Music

Woodstock: The 10th Largest City in the United States

“Stoned silly most of the time, more than half a million freaks from all over the country made the painful pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm to play in the mud.”

by

The 10th Largest City in the United States
August 21, 1969

The Aquarian Exposition at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was fairly outrageous by anybody’s standards. Stoned silly most of the time, more than half a million freaks from all over the country made the painful pilgrimage to Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm to play in the mud.

Although in the beginning the music was a good enough reason for the gathering at White Lake, after the drought, the famine, and the downpour one got the feeling that something larger was at stake. Indeed, most of the people who made the trip seemed to be looking for a kind of historic coming out party of the East Coast freak population. Many of the longhairs who walked up to 10 miles to the fair grounds after abandoning their cars were the only hippies on their block or in their hometown, and the mass rally served as a confirmation of their life style after months of sitting alone counting their psychedelic beads.

White Lake was an ordeal or an ecstatic adventure depending on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. While the faint hearts will complain about the impossible traffic conditions, the lack of planning, sanitation, water, and food, and the general mismanagement of the fair, most of those who came accepted the insufferable conditions as part of the challenge of the outing.

Now if you can imagine a hip version of Jones Beach transported to a war zone in Vietnam during the monsoon, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of what White Lake looked like a day after the long-haired troops occupied the area. The roads were hopelessly botched with no one to unsnarl them, cars moved more slowly than the endless columns of foot-weary refugees walking patiently for countless helicopters ferrying rock groups in and out of the area made everyone feel as if they were out on patrol.

Perhaps most amazing was the physical stamina, tolerance, and good nature of a basically indoor, urban group of people caught in wretched outdoor conditions. It showed more dramatically than any planned demonstration could have that hip kids are fundamentally different from the beer-drinking, fit-fighting Fort Lauderdale crowds of yesteryear. At White Lake people shared what they had, overlooked their differences, kept their cool, and generally smiled all weekend.

From the beginning local residents tried to keep the kids off their land by lining up the whole family in beach chairs along the edge of the property to watch the parade go by, take pictures, and scream at anyone who tried to park a car or intrude. In the end, however, it was like trying to keep the locust off the land, and most of them gave in. Their woods became latrines, trash was scattered everywhere, ponds were used for bathing, and crops were stripped by hungry foragers. In retaliation a few of the local people started selling food and water at outrageous prices, but these were soon outnumbered by the more charitable members of the community, who started soup and sandwich kitchens in nearby Monticello and left the hose running on the front lawn.

By about 1 p.m. on Monday Louis Foschiono, smoking a cigar and describing himself as a “well-known local resident,” turned up at the trailer of the organizers of the fair to report that, “Except for the traffic, all the local residents really liked the fair.”

Around Saturday afternoon, however, if one had listened to announcements from the one-acre stage in the middle of the fair grounds or to local radio stations, it sounded as if White Lake was the center of a disaster. Much of the talk about emergencies turned out to be either overexcitement, an effort to keep more people from coming into the area, or a plea for people who were already there to keep themselves together.

Rumors spread quickly predicting one kind of epidemic or another while in fact the problems of White Lake were those of any relatively large city. During the course of the weekend three people died (one was run over by a tractor by accident, another died from an overdose of heroin, while a third died from a burst appendix), three babies were born, dozens of miscarriages were reported, more than 400 people were treated for bad acid trips, around 4000 for minor injuries, and about 150 kids were busted — outside the fair grounds — for possession of narcotics.

The pink and white hospital tent near the principal helicopter landing area was a busy place for a while, with doctors treating cut feet and then putting plastic baggies around them so that the victim could walk the 10 miles back to his car without losing his bandages. One of the bearded doctors explained that most of the kids who came in on bad acid trips were just scared they had been poisoned, were suffering from minor stomach cramps, or in some of the younger cases just felt lonely.

Communications were difficult. The crowd was too large to find anyone in, and the loudspeaker was reserved for emergencies. Most calls for volunteers to help fix broken water pipes and sanitation systems were transmitted locally by word of mouth, but occasionally bizarre requests would be aired over the microphone: “Will Daisy Johnson please go to the Hog Farm kitchen? Sammy Cohen wants to marry you.”

***

“Do you realize that if we all stayed here we’d be the 10th largest city in the United States,” a 17-year-old blond boy wearing a chimney-sweep’s cap and carrying a gallon jug of water suggested.

“Yeah, that would be far-out, man, but who would want to live here?” one of the few black kids who came to the fair said as he surveyed the elbow-to-elbow crowd sitting on a hillside of mud and trash.

Over the loudspeaker a scared voice warns the crowd that someone is selling poison tabs of flat blue acid and that there are already a number of people in the infirmary who are very sick as a result of having taken it.

“Wow, can you imagine what it’s like to be tripping and hear that?” a tall girl with braids and a peasant shirt said to her neighbor.

Her neighbor, who was tripping, could well imagine what it was like and calculated that if one out of every 10 people had taken acid that afternoon — a conservative estimate — it would mean there were about 40,000 people spaced out in his immediate vicinity.

“If I caught that bastard passing out bad acid I’d make him eat all his own dope,” a bug-eyed boy in a long black cape said flatly.

A few hours later Hugh Romney of the outlandish Sante Fe Hog Farm Commune got up on stage and invited anyone who was on a bummer to come up to their teepees and sit around and rap.

