Fifty years ago, a loose collection of promoters, record executives, musicians, artists, producers, engineers, backers, hippie communards and anarchists threw a rock ’n’ roll party that became the most legendary festival ever: Woodstock.
They devoted their skills and talents to make a dream come true. We hear a lot about this. What we don’t hear about is that almost all of them were Jewish.
In 1969, America was tearing itself apart. The US government was dragging teenagers off to Vietnam — more than 57,000 boys came back in boxes. Cities were on fire with race riots, pitting blacks against whites, National Guardsmen against kids. Outside the Chicago Democratic Convention was a running street battle between angry cops and angry demonstrators. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, lights of hope in a dark world, were gunned down. The older generation was at war with the younger.
A couple years earlier, the youngsters had burst out from their suburban confines by growing their hair long, listening to loud rock ’n’ roll, and smoking pot. They declared themselves peace-loving and against war, and came out in force in the Summer of Love in 1967. They were dubbed the flower children.
But after being harassed by police and thunderously denounced by authorities, the flower children grew thorns.
By 1969 they came to demonstrations no longer with flowers but in helmets and gas masks, shouting for revolution.
After Chicago, the demonstration leaders were thrown in jail and at the “Chicago Eight” trial one of them, Black Panther Bobby Seale, was bound and gagged in the courtroom. The American authorities appeared grotesquely heavy-handed and rebellion was in the air.
Into this cauldron entered Michael Lang, a Jewish kid from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Lang would soon have an important idea.
(There are many different accounts, claims of credit and recriminations about the festival, but our story here is taken mainly from Lang’s book The Road to Woodstock, recently issued in a new paperback version.)
Lang describes dropping out of New York University in 1966 and moving to Miami where he opened a “head” (slang for pot smoker) shop with his saved barmitzvah money. A shop like that would carry pipes, incense, posters of Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, and other psychedelic paraphernalia.
But the day after Headshop South opened, it was shut down by the city authorities. Undaunted, Lang relocated to nearby Coconut Grove and got a licence for a “gift shop”.
Many counterculture heroes stopped by Lang’s shop, including Abbie Hoffman, a Jewish anarchist who had been one of the Chicago Eight.
Big musicians of the time like the uber-hippie band Grateful Dead gravitated towards the shop where they could relax and be themselves.
But the premises were constantly watched by the police, who charged customers with any minor offences they could come up with. Despite the harassment, Lang made friends with the cops. This was unheard of at the time — they were viewed as the enemy by the counterculture (and vice versa).
With his musical friends, Lang promoted a few local shows and got talent such as Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar to play. Inspired by the recent Monterey Pop Festival in California, Lang dreamed of finding somewhere bucolic for a big festival of his own. The key was to create a space, like his shop, for the counterculture kids to come together, listen to good music and relax, only without fear of harassment or getting busted.
This is the dream that became Woodstock.
Luckily, Lang was not just another stoned-out hippie. He knew how to get things done. His parents ran a small business, and showed him the ropes. Plus they took him and his sister to a lot of music clubs.
His father, he says, “always taught me to be self-reliant. That was his thing — just take care of it. Early on, he gave me a strategy for getting out of tough situations: take charge and keep moving. Step back just enough to think clearly, and trust your instincts. That’s how he dealt with things, and this would serve me well.” Lang decided to put on Florida’s first-ever music festival. In a very short turnaround he and his team managed to sign Chuck Berry, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix, and others.
Lang put the stages on flatbed trucks that could be wheeled in and out quickly, and enlisted Stan Goldstein, Jewish recording engineer at Criteria Studios, one of the major recording studios in the South, to do the sound.
It went incredibly well, with 25,000 kids showing up. The local paper gushed about how gentle and likeable these “freaks” were. But in ways that foreshadowed Woodstock, an expensive helicopter had to be sent to pick up the stranded Jimi Hendrix band at the airport. Lang proved his cool by breaking up a fight over money. And it started to rain. And rain. So much so that they couldn’t allow electric instruments on stage.
They had to get blues master John Lee Hooker to do an acoustic set to keep the crowd happy.
Arthur Brown, a wacky musician with a hit song called Fire, offered to go on after and get electrocuted as a spectacle. Lang politely refused. But the rain washed out more than just the stage: they took a bath financially.
Burned out by police pressure and bad debts, Lang moved back to New York in the summer of 1968 and settled in the little upstate town called Woodstock which, according to Bob Dylan’s biographer Robert Shelton, had been colonised by “artists, craftspeople, dancers, musicians, urban dropouts and rebels”. Dylan and The Band were part of this group, as well as their manager Albert Grossman.
