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Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock

Fornatale, Pete

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On the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock, renowned New York City disc jockey Pete Fornatale brings the iconic rock concert to vivid life through original interviews with Roger Daltrey, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, and dozens of headliners, organizers, and fans.

On Friday, August 15, 1969, a crowd of 400,000 -- an unprecedented and unexpected number at the time -- gathered on Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York for a weekend of rock 'n' roll, the new form of American music that had emerged only a decade earlier. For America's counterculture youth, Woodstock became a symbol of more than just sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll -- it was about peace, love, and a new way of living. It was a seminal event that epitomized the ways that the culture, the country, and the core values of an entire generation were shifting. On one glorious weekend, this generation found its voice through one outlet: music.

Back to the Garden celebrates the music and the spirit of Woodstock through the words of some of the era's biggest musical stars, as well as those who participated in the festival. From Richie Havens's legendary opening act to the Who's violent performance, from the Grateful Dead's jam to Jefferson Airplane's wake-up call, culminating in Jimi Hendrix's career-defining moment, Fornatale brings new stories to light and sets the record straight on some common misperceptions. Illustrated with black-and-white photographs, authoritative, and highly entertaining, Back to the Garden is the soon-to-be classic telling of three days of peace and music.

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About the Author:

Pete Fornatale is an award-winning broadcaster who has been a fixture on the New York City radio scene for the past forty years. The author of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, he can currently be heard on in the New York area on WFUV radio’s Mixed Bag.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

Just after midnight on July 27, 1969, twenty minutes into my debut program at WNEW-FM in New York, I did my first live commercial. As instructed during orientation, I looked at the program log, opened up the alphabetized copybook in front of me, and rifled through it until I came to the Ws. When the vinyl record on the turntable to my right ended, I turned on the mic switch and did a quick back-sell of the music I had just played ("Sing This Altogether" by the Rolling Stones, "All Together Now" by the Beatles, and "You Can All Join In" by Traffic). I then proceeded to read these exact words from that copybook:

"The Woodstock Music and Art Fair is a three-day Aquarian exposition at White Lake in the town of Bethel, Sullivan County, New York. Friday, August 15, you'll hear and see Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, and Sweetwater.

"Then on Saturday, August 16, it's Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater, the Grateful Dead, Keef Hartley, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Santana, and the Who -- the hottest group on the scene right now.

"Sunday, August 17, the Band; Jeff Beck; Blood, Sweat and Tears; Iron Butterfly; Joe Cocker; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Jimi Hendrix; the Moody Blues; Johnny Winter; and that's not all. Tickets are available by mail or at your local ticket agency for any one day at $7.00, two days at $14.00, and for all three days, just $18.00. A special two-day ticket is available by mail for only $13.00.

"For tickets and information, you can write the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Box 996, Radio City Station, New York, one-zero-zero-one-nine, or phone Murray Hill 7-0700. M-U-seven-zero-seven-zero-zero. Remember, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair is being held at White Lake in the town of Bethel, Sullivan County, New York.

"They've had their hassles, but it looks like everything's gonna be okay."

That last line was an ad-lib -- a fairly pithy one at that -- but no one had any idea at the time just how important that three-day festival would turn out to be, not only to music fans but also to commentators, journalists, politicians, pundits, sociologists, writers, and members of the youth movement. These were my first few minutes on the air at the most important of the new breed of FM-rock radio stations in the country, and I was talking about an event that would soon redefine the culture, the country, and the core values of an entire generation.

Woodstock was, without question, the high-water mark of the '60s youth revolution -- musically, politically, and socially. A gathering of close to half a million people in one place at one time is bound to get attention, no matter what the reason. But half a million young people gathered in one place at one time to flex their cultural muscle and celebrate their life-altering music sent shock waves from upstate New York to the rest of the country. Even in the technologically primitive stages of our global village, this legendary tribal gathering put Woodstock front and center in the consciousness of citizens around the world.

Without initially intending to, Woodstock made a statement. It became a symbol for all the changes that bubbled up during the first half of the American '60s and boiled over during the second half. Just eight years earlier, John F. Kennedy had galvanized the nation during his inaugural address with his declaration that "the torch has been passed to a new generation." He was talking about the torch handed off by the pre-World War II generation to the men and women who actually fought it. Woodstock was about the passing of the torch to the next generation -- from the World War II veterans to their children, the already labeled "baby boomers," who grew up very differently than their forebears, with affluence, education, television, and, of course, with rock 'n' roll.

