Jesus of Cool: DJ Pete Fornatale Takes Woodstock Nostalgists “Back to the Garden”

Written by Books, Jesus of Cool, Music

If you’ve visited your local Barnes & Noble or Borders lately, you may have noticed that Woodstock-related books have taken over display tables nationwide. Indeed, a cottage industry of tree-pulping has arisen to celebrate Woodstock’s 40th, ranging from photo-packed coffee-table extravaganzas to serious-minded tomes that feature (horrors!) no images of topless hippie chicks whatsoever. In the former category there’s Woodstock: Three Days that Rocked the World, a book the size of a small LP-record collection that was created with cooperation from the Museum at Bethel Woods; the scrapbook-formatted Woodstock: Peace, Music & Memories, assembled by two members of the Woodstock Preservation Alliance; and Woodstock Vision, a revised and extended compilation of two earlier collections by “official” festival photographer Elliott Landy.

Among the more detailed histories, Michael Lang – one of the co-creators of Woodstock Ventures and a real force behind the festival – has penned The Road to Woodstock, which includes other organizers’ remembrances as well as his own. Then there’s Taking Woodstock, the book behind the film opening this weekend; its author, Elliot Tiber, has a somewhat more tenuous connection to the proceedings – he happened to have the authority to issue event permits in Bethel, NY, when Lang and his cohorts needed to find a new location for the festival at the 11th hour. Meanwhile, Woodstock Revisited makes no claims to officialdom – it’s simply 50 brief oral histories by 50 festival attendees.

Perhaps the most comprehensive, and the most absorbing, of all these is Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock by Pete Fornatale. The author is a long-serving New York DJ who happened to debut on WNEW-FM just three weeks before Woodstock, and spent the next several years chatting up festival organizers, artists and other participants. (Fornatale now hosts a show on the wonderful WFUV-FM.) The history he’s created weaves Woodstock’s tale moment by moment, artist by artist, achieving at many points a Rashomon-like tapestry of conflicting narratives and opposing attitudes (toward rabble-rousing yippie Abbie Hoffman, for example, who generally made a nuisance of himself before getting a guitar in the neck from an annoyed Pete Townsend).

Popdose spoke with Fornatale last week, as Woodstock-at-40 interest (on the bookshelves, at least) was nearing its peak.

Let me start out by playing devil’s advocate for a minute, because there’s unquestionably a strong current of boomer resentment among people who are my age and younger. Would you say this 40th anniversary might be the last big chance to remember Woodstock, because once the boomers get much older there won’t be that many people who still hold the legend in such regard?
You know, I’ve thought about this for a long time, both while doing the book and while I was doing the interviews that appear in it. And I honestly think that’s not the case. In 50 years – if there’s still a world in 50 years – people are still going to be interested in what happened during that weekend, how it happened, and why it mattered.

This 40th anniversary is getting so much attention for three reasons, as best I can tell. The first is curiosity: Young people who missed the festival by an accident of birth have become enamored of this music, these artists and that event. Fortunately, in our media-saturated world it’s possible to vicariously experience the event, and I believe that interest will continue even after the last living survivor of Woodstock is gone. The second is nostalgia: If a member of Woodstock Nation wants to spend a weekend engrossed in reliving that less responsible time in their lives, that’s a good thing. And the third is mortality: The age of the typical Woodstock attendee was between 15 to 30, and believe me, you look at life a lot differently in your 60s and 70s. If Woodstock, like it did for so many people of this generation, etched its message of peace, love and music in your soul, then you want to hang onto it as you head into the dustbin of eternity.

I’m struck by the collision of so many first-person accounts in your book, and the way it removes the consensus from the story of the event. Even the documentary, which has always seemed so exhaustive, clearly doesn’t tell the whole story.
I agree with that. I had a very similar response when we were compiling the book, and we found we had collected eight different stories as to how Max Yasgur came to be involved, and became this hero of the event. Woodstock has moved from reality to mythology, so it no longer matters how many nails were used to build the stage, or how much the artists were paid. It’s about the memories of the people who lived the experience, and who lived it vicariously. You know, there were the people who were at the festival itself, but then there’s a much larger cross-section of that generation who had the opportunity to become members of Woodstock Nation without having to sit in the mud, but with all the popcorn they could eat in the movie theater. Their stories matter now, too.

