B.B., he has to sit down to do it nowadays. Me-Decade fans be forewarned though—recently, he’s sworn off mainstream stuff like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo.” With William Bell.

Mon., Jan. 11, 8 p.m., 2010