Back To Which Garden?

The Squabbling Spawn of Woodstock

This summer, A Day in the Garden will reprise with a series of shows instead of just one. Hoping to give something back to the town of Bethel, Gerry plans to establish Yasgur's Farm as a regular concert venue. Ironically, the nearly 70-year-old entrepreneur forbade his oldest daughter to attend the original Woodstock, but he's now promoting what he told The New York Times is "a part of American culture whether we like it or not." Then again, his first two concerts might not exactly be what the founding fathers had in mind— bubblegum babe Britney Spears spent her Fourth of July gig lip-synching, and this weekend what's left of the Beach Boys join "Creedence Clearwater Revisited" and tiger- eyers Survivor for some cheap nostalgia.

Driving down the long stretch of Highway 17B, only a lone stone memorial sculpture suggests that a major musical event happened here 30 years ago. "You'd think if they had any sense [the town] would be selling hippie hamburgers and rainbow ice cream," says Abramson. But for years Bethel has distanced itself from the event that could have made this Catskills hamlet famous. Only a year after the deluge of half a million hippies in August 1969, Bethel enacted a "Mass Gathering" law mandating that any assembly of more than 10,000 apply for a town permit 210 days in advance and pay a $75,000 fee. This made Woodstock '94 almost impossible— one of the reasons Lang moved his 25th anniversary event to Saugerties (which, oddly enough, was the site originally hoped for in '69).

When Alan Gerry bought the 37-acre natural amphitheater in Bethel, some think he was literally paving paradise. "None of this was like this," says Abramson, driving by the festival site, past rolling green hills, past the former hog farm. "It's heartbreaking. It was natural. Now it's man-made, with paved roads, manicured lawns. He put up fences. He's got a thing for fences." Gerry shut down the grounds for two years, posting "no camping" signs on the property, and the town dug a ditch around it. State police and surveillance helicopters were brought in to protect the area, and campers were arrested. So Howard and Abramson decided to open up their land for the displaced revelers. But in 1997, the town came down hard on Howard— without a permit, his three-day Bethel reunions were bringing in thousands of visitors.

In an attempt to stop the party, the town filed an injunction forbidding him from promoting or even advertising the possibility of a Woodstock reunion. But even though Howard put up "no trespassing" signs and told police he wanted people off his property, the shindig happened anyway. The town asked the court to find Howard in contempt, but the court ruled otherwise. "The permit [the town] required us to get was for a Mass Gathering, which is not necessary for under 10,000 people, which is what we had," says Abramson. The couple sued Bethel because the gathering law was amended to exempt entities— such as Gerry's Bethel Local Development Corporation— whose governing bodies are appointed by the town board. District Court dismissed Howard's and Abramson's claim; the case is now on appeal.

Gerry, though, might be the first to change Bethel's anti-Woodstock tune with a concept that's more Disney than hippie. Last year he talked of building a theme park, including a resort and hotel, a golf course, a Woodstock Music Hall of Fame, and an entertainment village. "There are a number of people trying to appropriate the Woodstock vibe and I am candidly a little resentful," says Scher. "Gerry has his heart in the right place, but he got some real bad advice last year. You're dealing with baby boomers who are in their forties or fifties now. They don't camp out."

Ask Michael Lang the question that Mr. Square Reporter asked him in Woodstock the movie: "What's the worst thing about putting on one of these things?" And the answer is the same. "Politics," says the now 54-year-old Lang. "Is that what I said before?" He giggles— still sporting that bird's nest of curly hair and a boyish sparkle. Surveying the entire airbase from Griffiss's former field-control tower, Lang talks with his site manager about remaining problems. There are plenty. For one, they can't build a major part of a 12-foot wall until two days before the event, because a guy who operates an aircraft maintenance service still uses the runway. But at least Rome is thrilled to have Woodstock in its backyard. The now desolate military base, closed in 1995, used to be the town's major employer. Now Woodstock 99, offering thousands of (albeit temporary) jobs, is like a godsend.

"They had planes landing filled with body bags from Vietnam, nuclear bomb testing. . . . It's weird," says Woodstock's resident historian Duke Devlin, a hearty, grizzled remnant of the original concert, relaxing behind an old linoleum reception desk. "I'm hoping these kids, maybe they'll get sick and tired of being sick and tired. We had leaders back then. Maybe a few will surface as a result of this concert." Hmmm . . . Somehow it's tough to imagine Brian Setzer inspiring someone to do anything other than put on a pair of khakis and wingtips. But maybe Jewel can inspire a few young poets.

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