Forty years ago, half a million people gathered for three days of peace, love and letting their private parts flap all over the hashish-covered mud at a place called Woodstock.
This event exists as mythology for most of our readers, who only know it from a series of photographs and wistful documentaries. So let's take a moment to set a few things straight...
If there's one thing hippies hate, it's war. If there are two things hippies hate, they are war and doing things for profit. If we move the discussion up to three things, they would be war, money and 1980s Latin sensations Menudo, but we don't have time to get into that.
If only there was time.
Knowing that money and the pursuit of it is flower child kryptonite, you may be shocked to learn that the concert that defined the 60s owed its origins to some squares looking to make a buck. And not a buck for Tibet, either. In March of 1968, drugstore heir, John Roberts, and Yale Law grad, Joel Rosenman, placed the following ad in the non-hippiest publications of all time: the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times:
Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.
Since this was before the internet was invented, nobody read the ad with a heavy emphasis on the words "men," "interesting" and "propositions" saving the men from the sort of gay escort service spam that will likely flood the comment section of this article. Instead, Roberts and Rosenman were contacted by Capitol Records exec, Artie Kornfeld, and hippie concert promoter, Michael Lang, with the idea of a starting a music studio in Woodstock, New York. When that idea didn't pan out, the suits struck gold with the notion of a three day art and music festival. Pre-sold tickets would go for $18 (that's $105 in today's money, folks) and latecomers would have to shell out $24 at the gate.
Actual photo of the first planning session.
Despite how that plan eventually worked out (hint: it didn't) the original goal was to make a gigantic buttload of cash off of young, middle-class music lovers. Forming the company Woodstock Ventures, the four got to work at putting together a line-up that would draw enough human cattle to make the men a tidy profit.
They thought they could get 250,000 hippies to show up. At the equivalent of a hundred bucks a ticket, it made for an interesting business opportunity that even a non-man-pimp had to waggle his eyebrows at.
Once the three squares and a little hippie agreed that a three day music fest was the way to get paid, the hunt was on to find a suitable locale. But there was a problem: No one wanted thousands of unwashed, doped up counter-culture ruffians on their property.
So the fat cats started making promises. Wacky promises, like that "there would only be 50,000 concert goers" and "they totally knew what they were doing."
In the spring of 1969, Woodstock Ventures leased Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, New York as the proposed site for the festival. Upon realizing that a place named "Wallkill" was better suited for a three day death metal concert, the people of the town up and passed a "no hippie concerts here" law exactly one month before the festival was supposed to take place.
The official reason for the ban was that town officials had a stinking suspicion that Lang and company hadn't planned their porta-potties properly for the prospective 50,000 people. Undaunted, the fab four kept looking. They were approached by Elliott Tiber from Bethel, New York with the offer of using his 15 acres for the concert. "Too small," they said. So Mr.Tiber put them in touch with one Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer with 600 acres in Bethel. Yasgur agreed to meet with the promoters with the understanding he would be leasing his land for $75,000, once more, for an audience of about 50,000.
That 50,000 number is important. For one, over 150,000 tickets had sold by this point. For two, the promoters had run radio and newspaper ads across the country inviting people to their little hootenanny. They actually expected 250,000 to show up. For three, 250,000 times two came.
But just because it was a bunch of money-grubbing promoters behind the scenes, doesn't change the fact that it was all about changing the world with music, man! After all, guys like the Grateful Dead and Hendrix weren't up there to get paid! Well, now that you mention it...
Several acts, THE WHOse names we won't mention (until a few paragraphs down) refused to take the stage without seeing a flatbed full of cash first.
Woodstock promoters had scrambled to sign big acts through the spring of 1969. Without big names in the line-up, other big names wouldn't bother signing on. They were in a musical pickle, which could also be called a melodious catch-22. Or maybe a harmonic bind. We could do this all day.
This is also a musical pickle.
Their first big break came when Creedence Clearwater Revival signed on for a whopping $10,000 or $11,500, depending on who you ask, in April of 1969. With a total talent budget of $180,000, Michael Lang set a cap of $15,000 for each performer, big or small. This was fine for the likes of Richie Havens, Joan Baez and Janis Freakin' Joplin. Not for Jimi Hendrix, though.
Hendrix wasn't going for that lowball malarkey after scoring $150,000 for a single concert earlier in the summer. Lang ultimately signed Jimi with the promise of a $26,000 payday, twice what any other act was getting. But when the other money-grubbers (Jefferson Airplane) complained, Lang explained that Jimi was actually doing two sets during the festival (SPOILER ALERT: He wasn't. Hendrix's contract stipulated that he closed every show he performed at. Ever.).
And all those lyrics about peace, love and free nachos for all? BALDERDASH. The three biggest acts of the second night (Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Who) informed Lang and co. at the 11th hour that performing wasn't in the cards until bitches got paid. The Grateful Dead. Seriously. These Pigpen looking, peace spouting, commune dwelling, anti-capitalists wouldn't touch their instruments until cash was in hand:
Mo' Money, mo' problems.
And remember, there were 500,000 hungry, sweaty, dehydrated, mud-caked would-be rioters in the audience. Not keeping the music going could have induced a Lord of the Flies breakdown in civilization out there. So Woodstock Ventures emptied their pockets and discovered their pooled resources amounted to $1.25, three LSD tabs, an orange rind and Grace Slick's fake phone number.
The panicky promoters begged a local banker to put up the money, based on the fact that Richie Rich Roberts had a $1,000,000 trust fund he could use as collateral. Mr. Banker said, "Cool," and proceeded to get in his car and drive to the bank, which would have been hella easy since this is what the roads looked like up to 10 miles away from the concert:
Yet somehow, he did. Mr. Banker made it to the bank, counted cash on hand, kindly accepted Robert's personal check for "50 or 100 thousand dollars." Only that kept the "three days of peace, love and music" from grinding to a silent halt as the bands went on strike, mid-concert.