Bob Spitz’s 1979 book, Barefoot In Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, updated in 1989, is currently out of print. However, if you’re looking for a rollicking good read and a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes machinations that resulted in Three Days of Peace, Love and Music in 1969, contact your local library for a copy.
Generally speaking, although I have a great love for much of the music that came out in the 1960s, I feel the same way towards hippies that Cartman from South Park does and, if nothing else, Barefoot In Babylon proves that Sea People are as non-existent as clean hippies.
While the author’s tone is frequently admiring, it is far from hagiographic. The promoters of the Woodstock festival come across as naive, bored rich kids (at best) or drug-addled fools of epic proportions. Michael Lang, the curly haired poster boy for Woodstock was a generous and giving man, as long as it was with somebody else’s money. But when the festival started and the world started collapsing around the promoters, Lang was in outer space on acid and good vibes. It’s clear that he wanted Woodstock to happen because he wanted to attend the rock concert of his dreams.
The popular myth of Woodstock is that for three days the hippies lived in peace and harmony, grooving to Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, and Jimi Hendrix. To an extent, that’s true. Violence was minimal, but that probably has as much to do with the altered consciousness of the attendees as it does to the better angels of human nature.
The dark side of Woodstock is almost never discussed. Yes, everyone knows it was a financial disaster. But there were thousands of drug overdoses, one fatal, many more nearly so. One young man was run over by a tractor. Concession stands were turned over and burnt down. It all sounds a lot like the mess that was Woodstock ’99. But no, this was the original.
The artists who played don’t get off scot free either. Joan Baez did a very nice thing by going to the side stage and performing for people who couldn’t get to the main stage. On the other hand, the Grateful Dead were asked to expand their set in order to keep the kids calm, and instead refused to play unless they were paid upfront in cash–no small demand in a tiny town in the middle of the night on a weekend when no banks were open. The Who, also, did this. Sly Stone wouldn’t go on until “the vibes were right” (the vibes became right when one of the promoters verbally berated the star). Jimi Hendrix was threatening to cancel until the last minute because he was freaked out by the size of the crowd. Even Sha Na Na’s manager insisted his act go on at night (he was put in his place by the promoters, who didn’t care whether Sha Na Na went on at all).
But the creation of the Festival was some kind of triumph. Until one month before Richie Havens took the stage, the festival was supposed to be held in Walkill, New York. With a month to go, the town of Walkill pulled the rug out from under the promoters and left them with no site. It was pure luck they found Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, and a miracle that they were able to turn the farm into a usable concert setting in that time. Electrical lines needed to be laid, wells needed to be dug, ground had to be cleared, and the stage had to be built. It was an enormous amount of work, and many corners were cut.
There were not enough portable toilets, and hundreds of them were inaccessible to the trucks that were supposed to clean them out. Within hours of the first day, most of the portable toilets were overflowing. Ditches needed to be speedily dug and the waste siphoned into them. The water pipes were laid on top of the ground. Stepped on by hundreds of thousands of hippies, the water lines broke and needed to be repaired almost constantly. Similarly, the electrical wires ended up above ground after the rains came, and then exposed by trampling feet. This opened up the very real possibility that thousands of people could have been electrocuted, since everyone was wet and packed together like sardines.
I always knew that Woodstock didn’t quite go as planned. But the scope of the disaster was a revelation. The book starts with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld pitching their idea for a recording studion to John Roberts and John Rosenman, two venture capitalists in search of an idea. The studio, to be located in Woodstock, would be heralded by a giant concert.
From there, the author takes you on a tour of town zoning meetings (not as boring as it might sound), and into the back rooms where the promoters were forced to hand over money to groups like Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm, or the anarchist Up-Against-The-Wall-Motherfuckers, in exchange for not causing trouble. The Hog Farm comes in for a particular beating in the book. Far from being the Hippie Clown he portrays himself as, Hugh (“Wavy Gravy”) Romney was just another hustler on the take, looking for bribe money with the threat that he could cause a lot of problems. Abbie Hoffman, also, threatened Woodstock with anarchic disturbances unless he got paid off. In the Sixties, they were hippie characters. In any sensible decade they’d be called extortionist radicals.
The book is endlessly fascinating, though I would have liked more about the music. In the end, though, the book was about the promoters and the behind-the-scenes wheeling, dealing, and outright scheming that led up to that music (much of which was great). The Woodstock Festival has long ago passed into mythology, and will never be removed from the haze of nostalgia. But it was an arrogant undertaking, poorly planned, hastily put together, and atrocious in its execution. Enjoy the music; the music abides. But be glad you weren’t one of those people in the Bad Trip tent, or wallowing in the overflowing sewage. It’s a better movie than an experience.