Who Owns the City That Never Was?
July 19, 1994
I. THE INVISIBLE CITY
THE RIGHT-HAND TANK IS LEAKING. Twenty-five feet high, twin to the tank on the left, now half-filled with about 450,000 gallons of water drawn from the Blue Mountain Reservoir, the right-hand tank is, subtly, dripping. Its liner, filled with pinholes, is also leaking. Although it is only mid-June, it is approximately a million degrees today on Winston Farm in Saugerties, site of the Woodstock ’94 festival that will take place here August 13 and 14. Woodstock Ventures, promoter of this festival as it was of the first Woodstock, has until June 30 to fill both tanks with the 2 million gallons of water necessary to cool, slake, and perhaps even bathe 250,000 people for two days as well as put them out should they catch on fire. The tank on the left is empty.
Michael Lang, the most visible of the three partners who make up Woodstock Ventures — a broody, vest-over-bare-chest, motorcycle-riding presence with Arlo Guthrie hair in the film Woodstock, now a broody, docksider-clad presence with Arlo Guthrie hair on Entertainment Tonight — walks over to where the seepage from the tank is staining the earth, picks up a rock, and draws a line in the dirt. Then he sets the rock on the spot with a little thud. He does this deliberately, but casually. As if, should the water seep beyond this boundary line, there would be anything anyone could do about it. As if it is not 1 million degrees. As if the leaks are fixable.
We get back into Lang’s Range Rover and continue our tour of the still mostly empty 840-acre site — the beautiful vistas of the South Stage, the flat, green table of the North Stage, the area for one of the two field hospitals, the bands’ compound, the staging areas, a helipad site, a backstage area as big as the Ritz, multiple camping fields, another thousand acres of miscellaneous terrain outside the site, which will be fenced. Through those woods, Lang tells me, will be the Surreal Field, a virtual reality and interactive arcade; closer in, the Eco-Village, with booths from Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network. And over there, he says pointing to a mysterious declivity in the center of a field, is a wetland. Woodstock Ventures will install 10 miles of road, eight bridges, and 12 miles of fencing on this hilly site ringed by forest, plow it with 900 food booths, wire it to the outside world with so many phone booths they’ve tapped out the allotted number of phone lines for all of Ulster County, evacuate its waste with 3000 Portosans, tend its possible wounds with 500 medical personnel, and patrol its borders with 1500 security people. Lang, a man in whom natural reticence and caginess appear to be seamlessly entwined, declines to specify the number of ATMs they’re planning to install, but one can imagine it will be: several.
The metaphor for Woodstock ’94 that one hears again and again is that they’re building a city for two days, but this is more like a small country, an off-shore island of the PolyGram music corporation. It will have its own electronic newspaper, published on-site by Apple. It will have its own currency in the form of scrip-tickets, like the ones you’d get at an amusement park, which concert-goers will use to buy food, souvenirs, and camping equipment. In fact, cash will be accepted only as payment for rolls and rolls of scrip. In fact, the Woodstock ’94 festival will have many of its own laws, such as: once you enter its borders, you can leave only once, on Saturday, and return on Sunday. You can bring your own camping equipment, but not the kind with stakes. No alcohol will be served. You are discouraged from bringing your own food. You are discouraged from bringing your children. When you get there, you will park your car in one of 17 parking lots in places like Rhinebeck (about 20 minutes away) and Albany (about 45 minutes away) and then be bused to the site, wrist-banded for identification. You cannot bring your own camcorder, although you will be able to buy a disposable camera with some of your scrip, which you can then hang over your wrist-banded arm and with which, from the nonalcoholic, child-free safety of your non-staked tent, you can get a good picture of Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, or Nine Inch Nails while drinking Pepsi out of a limited edition, commemorative Woodstock can.
“Woodstock is a state of mind that cannot be appropriated and packaged as a sort of corporate commodity… It cannot be copyrighted or trademarked. In short, it cannot be owned and it cannot be sold back to us without its meaning and content.” That’s from a position paper issued by Free Woodstock, a local activist group that has printed up T-shirts, posters, and bumper stickers featuring the words “Woodstock Occupied” overlaid by barbed wire. Another group, the Sprockets, has made T-shirts with two vultures fighting over a peace sign. The vultures represent Woodstock Ventures and its rival Sid Bernstein, who is attempting to stage his own festival on the original land, Yasgur’s Farm in Bethel, with some of the original performers. (Sid has been having a hard time: he got Fleetwood Mac, but without Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, or Christine McVie.)
