By the Time I Got to Woodstock

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: Space Oleandr / Shutterstock

Why Woodstock ’99 Lost Its Way

Ask anyone in Hollywood: it’s easy to make a sequel, but it’s hard to make it work. The list of sequels that equal or exceed the originals is fairly small (The Godfather: Part II. The Empire Strikes Back. Aliens). In 1994, promoters pulled off a successful 25th anniversary sequel to 1969’s Woodstock. The cleverly named Woodstock ’94 accelerated the careers of acts like Nine Inch Nails and Green Day, and reinvigorated others, like Bob Dylan’s. However, the next attempted installment of the peace and music franchise, Woodstock ’99, which ran from July 22 to July 25, would not be remembered as fondly. Though a number of acts and attendees recall have a good time, the public image of the event was a disaster, with fires, vandalism, and sexual assaults casting a very dark cloud over the intended spirit of the show. What the promoters couldn’t have known at the time was that the show was doomed from the start.

Both the original festival and the ’94 installment were held in pastoral areas of New York State with open fields, grass, and trees. Woodstock ’99 took place at Griffiss Air Force Base; the base had been closed since 1995 and was once a Superfund site, meaning that it required government intervention and funding to clean up hazardous waste and materials there. The East and West stages were over two miles apart from one another, with tarmac in between. That would prove to cause major problems for concertgoers once the heat of the week settled in at over 100 degrees. A lack of shade coupled with the tarmac made for very difficult conditions. Additionally, there was a high-security vibe surrounding the affair; whereas the first two Woodstocks had broken down into “free concerts,” the ’99 edition had a high degree of corporate sponsor involvement, tighter metal and plywood fencing, and roughly 500 New York State Police brought in to work security.

The problem of the heat was exacerbated by the fact that water was in short supply. Though there were free drinking fountains, there weren’t enough to support a crowd of thousands, resulting in long lines just for a quick drink. Food vendors at the site were selling water and soda for a minimum of $4 a bottle, making it expensive to stay hydrated. Over the four days, some concertgoers broke open the water fountains to allow free-flowing water. Food options inside the venue were limited; while you could shuttle to nearby Rome and back, food and water prices at the show were exorbitantly high for the time, making general comfort and temperature safety hard to manage. With heat radiating back off of the tarmac at nearly 110 degrees, some attendees ran out of money simply trying to stay hydrated.

Heat, in addition to frustration over food, water, costs, and the inconvenient spread of stages, as well as heightened security, played into rising tempers among the crowd. Rob Sheffield, writing for Rolling Stone at the time, noted the brutality of the crowd when Korn played; he wrote, “The pit erupts as the Peace Patrol security guys whisk one kid after another to the emergency tent. The medical crew keeps ripping open new packages of disposable cardboard stretchers.”  When the band Limp Bizkit took stage on Saturday, there were reports of fighting and vandalism in the crowd; worse, witnesses reported sexual assaults in the midst of the show. Regarding the Limp Bizkit set, Sheffield wrote, “In the pit, where people go to fight and nothing else, the violence has gotten out of hand, and a rape is later reported.” Some observers put the blame for violence in the crowd on Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst; of course, it didn’t help that one of the featured songs in the set was “Break Stuff” which exhorts at one point, “And if my day keeps going this way, I just might/Break your f—— face tonight/Give me something to break/Just give me something to break.”

Korn performing “Freak on a Leash” from Woodstock ’99. (Explicit Language Advisory / Uploaded to YouTube by Korn on MV)

The final night of the show saw things completely break down during the Red Hot Chili Peppers closing set. Playing “Fire” by Jimi Hendrix as a tribute to that original Woodstock performer was a well-meaning idea; however, the rising tension and the fact that an anti-violence group had passed out candles for a candlelight vigil added up into fans starting bonfires. Heaps of crushed plastic bottles were burned as more fires started, one of which claimed one of the audio towers. As the show ended, concertgoers ripped plywood from the fencing to keep bonfires going; other people vandalized vehicles, looted equipment, destroyed and robbed ATMs, and burned vendor stands, trailers, a bus, and portable toilets before police gained control. The police investigated four rapes and one fan died of complications related to overheating.

In a Rolling Stone piece by Jenny Eliscu from August 3, 1999, Dr. Paul Ramirez, who served as Director of Psychiatric Service for both the ’94 and ’99 festivals, said, “Throwing psychology aside for a minute, in a crowd this size, there are going to be a certain number of a——s. There are going to be a certain number of people who are like that, whether or not they’re at a concert. And, here, they were kind of given a license to go wild.”

Twenty years later, theories persist about what went wrong. Some have tried to characterize the music itself as being at fault, given the prominence of harder bands and “nu-metal” among the performers, but metal shows happen every day around the world without incident. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who played at the show, offered his take in the 2013 book Louder Than Hell; he said, “For me, Woodstock ’99 was the low point of nu metal. The rapes in the pit, the trashing of the sites. It just seemed like it distilled the worst elements of metal – the misogynist jock buggery – and the message wasn’t announced as ‘This is a horrible thing.’ It was more like, ‘This is our new Woodstock generation – [a] bunch of idiots.’”

Others have laid the blame on alcohol being the drug of choice over the copious amount of marijuana at the original show, but alcoholic beverages were available at the ’94 show as well. What’s most likely is that a combination of a bad location, heat, anger at prices, and agitators in a crowd of thousands provoked a mob-like response that, thankfully, didn’t extend to everyone present. The sexual assaults, of course, were a separate, horrible scourge, perpetrated by predators that may have felt safe in the relative anonymity of a sea of people.

What remains is that the last active show to use the Woodstock name bears the stain of some terrible actions. A 50th anniversary show has been scheduled for August for some time, but the original venue bailed out and the proper permits have been denied repeatedly, as recently as this week. It remains to be seen if the show will actually occur. It’s never been a bad idea to celebrate peace, love, and music; if the new festival does take place, hopefully it will emulate the original in more ways than just the name.

Featured image: A young woman crowd-surfing at a festival concert. (Shutterstock)