Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Back to Yasgur’s farm

40 years later, memories of the difficult birth and the iconic (if drug-addled) triumph of Woodstock

By Steve Morse
Boston Globe

Forty years later, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair seems like a faint, faraway dream. Tickets to the event were surely a dream by modern standards. A one-day pass cost $7 - less than the cost of a beer at the Comcast Center now. And all three days cost $18 - more than $300 less than a good seat to a single show by the Rolling Stones or Madonna.

Woodstock was an improvised hippie happening: “We made it up as we went along,’’ writes producer Michael Lang. But despite mud, overcrowding, a lack of food and sanitary facilities, it can still lay claim to being an unmatched cultural event. It was the first big outdoor rock concert on the East Coast, attended by an estimated 500,000 people, and it has come to symbolize an entire generation. (Crowd estimates vary because most people streamed in for free.) Woodstock paved the way for the green movement and blissfully lacked the corporate signage that typify today’s co-opted rock shows.

Two new books are out, looking to plug into Woodstock nostalgia, with the 40th anniversary coming next month. Both are to be recommended, but for different reasons. Lang’s “The Road to Woodstock’’ is an adrenaline-rush account of the weekend itself and the activity behind the scenes, from the struggle to coax bands into signing up (Lang stayed up all night with the Who’s Pete Townshend until Townshend finally agreed at 8 a.m. so he could get some sleep) to negotiations with skeptical town officials in upstate New York who feared an invasion of hippies. The town of Wallkill turned him down only a month before the festival, forcing Lang to hustle to find an alternative site: Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm in Bethel. Carpenters were still finishing the stage on the first day.

The other book, “Back to the Garden,’’ is by New York disc jockey Pete Fornatale, who collects dozens of first-person memories from bands, organizers, and fans. He is not a great writer and is prone to clichés (“by Friday the route to the festival had more clogged arteries than Elvis Presley’’), but fresh insights from the artists make it an important read. And while most of the quotes he uses are positive (Woodstock “was wonderful and breathtakingly exhilarating,’’ says Arlo Guthrie.), some are much less so. Take this one from Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, talking about the stoned nature of the crowd: “It reminded me of the water buffaloes you see in India, submerged in the mud. Woodstock was like a big picnic party, and the music was incidental.’’

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