There was an informal open-air gig every week outside the town. The peaceful, happy concerts were, as Lang puts it, “in direct contrast to the national climate”. They rekindled his Miami dream of creating somewhere young people could camp out and listen to music over a long weekend.
Back then record labels ruled the music world, and Lang blagged his way into Capitol Records to meet their youngest executive Artie Kornfeld, also Jewish, also from Bensonhurst. Sure enough, they hit it off right away. Kornfeld bought into the idea of a festival near Woodstock and together they visited sites and set about funding the project. They met Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, two young Jewish venture capitalists already financing a new recording studio.
The two businessmen were a bit square for the hip Lang and Kornfeld but, in February 1969, they decided to work together to make a festival.
Lang figured a budget of $500,000, which included “$100,000 for talent deposits and $150,000 for pre-event staff, legal, office, site leasing, site prep and production”.
With 200,000 attendees at $5 a ticket, there would be a $500,000 profit. (worth about $3.5 million today). They organised contracts, shares, salaries and insurance, and off they went, each with different roles. They had six months.
The aim was to make three days of peace and music that summer “to celebrate the coming of a new age”.
They hired some young publicists, including Jane Friedman, who worked 17 hours a day contacting underground newspapers and radio stations.
Also on the team was Lee Mackler Blumer, another Jewish Brooklyn girl, who had worked for Bill Graham, a German-Jewish war refugee who had become a mega-promoter and ran the Fillmore East venues where all the major bands of the time played. Mackler Blumer was in charge of security and community relations.
Lang and his staff started booking bands. Manager David Geffen visited and played them a tape of the then unheard-of Crosby Stills and Nash. They were booked immediately. Word began to spread and they booked Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat.
Bill Graham was enraged that all his acts were being booked by Lang. But at a meeting at Ratners, the famous New York kosher restaurant, Lang figured out a way to calm him down and work together. That was his skill.
Lang hired Stan Goldstein again to run the physical infrastructure. Everything from sound stage to portable toilets were considered. They even went to the Pentagon for advice on field sanitation for large groups, but the military refused to talk to them.
Their first site fell through, and they set about finding another. They hired Mel Lawrence, the Jewish operations manager who had handled staging, fencing and traffic at Monterey Pop and scoured the area for a new site.
This part of New York state was a mixed bag of communities. Woodstock was a haven for free-thinkers, and the surrounding Sullivan County had been settled by farming Jews. It was also home to the declining “Borscht Belt”, a string of hotels where New Yorkers loved to relax in the summer in a place that welcomed Jews. But other parts of the county were more redneck and suspicious of “outsiders”.
Lang and his team found a large site near the town of Wallkill, but getting the necessary permissions was an uphill battle. And since the local authorities took a dim view of thousands of hippies invading their town, they put up as many regulatory barriers as they could.
The festival was scheduled for mid-August. But town meetings went from bad to worse. Lang was taunted for his long hair — “Ooh, ain’t he pretty?” — and permissions that had previously been given were withdrawn. By mid-July, Wallkill had thrown them out. They needed a new location. Fast.
Lang’s assistant, Ticia Benuth Agri, fielded a call from Elliot Tiber, yet another Jewish Bensonhurst boy, who offered the land he owned nearby. The site wasn’t suitable, but contacts were suggested, and Lang says that it was when he was driving around the area with one of them, a Jewish estate agent called Morris Abraham, that he and Agri spotted the field of his dreams. As he says: “We had arrived in the town of Bethel — ‘the house of God’.”
All that remained was to negotiate with the Jewish farmer who owned the field, Max Yasgur.
As journalist Nate Bloom wrote in the New Jersey Jewish Standard: “Max was no country yokel. He ran one of the biggest dairies in the county and had studied real estate law at NYU. He was also no radical. He was a registered Republican who supported the war in Vietnam. But he was also a fierce opponent of intolerance and bias.”
As soon as Kornfeld and Lang met Yasgur, they clicked. They quickly negotiated his fee, including money for crops that would be ruined. He got $50,000 plus another $75,000 held in escrow against damages. They moved in the next day.
The festival organisers now had 28 days to do a job that should have taken three months. Utility companies laid power lines. The phone company, New York Bell, resisted their requests for extra lines and 100 payphones. Ever resourceful, they found a way to pressure the local company to get this impossible job done with eight crews working round the clock.
They built wells, hiring a “water witch” who found water with his divining rod (you could find these kind of people in the ’60s). They rented extra land for parking, and arranged garbage and sewage disposal.