But states of mind can be owned, too, and T-shirts have become weapons since local T-shirt printers discovered that Woodstock Ventures considered both the dove-on-guitar-neck logo and the name “Woodstock” as it related to the festival their intellectual property, and was prepared to get litigious about it. (Licensed T-shirts are available from, among others, Dr. Sha’s Collectibles at 1-800-WOODSTK.) Local businesspeople who expected to be able to sell food at the event found that, in addition to paying $3000 for a booth, they would be expected to turn over 31 per cent of their gross to giant commercial food vendor Fine Host. In the end, Fine Host got 870 booths. Local businesses have 30. It’s been a long spring. By May, union workers were picketing the festival site, which is being built by nonunion contractors.
Lang uncomfortably acknowledges that the demonstrations of corporate ownership have “created kind of a difficult perception.” “When a corporation protects its rights,” he says, “it’s this big looming figure. They’re not careful enough to avoid that, and it could be avoided. Easily.” It’s hard to see how. Just during the short time I spend with Lang, a middle-aged man turns up at the Woodstock Ventures offices with the little guitar-shaped wooden key rings he wants to sell, British MTV appears unannounced, an aspiring singer, learning that Lang is there, speeds over with her tape, and a barefoot woman comes by to ask politely but with some panic, “I live a mile from the site with two small children. During the festival, are we going to be allowed to leave?” Duke Devlin, the official archivist, a Woodstock festival veteran who sports an enormous tattoo comprising the words “Woodstock 1969,” the dove-and-guitar, and various other actionable symbols on his left arm, tells her, “You can leave once.”
Under such bombardment, defenses quickly become apparent and Lang, who has a tendency to mumble and a way of not meeting your eye, has the media-unfriendly air of a man wishing desperately for a motorcycle to ride away on. “If I had my complete druthers,” he says as I push the tape recorder closer and closer, “I would, of course, rather not have a corporation behind this. But this time we needed that financial partner.” A heavy partner it must be. Corporations are brilliant at erecting instant cities — Olympic Village, the Gulf War — but not so good at populating them. PolyGram has provided the walls, both literally and figuratively, for this city, but to Lang has fallen the considerable task of gathering, feeding, and controlling the citizens while convincing them that they’re having a great, spontaneous time.
The first Woodstock was also frequently compared to a city. In the recently rereleased film Woodstock, a bearded man calls it the “second largest city in New York”; it was also a national disaster area. “As we come over the top of the hill,” writes Patricia Kennealy in Strange Days, her account of her life with Jim Morrison, “I see it for the first time: The city is there. It looks like the biggest gypsy camp in the world, the bazaar at Samarkand, both Fillmores, a Third World disaster area, the New Jerusalem and London during the blitz.” “I was emotionally prepared for a breakdown in services and a major riot,” Ellen Willis wrote in The New Yorker upon her return from the festival. “The only… real surprise was that there was no riot.”
But in accounts of the festival, no matter how jaundiced or sour (rival promoter Bill Graham compared it to Poland), there is the feeling that the first festival was somewhere between a city policed only by good vibes and a looting spree. While the kids ate muesli supplied by the Hog Farm Collective, rock stars dined on steak and strawberries and cream, the mud and champagne flowed, everyone was high, everyone was naked. “At the first Woodstock,” says Marty Carey, a longtime resident of Woodstock who went to the festival with his wife Susan to sell tie-dyed goods but traded them all away for hash and acid, “someone had lobsters. Lobsters!”
The glow of the first Woodstock, apart from the drugs, seemed to have been brought on not only by what had, to everyone’s surprise, been built, but by what was breaking down, which was: everything. No food, no water, no soap, no phones, no cars, no parents. A lobster, a miracle, in the mud. “The New York State Thruway is closed,” people keep remarking in the film with a sort of pride. Helicopters whirr overhead bringing rock stars instead of wounded. The beauty of the young men is piercing. The film can’t take its eye off them, both as performers and concertgoers, each one haunted by the soldier that he is supposed to be, but is not. Even Janis Joplin looks like a beautiful young man. Michael Lang is one of those young men, riding around on his motorcycle, blowing off reporters who obviously, hopelessly don’t get it, saying things to them like, “It’s just, you know, music.”
But to me, looking at it through the prism of its representations, Woodstock seems to have had not so much an Aquarian transplendence as a deserter ambience, a cockiness that said: We fuck in your uniforms. We do drugs in your helicopters. We play in your fields. This is our city, say the arrogant, beautiful young men. Fuckability becomes an act of defiance. When Roger Daltrey sings “See me, feel me, touch me,” it is in opposition to the other uses the culture would make of the bodies of young men like himself.
