Two place names that begin with the letter “W” took a prominent place in history in the closing decades of the 20th century. It is not completely far-fetched to suggest there is a relation between them.
Watergate symbolized the result of a cloud of paranoia that hung over the presidential administration of Richard M. Nixon, an atmosphere of fear whipped up by the vocal questioning of government policy by large numbers of Americans – mostly young Americans. To its detractors, the “counter culture” was merely a rebellious throng of young people whose lives were dominated by “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” To themselves, they were a generation of harmony and change and their ultimate celebration was at Woodstock.
This is the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, an event which was not only a landmark showcase of musical talents, but a statement of hope, peace and love that has endured through the years. Not everything about the three-day festival was positive – the physical conditions were horrendous, the crowd was too large – yet nearly everyone observed the unifying spirit brought on by the music and togetherness. This three-part article will describe some of the event’s problems and triumphs; how it is perceived and celebrated now, and its place in history. Two key figures in the event, Michael Wadleigh, director of the Oscar-winning film Woodstock – 3 days of peace and music, and Chip Monck, the event’s lighting director, stage manager and emcee, give personal insights and impressions of Woodstock.
The event was not held at Woodstock, New York. That Catskills village was a symbolic location, explains Michael Wadleigh, speaking from his farm in Wales. “My first exposure to Woodstock was through one of the first films I made, about Gus Hall and the American Communist Party, founded in Woodstock in 1911. That is an indication of what Woodstock was; a place in the countryside where wanted criminals and anarchists from New York City could get away and plot the overthrow of world governments and economic systems. Then Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan started going up to that same little village and of course, the organizers and producers of the Woodstock concert went there.”
The place selected by Michael Lang, the promoter who started the festival, was Wallkill, near Woodstock. Chip Monck and his crew went to work at the rocky, unsuitable site, using local kids to as day laborers. Then something happened which turned out to be a blessing according to Monck. “The kids who were helping started telling their parents who was being booked. Their parents went nuts and they cancelled the permit.” Lang and his associates were then taken by a real estate agent to look at properties. When the group arrived at the Yasgur farm, near Bethel, New York, Lang stopped the car and approached the house alone. He made a deal with Max while they stood in the field. Miriam Yasgur, according to Monck, explained how Lang was able to make the deal on a site he knew would be perfect. “Within the first 15 minutes you know you’re being had, but you gotta love the kid.”
So workers arrived and, after waiting three days for Yasgur’s alfalfa to be harvested, began building a massive stage, with less than half the time needed to complete the work. Meanwhile filmmaker Wadleigh, with an established reputation in documentaries including films about musicians, had been contacted about filming the event and was making his preparations. Using an analytical approach derived from his university education in science, he stresses the importance of first deciding what the film would be about.
“In this case what I wanted to make the documentary about was the counter culture of the 1960s, the ideas that the young generation had about revising society. When the producers of the Woodstock event came into my office and they introduced the logo, a dove sitting on a guitar and the slogan three days of peace and music, I guess I thought, well, here are exciting ideas falling into place that will really guide what kind of film will be made.”
The lack of time precluded the completion of a roof over the stage, the keystone of lighting for modern concerts. Monck says, “We couldn’t hang lights and we did the whole thing with a dozen carbon arc follow spots. There’s only side light and front light and it was a bit of a problem for Mr. Wadleigh to say the least.”
By the time the show was about to start on Friday 50,000 spectators had gathered. Lang looked over at Monck, now wearing his production/stage manager hat and said, “I didn’t get an emcee so you’re it.” His first assignment was to get the audience to move back 50 feet so the pressure of people behind wouldn’t force them against the stage. He observed, “My God, they’re moving backwards. So two guys run out and put up the metal stakes and all there is for a barrier is a piece of clothesline which strangely enough was never breached during the whole time we were working.”
It was a spirit of cooperation that lasted throughout the event. And now it was time for the music to start . . . along with the rains.
More in Part II.