How Woodstock Happened … Part 2

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By Elliot Tiber

Originally Published In The Times Herald-Record – Woodstock Commemorative Edition
Text copyright 1994 The Times Herald-Record

Woodstock Ventures billed the concert as a “weekend in the country” – temporary commune. The ads ran in the newspapers, both establishment and underground, and on radio stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Texas and Washington, D.C. A concert ticket also bought a campsite. But even a commune requires some kind of organization. In late June, Goldstein called in the Hog Farm.

The Hog Farm started out as a communal pig farm in California; its members eventually bought land next to a Hopi Indian reservation in New Mexico. Its leader was a skinny, toothless hippie whose real name was Hugh Romney. He was a one-time beatnik comic who had changed his name to Wavy Gravy and held the wiseguy title of “Minister of Talk”. “We brought in the Hog Farm to be our crowd interface,” Goldstein explained. “We needed a specific group to be the exemplars for all to follow. We believed that the idea of sleeping outdoors under the stars would be very attractive to many people, but we knew damn well that the kind of people who were coming had never slept under the stars in their lives. We had to create a circumstance where they were cared for.”

The Wallkill Zoning Board of Appeals officially banned Woodstock on July 15, 1969. To the applause of residents, board members said that the organizer’s plans were incomplete. They also said outdoor toilets, such as those to be used at the concert, were illegal in Wallkill. Two weeks earlier, the town board had passed a law requiring a permit for any gathering of more than 5,000 people. “The law they passed excluded one thing and one thing only – Woodstock,” said Al Romm, then-editor of The Times Herald-Record, which editorialized against the Wallkill law. Wallkill Supervisor Jack Schlosser denied that this was the intent.

The Wallkill board may have done Woodstock Ventures a favor. Publicity about what had happened reaped a bonanza of interest. Besides, if Woodstock had been staged in Wallkill, Lang said, the vibes would either have squelched the show or turned it into a riot. “I didn’t want cops in gas masks showing up, and that was the atmosphere there,” Lang said. “With all the tensions around it, it wouldn’t have worked.” Another Woodstock Ventures member, Lee Blumer, remembered the threats made in town. “They said they were going to shoot the first hippie that walked into town,” said Blumer.

Kodak wanted cash, but the movie crew got no money upfront for film. So Wadleigh pulled $50,000 out of savings, both from his personal account and an account for his independent film business. During July, Wadleigh was out in Wyoming filming a movie about mountain climbing. When promoters lost the Wallkill site, Wadleigh cringed. “I had this feeling of absolute terror that it wasn’t going to come off,” Wadleigh said. “That feeling that someone could pull the plug out on us didn’t go away until the music started.”

Elliot Tiber read about Woodstock getting tossed out of Wallkill. Tiber’s White Lake resort, the El Monaco, had 80 rooms, nearly all of them empty, and keeping it going was draining his savings. But for all of Tiber’s troubles, he had one thing that was very valuable to Woodstock Ventures. He had a Bethel town permit to run a music festival. “I think it cost $12 or $8 or something like that,” Tiber said.”It was very vague. It just said I had permission to run an arts and music festival. That’s it.” The permit was for the White Lake Music and Arts Festival, a very, very small event that Tiber had dreamed up to increase business at the hotel. “We had a chamber music quartet, and I think we charged something like two bucks a day,” he said. “There were maybe 150 people up there.”

Tiber called Ventures, not even knowing who to ask for. Lang got the message and went out to White Lake the next day, which probably was July 18, to look at the El Monaco. Tiber’s festival site was 15 swampy acres behind the resort. “Michael looked at that and said, ‘This isn’t big enough,'” Tiber recalled. “I said, ‘Why don’t we go see my friend Max Yasgur? He’s been selling me milk and cheese for years. He’s got a big farm out there in Bethel.'” While Lang waited, Tiber telephoned Yasgur about renting the field for $50 a day for a festival that might bring 5,000 people. “Max said to me, ‘What’s this, Elliot? Another one of your festivals that doesn’t work out?'” Tiber said.