“That’s almost worth a bad trip,” a commune groupie said as she got up and headed off to find a hog.

“I’ve got acid here, mescaline, and hash,” a dealer with shoulder-length dark hair called to the crowd he waded through like a popcorn salesman at a football stadium. No one was very worried about being busted in the middle of 400,000 freaks, and dealing was done out in the open.

Public nudity was also pretty cool, and by Saturday couples were swimming together in the lake without anyone stopping to gawk. In a way the nudity seemed more natural and necessary than fashionable, since everyone was constantly getting drenched in the rain and large numbers of people were wearing the only clothes they had. By Sunday, however, the bathers had gotten bolder and were sunning themselves on towels and petting each other as if it were the most natural thing in the world. By Monday a few couples were making it in public, guys were walking around with unembarrassed erections, and one unidentified young man was arrested walking home along the highway with no clothes on.

When Monday morning finally came it was gray and damp and everyone was huddled in soggy blankets. But up on stage Jimi Hendrix, wearing turquoise velvet pants, a studded turquoise belt, a gray suede fringed shirt with turquoise and white beading, a jade medallion on a pink headband, and a pastel tie-dyed leg scarf, played a mixed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Taps” and ended up with “Hey Joe” despite the audience’s request for Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

When it was time to go, groups clustered around improvised signs for all the different states of the union to get rides home, and even a hungry looking couple from Minot, North Dakota, found a car that was headed their way.

Like the Sinai Desert after the Egyptian retreat, the grounds of Max Yasgur’s farm were covered with hundreds of pairs of ownerless shoes, a good 10,000 soggy sleeping bags, countless toothbrushes, and the stench that any large crowd leaves behind. In spite of the mess, Max was still convinced he’d done the right thing and received the longest, loudest standing ovation of the weekend from his guests.

***

Hare Krishna disciples with shaved heads, flowing robes, finger cymbals, and a vacant faraway look in their eyes weaved through the departing crowds passing out peacock feathers. And hard-working members of Students for a Democratic Society made their way from car to car along the congested highways trying to sell their copies of New Left Notes. They seemed to be meeting with little success.

“Hey, man, stop selling papers and join the revolution,” an outrageous, toothless dope freak said from the tailgate of an overburdened station wagon when he was offered some radical literature. A girl with a fantastic magic marker design centered around her bare navel and a beautiful smile spread across her muddy face offered the vendor half a grapefruit.

A young man with red hair carrying a pair of broken sandals said as he watched the crowd leave, “It’s incredible. Last year, there were less than 10,000 of us in Chicago, and now look at this army.” It’s difficult to say which was the more revolutionary event.

 

Scenes
August 21, 1969

I KNOW it sounds strange that an event which drew as many people as did the Woodstock Music and Art Fair could turn out to be a financial disaster, but it really seems to be true.

Their original plan was that anyone could attend and camp on the 600 acres, except in the fenced-off natural amphitheatre facing the stage, which was about the size of 30 football fields. For those people who wanted to see and hear the show itself, entrances in the fence, staffed by 300 off-duty New York City policemen, were to be the place for ticket collecting.

As you may have read, the police were pulled off the job at the last minute, so only 30 cops (under aliases) were there. This crew was nowhere near enough to mind the field, especially with the unexpected massive turnout of people.

By Friday morning at 10 a.m. at least 30,000 people had already spilled into the amphitheatre and set up camp. Close to showtime on Friday afternoon, the Woodstock Ventures producers were faced with the problem of collecting tickets.

They had two choices. One was to ask people on the field to kindly leave. The announcement was made, but nobody moved, since they were so permanently encamped. The second choice was to forcibly remove everybody and reinstall the fence, which by now was trampled down. The producers decided against this recourse because it would change the whole mood of the festival to use force.

From that point there was not much mention of tickets, the fences remained down, and the crowds milled in and out at will. Meanwhile, a lot of people with three-day advance sale tickets were turned away by the state police on the highways. Add to that the multitudes already established on the site far exceeded the expected attendance, so double essential supplies had to be immediately bought and flown in.

If Woodstock Ventures returns the money to people who had paid but were turned away, they can also expect uncollected tickets sent in from those who were there. As of Tuesday, they say they had spent $2.8 million total, grossed $1.3 million, which leaves a $1.5 million loss.

In order to cover the tremendous number of checks they wrote against non-existent bank balances during the three days, Artie Kornfeld, one of the four principals in Woodstock Venture, flew back to the city by helicopter early Monday morning. He appeared, shirtless, leather vest and pants still spattered with festival mud, on Wall Street and secured some fast loans. To further make sure they will not be forced into bankruptcy, he and Mike Lang (Woodstock’s executive producer) say they are personally guaranteeing the debts.

A million and a half dollars is a big chunk to have dangling in red. But the Ventures corporation has several possible ways to recoup. They did have several film crews shooting continuously around the site, and what with the great publicity the event got, the resultant movie should do well, although profits usually do not start trickling in until a year following a film’s release.

Also, every single note of music was professionally recorded, and they’d like to put out a big Woodstock album set. In this scheme, they have a lot of problems. All the performers are signed to different record labels, and negotiations could become a tangle. The main reason why Woodstock Ventures want to save their ass is that they want to put it on the line again. Based on everything that went down last weekend, they should be able to properly organize a festival next year, now knowing the scale to expect. The payoff will probably come on that one.

 

Archive Highlights