Interview: Elliot Tiber
August 13, 2017

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August 15, 2017 marks the 48th anniversary since Woodstock, the music and art festival that shook up the sleepy little town of Bethel, New York for three days. I have celebrated Woodstock Day for several years, usually by watching Taking Woodstock (2009) or by watching the Woodstock documentary (1970).

One of the people involved in finding the location for the festival was Elliot Tiber, a closest gay man who helped his parents manage their motel in Bethel. After Woodstock, Tiber went on to be an activist for gay rights, a set design, a screenwriter and a teacher. His memoir, Taking Woodstock, was published in 2007.

I had the opportunity to interview Tiber in 2013. I’m sad to say Tiber passed away last year.

Do you plan to do anything on Woodstock Day or do you have any annual traditions to mark the anniversary?
First things first, I am going to send a “Woodstock Daddy” t-shirt from me to Kate Middleton—the Duchess of Cambridge—so that she can wear it in London as part of her royal maternity wear! (laughs) Seriously, though, I am looking to get a new annual gathering that we can call “Lovestock.” I see it as an event where everyone in the world can come together to get married, gay or straight, and to listen to great live music. I’m trying to see about getting it staged in the area of Miami Beach here in America. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m always looking for backers. Maybe it would be better if we did it in Canada? (laughs) Meanwhile, I plan to mark the Woodstock anniversary with a tofu salad, a chocolate egg cream, and my own continued silent wish that people will find peace and love all over the world through music. I still believe it is possible.

What are some activities people could do to celebrate Woodstock Day—not as just the anniversary of Woodstock, but of a celebration of the 1960s in general?
Maybe every one of the more than one million folks who were at the original Woodstock in 1969 can send me a dollar each so I can start my own personal “Bethel Pilgrimage Fund.” That way, I can travel back to Bethel once a year to celebrate the staging of the original 1969 festival. Remember, though, to send cash—no checks! (laughs) Either that or they can buy a copy of my book and read it aloud around the campfire.

Of the performers at the Woodstock Festival, do you have any favourites? If so, why?
My favorite performers at the Woodstock Festival were Richie Havens, Janis Joplin, and Sly & The Family Stone. Why? Just listen to the music! Havens was first up on that stage, and I could hear his improvised song “Freedom” across the waters of White Lake while I was still busy working at our El Monaco motel. And even though Janis gave performances where she maybe sang a little better, she was totally in the spirit of Woodstock when she sang for us. Meanwhile, the music of Sly & The Family Stone really got all of us higher than we ever had been before—the music they made that night welded all of us together like a lusciously sweet piece of toffee!

I loved Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock. How accurate was the movie? Was there anything you would have changed/added?
Director Ang Lee and screenwriter/producer James Schamus did an amazing job in adapting my book Taking Woodstock into such a first-class and wonderfully-realized movie. They caught the spirit, the humor, and the love that we all experienced together during those three days back in August 1969. I love how beautiful Ang Lee’s film of my life turned out, and I love him. If he wasn’t straight, I would marry him! (laughs)

What would you like to see happen for the 50th anniversary of Woodstock?
I think it would be cool if we could stage another show as great and magical as the one that happened in 1969, but I don’t think that would really be possible. There were so many elements to that event influenced as much by luck as by fate. If something as great and spontaneous as the original Woodstock festival could be staged in 2019, though, I would definitely want to be there—all 84 years of me!

Life as a gay person has changed a lot since the 1960s. What were your first thoughts when you heard about the repeal of DOMA?
Well, I never thought that I would live to see something like the repeal of DOMA in my lifetime. When I was dealing with the issues of “coming out” as gay in the 1950s and 1960s, it was downright dangerous to be outwardly gay. There were only about three gay clubs throughout New York City—including, of course, The Stonewall Inn—and those places were mostly hidden and kept relatively out of sight. I only wish that more of today’s new generation of gay people would understand that their freedoms were hard fought-for by those in my generation. Maybe now that the GLBT community is going to be allowed to live in relative civil harmony alongside straight society, there will be more looking back to understand from whence our roots really began to grow.

Besides Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, what were some events that happened during the 1960s that had the biggest impact on you?
Even though I was initially more partial to classical music and the torch songs of Judy Garland, the sound and culture of rock ‘n roll was very important to helping everybody chill out a little. And though his first acts of onstage bravery began in the late ‘50s, the career and ultimate destruction of comedian Lenny Bruce by those who found him “obscene” was crucial to a lot of what I came to embrace in my own freedom of expression. It was because Lenny said the things he said that Country Joe McDonald was later able to stand up at Woodstock and have more than a million people shout out a certain four-letter word that starts with the letter “F” and… well, you know the rest!

If there is a lesson to be learned from the massive and iconic event of Woodstock, what is it?
That more than a million can, and should, gather together whenever they want to see something remarkable happen—and whenever a viable and justifiable change is needed in the present circumstances. I think, for example, that the tragic Trayvon Martin incident need never happen again—but it’s something that needs to be recognized by a massive gathering of peoples. It’s not enough to use computers—people have to really get into each others’ worlds if they want to make a change really stick.

Anything else you’d like to add about Woodstock, the 1960s or Woodstock Day?
Well, I think that a Woodstock concert makes for a much cooler story than the fact that Kate Middleton’s going to have some royal baby. How does another rich kid being born stack up alongside the transformative effects of the Woodstock Festival? I think that Woodstock Day should be a time each year when people look around and try to make a bunch of brand-new friends with which to share peace, love, and music. That has to deliver a lot more positive energy to all of us than watching a TV commentator talk about how many hats and little pocketbooks the Queen owns.

Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast and the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle (historical fiction), The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street (historical romance), and The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII (non-fiction). Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.

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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a historical fiction writer, a lover of history, and a hoarder of books. I'm the author of The Spirited Mrs. Pringle, The Hobby Shop on Barnaby Street, and The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.