In August 1969, 186,000 people bought tickets for an event billed as 'three days of peace and music'. In the end, half a million turned up to revel in the sex, drugs and rock and roll. Forty years on, Roya Nikkhah talks to the key players behind a cultural milestone.
Woodstock was the brainchild of Artie Kornfeld, a music executive, and Michael Lang, a concert promoter. The pair had responded to an advert in the New York Times placed by John Roberts, the heir to a pharmaceuticals fortune and Joel Rosenman, the son of a dentist and financial entrepreneur, which read: "Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions." In April 1969, the four men met up and formed Woodstock Ventures. Originally, they discussed building a recording studio in the bohemian town of Woodstock, home to Bob Dylan, but the idea soon evolved into an outdoor music and arts festival in the nearby town of Bethel after the Woodstock authorities refused to grant a permit.
Artie Kornfeld: "I was 24 years old, and the vice-president of Capitol Records. Michael Lang and I were great friends – he ran a paraphernalia shop in Florida and had been promoting a series of concerts in Miami. One morning, at about 3am, we were playing pool and he was teasing me, saying I'd been writing and producing so much that I didn't go to clubs any more and see bands. We said, wouldn't it be great if all the bands I never saw played a free show to which we'd invite all our friends.
"I knew Jimi [Hendrix], so, once Jimi said yes, you couldn't keep the acts away. The message was all about freedom of choice, love your brother. I didn't like the [Vietnam] war; friends of mine were being killed. For me, the protest was my agenda. It showed Richard Nixon that so many were against the war."
Michael Lang: "We always wanted to have it as a counter-culture event: it was important to me to have it about politics, interests in ecology and human rights. The Vietnam war was a huge issue at the time. Woodstock was a picture of what life would be like if we were in charge. Fun in the sun with a lot of mud.
"We deliberately wanted to create a space where everyone was welcome. If you didn't have money to eat, there were kitchens for you; if you didn't have a tent, we had a free camp site; and those who couldn't afford tickets, we'd get them in anyway."
August 15 to August 18: three days of music, mud and magic...
AK: "Once you got within 100 miles of the place, it was like a magnet. There was a spirit of brotherhood. People came together as one, and everyone was sharing food. We had about 672,000 people there – we'd anticipated 60,000 to 80,000. We had to close the roads from New York because three million people were on their way. People were leaving their cars on the freeway; it was anything goes. John Sebastian came as my guest; he wasn't actually supposed to play. But, after all the rain, we had no electricity, so I gave him a guitar and said, 'Play.' In the Woodstock movie [edited by a young Martin Scorsese], you can see him forgetting the words to his song. He ended up playing five songs."
Chip Monck, described by Martin Scorsese as "the pioneer genius of rock-concert lighting", was the lighting director of the festival and last-minute master of ceremonies: "On the Friday morning, Michael clapped me on the back and said, 'We haven't hired an MC – you're it.' He figured I was relatively articulate and, anyway, I had nowhere to run. The first thing I did was ask 500,000-plus people to pick up all their belongings – sleeping bags and everything – and take 10 steps back. Amazingly, they did. Then we put up two metal sticks and a clothes line as the barrier in front of the stage. That flimsy little barrier was never breached the whole three days. There was such a relaxed vibe. I'm sure not a punch was thrown throughout the festival.
"When the rain came on the Saturday, boy, did it hit, but it only drew people closer. Everyone looked the same – like drowned rats. It was a major unifying factor. People were just standing in mud up to their knees, sleeping bags gone, jumping up and down in the mud and cow s--- having fun. Everyone was exceptionally relaxed: it was that time of year, that time of the century, and we were all taking a lot of drugs.
"Many of the artists weren't in great form. They had taken too much before coming to the festival, so we had to look after a lot of them. I remember one world-famous performer was peaking on mescaline when he came on stage. A lot of the acts were really scared, too, by the sheer scale of the crowd. I remember Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young starting their set saying: 'Ladies and gentlemen, we are scared s-------.' They were great, but Jimi's Star-Spangled Banner on the last morning really stopped me in my tracks. It was magnificent."
Arlo Guthrie, the folk singer, famous for his protest songs, performed at Woodstock on the first night – much to his surprise: "The first sign of a this-is-different scenario was when we couldn't actually get close to the site. All the roads were jammed, so we were diverted to a motel in the forest in the middle of nowhere, where helicopters were ferrying the acts to and from the stage. I was 19, and I'd never been in a helicopter, so flying over those crowds was something else. No matter how high we were, there were people as far as the eye could see.
"I was under the impression that I was to perform on the second day, so I was dropped off backstage and started wandering around, saying hi to friends. I had a real case of the munchies in the afternoon, so I headed out into the fields of mud to find something to eat, but there was nothing to eat or drink anywhere.
