Back To Which Garden?


Roy Howard brushes dirt off the CD and hands it to his wife. “I found this in the woods.” he squints at the disc and scratches his white beard. “Is it anything?” howard, a sturdy 65-year-old, had been mowing the lawn, prepping his field so friends could plant vegetables for their free kitchen. His pals also hoped to plant corn in the shape of a 200-foot diameter peace sign. Only problem was, Howard couldn’t find his plough amid the mountains of machinery, junk, and relics in his barn. Plan aborted— but he found a pretty cool CD, perhaps. His wife, Jeryl Abramson, puts the CD in the player. Out blasts a familiar, searing guitar lead that could only be “all along the Watchtower.” Abramson laughs, embarrassed she didn’t recognize the musician that closed Woodstock ’69. Hendrix’s face, on this ’90s reissue, had been obscured with a slick, orange tint.

It’s a typical summer weekend gathering for Howard, Abramson, and the handful that have shown up to camp, plant, and plan for this August’s reunion— a free festival in Bethel that has, by word of mouth and World Wide Web, drawn thousands to Max Yasgur’s Farm since 1996 to commemorate the spirit of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

The Bethel reunion is one of at least three vastly different concerts this summer honoring the memory of music, mud, and mayhem that occurred 30 years ago, trying desperately either to recapture the vibe or capitalize on it. While Howard’s hippie ilk want to preserve the Woodstock ideal of free tunes (although ’69 wasn’t meant to be free), another promoter has been trying to turn Woodstock’s original locale into a family-oriented theme park. But the strangest spawn yet might be the July 23­25 concert actually called Woodstock, flying its dove-and- guitar flag atop its new site— a former air force base. War, what is it good for? A rock concert.

A guy who goes by the handle Wayne G., webmaster for a Woodstock-dedicated Web site, posts, “Will the real Woodstock please stand up?”

The name “Woodstock” is owned by original cofounder Michael Lang and Woodstock Ventures, hosting his extravaganza over 100 miles away, literally and figuratively, from the rolling fields and skinny-dipping waters of Bethel’s White Lake. “Woodstock is a state of mind, not a locale,” says Lang from command central in Rome, New York. Woodstock 99 is getting ready to rock in the quarter-million-
capacity confines of the decomissioned Griffiss Air Force base— well-constructed for a mega­ music festival, with its sloping green fields, concrete walkways, built-in plumbing, and 3600 acres of land. Airplane hangars will house an indie film festival and a 2 a.m. rave. Extreme sports, a cyber village, and arts-and-crafts tents will decorate the tarmac. “The far right built this complex for tens of millions of dollars,” says Lang’s partner John Scher. “It stood for all the things that we stood against. Now we’re here 30 years later, they’ve abandoned it, and we get to use it for a rock festival. How cool it that?”

It’s also more secure than Saugerties, where an estimated 150,000 crashed Lang’s 25th anniversary party in 1994— this military design was built to be defended. Like ’94, the music spans the collectively soulless MTV gamut— from Everclear to Everlast, Jamiroquai to Jewel, Metallica to Morissette and Dave Matthews. Mickey Hart offers an ounce of hippie cred; Fatboy Slim and the Chemical Brothers plug in their machines; Wyclef Jean and George Clinton smear a little funk on top. But the kids will get most excited moshing to the violent screeds of Korn, Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock, and DMX— acts almost a propos for a military base.

Back in Bethel, the Friends of Yasgur’s Farm meet in an old calving barn­cum­music hall, bright with stained-glass portraits of ancient Woodstock stock like Richie Havens and Roger Daltry. Wearing muddy Tevas, a guy named Jerry who just emerged from camping in Roy Howard’s and Jeryl Abramson’s forest recounts luminaries from previous reunions at Max Yasgur’s homestead: Melanie in ’97. The juggling Chaos Kids who put on a circus in the forest. The 28-member Hidden Years Band that traveled all the way from South Africa. That German chick Esther with the spikes in her hair who drove all the way from Haight Ashbury.

Still searching for his plough, Howard mumbles angrily and doesn’t get involved much with the planning. Like Max Yasgur himself, who rescued Woodstock ’69 when no one else in Sullivan County wanted dirty hippies on their property, Howard is just the facilitator for this hoedown. Having lived in Bethel all his life, running a discount beverage store in town, he bought Yasgur’s 103-acre homestead and farm buildings from Miriam Yasgur in 1985. “I’d go by that farm a lot, driving to Homesdale with pallets of soda, it looked so nice,” he says. But he doesn’t own Yasgur’s land where Woodstock actually took place. (Tourists still think the town of Woodstock is where peace, love, and music converged in ’69. Nope— get back in your VW van and drive southwest, young man.) The site was bought by local boy and cable-TV billionaire Alan Gerry in 1996, along with 1500 acres surrounding it. Gerry hosted last year’s 29th anniversary of Woodstock with a two-day singer-songwriterly fest called “A Day in the Garden.”

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.

“It’s not Woodstock’s role to be preachy,” says Scher. “It’s our role to make available a forum, a proper context. But first and foremost, Woodstock is a rock festival.” The idea, says Lang, is to promote the most modern artists and acts that are “great live.” But it’s also to sell tickets, at $150-plus a pop, to an 18-to-26-year-old audience. Hey— if hundreds of thousands of people crashed your party without paying, you’d want to make sure their sons and daughters paid you back, too. “And if it doesn’t work this time,” Lang threatens pleasantly, “it’s never going to happen again.”

But clearly, the spirit of Woodstock will carry on in other forms— even if this is Lang’s last time. Without a permit from town hall, Howard and Abramson— the latter running for town supervisor— are casting their August event in Bethel as a political rally for the “Wanna Party”; they’re
expecting their biggest turnout ever, with über-hippies from the annual North American Rainbow Gathering in nearby Alleghany National
Forest trickling in as well. The same weekend, Alan
Gerry is hosting genuine ’69 survivors David Crosby, Arlo Guthrie, and Melanie at Yasgur’s Farm.

So if the spirit of Woodstock is not the type of music, not the town it’s named for, and not the place it first happened, what is it? “A gathering of the tribes,” says Scher; “the religion of the young,” says Lang. “Peace, love, and music,” say the Friends of Yasgur; “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” say its detractors. Duke Devlin, who hitchhiked all the way from a commune in Texas to attend Woodstock ’69, agrees with all that. But he adds, “Or maybe it’s just a good excuse for a bake sale.”