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Wednesday, August 12,2009

Aquarian Exposé

40 years later Lansing’s Woodstoock pilgrims talk about the long, strange trip

by Bill Castanier
The legend of Woodstock. Blame it on Arnold Skolnick. Skolnick, a relatively unknown graphic artist, created what became the most iconic concert poster of a generation back in 1969. It was simple by default: a white dove perched on the neck of a blue guitar, accompanied by text promising “Three Days of Peace & Music.”

A departure from the typical psychedelic art of the era, the cartoon-ish poster advertised “An Aquarian Exposition” in White Lake, N.Y. In much smaller print was the event’s official title: “Woodstock Music and Art Fair.”


Few remember Skolnick, or even White Lake. At the time, fewer than 100 posters were hung. But his imagery took on a life of its own, as an entire generation become anointed as the “Woodstock Generation,” and the song lyrics, “By the time I got to Woodstock … ,” from the festival’s posthumous anthem, lingered for decades. Interestingly enough, that song’s composer, Joni Mitchell, wasn’t among the throngs gathered at an upstate New York dairy farm 40 years ago on Aug. 15, 16 and 17.


Unlike Mitchell, a number of current Lansing-area residents “found” themselves at the concert, mired in a sea of fans and a lake of mud. Today they are lawyers, executives and state employees. But in 1969, they were drawn by a mix of folk and rock performers, including Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, and they made the trek, some farther than others, collecting unforgettable memories along the way.


Come along if you can


The actual location of Woodstock can be confusing. Organizers originally planned for it to be in Woodstock, N.Y. When that idea didn’t pan out, they set their sights on Wallkill, where residents balked at legions of pot-smoking hippies setting up camp in their backyards. Then nearby farmer Max Yasgur stepped forward and offered his 600acre dairy farm near the White Lake community of Bethel, about 100 miles northwest of New York City. The ticket prices for the time were steep: $7 for one day, $13 for two and $18 for all three.

Sandy (then Kirsch) Soifer, of East Lansing, was living only about an hour away from the festival site in 1969. Soifer, the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame’s executive director today, and her then boyfriend (later husband), Howard Soifer, bought $7 tickets for Friday’s show. Like most who purchased tickets, the couple never used them. By the time they arrived, the gates, if there ever were any, were already down.


Martha Bates, an editor for Michigan State University Press living in East Lansing, was living in Manhattan and had just turned 22, when she borrowed her mother’s 1968 Chevrolet Bel Air, so she and four friends (one of whom was very pregnant) could make the leisurely trip to the Catskills.

Mary Pollock, a state employee and women’s activist living in East Lansing, was already at Woodstock. She and several friends were making last-minute preparations as one of the only food service operations for concert-goers. Pollock was part of a group that worked summers at a nearby Catskill’s resort, and when her boyfriend heard about Woodstock, he thought they could make money selling food. A simple brochure given to ticket buyers promised “coke and hotdogs and dozens of curious food and fruit combinations.”

Richard Render, of Lansing, was also working in the Catskills, and he went down to Woodstock to do carpentry work in preparation for the festival. He ended up staying for nine days to help put the site back in order. Render had been bouncing around the country, most recently in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. He was a classic hippie.

Not all of Greater Lansing’s Woodstock pilgrims were living or summering in the area.


Jeff Bracken, an attorney now living in East Lansing, was home from his freshman year in college and living with his parents in St. Clair Shores when he and several buddies decided to go. Leaving the Wednesday before the concert and driving a Dodge Charger through the night, they arrived earlier than most, and they secured an actual campsite close to the festival. They also were able to sit within 100 yards of the stage for the two days they were there.

Ed Wendover, a legislative employee (and former City Pulse employee) who now lives near Morrice, was a Michigan State University student living in Ann Arbor and working two jobs that summer. He and two of his friends were at a bar on Thursday, Aug. 14, where they met a couple of nurses and started talking about a big concert in New York. They decided to drive to White Lake right then and there. “It was the best spur-of-the-moment decision I ever made,” Wendover said.


Donna Hay was eight months’ pregnant, when her husband, Tom, a second-year law student at the University of Michigan, came home and told her about a concert in upstate New York. Both enjoyed camping and thought it would be fun. They gave it no thought to her pregnancy. The couple made the long haul, driving with three friends from Ann Arbor.

“It was our anniversary and a way of celebrating,” Donna Hay said.



By the time I got to Woodstock


The Hays and their friends had an uneventful trip to New York, but once they got off the New York State Thruway, all traffic came to an absolute stop. No one, in what appeared to be a parking lot of cars, knew what was going on.


“We thought there might be an accident,” Tom Hay said.


One of their friends decided to take a walk and see what was happening. Hay said when he didn’t return 20 minutes later, another friend set out to find him. When neither returned hours later, the Hays and their remaining friends pulled the Buick convertible off the road and set up camp. They didn’t see either friend again until they returned to Ann Arbor.

