Monday, August 10, 2009

Debunking Woodstock: What Really Happened?

Drugs and nudity were rampant, food was scarce and traffic was hell. Oh, and there were several deaths and births. Those are some of the myths that have been passed down over the years about the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, which happened 40 years ago this weekend, Aug. 15-18, 1969.

Assessing the music of Woodstock is easy, since you can see and hear it any time on the DVD. But separating myth from reality is less simple. Back when Woodstock happened, no one expected that half a million rock fans would gather in the upstate town of Bethel, N.Y., on short notice. So rumors about what went on started to fly, and the media was first in line to start them says Howard Loberfeld, who attended at age 15.

“I went with a sleep-away camp,” explains the New York native. “And the dichotomy between what was really happening and the news reports sent our parents into a tailspin. Every one of them called the camp and said ‘Get my kid out of there! We heard there’s deaths, we heard there’s no bathrooms, we heard there’s no food and we heard there’s drugs!’”

That’s not quite what Loberfeld and his fellow campers had experienced. Rather, he says, he and his buddies “just noticed a lot of music, a lot of fun and a lot of community.” OK, so there were drugs, as Loberfeld found out when some long-haired dude walked by him yelling “Reds! Reds!” But he was so young and na├»ve, he thought the dealer was talking baseball: “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Gee, I like the Mets. I don’t know why he’s a Cincinnati fan.’”

When Loberfeld and company were forced to cut their festival stay short because of parental concerns, they read the riot act to their parents over the telephone. “We were quite angry and we told our parents that we don’t know what the New York media was saying, but we didn’t notice any of that stuff,” he says.

Joey Reynolds, however, noticed lots of those things. Reynolds was a 22-year-old Top 40 DJ at the time, and as a veteran of the music scene (he broke into radio very young) had a keen eye for excess. “There was a lot of drug stuff — overdoses, acting out, puking and drinking,” explains Reynolds, who still reminiscences about Woodstock on his overnight talk show on New York’s WOR-AM.

Roc Ahrensdorf, who was 16 at the time, also noticed that drugs “were pretty open” but his experience was that “people were pretty cool about it all.

“I was camped out in the woods at the top of the field and there were all these paths with names like Far Out Path and Groovy Way. At the intersection there were people selling pot, acid and hash. But I didn’t see any heroin or cocaine or anything like that.”

Loberfeld and Ahrensdorf also say they didn’t see any nudity. Neither did Bonnie Geffen, yet she says that’s the first thing people want to know about when they learn she went to the festival. She didn’t disrobe, she says.

“With everyone who I’ve told that I went, they inevitably ask me if I was naked,” explains Geffen who was 16 at the time. “There were so few people who were naked in a crowd of half a million. There wasn’t a large presence of naked people.”

Brother, can you spare a burger?

How scarce food was depends on who you talk to, whether they thought to bring rations or whether they were lucky enough to be near someone who did. Ida-Meri de Blanc didn’t plan ahead and got separated from the friend she drove to Woodstock with, but she was lucky to run into “this whole gang of people I knew who went really, really prepared.

“They had like vans and tents of food,” says de Blanc, who was 19 then. “As soon as I ran into them I just hung out with them.”

Michael Colella wasn’t as lucky. Although he and his traveling buddies had brought some food for their drive from Maryland, hunger pangs set in almost immediately after he got there. “There was a definitive shortage of food,” he recalls. “I saw at one point where there were some concessions set up where you could buy burgers and stuff, but by Saturday there was no more food.”

At one point, though, Colella “somehow acquired a watermelon” and shared it with nearby concert goers after it started raining. Later on when he was walking toward the stage to get a better look at sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, he lucked onto some oranges after helping a young boy who was struggling to carry a crate of the fruit to the stage.

“I said, ‘If I help you carry the case, can you let me have an orange?’ He said ‘All right.’ So I carried the case for half the trip and he gave me a couple of oranges. I didn’t share those — I ate them because I was hungry.”

All involved say the worst part of the festival was the traffic on Route 17 on the way there. Remembers Reynolds: “There were all these roads leading to one road that had thousands of cars. At first, we thought there was a little weekend traffic that was going to stop somewhere — and it didn’t. It just got worse and worse and bigger and bigger and there were more and more people.”

Geffen remembers she and her friend “drove in as far as we could and stopped. The car in front of us stopped and we stopped when we realized neither one of us could go any further.”

Tragedy and mystery

The crush of traffic indirectly led to one of the deaths at the festival, says Essra Mohawk, a singer-songwriter who attended but did not get to perform. According to Mohawk, who was 21 at the time, after the rainfall, festival-goers had set up their sleeping bags in a muddy parking lot next to some cars.

“I said, ‘You know, someone is gonna get run right over,’ because with the mud everything was the same color,” she remembers. “And that’s what happened. Someone who slept in the muddy parking lot got run over and killed.”

That someone was 17-year-old Raymond R. Mizzak, who was run over by a tractor, according to an account in the Times Herald record of Middletown (as reproduced in the book “Woodstock: Peace, Music and Memories,” which collects festival stories and photos. One more death is referenced in the article, and although a name is not given the cause of death is listed as an overdose. Overall, there were three deaths, Woodstock historian Michael Lang told the Denver Post last month.

According to Bob Matthews, the longtime sound engineer for the Grateful Dead, one of the overlooked aspects of the festival is the fact that the rain could easily have caused more deaths — among the musicians, who were playing electrified instruments that may or may not have been properly grounded.

“The electrical grounding hadn’t been thought through to the point of ‘What happens if it rains and we have all this mud?’” Matthews recalls. “I remember Bob Weir jumping back five feet from electrical shock when he went up to touch the microphone the first time.”

The alleged births at Woodstock have been the source of such speculation that the Associated Press recently devoted an entire article to the subject, calling it “an unsolved and enduring mystery.” The story that at least one person was born started when the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian prefaced his solo performance of “Younger Generation” by saying that “there’s a cat and I really don’t know his name, but I remember that (Woodstock announcer) Chip (Monck) said his old lady just had a baby.”

Monck, who now lives in Australia, says by e-mail “two were born,” but also notes that he “was a bit busy to observe.” He also related that while some people have claimed over the years that they were “Woodstock babies,” eventually their stories “never pan out,” as evidenced by their birth records: “They later cop to the fact that they thought it would be fun to have that on their list of credits.”

Several attendees claim to have witnessed births, according to AP, yet no birth records could be located. AP even put out the call that anyone who is a “Woodstock baby” or “Woodstock mother” should contact them at: woodstockbaby@ap.org.

Putting the myths about births and deaths aside, Geffen and Loberfeld say one enduring myth about Woodstock is true. That’s the one about the festival being mellow and harmonious. Says Geffen: “I didn’t even witness a harsh word or a raised voice.”

“I was raised not to trust people and to be wary of strangers,” Loberfeld adds. “And here were 500,000 of them who were being so nice and so happy and just listening to the music and sitting in the mud. It really gave me a different perspective of humanity.”