So now it is forty years later. In some respects, Woodstock is just as much of a mess today as Max Yasgur's farm was on that Monday morning when Jimi Hendrix played his final note. At least figuring it out is. There are still so many stories to tell, even after all of these years. And many of those stories contradict one another. To borrow a phrase from Kris Kristofferson, that baptismal blast in Bethel was "...a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction." Woodstock is an elephant. Perhaps even a big pink one, depending on what you were ingesting back then. (Big Pink was even the name of "the trips tent" set up by the Hog Farm at the site to deal with drug-related casualties.) And we are all blind men and women trying to describe this behemoth based on the part of its body that we touch.

In the end, they are all partly correct, but all mostly wrong. So it is with Woodstock. You simply can't make any definitive judgments or observations about the whole of it until you have learned something about the totality of its parts. Jainists call it the Theory of Manifold Predictions.

We have attempted in these pages to avoid the pitfalls of selective dissection by providing as many first-person accounts as we can from every strand of the Woodstock freak flag, every tile of the Woodstock mosaic, and every thread of the Woodstock tapestry -- even when they are totally at odds with one another. But caveat emptor! Even this approach will not solve or resolve a more bewildering, confounding dilemma about the festival -- namely, all of the diametrically opposed viewpoints and anecdotes about the very same "truths" that you will encounter. And I'm not talking about mere mild differences of opinion. I'm talking about wildly divergent, red-in-the-face rants and polemics about everything that happened during those very same sixty-five hours on Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, in August of 1969.

Thankfully, there is a name for this dichotomy as well. It's called the Rashomon effect. It's based on the late Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's landmark 1950 film, Rashomon, in which four individuals witness the same exact crime, yet describe it subjectively, in four radically contradictory ways. The idea is that despite our different experiences of the same events, each account can still be plausible. Each person has a unique set of life experiences that influence the way he or she experiences the world.

We hope that providing you with the widest possible assortment of first-person accounts dating back to the historic weekend itself, as well as those sifted through the mists of time during those four rapidly passing decades, will give you very reliable eyewitness testimony upon which to base your opinions about Woodstock. But here too, we offer you this warning. Take the four hundred thousand versions of the truth from the estimated number of persons who attended the actual event, then add to that the accounts of those who swear they were there but weren't. Finally, calculate into the equation the hundreds of millions who experienced Woodstock vicariously through the movie, recordings, documentaries, books, articles, and word-of-mouth recollections that have been bouncing all around the globe for forty years now. Massage the quantitative facts about the event together with the myths and legends, and you end up with some idea of how chameleonlike anything Woodstock-related is. One might even say, "It all depends on what your definition of is, is!"

So let's return once more to Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, that weekend in August of 1969 when the shit hit the fan (or, in some cases, when the fans hit the shit) and see what sense we can make of it all on this auspicious fortieth anniversary.

Graham Nash: The legend, the myth of Woodstock has grown. It was undeniably a tremendous social event. A lot of great music. A lot of good times had by a lot of people. I think as we get into the future, the legend, the myth of Woodstock becomes greater than the actual reality.

I think Graham has it exactly right. With each passing day, week, month, or year, it becomes much less important how many nails were used to build the stage at Woodstock, and far more important what people have embroidered in their DNA about the very word Woodstock. The myth making began as early as the week after the festival itself:

The baffling history of mankind is full of obvious turning points and significant events: battles won, treaties signed, rulers elected or disposed, and now seemingly, planets conquered. Equally important are the great groundswells of popular movements that affect the minds and values of a generation or more, not all of which can be neatly tied to a time or place. Looking back upon the America of the '60s, future historians may well search for the meaning of one such movement. It drew the public's notice on the days and nights of Aug. 15 through 17, 1969, on the 600-acre farm of Max Yasgur in Bethel, NY.

-- Time magazine, August 29, 1969

Next witness?

Say what you will about Abbie Hoffman's role as a hippie, Yippie, fighter, inciter, ad man, madman, he was early into the Woodstock myth-making business. He even gave it a name. It's all on the record, either in his book Woodstock Nation or in his public testimony at the notorious Chicago Eight trial, from April 1969 to February 1970, where he and his codefendants were tried for crimes related to the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The following is taken from the transcript of those hearings in the courtroom of Judge Julius Hoffman:

Mr. Weinglass: Will you please identify yourself for the record?
The Witness: My name is Abbie. I am an orphan of America.
Mr. Schultz: Your Honor, may the record show it is the defendant Hoffman who has taken the stand?
The Court: Oh, yes. It may so indicate...
Mr. Weinglass: Where do you reside?
The Witness: I live in Woodstock Nation.
Mr. Weinglass: Will you tell the Court and jury where...

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