Woodstock: The Oral History is the definitive, electrifying account of the rock festival that shook the world and defined a generation. This 40th anniversary edition is an update of Joel’s original 1989 book, including a new foreword by the two principal Woodstock producers and an updated where-are-they-now section.
The book is based on more than 60 face-to-face interviews conducted during 1988 and 1989 of producers, performers, doctors, cops, neighbors, shopkeepers, and others who — by design or circumstance — became part of the event. Recordings of Joel’s original interviews are now housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Here’s the basic story: In 1969 four young men — two budding entrepreneurs who really wanted to write sitcoms, a former head shop proprietor turned rock band manager, and a record company executive who smoked hash in his office — set out to build a recording studio in Woodstock, New York. To raise the money to fund the studio, they decided to hold a concert.
The rest, as they say, is history.
From the preface:
By all measures, Woodstock should have been a disaster. Legally barred from its planned location just a month before its scheduled date, the promoters had to quickly regroup and relocate. In their haste, there was little time for planning certain facilities and amenities, some of which fell by the wayside. One key ingredient were the fences and gates, which never materialized satisfactorily, and the overflow crowds that showed up were admitted for free. The crowds caused traffic jams that paralyzed miles of highways, rendering them useless and requiring alternative measures to bring in food and medicine and supplies, and to evacuate the ill, among others. the radical Yippies showed up, as did the Hell’s Angels. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the National Guard, and the U.S. Army got involved, as did a wide range of community, business, and religious organizations, including many of the famous Catskills resorts. Woodstock began as an exercise in hip capitalism; it turned into a multimillion-dollar financial nightmare for its producers.
And then it rained. The grounds, already muddy from weeks of summer showers, turned to muck as the skies opened repeatedly — often violently — during the festival weekend. Few who came were adequately prepared to camp out for three days even in comfortable climes, let alone in soggy, intensely overcrowded conditions. The fierce storms also threatened to bring down the stage and light towers, and to put the infrastructure — electricity, water, sewerage — in jeopardy. Needless to say, none of this aided the wellbeing of the countless individuals who had drunk, smoked, or ingested ungodly amounts of licit and illicit substances, many of whom had to be ministered to, one of whom died.
And yet Woodstock was not a disaster. Far from it. There was much joy and humanity, and heroics galore. Starting with a rag-tag crew of idealistic and energetic youth — Woodstock essentially was financed and produced by those in their mid-twenties to early thirties — the festival’s staff mushroomed into hundreds of hippies, hucksters, handymen, and hangers-on. As the plans became reality, these people met the troubles they encountered — the weather, the drugs, the cops, radical politicos, and on and on — with high levels of ingenuity and integrity. It is ironic, albeit not surprising, that many of those involved liken being at Woodstock to having been through a war.
Woodstock: The Oral History is the story of how it all came together — and almost fell apart — told exclusively in the voices of the men and women who made it happen. It shares the adventures of a ragtag bunch of businessmen and bohemians, working against all odds to unite a generation for one wild, glorious weekend in August 1969.
The book offers behind-the-scenes stories from all four of the festival’s producers, beginning in early 1969, and the stories of such people as David Crosby, Abbie Hoffman, Miriam Yasgur (who, along with her husband, Max, owned the land on which the festival was held), Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, Wavy Gravy, Paul Kantner, Chip Monck, and dozens of others, culled from face-to-face interviews Joel conducted during 1988. Their collective story is told as a sort of conversation, as if all had been metaphysically transported to one gigantic living room, each individual contributing his or her own piece of the story at appropriate moments.