In Michael Cunningham’s novel A Home at the End of the World, Bobby, a credulous character with a heart of gold, spends his whole life trying to get to the real town of Woodstock, where people listen to groovy music and do acid all the time; Bobby refuses to believe that it could be any different. Just so goes the culture. (Bobby is also a big fan of Tower Records.) The first Woodstock succeeded because it broke down. The emergencies invented the myth. What would it have been without its rainstorm? “By Sunday,” Willis writes, “I couldn’t help suspecting that some of the beautiful, transcendent acceptance going around was just plain old passivity.” “Woodstock was horrible,” Pete Townshend has said, “…a terrible shambles. Full of the most naive, childlike people. We have a word for them in England. Twits.” Townshend distinguished himself at Woodstock by hitting Abbie Hoffman on the head with his guitar; a group of ad-hoc activists burned down the commercial food concession. (Fine Host, take note.) If Woodstock was a city, it was a city during a blackout, a city during a riot, a city on the edge of disaster. At one point, promoters feared a mass electrocution from fraying cables and rain. They didn’t stop the show.
Woodstock was a temporary city of stolen pleasure that shamed the brutality and waste of the ongoing war; it seems to have had the vertiginous feeling of a plundered city enjoying a brief ceasefire. Without Vietnam, without the threat of electrocution, starvation, and bad acid, Woodstock would have been just a poorly planned, overlong rock concert. “Nobody played well at Woodstock,” writes Kennealy. The Band, with their soulful ballads, felt imperceptible to a stoned crowd that had already been “hammered by weather and music” for three days. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young redubbed their performance in the studio. No one cared. Music wasn’t really the point. Neither, exactly, was politics. “Movement City,” a radical enclave erected within the Woodstock Festival, had nothing to do. Woodstock was a city of found lobsters.
Now, 25 years later, the right-hand tank gently weeps. The left sighs a cavernous sigh. Because Woodstock was almost immediately a metaphor about youth, it is now a metaphor about aging. Roger Daltrey, who kept his curls, looks like a spinster. Half of CSNY is bloated, the other half hollow. They look like people cursed by the gods. For 25 years, Woodstock has drifted through the culture in a vaguely sentimental purple haze. Probably the most surprising thing about this second festival is that it hasn’t happened before. Actually, in 1987, Michael Lang was ready to stage the second Woodstock — on top of the Berlin Wall. East Germany had agreed. West Germany had agreed. Warner Bros., however, which then owned the rights to the name, did not. After that, Woodstock Ventures paid millions to regain the rights to two words: Woodstock Festival. Now, of course, where the Berlin Wall used to be there is only an empty field like this empty field in Saugerties next to the New York State Thruway, a field that the festival has saved, temporarily, from being used as an enormous megadump.
II. THE VISIBLE CITY
WOODSTOCK IS NERVOUS.
“At least it’ll be easier to pick out our Woodstock from the couple of dozen others around the country on a map,” wrote Geddy Sveikauskas in a Woodstock Times editorial recently. “Ours will be the one with the cute little R in a circle after it.” The actual town of Woodstock, like the actual Bob Dylan, wasn’t part of the first Woodstock; unlike Dylan, it won’t be part of the second one either. The first Woodstock took place in Bethel, 60 miles away. The arriving one will take place in Saugerties, less than 10 miles away. Nevertheless, Woodstock is both blessed and cursed with its legendary name, a name that began this century signifying a decorously utopian arts colony ambience and is ending it by signifying the commercialization of youth culture. (The first Woodstock Festival, even after it moved to Bethel, kept the name both because of the town’s history of music festivals and friendliness toward alternative cultures, a friendliness somewhat strained by the arrival of clans of hippies in the mid ’60s.) Woodstock, hospitable but edgy, is eyeing Woodstock ’94 as one might a long lost, ne’er-do-well sibling. It is possible to discern, under its breath, the wish that the festival had just stayed lost. “We’re expecting this to be almost like a wartime situation,” commented town justice Frank Engel, addressing the town board in April.
Undergirded by the painterly spirits of Philip Guston and Milton Avery, cooled by rivers of free-thinking money and hushed by the same, Woodstock was not particularly prepared back in the late ’60s to become the Tigris and Euphrates of one lush strain of popular culture. It had its own history of music festivals: the Maverick festivals, the Sound-Out festivals, and even annual Woodstock festivals. John Cage composed here, as did Aaron Copland. In fact, the Woodstock Police Force badge is emblazoned with an easel, a lyre, a quill pen, and the masks of comedy and tragedy — but not, you might notice, an electric guitar.
