How Woodstock Happened … Friday

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By Elliot Tiber

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

The sticky-sweet smell of burning marijuana wafted into the open windows of the house in Bethel late Thursday night. The chirp and buzz of the insects suddenly gave way to the shuffle of sandaled feet. “It sounded like a parade,” said the man who lived there. The young Bethel couple lived a quarter-mile from Yasgur’s field. The wife, 22, was pregnant with the couple’s second child, and the husband, 27, a salesman, had an important business meeting in Albany on Friday morning. But the couple wasn’t budging from Bethel. When they awoke on the first of three days of peace and music, they looked out front. “Nothin’ but cars and people. Saw a trooper. Ten kids were on the hood of his car,” the husband said. They looked out back. “People were camping all over the yard,” he added.

Producer Lang woke up Friday morning to find that something was missing….the ticket booths. Others had known for days, but Lang said that Friday morning was his first inkling that Woodstock would never collect a single dollar at the gate. ” Tickets were being handled over in (Roberts’) office,” Lang said. “I just assumed that they were handling the booths, but they were never put in place.” Van Loan, the cigar-smoking owner of Ken’s Garage, had been hired two days before the festival to tow about two dozen ticket booths into position. “All we ever got to move was two or three,” Van Loan recalled. “Each one we moved took longer and longer. There were too many people and cars and abandoned (vacant) tents blocking the way.”

Abbie Hoffman was the head of the Yippies – the Youth International Party, the irreverent left-wing organization founded by Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner and Woodstock’s Ed Sanders. Hoffman convinced the festival’s producers to donate $10,000 to the Yippies – mainly by threatening to disrupt the proceedings. The political pranksters wanted the money to fund various community projects, including New York City storefronts they rented to shelter runaways and defense funds they established for the “politically oppressed.”

Along with the Hog Farmers and other left-leaning groups, the Yippies set up “Movement City,” their festival- within-a-festival, about a quarter-mile from the stage. Days before the festival, Hoffman and his lieutenant, Krassner, mimeographed thousands of flyers urging festival-goers not to pay. Of course, that issue became moot as soon as the fence went down. Krassner would later say that all attempts to politicize the three days of peace and love had evaporated. Krassner also recalled bringing a brand new white-fringed leather jacket to Woodstock. It was stolen from the Movement City tent.

Three school buses rolled up to Yasgur’s farm late Friday morning and parked near Ventures headquarters, by the playground and the Freak-Out Tent on West Shore Road. Inside were more than 100 New York City police officers hand-picked by concert management for their street smarts and relaxed attitudes. In the days before the concert, the city police department had told its members that it would not sanction Woodstock work. The cops had been promised $50 a day. But when the officers arrived in Bethel, a more stringent warning awaited them. “The message was something to the effect of, ‘If you participate in this, you may be subject to departmental censure,'” Feldman said. “So they stretched their legs, got back in the bus and went back to New York City.”

Many stayed to work under assumed names. But they demanded that Woodstock Ventures increase their pay to $90 a day. Ventures paid it. “We had eight to nine guys on the payroll as Mickey Mouse and names like this,” said Arthur Schubert, a waiter at the Concord Hotel and one of the directors of the security force.

Melanie Safka was supposed to sing, so she and her mother got in her mom’s 1968 burgundy Pontiac Bonneville and headed upstate. When they turned onto Route 17, they noticed lots of traffic. When Melanie called the festival’s producers, they said, yes, the traffic was headed for Bethel, which was getting crowded, so she’d better get to a hotel where they would take her by helicopter to the festival site. At that hotel, the name and location of which Melanie doesn’t remember, she saw a slew of TV cameras focusing on Janis Joplin and her bottle of Southern Comfort. “And me?” says Melanie. “I was just a fleckling.”

State police investigator Fred W. Cannock, 34, was supposed to direct traffic at the intersection of Route 55 and Route 17B in White Lake. But parked cars didn’t need much direction. “I just stood there and watched the fiasco,” Cannock said. ” Route 17B was jammed for roughly 9 miles, all the way back to Monticello and beyond.”

Woodstock organizers blamed state police for the monstrous traffic jam. The troopers had refused to enact the festival’s traffic plan. “I know the way cops think, and I think they figured that if they had done that, they would acquire responsibility for whatever might happen,” Goldstein said. “Of course, they were not necessarily in favor of these kinds of events, and they wanted it to turn to (chaos). They wanted it to be a disaster.”

