The Curse of Woodstock

I wasn’t really surprised when I heard Woodstock 50 was cancelled.

Upon hearing the expected lineup a few months prior, I was disappointed to see the 50th Anniversary of the famous (infamous?) Woodstock Music and Art Festival, wasn’t so much a tribute to the original 1969 festival, but just another music event with a lineup of impressive names; Miley Cyrus, The Killers, and Jay-Z to name a few.

Click to check out my interview with Woodstock personality, Elliot Tiber.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only Woodstock nerd who was disappointed with the lineup. I didn’t have plans to attend but I was still hoping for a 50-year celebration that looked more like the 1969 event: musicians of the psychedelic rock and folk persuasion and as many of the original artists as possible.

Yup, I’m one of those fools who thinks of the original Woodstock as peaceful perfection, a glimmering beacon of hope visible through a dense cloud of cannabis smoke. I’m quite aware that, as a 31-year-old, my sense of nostalgia for something that happened 20 years before I was born is kind of pointless. But every year on August 15, I play some 1960s music and have my own private concert in my head. But I’m quite aware I have no reason to be nostalgic about an event that really wasn’t perfect.

Fifty years after the original event, Woodstock is still, well, possibly cursed.

 

What went wrong in at Woodstock (1969)?

The Venue

It started when Woodstock Ventures got kicked out of their concert site when it had become clear the festival would attract a lot of hippies. Originally slated for Wallkill, New York (located a half-hour from Poughkeepsie), the town decided to boot the organizers weeks before the planned event. Tickets had already been sold. Other small towns in the area were surveyed. According to Elliot Tiber’s memoir, he contacted Woodstock Ventures and suggested they hold the three-day concert at the site of his family’s motel in the Bethel/White Lake area. Stories vary between people who were there, but the motel was deemed unsuitable and the concert would eventually land at a nearby farm owned by Max Yasgur.

Construction of the massive stage and site preparations had to be done quickly and immediately as the concert was just a few weeks ago when the papers were signed.

 

Angry Neighbors

Despite the business and attention the massive festival brought to the small town, many townspeople were furious and protested the event, many of them old-fashioned folks with negative perspectives on the hippie counter-culture. They encouraged their friends and families to stop buying milk from Yasgur’s farm. Their protests didn’t do much.

 

Free Concert

Concert goers who purchased an advance pass for all three days of the concert paid $120. Three-day passes were intended to be sold for $160 (in today’s money) at the gate. This didn’t exactly go as planned.

Because of the venue hiccups, Woodstock Ventures ran out of time and had to decide to focus on building the massive stage or the ticket booth and fencing. When concert-goers started arriving at the site early and by the thousands, the organizers realized their estimate of 50,000 attendees was now completely off. It would be impossible to keep all these people off the grounds. When faced between the options of losing money or facing an angry crowd, they chose the former, announcing Woodstock would now be free for all who wished to attend.

 

My personal favorite performance from the Woodstock documentary. ^^

 

The Shocking Weather

It rained on and off throughout the three days. In many photos from Woodstock, concert attendees are caked in muck. The damp weather also affected the music equipment, causing the artists to get shocks from their instruments. This caused delays and big gaps between performances. Jimmy Hendrix was the final musician at Woodstock but by the time he put on his incredible performance, only 40,000 people were left to see it. Many people were exhausted, hungry, cold and just tired of sitting in slimy, drenched muck.

 

Highway Closures and Lack of Supplies, Toilets

There wasn’t enough food for the unexpected half million attendees. Hippie communes arrived to help out, bringing food and offering help with medical issues, such as bad trips and injuries. A few of the Bethel townsfolk who weren’t furious about the concert got together and made thousands of sandwiches. There were not nearly enough Port-o-Potties ordered for the crowd; for every 833 people, there was a single toilet available.

While half a million people arrived at the concert site or tried to, it clogged up the highways and roads to the Yasgur farm so badly that the governor had to declare a state of emergency. By doing so, this allowed for the state to drop much-needed supplies from helicopters over the swelling crowd.

 

Deaths at Woodstock

The happy vibes of the music contributed to the general level of peace and calm that Woodstock is known for. Unfortunately, the 2-3 deaths that occurred at the festival aren’t usually brought up in touchy-feely articles about the event. Some sources say one person died of a drug overdose while others say two. The death that gets the most attention is the tragic death of the teenager run over by a tractor while asleep in a sleeping bad.

Some sources say there was one birth during Woodstock but this is not confirmed.


What went wrong at Altamont?

Only a few months later, Woodstock Ventures went back to work to organize another concert, this time in California and headlined by The Rolling Stones. Despite the concert having fewer attendees and only being a single day, Altamont Free Concert included three accidental deaths, countless injuries, and, most infamously, the murder of 18-year-old arts student, Meredith Hunter.


What went wrong at Woodstock ’94?

I imagine it was a real “I can’t even believe this” moment when, in 1994, Michael Lang and the other folks from Woodstock Ventures just looked at one another, seeing their most recent Woodstock festival, again, turned into a mucky mess because of pouring rain.

Over half a million people attended and, once again, this was far more than the organizers were expecting.


What went wrong at Woodstock ’99?

Although Michael Lang of Woodstock Ventures says his organization had little to do with Woodstock ’99 and that it was mostly an MTV-organized event, the 30-year anniversary of the original Woodstock Festival had an entirely different vibe, marred by sexual assault (including allegations of gang rape), violence, and property damage. About 400,000 people attended the concert in Rome, New York.

While the peaceful musical stylings of the original Woodstock artists helped keep the massive crowd calm, popular music in 1999 was a different scene; Woodstock ’99 was headlined by Rage Against the Machine, Limp Bizkit, Insane Clown Posse, Korn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Megadeth, and Metallica. (It’s worth noting that the festival wasn’t limited to hardcore bands: Moby, Alanis Morisette, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Our Lady Peace, and Counting Crows also performed.)

Instead of rain, the multi-day event was plagued by high temperatures. Again, supplies and access to toilets ran low. Supplies—when actually available to be purchased— were priced outrageously, adding to the bad temper of the massive crowd.


What went wrong at Woodstock 50?

There has been lots of recent coverage about all the things that went badly for Woodstock Ventures so I’m not going to repeat it.

I’m disappointed Woodstock 50 didn’t happen since, wow, the United States could use a weekend of peace and love right now. (I mean, for real, yikes.) But maybe a music festival of that size couldn’t be peaceful and chill in 2019, even if the lineup had been closer to the original.

Maybe it’s better if Woodstock is left alone, just in case we start realizing it really wasn’t the magical mystery tour history has made it.


Learn more about the original festival in my ebook, The Lazy Historian’s Guide to Woodstock and the Music of the 1960s.

You can grab it on Kindle or get it for FREE by signing up for my newsletter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


jillianne hamilton headshotJillianne Hamilton is an author, history enthusiast, book lover, and graphic designer. Her debut novel, Molly Miranda: Thief for Hire, was shortlisted for the 2016 Prince Edward Island Book Award. Her debut non-fiction book, The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII is now available. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada's beautiful east coast and is working on her debut historical fiction novel.
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