Yasgur met Lang in the alfalfa field. This time, Lang liked the lay of the land. “It was magic,” Lang said. “It was perfect. The interactive sloping bowl, a little rise for the stage. A lake in the background. The deal was sealed right there in the field. Max and I were walking on the rise above the bowl. When we started to talk business, he was figuring on how much he was going to lose in this crop and how much it was going to cost him to reseed the field. He was a sharp guy, ol’ Max, and he was figuring everything up with a pencil and paper. He was wetting the tip of his pencil with his tongue. I remember shaking his hand, and that’s the first time I noticed that he had only three fingers on his right hand. But his grip was like iron. He’s cleared that land himself.”

Yasgur was known across Sullivan County as a strong-willed man of his word. He’d gone to New York University and studied real estate law, but moved back to his family’s dairy farm in the ’40s. A few years later, Yasgur sold the family farm in Maplewood and moved to Bethel to expand. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Yasgur slowly built a dairy herd. By the time the pipe-smoking Yasgur was approached by Woodstock Ventures, he was the biggest milk producer in Sullivan County, and the Yasgur farm had delivery routes, a massive refrigeration complex and a pasteurization plant. The 600 acres that Ventures sought were only part of the Yasgur property, which extended along both sides of Route 17B in Bethel.

Within days after meeting Yasgur, Lang brought the rest of the Ventures crew up in eight limousines; by then, Yasgur was wise to Woodstock, and the price had gone up considerably. Woodstock Ventures kept all the negotiations secret, lest it repeat what had happened in Wallkill. At some point during the talks, Tiber and Lang went to dinner at the Lighthouse Restaurant, and Italian place just down Route 18B from El Monaco in White Lake. That’s where the news leaked out. “While we were paying the check, the radio was on in the bar. The radio station out there, WVOS, announced that the festival was going to White Lake, ” Tiber said. “The waiters or the waitresses must have called the radio station. We were just in shock. The bar was now empty. Michael just had a blank look. We all went into shock.” On July 20, 1969, the world was talking about the first man to walk on the moon. But conversation in Bethel centered on this “Woodstock hippie festival.” “I was used to fights, but I wasn’t ready for this one, ” Tiber said.

The Woodstock partners have since admitted that they were engaged in creative deception. They told Bethel officials that they were expecting 50,000 people, tops. All along they knew that Woodstock would draw far, far more. “I was pretty manipulative,” Lang said. “The figure at Wallkill was 50,000, and we just stuck with it. I was planning on a quarter-million people, but we didn’t want to scare anyone.”

Ken Kesey’s farm in Orefon was overrun with hippie acolytes. Kesey lived in Pleasant Hill, which became home base for his Merry Pranksters, the creators of the original Acid Tests in San Francisco. Kesey had bought the farm with the earnings from his two bestsellers, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”  (1962) and “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1964). The fashion of the day was to share and share alike. But the horde was starting to bother even a founder of the counterculture.

As the Apollo 11 astronauts were strolling the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, the Pranksters were hearing from Wavy Gravy, whom they knew from the Acid Tests. The Hog Farmers said they were getting $1,700 to gather as many people together as possible and get them to Bethel. “Kesey was glad to get rid of everybody,” said Ken Babbs, then 33 and the leader of the Pranksters’ Woodstock squad. Babbs packed 40 hippies into five school buses. One was “The Bus” – the one later made famous by author Tom Wolfe in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” The Bus had a custom, psychedelic paint job and a Plexiglas bubble on top, and it was packed with sound gear. Its destination sign read:  “Further.” “While Neil Armstrong was taking a giant leap for mankind, we were starting to take a giant leap for Woodstock,” Babbs said.

Max Yasgur had two concerns. “He thought a grave injustice had been done in Wallkill. And he wanted to make sure that he got the $75,000 before some other dairy farmer did,” Rosenman said. “They were in no particular order. I’m not sure which was more important to him. Having said that, I’ll say this about Max: He never hit us up for another dime after we paid him. I remember that every time we went over there, Max would hand you one of those little cartons of chocolate milk. Every time. We ended up with all these cartons of milk around the office.”

Contracts for the use of land surrounding Yasgur’s parcel ended up costing Ventures another $25,000. ” We could have bought the land for what we rented it for,” Lang said. Meanwhile, hand-lettered signs were being put up in the town of Bethel. They read: “Buy No Milk. Stop Max’s Hippy Music Festival.”