On Saturday, the Hays made their way to the concert site and could only
get as close as the rim of the bowl, which took up 40 acres. Tom Hay
said they could hear the music, but the stage was “so small” in the
distance “it was like looking at a postcard.”

While many
arrived at the fest with only a few dollars and the clothes on their
backs, the Hays came pretty well prepared with provisions. But
Hay said his group was caught in the spirit of the festival, and they
shared everything with hungry campers before running out of food on
Sunday. Like most, they wore the same clothes for three days. “It was
muddier than hell,” Tom Hay said. “There was no place to wash. We never
saw any porta-potties. We never saw any food vendors. You went to the
bathroom in open latrines.”

Bates and her friends got a late
start, leaving a little before noon on Friday for a leisurely drive
upstate. They packed bed rolls and a tarp, a small amount of food and a
jug of lemonade, expecting to buy food on the grounds.

Once
they got off the main highway and onto Route 17, Bates and her friends
pretty much found themselves in the same place as the Hays had — about
eight miles away from the concert stage.

They walked and
hitched rides as the traffic began to move. She recalled at one point
hearing this distant rumble, and then the Hell’s Angels whipping by.
“It scared the shit out of me,” she said.


When Bates and her friends
finally got to the site, they too found themselves at the edge of the
bowl. After two days on site, they left early, thinking their pregnant
friend was going into labor.

Once Sandy and Howie Soifer saw
the traffic nearing the festival, they decided to park at a bar about
12 miles away. “Howie paid the bartender to watch the car,” she said.


Sandy Soifer said they knew they would be returning home that night.
“My parents were really strict, plus we thought this was your typical
concert.”

Soifer did get home later that night — much later.
Arriving home at 5 a.m., her mother told her to go upstairs, and she
told Howie Soifer to sleep on the porch. He went back the next day
alone.

Most vendors were out of food by early Friday. But
Pollock’s group, thanks to extensive planning and familiarity with the
back roads, managed to keep on serving. “We had no idea it would turn
out the way it did,” Pollock said.


She said the trips into nearby towns
for supplies were often harrowing, because of the crush of humanity. On
one trip, the transmission on the supply truck went out, and she found
herself driving in reverse. She said the festival was in a state of
chaos. “People were dying for water — anything, and they were
starving,” she said.


Attendees also ran out of money. At some point,
Pollack said her concession operation began trading food for drugs,
which a couple of people were able to turn back into money. “Suddenly we were in a business that sold drugs,” she said.


On
Sunday, when it was no longer possible to navigate even the back roads,
Pollock said her group gave all the remaining food to the Hog Farm
Collective. “It was a medical emergency,” she said.


A hippie commune
from the Southwest, the Hog Farm acted as the “Please Force,” and its
members also helped fill empty stomachs by giving away rice they had
brought with them.


Bracken remembers going into a nearby village in
search of food and buying what seemed to be the last loaf of bread and
jar of peanut butter. He also scored one of the last tacos at the food
booths near the top of the bowl, before they ran out. “It was the first
time I had eaten a taco,” he said.


Despite the lack of food, water and
sanitary facilities, there were only a few tragedies; two died, one
from a drug overdose and another young man was run over by a tractor.

The
tractor incident happened right in front of Wendover and his group.
“The two nurses with us tried to save him, but … ,” he said, trailing
off and shaking his head.


Wendover had become the ring leader of his
informal group. When someone had first said “White Lake” the day before
in that bar in Michigan, he said “Nana.” His grandmother still lived in
Middleton, just a back road or two from the Bethel-White Lake region.

Having
grown up nearby, Wendover knew all the back roads, and his group
arrived at the site early Friday morning. They weren’t exactly up
front, but they had a good view of the stage. People had been arriving
since early in the week, and the really close grass patches were taken.


Even more advantageous, Wendover and his friends were able to
come and go to grandma’s house, taking showers, eating and, at his
nana’s insistence, calling their parents.


Anything but stock


What
Bates, Soifer and others thought would be a “typical concert” became
what the media and festival emcee Hugh Romney (better known later as
Wavy Gravy) called the third largest city in New York. Romney, who was
onstage almost non-stop between performances, is credited with keeping
the crowd under control with his dynamic personality and soothing
voice. His legendary pleas for patience and warnings about bad acid
took center stage in the documentary film on festival that came out
less than a year later.

And to think it all started with a
classified ad placed in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times
by trust fund baby John Roberts and friend Joel Roseman in March 1968.
The ad opened with a description of the financiers: “Young men with
unlimited capital.”


In reality, the two were budding scriptwriters
looking for ideas for a TV series. Each week, the series would show two
young businessmen attempting to carry out schemes to get rich with
disastrous outcomes. The ad got them in touch with unlikely business
partners Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, who were minor players in the
music industry with some big ideas.