What’s your best guess as to how many people were actually at Woodstock? The crowd count that’s passed into legend is Joni Mitchell’s “half a million strong,” but by page 6 of your book I had already read at least a half-dozen estimates — from the police saying that Woodstock Ventures estimated it at 170,000 by Saturday afternoon, to the New York Times’ contemporaneous guess of 300,000, to festival production manager John Morris saying it was 600,000 or 700,000.
In my own head I accept the number of 450,000 at the actual event. Of course, there’s no way to estimate the number of people who were turned away or scared off by the traffic backups. I imagine that, one day, Google will figure out a way to take one of the existing pictures of the crowd on that hillside and count them off, head by head.

Tell me about the process of collecting these oral histories.
You know, everyone in the world passed through WNEW when I was there, which is why I got a head start collecting these remembrances of the Woodstock experiences. It was my son who came up with the idea of doing this book — he and I had collaborated on a Simon & Garfunkel history a couple years ago, and when we were done I asked, “So, what’s next?” And he said, “How about a history of Woodstock for the 40th anniversary?” And I said, “My God, I’ve got half of it done already.”

I had been collecting first-person accounts from that first year straight through. I’m a pack rat, so I had all these old tapes sitting around, but we soon discovered that reel-to-reel tapes from that era don’t play that well anymore — the adhesive falls off and the coated side separates, and you wind up with all sorts of distortion and peeling. I was panicked about that, but it turns out there’s a method of baking a reel-to-reel tape that reattaches the adhesive, and gives you a relatively short window of time to play the tapes and digitize the material.

Were there aspects of the story that you found yourself needing to fill in with contemporary interviews?
Absolutely! At places where we found holes in the story, we went out and found people who could fill in the gaps. For the Jimi Hendrix chapter I went to a friend, the singer Kenny Rankin, who was backstage while Jimi was playing. Jimi’s band for that day wasn’t the Experience or Band of Gypsies – it was an amalgam, and one of the musicians was a percussionist named Gerardo Velez who had grown up with Kenny. So Kenny got a backstage pass and got to jam with the master, so to speak. I knew the story and knew it would be perfect for the book, so we did the interview by phone late last year. Then, just a couple months ago on June 8, I was heading to an event in the city and checked this bulletin board at the station that I always look at for news — and there was a message that said, “Kenny Rankin, RIP.”

Did you find discrepancies, in fact or just in tone, between the stories you collected many years ago and the more contemporary remembrances?
The way I reference it in the book, in relation to the Max Yasgur stories, is, “You might want to hold your head together with both your hands so it doesn’t explode.” You have to sift your way through the evidence, and hope that the truth emerges. For example, the legend quickly grew about babies being born at Woodstock – even Walter Cronkite’s report [during a year-end CBS special in 1969] mentions it as a fact. But there’s no concrete evidence of a Woodstock baby, no records of a birth having happened during the festival. Don’t you think that baby would have its own reality show by now? So, anything we couldn’t verify, we didn’t put in, because I didn’t want to add to anything to the story unless I knew it was true.

We got some very candid stories [during the more recent interviews]. One of the most interesting came from John Sebastian. He wasn’t even supposed to perform at Woodstock – he went there as a spectator [but was pressed into service on the first day, with a borrowed guitar and, as he puts it, “a slight buzz”]. I interviewed him about his appearance, and he said he felt he had done himself a great disservice by allowing himself to be talked into performing when he was not going to be his best.

What are some of your other favorite stories? One of mine is Country Joe McDonald’s attempts to find some way to avoid going onstage by himself on Friday – before he electrified the crowd with his “Gimme an F!” cheer. And another is Melanie’s astonishment at the idea that she was going to have to play in front of the crowd she saw from the helicopter.
She was so nervous that she got a psychosomatic cough! Joan Baez wound up bringing her some tea. That’s quite a lovely story. Another great Joan story is that there was a smaller second stage at the festival, where lesser-known artists were performing. Joan, who was six months pregnant, made it over to that stage and then stood patiently in line behind the other acts who were waiting to perform. And she wound up doing a performance on that little stage, and finally her manager had to pull her back so she could do what she was supposed to be doing.