"Backstage, there was nothing but 147 cases of champagne which were being saved for the last night. Naturally, it was all gone by the first night, and I think I was responsible for a few cases. So it was a real shock when someone came up and said: 'Arlo, you're on, man.' I wasn't ready to walk, let alone perform, but I went up and made the most of it. It was a double-edged sword moment of having a performance that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and not being in shape to do it. It was a best and worst moment."
Barry Levine was the stills photographer for the Oscar-winning Woodstock film. During his six days on the festival site, the only sleep he got was a 45-minute nap on the piano cover on stage during the performance by Blood, Sweat & Tears: "The vibe at Woodstock was one of people understanding that there is a little heaven in every disaster. There was not enough food, water, toilets. It was uncomfortably hot and wet, but nobody complained. Everyone was determined to show the world that, given the opportunity, there was a different way of doing things from the traditional 2.3 children, buttoned-down-shirt way of life, and we knew the whole world was watching. Hippie or not, everyone there was anti-war. That was the unifying spirit.
"People were taking acid and smoking dope openly at a time when marijuana was supposed to be the next big evil that was going to destroy the country. There were plenty of cops around, but they didn't bother anyone. Folks were skinny-dipping and walking around nude. At the time, having long hair in the US was enough to get you beaten up, and espousing peace and love drew accusations of being a communist. But, when half a million people came together to share that ethos, it made you feel that you weren't alone, that we were a movement, that, no matter what your beliefs were, we were united on some very basic issues.
"I remember walking up to one of the ponds on the site and seeing a crowd of people, arms crossed, looking down longingly at the water. A friend and I dropped our clothes and cameras and ran into the water. The next minute the pond was filled with naked people. My favourite image of Woodstock is the picture I took of a couple kissing in the water. I don't know who they were, but, to me, it says in a simple and beautiful way what Woodstock was all about, which was peace and love."
The success of the festival has arguably fuelled every outdoor rock event since, from the Concert for Bangladesh, the star-studded charity show organised by George Harrison in 1971, to Live Aid (1985) and Live 8 (2005). Woodstock was also the precursor of Glastonbury, now in its 39th year of raising funds for environmental concerns.
AK: "Time magazine called it the greatest peaceful man-made event in history. The impact was like the war of the worlds, a time of love and hate. I think it was also the start of the end of the war. It showed that so many people were against the way people were treating each other. Forty years on, that still resonates and people can still see the significance of it. I think the anniversary is focusing people on the problems we still have today. But you can't do another Woodstock because you can't repeat a miraculous work of art. Woodstock was anti-business and capitalist. With a lot of them [the festivals], it is using people's problems as a reason to make money on a concert."
BL: "I think what Woodstock represented, and what it still represents today, is hope, which is in such short supply. These were such dark days: we'd had the assassinations [of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King] the year before, we were in Vietnam, there was tremendous division in American society. But Woodstock gave the hope that things could be different. A lot of people describe the inauguration of Barack Obama as a Woodstock moment. We've had eight dark years, but now there's hope.
"Almost all of the big movements that have emerged over the years are elements of Woodstock that have survived. The green movement, the less-is-more mentality, and even the sexual revolution. Before Woodstock, the idea in America was that sex should only happen between married men and women at home with the lights out. But at Woodstock, there were naked couples kissing in the lake and couples making love in the grass."
AG:"There was a constant hum at the time that you couldn't trust young people because the nature of man is such that we need the disciplines of authority or else all hell will break loose. But here were hundreds of thousands of people with no regulation of any kind, who just all took care of each other. Woodstock showed that, in times of disaster or difficulty, people can take care of each other, and for that reason alone it reaffirmed my faith in people."
ML: "When you're young, you're part of a generation that wants to change the world, and you want it changed tomorrow. We strived to make a point and extend some of our desires into mainstream America. Woodstock sowed the seeds for the green movement – nobody talked about organic gardening before Woodstock or had seen granola or long-grained rice, and all our kitchens on site used organic, locally-grown vegetables.
"It feels like we're having another Woodstock moment now. Things have been going so badly for the past four years, and looked as if they might get even worse, and then we elect Barack Obama and suddenly the world is changing. The inauguration got the headlines, 'Washington's Woodstock'.
"You can't plan magic like Woodstock. Glastonbury, Live Aid, all the others – they are all wonderful music events, but they haven't had the impact on social behaviour that Woodstock did. People who were there, and even people who watched it on TV, came away with a different take on how we can live with each other."
Ellen Shapiro, co-owner of the Golden Notebook bookshop in Woodstock, who has lived in the town for more than 35 years: "I moved to Woodstock because I was drawn to the counter-culture and artistic atmosphere that became ingrained here after the festival. It's still a music town. A lot of musicians live here and Michael Lang lives here. It still has the sense of being a real artists' colony.
"Every weekend, people come into the store and want to talk about Woodstock. The festival definitely had an impact on the way people in the town see themselves and how the town itself is perceived. While some of the original settlers probably wish they'd never been part of it, most of us are proud of living somewhere so historic.
"After all, wherever I go in the world, people have always heard of Woodstock."