Woodstock did not anticipate, when Bob Dylan quietly arrived in town in the early ’60s, that the combined influences of the Band, and Van Morrison, and manager Albert Grossman’s leafy stable of hippie stars would soon make this place an eidetic memory for legions of teenagers who, like Cunningham’s Bobby, had never seen it. Somehow, Woodstock became a place you could get back to even if you’d never been there. Three of the records that came out of the scene here — the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Van Morrison’s Moondance, and Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes — form a triumvirate in my mind that I think of as the Woodstock sound: wheezy, male, with an undertow of sadness and yearning. Deserter’s songs. “I decided to come to the country instead of going to the Democratic convention in 1968,” says Marty Carey. “To this day, I’m not sure if that was the right thing to do.”
To this day, Woodstock still isn’t sure if any of it was the right thing to do. In the center of town you can find a tie-dye store, the Flying Watermelon; a pizzeria with a peace sign-shaped pizza logo; and a Village Green — not much bigger than the fountain in Washington Square Park — where local teenagers smoke and flirt and play music. All these things have the feeling of props.
“Most reporters,” says Gale Brownlee real-estate agent extraordinaire, born and raised in Woodstock, official town photographer, in her youth a two-time winner of Miss Woodstock and one-time winner of Miss New York, airplane and helicopter pilot, former bridal model, former press agent, flight instructor, and the driving force behind bringing Magic the educational horse to town (“Just Say Neigh to Drugs”) — “Most reporters,” says Gale, “come here for the afternoon and don’t see deeper than the Green.” Gale, still quite slender, attired in white with red pumps, and with a cigarette-raked voice as deep as the ocean, is telling me this rather pointedly, I think. This suspicion is confirmed when, on the way to feed Magic some carrots, we take a circuitous route past the house where her grandfather, Woodstock’s town doctor, lived; past the site of the community-funded Woodstock Playhouse; past the Woodstock Historical Museum; and past the Zena cornfield, a plot of land bought by the town so that it would not be developed. Buying a Magic button out of the trunk of Gale’s car for $2, I take the hint.
Over at the Woodstock Library, a dove that looks suspiciously like the prototype for the trademarked one rises triumphantly out of a pre-Lang, 1966 music festival poster — part of a subversive exhibit of memorabilia, posters, and programs from Woodstock’s extensive history of music and art festivals. Rumors are already circulating of residents coming home to find strangers eating in their kitchens, camping in their yards. Police chief Paul Ragonese, a retired New York City cop whose autobiography is called The Soul of a Cop, has constructed an elaborate traffic-flow pattern that includes a provision for shutting the town down altogether. Personally, the chief believes that the real spirit of Woodstock is to be found at Sid Bernstein’s concert in Bethel. “That’s where the sacred land is,” Ragonese says. “That’s where Melanie and Richie Havens are. My daughter tells me some of these guys going to Woodstock urinate on stage. Why would I pay $135 to watch five guys urinate on stage when I can go to Bethel and see John Sebastian?”
“They’re cutting a major incision here, busting the town wide open. It’s going to take a lot of time to heal,” says John Godsey, owner of the Blade Runner lawn service and a founding member of Free Woodstock, which comprises about 35 active members and another hundred or so on standby. John ended up here because someone stopped him 23 years ago on his way to help survivors of the India-Pakistan war and suggested he wasn’t looking so good himself. Another member of Free Woodstock who wishes to remain anonymous, a man I’ll call Roger who got lost on the Thruway 25 years ago and now runs a business here, says, “We’re going to be left with these wounds. It’s like those movies where the devil comes to town.”
Both John and Roger are what might be described as old hippies. But they aren’t very old and their earnestness, on men with shorter hair, would probably be read as civic pride — except for the fact that what they are defending is not the soundness of roads or the stability of businesses, but a phantasm of a community that existed in the minds of boys dreaming their chemical dreams for three days in the mud, an hour away from here. John and Roger believe in the lobster and, talking to them in the steadily rising heat, I, too, can almost make out one claw.
“They injuncted the printers and that’s when the rebellion started,” says John.
“They’re strip-mining a cultural icon,” says Roger. “It’s like selling Jesus back to us. It’s an insult to just steal this thing. The original Woodstock put out a call, like the Pied Piper, and the people who heard that tune came and a lot of them stayed. But PolyGram has sent out a call to everybody and everyb0dy could show up. My power and the town’s power has been taken away.”
“We are being used,” says John. “The ability of the town to grow organically and project itself into the universe is being lost.”
(The spirit of the universe is where you find it. When I ask Gale how the oncoming festival has affected her, she replies carefully, “I am surprised that we have not done as many summer rentals as usual.”)
