By the Time I Got to Woodstock

The author of the Woodstock festival’s program book recalls one helluva wild ride.

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The other day, mindful of the upcoming big anniversary, I drove to my storage locker to search for my Woodstock Music and Arts Fair tickets. I was thinking maybe I would sell them to a collector. I eventually unearthed them at the bottom of a box full of random old magazines, photographs, and correspondence packed during one of my many moves. (I’ve never been good at preserving my past: no scrapbooks, portfolios, or journals for me.) After 50 years, the red “Complimentary” stamp across the three-day ticket strip had faded, much like the memories of the summer when I helped to make history, the summer that altered the course of my life.

Looking back, it must have been kismet.

I was a 20-year-old college senior, caught up in the counterculture and turbulence of the times and looking for a summer job. Through my then-girlfriend, I was introduced to (or turned on to, in the parlance of the day) two fascinating characters, Bert Cohen and Michael Forman, who ran Concert Hall Publishing in suburban ­Glenside, Pennsylvania. They specialized in festival promotion, advertising placement, and program books, and their clients included the Philadelphia Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), which was flourishing at the time. There was even a crew of longhaired Concert Hall handymen who built stages for festivals.

Bert and Michael took a shine to me, and I was hired as an associate, a glorified gofer. (Bert dubbed me “Cheese.”) I haven’t the foggiest now what I was paid. It couldn’t have been much. My duties were vague, consisting mostly of helping keep track of random paperwork, yakking with the partners, and getting lunch for the staff. These were the days before fax machines, and I also sometimes acted as a courier. Once, I was sent on an overnight mission to deliver galleys of the Newport Jazz Festival program to legendary impresario George Wein.

Some time before I came on board, Concert Hall had been tapped to do the national promotion for the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. This was a very big deal, as it was clear from the get-go that this festival was going to be something memorable. (I recall visiting the festival offices on West 57th Street in New York City, where the Concert Hall construction team had draped parachute cloth from the ceilings for a groovy lighting effect.)

Along with festival promotion, Concert Hall was tasked with creating a program book, their specialty. Nowadays, when I tell a new acquaintance that I wrote the Woodstock Festival program book, unless they’re a Woodstock geek or collector, they invariably say, “There was a program book?” Yes, and the plan was to sell them at the entrances to the festival grounds.

It was declared that the program book had to be unique, memorable. To that end, Bert’s trippy design combined clip art, assorted fonts, and photos of the performers. The cover, a photo of a cluster of black-eyed Susans in a grassy meadow with the simple words “3 days of peace & music,” is now an iconic ’60s image. (There were mundane challenges as well. I remember a debate about how to satisfy the egos of the four principals — Michael Lang, John P. Roberts, Artie Kornfeld, Joel Rosenman — on the festival credits. I’m not sure who came up with the solution of running their names around a circle, à la the Round Table. Brilliant.)

Clearly, for a project this ambitious, your ordinary program notes wouldn’t cut it. This is where I came in. It was my big break. I proposed that we employ poetic “impressions” of the performers that would capture their spirit, as it were. Since I was the only person there with any literary cred (I was an English major), I got the ­assignment.

And what an assignment: Kick back, get high, listen to great music, and try to catch lightning in a bottle. Some of the acts I hadn’t heard of, so I took an extra-deep toke and winged it. I sought inspiration from a mixed bag: the Beat poets, T.S. Eliot, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, among others, though you wouldn’t know it from the finished product. Reading the notes now, some are almost good, most are silly and ­pretentious. But together with the art and design, they added up to something ­special.

Thanks to Bert, I was included on the book’s masthead along with the festival organizers and team, credited with the program notes as “Ed Dwyer, Jr.” (Why I used that moniker, I’ll never know. I am a 3rd.) It was my first writing credit. And best of all (at least I thought so at the time), along with other Concert Hall staffers, I was given several sets of complimentary tickets (Friday, Saturday, Sunday at $6 a day!). Complimentary tickets to the biggest musical event of the year. How cool was that?

Who knew that the tickets would be worthless?