Also, I had never heard the electrocution story. They had put electrical wiring in the ground, underneath the area where the crowd was going to be, and as long as the ground was dry everybody thought it was far enough underground to not be a problem. But after all that rain turned the hillside into a giant mud pit, somebody said, “If we don’t do something to move this wire, this is going to be the biggest mass-electrocution in history.”

That makes me think about the other logistical problems – particularly the traffic issues. In the book, several of the festival organizers claim they had an airtight plan for the traffic coming toward the festival site, and blamed the mess on the fact that the New York cops they had hired to direct it were pulled back. It’s hard for me to believe they had such a great plan, considering the way things turned out.
I think all of that had to do with the fact that nobody knew how big the festival was going to be until that Friday, when so many people had already shown up. They were so overwhelmed by it all, so in over their heads, that anything they had thought was going to happen had to be thrown to the wind. In the end, the whole weekend was based on improvisation. You know, when they got thrown out of the original site and had to go to Bethel at the last minute, they had to make decisions like whether to make sure the stage got completely built or whether to build strong fences and a box office. They chose to focus on the stage, and the effect of that was that it became a free concert.

All the parties involved were overwhelmed by the massiveness of it, which makes it even more amazing that it didn’t turn into a bloodbath or a disaster of some sort.

I have to say that I’ve always questioned the legend that grew up around the audience at Woodstock, and their ability to coexist in those numbers and under those conditions. On the one hand, I’m sure there was a general amazement at what was going on, and a desire to get through the rain and mud and lack of food and water with a sense of togetherness. But then I think, most of that crowd must have been from the New York City area – and I’ve lived there, and I know how New Yorkers deal with the little inconveniences, and I can’t imagine there could have been all that much peace and love.
Well, maybe the drugs had something to do with it. (laughs) It was the same for the Summer of Love and for Woodstock – the conditions were terrible much of the time, but people came away with memories of an incredibly positive experience. I’ve tried over the years to explain this to myself, and to explain it to others. But I think the best explanation I have come across is [philosopher] Joseph Campbell’s idea, which I quote in the book, that people aren’t so much looking for the meaning of life, but are looking to “feel the rapture of being alive.” And I think that’s what Woodstock gave them.

You know, when Woodstock came along it created — the term wasn’t fashionable at the time, but it really was a “perfect storm.” It was the culmination of the climate of the ’60s, the response of young people to the war, and all the rest of it. It was also the emergence of this grown-up kind of rock ‘n’ roll — not ’50s rock, but a post-Beatles leap in the seriousness of rock ‘n’ roll. And this was a group of people, the boomers, who knew they were different from the generations that came before them, but they didn’t recognize how many of them there were, or how like-minded they were. Woodstock turned out to be a coming-out party for a generation.

That’s a common theme – but when you look at the timeline of it all, wasn’t Woodstock closer to the end than the beginning? I mean, Altamont was only a few months later, and that really took a lot of air out of the balloon. And within a year of Woodstock Jimi and Janis were dead, Kent State had happened, and already the boomers were starting to look at the world a lot differently.
There’s no question about that. The book doesn’t shrink from the dark side of it all — the drugs were obviously already becoming a problem for people like [folksinger] Tim Hardin, who was in terrible shape when he performed at the festival.

One of the paradoxes about Woodstock was that the seeds of its own destruction were planted during the festival. Within a few weeks there were “Woodstock laws” in place that forbade gatherings of that size unless there was adequate access to water, food and sanitary facilities. And a lot of lessons were learned from Woodstock, both the festival and the film that followed it – lessons about how to make sure events like it in the future would be money-making ventures. So we’ve watched as all sorts of mechanisms, from overpriced concessions to T-shirt and souvenir sales, have been put in place to make sure these festivals turn a profit. And if you look at all the festivals that came along after Woodstock – including, certainly, the 1994 and 1999 Woodstock sequel festivals – they don’t come close to the same spirit that was created that weekend.

For that reason, it’s easy to get caught up in the legend. It’s a good legend. One of my favorite quotes about Woodstock came from Roger Ebert, of all people, who reviewed the documentary when he was a young critic. Let me quote him directly: “Years from now, when our generation is attacked for being just as uptight as all the rest of the generations, it will be good to have this movie around to show that, just for a weekend anyway, that wasn’t altogether the case.”