Woodstock organizers had meant for cars to pull off the highway and be directed by the NYPD cops to parking in fields off Route 17B. On Tuesday, Goldstein had pleaded for the state police to help, at least by starting the procedure. The state police brass added additional troopers to direct traffic. Local civil defense officials refused to plan for a disaster; their office was closed Friday afternoon as the traffic rolled in. So the traffic backed up for miles while the police looked on. “Suddenly, we were in a logistic nightmare,” Goldstein said. That didn’t mean that individual officers didn’t have sympathy for the floundering festival-goers.

“I thought they were hippie scum – but you couldn’t help but really feel sorry for the kids,” Cannock said. “They got sucked into this carte blanche. Nobody said anything about reservations, tickets. They just came. You couldn’t believe it. Advance sales paid, nobody else paid a nickel. They paid with pain, hunger and exposure, or whatever.”

Wadleigh bought out rooms in a local motel, the Silver Spur, for the film crew and equipment. The crew naturally nicknamed the place “the Silver Sperm.” Then the crowds came. They left cars in the middle of the road. The crew and their cameras were stuck. They ended up sleeping in the field, under the stage, wherever.

Woodstock’s security force was briefed late that morning by none other than Babbs, the Prankster leader. Babbs was one of the more experienced acid trippers. “I guess they had me do it because I was in the Marines,” Babbs said. “I told them that if someone was hassling someone else, then they should help the person who was in trouble. Keep an eye out for people who need help. Other than that, it was nobody else’s business what they did. “They asked about drugs, and I told them not to worry about it. I said, ‘There are going to be so many drugs around, you’re not going to be able to keep track of any of it.'”

At about noon, Babbs and Wavy Gravy watched as a dozen guys in orange jackets started walking up the rise. They carried change boxes and were nearing the fence border. “They said, ‘We’re the ticket-takers, and now we want everyone to walk out and come back in,'” Babbs said. “I said, ‘Man, you gotta be kidding me. There are 200,000 people in there. So the head security guy says to me, ‘There’s no way we’re going to be able to get these tickets. What do you want to do?’ They had, like, a double-wide section of fence that was open for the gate. So Wavy and I said the only thing to do is take down the fence. So, we – Wavy and I – unrolled the fence about 100 feet, and the people all came pouring in.”

Schubert said his security forces had no choice. “How can you to tell 200,000 to 400,000 people, ‘Go home, it’s over?” he said. “It would have been the riot of the century.” But the crowd closer to the stage couldn’t see the impromptu ceremony of taking down the gate. From there, it looked like the mob was taking over. “My most vivid memory was that there was this chain-link, Cyclone fence that went all the way around,” said Bert Feldman, who was working security on the hill near the Hog Farm base. ” I had the uncanny feeling that there were 500 million people there. Suddenly, the fence was no more. Trampled into the mud. It disappeared like magic.” Lang said he never exactly decided Woodstock would become a free show. But he did decide to make the announcement. ” It was kind of like stating the obvious,” he said.

Complaints were coming in to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in Albany. Rosenman and Roberts hinted that a declaration of a disaster area in Bethel might be welcomed, to ease the crowd’s suffering and because it would limit the company’s liability in lawsuits. But the other partners feared a disaster declaration could bring in the National Guard and the possibility of an armed confrontation. Extra cops, including 20 Rockland County deputies mounted on horseback, had already been brought in. But the governor did not consider Woodstock an act of God. He made no declaration. “We’ll play it by ear,” the governor’s spokesman told United Press International.

Sullivan County residents heard that the kids up there in Bethel didn’t have enough food. By Friday afternoon, members of the Monticello Jewish Community Center were making sandwiches with 200 loaves of bread, 40 pounds of cold cuts and two gallons of pickles. Woodstock Ventures estimated that it needed donations of 750,000 sandwiches. Food was being airlifted in from as far away as Newburgh’s Stewart Air Force Base.