On top of that, all they had to do was organise publicity, ticket sales, a giant stage, a giant sound system, lighting, plumbing, posters, agents, musicians, security, fencing, traffic, bookkeeping, signage, food, helicopters to bring in bands, artist catering, campsites, firewood, artist sculptures and bad-LSD-trip counselling, and deal with town planners, police and politicians.
Jewish artist Arnold Skolnick was hired to design the festival poster. It depicted a dove perched on a guitar neck. In a true ’60s rejection of hierarchy, all the bands were listed alphabetically in the same size type.
Resistance to the festival came not only from right-wingers. There was the left-wing to contend with as well.
Abbie Hoffman led a delegation of hard-left groups determined to sabotage the event unless their demands were met. They thought the organisers were ripping off the counterculture and threatened violent disruption. They said: “It’s for the people! It should be free!”
But Lang was familiar with Hoffman’s theatrics and called his bluff by offering him money to print flyers to disseminate survival information to the crowds.
Meanwhile, the local community was getting nervous. They had a town meeting and set about trying to block the festival. According to Max Yasgur’s son, Sam, his father got up at the meeting and said that Americans had died to defend freedom in the last war, and while he didn’t agree with the hippies on the government, drugs or free love, they still had a right to be in town.
Then he said: “What are you planning to do next? Are you going to try to throw me out of town because I am a Jew?”
Permissions were granted.
Hundreds of local builders were hired to help make the huge stage, designed by Steve Cohen, also Jewish. Massive towers and enormous spotlights were ordered, and concrete set for the stage and support poles. Stands and offices were built and water, electricity and plumbing were brought in. Various unpaid hippie groups organised campsites and rubbish collection. It was such a huge task that everyone knew they had to work around the clock to make it happen.
The organisers had arranged for off-duty New York City cops to police the festival, but without sticks or guns. But their bosses withdrew permission for them to be present. Some 276 came anyway under fake names.
Two days before the scheduled start, people began arriving. By the thousands. Police refused to deal with the traffic, which meant cars were abandoned along the narrow roads in and everyone had to walk the final few miles. But they kept coming.
The festival, expecting 50,000 to 200,000 people, pulled in over a half a million music fans and peace-seekers. The hastily constructed fences soon were simply walked over. To preserve order, once the festival got going Lang and Kornfeld announced onstage that it was now a free concert. And they would (again) take an enormous bath, losing about $1.5m ($10.5m today).
Richie Havens was the first artist to play and strummed an impassioned tribute to freedom. Another band was late and they thrust Country Joe McDonald on with an acoustic guitar and he led the crowd through his song Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag. The lyrics — “Well, it’s one, two, three/what are we fighting for/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam” — summed up the prevalent attitude towards the war. The enormous crowd gave a thunderous reponse.
The sheer size of the audience spurred the musicians to give the performances of their lives. Arlo Guthrie, Santana, Canned Heat, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Band and Jimi Hendrix played their hearts out. The festival was famous for no violence — except when Hoffman snuck on stage during The Who’s set to make an announcement, and Pete Townshend bashed him on the head with his guitar.
And of course, it rained. And rained. Shamanic chants and prayers didn’t help. It rained more. The site famously became an ocean of mud. Even the huge stage started to move on its supports. But the kids didn’t complain, they just played games sliding through the goop and everyone worked harder to get through the three days.
Huge companies like Nathan’s from Coney Island had been signed up to supply food, but they all dropped out at the last moment and Lang and his team had to depend on hippie group The Hog Farm to supply granola and rice for thousands. Bethel residents, including a local Jewish women’s group, also contributed food.
Once the festival conditions got bad, the local police had a change of heart, and did start to help out. Even the National Guard, who passionately hated long-hairs, brought in cots, blankets and medical supplies. They also helicoptered in thousands of sandwiches, water, fruit and canned goods donated by the citizens of Sullivan County.
Even Hoffman recognised the role the National Guard played. He wrote: “They were military types, and here we were, the antithesis. But when it came to things like saving lives, getting out good information and not drinking certain water, all of a sudden all the casual sex and the nudity and the fact that we were against the war, didn’t matter… We were all Americans. And I can’t remember a single moment of friction.”
The festival played on through each night until dawn on Monday when Jimi Hendrix played his shocking version of The Star-Spangled Banner with war-machine noises ear-splittingly added in. People walked away, sodden but happy.
The organisers had done it. It took them years to make up the money they lost, but they had pulled it off, even better than they had hoped. Woodstock’s spirit of co-operation between warring factions gave it the status of legend.
The New York Times summed it up: “The benign character of the young people communicated itself to many of their elders, including policemen, and the generation gap was successfully bridged in countless cases.
“Any event which can do this is touched with greatness.”
‘The Road to Woodstock’ by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren is published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins