Author: Fred LeBrun
“One smiling, bearded long-hair was working a big bulldozer at the site, which was all hills and angles, just off a deserted and narrow two-lane country road. The same country road that in a few days, cluttered with humanity, would make the front page of every newspaper in the nation, and most in the world.”
As I begin writing this memory exercise, it is the 40th anniversary of the first day of the original Woodstock Music and Art Fair in the Sullivan County hamlet of Bethel.
Hard to believe it’s 40 years after Woodstock. There were two other Woodstocks, of course, remembered mostly for the giant mosh pit of gray clay mud in Saugerties in 1994, and for the break down of law and order during the blistering heat and heavy metal of the Rome festival five years later. What the three had in common were some of the promoters and that none of these rock festivals was actually held in the Ulster County community of Woodstock, New York.
Shortly after the true and original Woodstock, Time Magazine called it “one of the most significant cultural and sociological events of our times.” For once, the media made one of its pronouncements for eternity on a contemporary event and got it pretty close since Woodstock has endured as perhaps the prevailing symbol of optimism out of the ’60s, of a socially progressive generation rising above turbulent times. Contrary to news accounts at the time, it was not some sort of way-out hippie-fest.
Oh sure, there were counter-culture types of all sorts and stripes drawn to the event, and the blue haze of pot was everywhere. But Woodstock was much more a compelling pilgrimmage for a true cross-section of the young of America, most of whom were main stream. A goodly number were lured to a fantastic musical program, but the biggest draw was the mass compulsion to congregate, to be there, to be part of this giant, cultural happening.
Woodstock was in the air and in the news all through the early summer of ’69, as the young promoters tried to persuade a number of towns in the Catskills to cough up a performing venue after the village of Woodstock proper had said no. You could feel the anticipation growing that if it happened this was going to be a very big deal and you had to be there, or at least anyone under 30 who was tuned in sensed that.
As a newsman, I covered all three Woodstocks, and yet for reasons I will explain I didn’t actually attend the original Woodstock festival in Bethel on Aug. 15 through 17, or whenever you could find your car could get out. For many, that wasn’t until late on Monday, the 18th, because traffic was so snarled.
Oh, it’s a complicated story, but probably typical of newspapering in 1969, which was mostly run by older, white males with a dim view of rock and roll, long hair and anti-war sympathies, who didn’t have a clue that Woodstock could happen or what it meant if it did. I have to be careful when I say that, since 40 years later I have become one of those harrumphing oldsters having trouble seeing through the eyes of young staffers who readily embrace Twitter and Facebook. Also, and mostly, I have nothing but the greatest of affection and respect for that older generation of newsmen at the Knick now departed, notably editorial page editor Duane Lafleche, city editor Leighton O’Brien and my immediate boss, Jack Givney. They were expert guides and teachers and very patient, and we were surely rough material to work with.
It wasn’t simply about those challenged with chronological age not being able to see Woodstock for what it was, it was about attitudinal age as well. My dear colleague, Knick News photographer Bob Paley, who was in his 40′s at the time, he got it. And he didn’t even care for the music that much.
The Knick was part of the Hearst-owned Capital Newspapers. The Knick and our sister paper, the Times Union, shared space and presses in a huge, colorless warehouse on Sheridan Avenue in downtown Albany. Otherwise, we were active if not bitter rivals for the news and readers, although those of us in our 20′s couldn’t help but cross-germinate our thoughts over a few beers after hours at the Press Box bar across the street, or at the Kenmore Hotel around the corner.
I was a suburban reporter at the time, with a weekly rock column in the Knick’s Weekender tabloid. So I was current with Woodstock preparations and setbacks, as were reporters Marty Schwartz and Charlie Bermpohl at the T-U. All three of us followed every twist and turn of the formative Woodstock as if were a NASCAR race.
At a crucial point in pre-Woodstock, the town of Wallkill first granted and at the last second withdrew permission to have the event there. Yes, Woodstock could have come down as Wallkill, which admittedly doesn’t have the same ring to it. Wallkill’s denial appeared to doom the event, until a 46-year-old well-educated dairy farmer with a heart condition named Max Yasgur, who got it, invited promoters John Roberts, the money man, Mike Lang and Joel Rosenman, all aged 24, to bring their rock weekend to his 600-acre alfalfa fields.
And so they did. It was very exciting.
I so harassed our managing editor, Bob Illingworth, that he finally approved sending me down for the day with a photographer four or five days before the event. Bob Paley volunteered to be the shooter, I remember. He was all chuckles and smiles on our drive down there because this was his sort of thing. When Bob was excited about a project, he tended to slip into an exaggerated Aussie accent. I have no idea why, but it was endearing then and cherished now. I can’t believe he’s gone 30 years. Our executive editor, Bob Fichenberg, whom I have also grown to appreciate greatly over time, said it right about Bob. He was a poet. Bob had a tenderness in dealing with difficult people that you’d never suspect from his tall, loping presence. On the job, he bristled cameras. I think he was primarily shooting 35 mm Nikon F-1s at that point, but he often carried a 35 mm Leica rangefinder as well, and even a rolleiflex.
I remember it was a lovely, bright, sunny August day. We stopped briefly at Max’s farm and got directions to what would become an historic hillside, which was a beehive of the unlikely and unfamiliar for an alfalfa field. A massive, log house of an arrangement was going up with the help of small cranes and a lot of swearing, and already crews under the direction of John Morris, the director of operations, were shimming out to the extremes and hooking up lights and cables. This was to be the performing stage. Several trailers were being coaxed to fairly level places close by. We were told these were to be the facilities for the performers. One smiling, bearded long-hair was working a big bulldozer at the site, which was all hills and angles, just off a deserted and narrow two-lane country road. The same country road that in a few days, cluttered with humanity, would make the front page of every newspaper in the nation, and most in the world.
Bob never stopped shooting, never stopped talking to these workers on site, none of whom were beyond their mid-20s. Most of the tech crew were affiliated with Fillmore East down in the city, and were the best in the trade at the time and had plenty of experience and expertise in setting up for big rock shows. They were all barely out of their teens.
Already, groupies and early arrivals were drifting in, setting up spots for blankets and tents. Bob and I chatted with these early attendees. Nobody was hassling them, or us, for that matter. They came from all over the country. They all seemed mellow, a word that would come to define Woodstock. They also didn’t seem to me especially well prepared for days of living far from stores and provisions, which also proved correct.
Members of the Hog Farm, a well-known commune in New Mexico at the time, were visible walking about the grounds in twos. They were there early, hired to provide comfort and services to the expected multitudes, especially those in drug crisis or otherwise disoriented. As it turned out, after the New York Police Department at the last minute denied the use of their off-duty officers, the Hog Farmers were the only security at Woodstock. In essence, Woodstock was self-policing, which is mind-boggling in its own right.
Bob Paley and I got home late that night, convinced that Woodstock was going to be a happening on a cosmic scale. On Thursday, the 14th, the Knick ran a full page of photos by Bob and text by me on Woodstock coming together at the last minute.
On Friday, I asked the managing editor for overtime for the weekend of the actual festival, and I was told with a patronizing grin, “It’s not worth it to us. You covered it. Nothing’s going to come of this anyway,” Bob Illingworth told me. And he capped it off with what has become the most annoying insiders cliche in journalism: “We’ll let the wires cover it.”
Ah, the wires. There was the lightly staffed UPI, and the mainstay AP. The newest reporter in the Albany AP bureau, sent to staff it, was Naomi Rock. A terrific, young reporter who was no fan of rock, and favored the classics. It seems the AP also felt Woodstock wasn’t going to be much, and didn’t get around to sending experienced reporters to the site from the New York bureau until Saturday, after the news value of Woodstock become all too apparent.
I gave my Woodstock ticket to Bob McManus of the Times Union who scrambled down to Bethel in a hurry, and found a way in from the west side. Everyone else was coming in from the south. He did a stellar job of reporting from the field all through the weekend. Years later, Bob became the city editor of the Times Union, and is at present a significant part of the editorial presence of the New York Post. Philosophically, I can’t say the Bob was in tune with the masses at Woodstock, but as the consummate professional, he wrote admiringly about those who endured, those who rose above the mud and muck and inconvenience to bring honor to themselves and a generation.
A month later, after Woodstock was etched in the public conscience, Bob Illingworth came over to my desk one morning and sheepishly suggested I go down to the site for a follow-up piece. This time, instead of a day I was given two days, some spending money and the company of our chief of photography, Arnold Lefevre. We spoke with Max Yasgur at his kitchen table for the better part of an hour as he was fielding phone calls from all over the world. He had become a celebrity, and you could tell he had mixed feelings about it, more negative than positive.
In October, the Knick ran a full page of photos of the aftermath – there was still litter, and a few wandering, dazed folks who had come back to the garden – and an interview with Max.
And so that’s how it was that I covered Woodstock but didn’t attend the actual event. Like another cliche goes, you had to be there, or not there, to appreciate what that feels like.