Day One of Woodstock was supposed to be the day for the folkies. Joan Baez was the headliner, preceded by a bill that included Tim Hardin, Arlo Gutherie, Sweetwater, the Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Bert Sommer and Melanie. One rock act, Sly and the Family Stone was added for a little taste of the rock’n’roll of the weekend. The scheduled starting time was 4pm. The performers were spread around in Holiday Inns or Howard Johnsons miles from the site. Because of the traffic jam, the promoters were frantically contracting for helicopters to shuttle in the performers and supplies. But the helicopters were late. A four-seater finally arrived after 4pm; it could handle only single acts. Lang had two choices:  Hardin, who was drifting around backstage stoned, or Richie Havens, who looked ready. “It was, ‘Who could get setup the quickest?'” Lang said. “And I went with Richie Havens.” Three days of music started at 5:07pm Eastern Daylight Time on August 15, 1969.

Every time Richie Havens tried to quit playing, he had to keep on. The other acts hadn’t arrived. Finally, after Havens had played for nearly three hours – improvising his last song “Freedom” – a large U.S. Army helicopter landed with musical reinforcements. An Army helicopter? “Yes,” said Havens. “It was the only helicopter available. If it wasn’t for the U.S. Army, Woodstock might not have happened.” The U.S. Army saved the day for a crowd that was, for the most part, anti-war? “We were never anti-soldier,” said Havens. “We were just against the war.”

Cash in hand, Art Vassmer floated in his boat across White Lake to the Sullivan County National Bank. He was the only bank customer that day. Vassmer feared robbers would take all the money the store was raking in from the sale of beer, soda, and peanut butter and jelly. But Vassmer’s worries were groundless. “The Hog Farmers kept the peace,” he said. “They were dirty, but they were nice. A few were happy on drugs, but hell, that was nothing.” Vassmer raised only one price in his whole store. Beer was $2 a six-pack instead of $1.95. “Got tired of making change,” said Vassmer, who even cashed a couple dozen checks for some kids who ran out of money. Not one bounced.

While the helicopters whirled to Yasgur’s farm, Melanie sat in the motel lobby talking to her mom. When it was her turn to fly, her mother wasn’t allowed with her – even though Melanie argued, “But she’s my mom.” Mrs. Safka drove back to New Jersey. Melanie flew to Bethel.

Bert Feldman, the town historian, was suddenly Woodstock’s censor. His job was to keep frontal nudity from appearing on national television. He stood between the swimming hole and the television cameras, reminding folks to cover up. Afternoon temperatures were in the mid-80s. “They had to have one or two garments on, depending on sex,” Feldman said. “Lemme tell you, after five minutes, it was work. You never saw a fight in there. You could argue, of course, that it was because everyone was stoned.”

Other acts still weren’t ready. Stage organizers knew they had to kill time. The Woodstock Nation might get restless if the music stopped. Emcee Chip Monck grabbed Country Joe McDonald, strapped an acoustic guitar on him and thrust him on stage. McDonald’s short set included the unprintable and improvised “Fish Cheer” and “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”. After Country Joe, Monck spotted John Sebastian, the former lead singer and guitarist for the Lovin’ Spoonful. Sebastian, clad in wild tie-dye, was tripping on some unidentified substance. He hadn’t even been invited to perform at the festival. He recalls he was “too whacked to say no.” Sebastian’s stage rap was nearly a parody of hippie conversation, mostly because of his psychedelic state. But the crowd roared with approval. “Just love everybody around ya’ and clean up a little garbage on your way out,” Sebastian told the crowd.

Melanie Safka was such a nobody that she didn’t even have a performer’s pass. So when it was time for her to go on, she had to prove who she was by showing her driver’s license and singing “Beautiful People.” She was led backstage to her “dressing room,” which was actually a tepee-sized tent. When she realized that she would be playing for a crowd about the size of Boston, she got so scared that she developed a nervous cough that “sounded like a chain saw.” It was so loud that someone in the next tent sent her a cup of soothing tea. That neighbor was Joan Baez.

The film crew didn’t have even close to enough film to shoot all the rock performances at Woodstock. So Wadleigh tried to make up for it by getting performers’ song lists and the order in which they were going to sing them. Wadleigh wanted to film the anti-war songs, the songs that talked about the rifts in society and overlook the love songs. But musicians were getting stoned backstage. By the time they got on stage, they broke with song orders and played whatever came to them. Here’s why the cameras never recorded the first two letters of the “Fish Cheer.” Wadleigh was manning the onstage front and center camera. When Country Joe McDonald came out yelling ” Gimme an F,” revving the crowd with anti-Vietnam cheers, Wadleight was loading his camera and fixing a minor jam. “I was just scrambling like crazy to get my camera in some kind of working order,” Wadleigh said. “That’s why you don’t see him for the first two minutes or so in the film. You just hear him. I got him on camera eventually. Someone should give him an award for that song. That is one of the greatest war songs there is.”

