Sunday, 6 July 2014

What did I know about Woodstock? As it turns out not very much.

Looking at photos taken at a music festival depicting mud coated revellers standing in torrential rain, mountains of rubbish, lines of portaloos, food stalls and film crews you would think I was looking coverage of last weekend’s Glastonbury festival. In truth this was an exhibition of previously unseen photos taken in 1969, of Woodstock, at an unveiling I was lucky enough to be invited to at Forge & Co in Shoreditch last week. This previously unseen collection of pictures was taken by Rolling Stone photographer Baron Woolman who, accompanied by one of the original Woodstock organisers Michael Lang, kicked off the evening giving a talk about their experience of one of the most iconic music events of all time. 

As a seasoned festival goer I thought I knew quite a lot about Woodstock - a spontaneous, natural coming together of free music and love, an oasis in the mud filled desert of festivals where Hendrix serenaded a sunburnt crowd. I was about to find out how sharply inaccurate my Woodstock knowledge really was. Firstly it didn’t take place in Woodstock. It’s intended site on an Industrial state in the town of Wallkill had to be hastily relocated after the local council blocked the festival application, citing concern about the crowds. However, this was a time when the town of Woodstock had iconic status hosting the recording studio of Bob Dylan and so the festival organisers kept the town’s name but in fact it took place 43 miles away on a dairy farm outside the town of Bethal.
Hearing Lang talk about the planning and organising of something that, at that time, was such a new and risky concept, truly confirmed how Lang and his team were innovators of their day. After all it is hard to deny that when you contemplate the basic premise of a music festival it is fundamentally bonkers. Grouping large crowds of people together under the influence of alcohol and other more questionable substances, most of them kids who’s parents were unaware of their activities for a whole weekend, is a crazy notion with little room for error should things go wrong. However, Woodstock wasn't some half baked idea scribbled on the back of a cigarette packet. Lang, who was 24 at the time, had intricately studied the logistics.

He and his partners John Roberts, Joel Rosenman and Artie Kornfeld had worked out the volume of people within walking distance and therefore likely to attend (a figure underestimated by 200,000). They had attended other large events and not only counted the toilets but timed how long it took people to use them to ensure they were able to provide sanitation of epic proportions. They effectively came up with their own blue print that could have been utilised to sustain a refugee camp.
Woolman, who's career as a photographer started when demarked from the US army he submitted his photographs of the Berlin Wall going up to his local newspaper, likened Woodstock to the Normandy invasion.  The event was originally ticketed however it was the mass influx of revellers that made Lang and his associates take the last minute decision to cut the fences to make Woodstock free.

Another fact about Woodstock: it rained. I don’t just mean a shower, on the Sunday afternoon there was a full on electrical storm causing music to be postponed and the sound system needing to be dried out.

So what can I share about this festival that you won’t find on Wikipedia? Santana, thinking he wasn’t due on stage for several hours, dropped acid only to be immediately called to play his set. Apparently he spent the whole time on stage thinking his guitar was a snake and didn’t recognise a single note he played. The act deemed as the biggest pain in the backside were The Who (unsurprising as it was at Woodstock that Pete Townsend said ‘f**k off my f**king stage you f**king f**k) and Jimi Hendrix’s manager insisted that Jimi ‘closed’ the show. This meant, due to it running over, Jimi’s set took place at 9 o’clock on the Monday morning to a crowd of just 60,000 as most of the festival goers had already left. One of the photos in the exhibition of a group of people climbing a camera rig included a naked man, was used in the American encyclopaedia where this liberated individual was gifted a pair of airbrushed underpants.

So of all these pictures which was Woolman’s favourite? A photo capturing 2 men who quite obviously didn’t mind being photographed dealing drugs, as it epitomised how at Woodstock it was natural, no one cared. This placid ethos described is probably the only one of my rose tinted ideas of Woodstock that I actually got right. 

The exhibition is free of charge and runs until the 8th July. For more information click HERE