John and Roger’s despair and anger, along with Gale’s more ladylike one-woman action, emanate from different sources but speak to the same point. What happens when the myth of a particular place is trademarked by a corporation? Can you trademark Detroit? What about Stonewall? Moreover, what happens when the myth is trademarked and moved out of the town that birthed it to be rebuilt in a poorer, cheaper town? Because the really cutting issue, of course, is that it’s not Woodstock that will have the R after it, but a sort of Ikea-esque imposter town erected for two days in Saugerties, which bears roughly the same relationship to Woodstock that New Jersey does to New York. Even Roger remarks in a somewhat noninclusive tone of voice, “If I wanted reality, I’d live in Saugerties.”
But reality, like the water tanks, is leaking everywhere these days. Unemployment in the Hudson Valley has swelled to 11 per cent and rising since IBM pulled out of the area. Felony arrests in Woodstock have more than quadrupled in the last three years; crimes against property are particularly on the rise. If Woodstock is a little hungry, Saugerties is hungrier still. Faced with the prospect of being the dumping ground for the entire county forever, the littler town chose to lay itself open temporarily to the brunt of Woodstock ’94’s crowds, noise, and trash, perhaps in the hopes of grabbing some of Woodstock’s invisible cachet, maybe even a bit of its very visible property values. There’s also been talk of turning the festival site into a permanent performing arts center. Documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple, who has been filming in the area since February, has been moved and amazed by the level of community involvement in Saugerties. “Many of these people consider it to be the town’s last hope of economic stability,” she says. “Lonesome Suzie,” sings Richard Manuel on Music From Big Pink. “Lonesome, lonesome Suzie. Never gets a break.” Suzie could be Saugerties, where Big Pink actually sits, although no one ever seems to be on the road to Saugerties.
Who owns Woodstock? The citizens of Woodstock proper are on their guard against a possible onslaught, but the deeper anxiety concerns a bigger felony: soul stealing. “I feel like a bastard child,” says Ragonese. “He’s using our name.” Ragonese can defend his adopted town against traffic jams, but he cannot prevent the last tie-dye scrap of the Woodstock myth from being carried away by Woodstock Ventures and PolyGram. Woodstock ’94 will take place neither in Woodstock nor in Saugerties, but in the electro-chemical air of pay-per-view, celluloid, and vinyl. Michael Lang mentions the prospect of a chain of Woodstock Cafes, like the Hard Rock Cafe, a Woodstock line of clothing.
Earlier this year, Lang gathered a Buddhist monk and a Mohawk leader to bless the festival site. Showmanship, and perhaps a genuine act of appeasement.
III. MY HOUSE
MY HOUSE IS UP A HILL just outside of Woodstock, then up another hill. Gale sold me this house. John Godsey mows my lawn. The Careys are down the road. It’s hard to write about them. They know where I live, but then again, I know where they live, too. I don’t know about sacredness, but if the place where you live builds itself into little bits of your soul, then this place is sacred to me. During the time that I was interviewing people for this article, an unearthly green moth with wings as long as human ears fastened itself to my front door. I thought of it as my conscience. (I also half-suspected that Gale had sent it.) PolyGram may not be the evil empire, but it is not particularly accountable to the town whose name it is selling, nor to the town on which it is building its invisible city.
At the same time, I am a citizen of the invisible city we all inhabit these days and that city sometimes feels an awful lot like home. Woodstock was an idea somebody had, got up to look like a place. It was a middlebrow pop culture event, much beloved by middlebrow believers like Cunningham’s Bobby, rather routinely scorned by those in the know even at the time. And perhaps it was, certainly it was, inherently corrupt, not particularly revolutionary, commercial, secondary. But Woodstock is what we have and for myself growing up, watching the ’60s float by in their secondhand way on big and little screens, I didn’t exactly get that it was the past. I thought it was the future. Woodstock is our Virgin Mary in a tree, our much crumpled thing, our velveteen rabbit, our Yellow Brick Road. I love it like I love myself at 15: earnest, stranded, in an Indian-print shirt.
And with this second festival, aren’t we getting in some measure what we yearned for? As much as I want to be entirely on the side of the home-grown Woodstock revolutionaries, I have to admit to myself that a large part of the longing set up in the post-Woodstock generations, we who never made the trek through the mud, we who saw the movie and listened to the record and made out to “Wooden Ships” with boys who didn’t really look like those 1969 boys at all, was exactly for the fleeting quality of that experience, the bright smear of the city that goes up for only a moment. Like a movie you’re in. Getting to Woodstock was the mark of Bobby’s naiveté — he thought the point was to get to the city. But the point is that the city disappears. ■
Research assistance: Justin Hartung and Liz Vederman.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 14, 2019