Havens flew back to Liberty on the chopper. Then he hopped into his car and drove back to Newark International Airport, where he caught a plane for another show in Michigan the next night. Havens says the car ride to New Jersey was almost as incredible as the helicopter trip to the festival. “I was the only person on the New York Thruway going south,” Havens said.

Of all the acts on Friday night, Woodstock’s producers were worried only about Sly and the Family Stone. The rocking soul band had a tendency to fire up small crowds, inviting people to rush the stage. With a couple hundred thousand people, Sly and his band could ignite a riot. So Kornfeld cleared the pit in front of the stage to give security a fighting chance. Then he and his wife, Linda, climbed down, all alone into the vast chasm between the musicians on stage and Woodstock’s horde. “He was singing, ‘I want to take you high-er!’ and everyone lit up. All those lights in the crowd, thousands of them,” Kornfeld said. “We were right between Sly and the crowd.

The sprinkles began around midnight as sitarist Ravi Shankar was playing. Bert Sommer’s angelic voice won him a standing ovation. By the time Joan Baez finished “We Shall Overcome,” a warm thunderstorm was pounding Yasgur’s farm. In the space of about three hours, five inches of rain fell.

The ration ticket read “Food for Love.” But 25 year old Georgeie Sievers of Toronto, who had been visiting family in Port Jervis, paid a price anyway. “We waited for an hour, and we got a cold hot dog on a hamburger bun,” she recalled. Food for Love was the original food concession for those inside the festival. Campgrounds coordinator Goldstein had set up two food operations: Food for Love, for those who had tickets, and the Free Kitchen for those outside the festival fence. Food for Love was plagued by a lack of organization from the outset. The voucher system was cumbersome, and the young food workers started giving away hot dogs and hamburgers in the spirit of the event. In addition, the massive traffic jam had blocked deliveries.

A Food for Love truck was stuck in the traffic in front of Abe Wagner’s house, about five miles northeast of the festival site. Then the truck was raided. “One of the kids got in, and then they started throwing the food out all over the road, the bread, the hot dogs,” Wagner said. Later, when hungry customers overran the booths, Food for Love disintegrated. “It started to rain, and it got ugly,” said Helen Graham, who at 41 was one of the senior employees of Food for Love. “It was 2am, and I yelled, ‘Joan Baez is on. Joan Baez is on.’ I wanted to get the teen-agers away from the stand. They just wanted to stare at me. Mrs. Graham found herself trapped on Yasgur’s farm because her car was blocked in. She wanted out of the Woodstock Nation. “It wasn’t my type of culture. It wasn’t my type of upbringing. It wasn’t my type of experience.” she said. “I kind of blotted it out from my head. It was a frightening experience. I didn’t see the love and the peace. I saw an overwhelming crowd, and I didn’t understand what was going on.”

The stream behind Gery Krewson’s tent was rising. The music stopped, and the group bailed out at 3am to dig a trench. “The water was just running down in torrents,” he said. With the turf torn away, the Woodstock site is red clay and rocks brought down by glaciers millions of years ago. Within seconds of the rain, the festival became a slippery quagmire punctuated by puddles. The rain slammed into Yasgur’s farm, drenching the fans, including 19 people who jammed into Krewson’s tent seeking shelter from the storm. “When I got there, things at least had some semblance of order,” Krewson said. From the instant the storm blew in, he recalled, there was no order, no security, no sense of what was happening or who was in charge.

Melanie Safka faced complete terror: half a million people in a driving rainstorm. “It was the only out-of-body experience of my life,” she said. “I just watched myself on stage singing the songs, but I wasn’t there.” And then, as the rain tumbled down, tens of thousands of fans lit candles in the darkness. Sixteen-year-old Gery Krewson, his brother and three friends camped 50 yards from the stage. They’d arrived Wednesday night from Tunkhannock, Pa., in a psychedelic van. But their campsite seemed to be receding in the distance. A sea of people was rolling into the gap. “The word kind of got out that something was going on in the Catskills, ” Krewson said.

How Woodstock Happened … Saturday