The four met for the first
time in early 1969, and they talked about creating a sound studio in
upper New York. Soon the idea morphed into holding a concert and
leveraging the profits to build the studio.

Over the next six months, the men worked feverishly,
and foolishly, to organize the threeday event. Money for planning,
securing acts and paying lobbyists flew out the door. The biggest
hurdle was finding a location. It became obvious early on that the city
of Woodstock was out of the question. By July 15 their second choice,
Wallkill, was dead in the water.

When it appeared the festival
had lost its next choice for a venue due to a ban on concerts by
anxious residents, Yasgur offered his dairy farm for $75,000. The
negative publicity generated by the ban turned out to be a boon,
attracting hundreds of thousands of additional revelers.

Although
the organizers thought they had planned well for the expected 70,000
fans each day (at the last moment, they even upped the porta-potties
from 1,000 to 1,500), nothing went right after that, including the
weather. No one was expecting 500,000 wet, hungry and muddy fans
looking for places to go to the bathroom, eat, sleep and bathe.

But
the show went on, with almost random performances delayed by traffic or
bad staging. Richie Havens became the lead act by default some three
hours after the concert’s scheduled start. And the concert went on an
extra day, ending about mid-morning with Jimi Hendrix, who had played
his rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” shortly after dawn on Monday, Aug. 18, to the lucky 40,000 fans who stuck it out.



That helicopter day


The legend of Woodstock lives with us today. Although
the actual concert lost more than $1.4 million, the documentary film
and commemorative album, which came within a year, were only the first
entries in what became a very profitable product line, which has
included everything from anniversary concerts, to books, CDs, movies,
T-shirts and other memorabilia. Chain retailer Target has
licensed an entire line of Woodstock-themed items, including beach
towels, blankets, T-shirts and the incongruous paper plates and picnic
sets.


Looking back, these items seem in stark contrast to the simple
Woodstock program, which boasted of the “unspoiled splendor of the
surroundings and hundreds of acres to roam.”


The even simpler tickets
proclaimed no pets or alcohol and “no refund.” It’s a safe bet that
anyone with a surviving ticket isn’t asking for a refund.

Neither
the Hays nor the Bates have returned to the “Garden” of Woodstock to
see the few remnants of the concert, but Wendover, Bracken, Soifer and
Pollock have made pilgrimages. As the 25th anniversary neared,
Pollack’s boyfriend-entrepreneur from the Woodstock days called and
invited her to go. Bracken stopped by while on a family vacation.
Soifer has a similar story.

Wendover
took his then 11-year-old daughter, Jessica, back in 1989. He described
a scene of media trucks clustered around the old stage. As he and his
daughter sat on the same rock his friends did 20 years earlier, one of
the reporters noticed them and made the trip up the bowl. Pretty soon
all of the reporters were gathered around asking questions.

He
said one of the reporters asked his daughter what she thought when her
dad talked about being at Woodstock. Her response: “I guess you had to
be there.”

That line ended up as the final sentence in the
Newsday paper’s coverage of the 20th anniversary.


Although none of our
local Woodstock veterans plan to venture back to the site for the 40th
anniversary, they all have fond memories. All have their own special
moments, from The Who’s Pete Townsend clubbing activist Abbie Hoffman
with his guitar, to Wavy Gravy greeting everyone with the memorable
line, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000" and
reminding everyone not to “shit in the water.”

Wendover
recalled waking up Saturday morning, seeing the crowd, and saying,
“Holy shit.” He also still vividly remembers some of the performances.
“It was the first time I saw Hendrix, and his ‘Star Spangled Banner’
was compelling,” Wendover said.


Render has a different memory of
Hendrix; He distinctly remembers seeing the guitar
legend
sitting in a mud puddle. “He had been brought up by helicopter, and I
had a back stage pass and there he was,” Render said. “That is if I
wasn’t delusional from smoking opium.”

Howie Soifer died in
2003, but Sandy Soifer still has memories of their time at the concert,
including a few photos, an original ticket and one of the funky fliers
promoting the amenities at Woodstock. In 1999, she and her husband
purchased an original Woodstock poster, which hangs in her kitchen.
Soifer said she knew then that, “you were part of something big.”


Bates, who remembered performances by Havens, Baez and Country Joe,
singing his “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” said, “There were so many of us,”
referring to the counterculture.

Donna Hay recalled her mother
telling her how concerned she was when the news reported a child was
born at Woodstock, and Bracken remembered the kindness of strangers,
like the couple who let hundreds of thirsty festival-goers drink from
their garden hose. “When we got back we felt like celebrities.”

Tom
Hay said he remembered a van painted with the slogan “Uneasy Rider.” He
said an event like Woodstock could never happen today. “Everybody was
so cool,” he said. “I can’t imagine it now. I guess you had to be
there.

(Full disclosure: Bill Castanier had tickets to
Woodstock, but he ended up in the hospital that week. The tickets are
lost. He really, really wanted to go.)


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