Lang had set a $15,000 ceiling for any act. But the hottest act in the country – guitarist Jimi Hendrix – wanted more. Hendrix had gotten a one-time fee of $150,000 for a concert earlier that summer in California. His manager was demanding that much to play Woodstock. But by July, Lang had some leverage too. He didn’t need Hendrix to make the biggest concert of the year. If Hendrix wanted to come, he’d be welcome. “We paid Jimi Hendrix $32,000. He was the headliner, and that’s what he wanted,” Rosenman said. Then Ventures lied about the terms. “We told everyone that was because he was playing two sets at $16,000 each. We had to do that, or the Airplane would want more than $12,000.” Lang set the bill so that folk acts like Joan Baez would play on Friday, the opening day. Rock’n’roll was saved for Saturday and Sunday. But Hendrix’s one-and-only set was always to be the finale. His contract said no act could follow him.

Motel owner Tiber’s new job was to be the local liasion for Woodstock Ventures in Bethel. He was paid $5,000 for a couple of month’s work. Tiber was earning his money too. “The town meetings never drew more than flies before,” Tiber said. “But then they were standing-room-only, maybe 300 people. Maybe it was that Michael was barefooted. He came off the helicopter with no shoes. I’d never experienced anything like that before, but that was the way he was. That was fine with me, but I think they didn’t like it.”

Bethel residents had read about the worries in Wallkill: drugs, traffic, sewage and water. Public fury mounted once more. A prominent Bethel resident approached Lang. He said he could grease the wheels of power and make sure Lang got the approvals he needed. All the fixer wanted was $10,000. Woodstock Ventures got the cash and put it in a paper bag. Lang won’t name the man who solicited the bribe.  But ultimately Woodstock Ventures would not pay off. “We were very concerned with karma,” Lang said. “We thought that if we did pay someone off, that would be wrong and we would change the way things came out.” The suggestion of a payoff galvanized Yasgur’s support, Lang said. “At that point, he really became an ally, not just a spectator.”

But there may have been a payoff, anyway. Rosenman wrote in a 1974 book that he issued a $2,500 check to a man who was demanding $10,000 to arrange local backing. Years later, Rosenman said some of the events in the book were hyped for dramatic tension. “And I honestly can’t remember whether I wrote the check or not, ” Rosenman said.

At least one of Woodstock’s opponents also was approached to fix the deal. George Neuhaus was one of the old-style, old boy politicians in Bethel, in and out of the town supervisor’s post for years. He thought Woodstock was being jammed down the throats of local people who didn’t want it. That July, Neuhaus was approached by a man who wanted him to be a guide through the local political maze. Neuhaus wanted none of it. Like Lang, Neuhaus wouldn’t identify the man, but both indicate it was the same individual. “It wasn’t, per se, money, but he wanted to know if I could get the thing off the ground,” Neuhaus recalled. “I was sitting on my porch. I threw him the hell off my property. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

Bob Dylan was the only one of Lang’s rock’n’roll heroes who hadn’t signed a contract. The promoters had borrowed some of Dylan’s mystique by naming their concert after his adopted home town, which was only 70 miles from Bethel. Dylan’s backup group, The Band, was already signed. Lang figured that Dylan’s appearance was a natural. So he made the pilgrimage to Dylan’s Ulster County hideaway. “I went to see Bob Dylan about three weeks before the festival,” Lang said. “I went with Bob Dacey, a friend of Dylan’s, and we met in his house for a couple of hours. I told him what we were doing and told him, ‘We’d love to have you there.’ But he didn’t come. I don’t know why.”

In late July, Woodstock Ventures obtained permit approvals from Bethel Town Attorney Frederick W.V. Schadt and building inspector Donald Clark. But, under orders from the town board, Clark never issued them. The board ordered Clark to post stop-work orders; the promoters tore the signs down with Clark’s tacit approval. He felt he was being made the fall guy for the town. Schadt said that Woodstock’s momentum was accelerating like a runaway train. “At that time, it had progressed so far, any kind of order to stop it would have just resulted in chaos, ” he said.  “Here you have thousands of people descending on the community. How in the world do you stop them?”

How Woodstock Happened … Part 3