Thursday, April 22, 2010

Caught in the Devil’s Bargain



White Lake, NY, August 16 – What started out as a celebration of flower power and the younger generation’s messages of peace, love and music, devolved into violence and bloodshed on Friday.

Officially titled “An Aquarian Exposition: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” the weekend- long rock festival, scheduled to showcase teenage favorites Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and many others, was created to point out the differences between establishment and anti-establishment forces. However, an uneasy balance between profit and freedom proved too tenuous to hold as 800 off duty New York City policemen squared off with gatecrashers in a fierce melee.

“Woodstock,” so named to capitalize on the magical cache of the artist community approximately 50 miles away that is currently the home to counterculture guru Bob Dylan, is a for-profit concern put together by four principals calling themselves Woodstock Ventures – Michael Lang, Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman.

While promoters had projected 150-200,000 attendees, advance sales of 186,000 (at $8 per ticket) suggested a much larger turnout. By Friday morning, 200,000 squatted on the field well before the gates were scheduled to open at 1PM.Walk up sales had always been expected to provide a large percentage of box office receipts, as many of the young audience would decide at the last minute whether to attend.

As hordes of longhaired adolescents descended on dairy farmer Max Yasgur’s 600 acres expecting to purchase tickets for the weekend extravaganza, they were met not by manned ticket booths, which had never been set up, but with shaky chain link fences and a phalanx of security. In the absence of portable ticket booths and ticket sellers, the crush of people proved too much for the weak boundary markers, which came down immediately. With that, the police attempted to hold back the crowds.


Undeterred, the kids, perhaps drawn like a moth to the flame by the murmur of music in the distance, began to trample over the screening. The fences proved too pliable under the weight of the oncoming rock fans and bent under their weight, occasionally snapping back on the next in line. Security was under instructions that “under no circumstances” were they to leave the box office area. Said one guard, “We were told by the promoters that while the welfare of the kids was important, this was not a free concert and those without tickets were not allowed in.”

The unarmed security had difficulty taming the crowd but, working as a unit, managed to push back at pockets of youth. Not expecting any kind of force, the peaceful pack were easy prey to pushing and punching, and they retreated, at first. Unlike the Democratic National Convention in Chicago last year, where the protesters were met with the overwhelming force of the Chicago Police Department, here the younger crowd well-outnumbered security and quickly realized it. It was at that moment of reckoning that the “love in” became a free-for-all.

Like a match to a fuse, it took one person pushing back to start a conflagration. As two security guards shoved a lanky, bearded young man dressed in white robes, ten others ran to his rescue and began to pummel the guards. With the scent of blood in the air, the tide shifted as the multitudes beat the guards violently. As the pounding took place, others walked towards the stage area. Some giggled as they observed the older men beaten to a pulp, a few already unconscious on the grass. No one offered help.


Bill Graham, the San Francisco based promoter behind the successful Fillmores West and East, was on hand. “I told these guys [Woodstock Ventures] that there had to be a measure of crowd control set up BEFORE the kids arrived at the festival site.” Graham was strident in his beliefs and referenced even more radical efforts. “In South America, when swarms of wild ants approach a village, the natives dig a deep ditch, fill it with oil and light it. The firewall prevents infestation.” Whether Mr. Graham meant that literally for the situation that unfolded is not known.

Once word of the battle reached the promoters at the VIP tent adjacent to the stage, they seemed unperturbed. Roberts, heir to the Block Drug Co. fortune (makers of denture products such as Polident), and financial backer of the event along with Yale Law graduate Rosenman, shrugged off the altercation. “There’s a lot of my money at risk on this,” said the short haired, clean cut Roberts. “My money, over a million dollars of it.”

Besides revenue brought in by ticket sales, film rights to the “happening” have been purchased by the struggling Warner Brothers studio, hoping to revive its fortunes by cashing in on the youth market. Would a violent outbreak ruin the film’s message? Kornfeld, the 26-year-old former A & R man at Capitol Records, thought not.

“If it goes the way we hope it will go, Warners will have a wonderfully beautiful movie that will make us all a lot of money. If there’s a riot and everybody dies, they’ll have one of the biggest selling movies of all time. Either way is fine with me,” said the bearded Kornfeld. Wearing a leather vest without a shirt underneath, Kornfeld betrayed a practical bent behind his shirtless, vested “freak” image. As to the violence at the gates, Kornfeld admitted to being panicked at first when told the fences wouldn’t hold. “I trust our security,” he said flatly before returning his attention to Richie Havens on stage.

“The show will go on as scheduled,” intoned the man behind the entire festival, former Coconut Grove, Florida head shop owner and present Executive Producer Michael Lang, 25. Behind a waterfall of curls, Lang went on. “Look, we all believe in peace and love and music,” said the Bensonhurst native, “but it comes at a price. This weekend, that price was $8 per person, no exceptions. After all, we have our own interests to protect.” Lang, who vowed to make himself a millionaire by his 25th birthday, seemed on target to achieve his goal as he drove away on his BSA Victor motorcycle to keep tabs on his creation, in full bloom despite the violence.

Expectations of 200,000 people were well below the actual turnout for the Woodstock weekend. Estimates of 400-500,000 are commonly agreed upon. For security, 800 off duty NY cops were interviewed and nearly 300 were hired. However, Police Department pressure stopped them from actually working and camp counselors, gym teachers and area residents were employed instead. Ticket booths never arrived and by midday on Friday, it was announced to the throng that Woodstock was now a free festival. Weekend losses for Woodstock Ventures were estimated to be $1.4 million, with Roberts putting up his trust fund for debt payment. On September 8, 1969, The New York Times announced Roberts/Rosenman had bought out Lang/Kornfeld for, according to Lang, $31,750 each. Said Kornfeld, “we lost $50 million between us” when the Woodstock film and soundtrack would prove to be commercial smashes. As Bill Graham would later say, “Woodstock took rock from the neighborhoods and put it on Wall Street.”

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