By the time a bunch of us arrived at the festival site Thursday evening, it was already overwhelmed. A kind of mellow anarchy had taken hold. There was nobody collecting tickets; the program books were nowhere to be seen. We set up camp on a slope overlooking the stage. Somehow, other friends found us, and we made a happy band of rock ’n’ roll pilgrims perched above the quagmire that developed below. A buddy who was there has a photo of us that appeared in Rolling Stone hanging in his bathroom.

I imagine my festival experience was like about 400,000 others’. I dropped a bunch of acid (none of it brown), smoked a lot of weed, took naked baths in the lake, wandered Gentle Path and Groovy Way, canoodled with pretty strangers. As for the music, if you’ve seen the movie or heard the album, you know it was an astonishing assemblage of talent that has never been matched since. It would be foolish to pick out one performance as my favorite, though Sly Stone igniting the crowd with “I Want to Take You Higher” definitely rates. (I do have one special memory: My best pal, recently deceased, and I worked our way down through the crowd to watch The Who, and we were front and center to watch Pete Townshend boot Abbie Hoffman off the stage. Over the years and many drinks he would remind me of that moment.)

The rains came, and the program books finally appeared. Amidst the downpour, flatbed trucks weaved through the crowd just below us, festival staff tossing out bundles of them to be used as cover and firewood.

All around me, festival-goers were shielding their heads or roasting their weenies with my free verse. Some even spread the copies out on the muddy ground to sleep on. No matter. I was happy to see my first published work put to good use.

Several months after the festival, Concert Hall was hired by Warner Bros. to reprise the program book, this time to be sold at the theaters where Woodstock the movie was playing. Bert and Michael brought me back to cobble up some new program notes to accompany stills from the documentary. To be honest, I don’t think the second version holds a doobie to the first. I must not have been as inspired. Again as Ed Dwyer Jr., I was given credit for “Editorial.” In any event, the movie was a box-office smash and won an Academy Award.

Remember kismet?

Two years later, I bumped into Bert Cohen on the Amtrak Metroliner to New York. I was attending grad school on a fellowship at Temple University in Philadelphia, with a teaching career in my future. He was now Director of Communications at Warner Publishing, and after we caught up on the changes in our lives, he offered me a job as a junior editor on one of their magazines. I jumped at the opportunity. Magazine publishing in the Big Apple or grading high school essays in the suburbs? It was no contest. It was fate. I moved in with a friend who was already living in New York and commuted to Philadelphia once a week to finish my master’s thesis.

Once settled in the city, I reconnected with alternative publisher and political provocateur Tom Forcade, whom I’d befriended when he passed through Glenside on UPS business (in a converted school bus, no less).

Tom had a brilliant idea for a new magazine, and I signed on as its first editor. High Times debuted in 1974 and became an instant publishing industry phenomenon. As the magazine’s founding editor, I appeared in Time and Newsweek and big-city newspapers nationwide. And so I had my 15 minutes of fame, with stops at Playboy, Los Angeles Magazine, Penthouse, and AARP The Magazine (to name a few) along the way.

Which all began with Woodstock and the summer of ’69.

When I was working for AARP The Magazine, I liked to joke that I’d traveled the whole Boomer circle — from Woodstock to AARP — and lived to tell about it.

It’s actually rather bittersweet. Friends who were with me at the festival are passing. Bert and Michael are long gone. Meanwhile, there’s a market for the program books. I recently saw an original in mint condition offered online for a mind-blowing $2,071. I wish I’d grabbed one of those bundles that got tossed into the crowd! The only copy I owned disappeared during one of my relocations. I do have a copy of the Warner Bros. movie version somewhere in storage, but I haven’t bothered to look for it. They aren’t worth anywhere near the originals.

Then again, maybe I should revisit the storage locker. Who knows, there may be some brown acid there I stashed away for my retirement.

And to think I could have been a teacher.

This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

Featured image: Photo by Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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Comments

  1. I was married with three children (at the time). We were on the way home from a vacation and saw the sign announcing a music festival. I wanted to go, but my husband talked me out of it (thank God). Our youngest was still in diapers.

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