Reviewed By: Jen Cohen
All author Mike Greenblatt has ever done in his entire life is listen to music and tell people about it. From the time he celebrated his bar-mitzvah in the same Newark New Jersey temple that his literary hero Phillip Roth did (and then graduated from the same high school), Greenblatt, a voracious reader, has been a rock critic, a music journalist, a New York City publicist, editor and pot-smoking hippie. Thus, in 1969 at the age of 18, he went to the iconic Woodstock Music & Art Fair in the sleepy hamlet of Bethel, Sullivan County, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains when he was 18.
He had no idea what he was getting into.
Five decades later, he’s written a book about that fateful weekend. Woodstock 50th Anniversary: Back To Yasgur’s Farm is filled with his remembrances as well as the perspectives of the 32 interviews he conducted with artists like Graham Nash, Carlos Santana, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Edgar Winter, members of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and Sha Na Na. He tracked down Bill Hanley (“The Father Of Festival Sound”), the amiable and avuncular host Chip Monck (all the way from Australia where he now resides), Professor Chris Langhart of NYU (one of Woodstock’s true heroes), John Morris (who booked the bands), Josh White (whose Joshua Light Show ignited audiences for years at the Fillmore East and the first night only of Woodstock), plus fans who all have their own stories to tell. Skillfully weaving all of the different perspective into a cohesive whole, like a tapestry, a mosaic of oftentimes conflicting memory, puts the reader right there in the mud.
Yes, he took the brown acid. In the movie, you can hear host Chip Monck’s gentle refrain: “Don’t take the brown acid!” Greenblatt rose, shouting, “oh no! I just took it!” His resulting trip—which just happens to coincide with a monsoon that tore through the fest on Sunday—adds drama to a story of music, culture and politics at this sociological phenomenon. Imagine! Five hundred-thousand people packed tightly together with not enough food, water or bathrooms? No police whatsoever? And then a monsoon? And not one reported instance of violence? Can’t happen. Had never happened previous. Hasn’t happened since. Impossible. Yet on that weekend, the so-called “peace and love generation” proved their credentials to the world. They fed each other, they kept each other warm, they kept each other high, and with the help of The Hog Farm (a story unto itself) from New Mexico, kept each other healthy and sane.
Many an artist has said the true show of Woodstock was in the crowd, not on the stage. Greenblatt’s story is one of personal redemption, as he finds his America, the America that Paul Simon so eloquently wrote about when he sang “we’ve all come to look for America.” In fact, the first standing ovation of the weekend was for a version of that song by long-forgotten folksinger Bert Sommer. Friday being “folk night,” there was also Joan Baez, Melanie, Tim Hardin, Arlo Guthrie and Richie Havens. Baez, visibly pregnant, took the stage at 1:30 a.m. and played to the sleeping village in front of her until 2:15 a.m. Greenblatt was moved by her performance and one of the more touching moments of the weekend—and the book—comes when he finds “the crying girl.” He couldn’t sleep so the two talked politics with righteous indignation until the sun rose. Civil rights, women’s liberation and the war in Vietnam were the raging issues that Baez touched on that night.
The author and his friend Neil stayed for 27 of the 32 bands. They wanted to stay for Jimi Hendrix but as technical difficulties forced long interminable waits in-between bands, and it was already past 2:00 in the morning on the last day of the festival when—during Blood Sweat & Tears—they just had to leave, they did. (Hendrix wound up playing for over two hours at 9:00 Monday morning to a sea of garbage as mostly everyone had left). The author was tired, cold, wet, hungry, thirsty and had to go to the bathroom. It wasn’t fun anymore. So they made their way through the woods, and finally found the car where all their clothing, food, tent, Bernard Malamud books, pot, water, towels, blankets, toothpaste, toothbrushes and Monopoly game went untouched for four days.
The author was still too stoned to drive so they slept. When Greenblatt got home, his mother’s tears at the end of the book becomes a fitting metaphor for the older generation trying to understand. It’s a touching moment of a beautiful book.
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