Woodstock At 50: Looking Back, Moving Forward

At least for my generation, Woodstock wasn’t about peace, love and hippie-ness. It was defined by giant globs of mud, with bands such as Green Day and Nine Inch Nails caked in it (Woodstock ’94)—then nü-metal, Hades-level heat and ultra-violence (Woodstock ’99). I didn’t attend either of Upstate New York’s lousy attempts at reviving the magic of the OG Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969, but I had friends who did—and most told me nightmarish tales that made the aftermath of the disastrous Fyre Festival sound almost tame.

With the mistakes of the not-so-distant past firmly in the rearview, it’s time to honor Woodstock’s 50th anniversary with little room for error. It was announced earlier this year that there would be not one, but two Woodstocks to the busy summer festival circuit—one at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY, the site of the ’69 festival, and now called the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the other at Watkins Glen International speedway in Watkins Glen, NY, thrown by one of the ’69 festival’s cocreators, Michael Lang. And on the same weekend, no less!

While Lang’s Woodstock 50 looked promising, with headliners such as Jay-Z and Dead & Company, it ultimately proved too big for its britches. (After much hemming and hawing in the form of legal issues and venue changes, it was eventually cancelled.) And while the Bethel Woods festival was divided into three separate concert dates, it has come out the true victor in the battle of the bands. Bethel will a number of Woodstock ’69 alums performing August 15-18: Arlo Guthrie; Santana; Edgar Winter; Blood, Sweat & Tears; and John Fogerty (of Creedence Clearwater Revival), with a former Beatle (but Woodstock no-show), Ringo Starr, headlining the first night. (Though Woodstock ’69 opener Richie Havens covered The Beatles during his set, as did Joe Cocker.)

Also, later this summer and fall, additional ’69ers will perform at the venue, including Canned Heat; Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills & Nash fame); and John Sebastian, who recently played Caffè Lena. Concurrently, the Museum at Bethel Woods will have an expansive special exhibit celebrating the festival’s golden anniversary, which includes a behemoth collection of Woodstock authentic paraphernalia, photos and more.

More than 400,000 people glutted Bethel, NY for Woodstock ’69. (Bethel Woods Collection/Richard Gordon)

Looking back on the original Woodstock, it was certainly one for the history books, but it was also riddled with problems from the beginning—including but not limited to funding, food/water shortages and a major cameo by Mother Nature. That, and nobody expected more than 400,000 hippies to bear down on Bethel from August 15-17, 1969. What was it like actually being there? Longtime Saratogians Barbara and Lary Opitz spent the second week of their honeymoon there, having prepurchased a pair of three-day passes to the festival for $36 (about $250 in 2019 bucks). “The traffic to the festival was bumper-to-bumper; almost non-moving,” remembers Lary. They eventually made it—but not to the official grounds. Instead, the Opitzes wound up in a field adjacent to Yasgur’s farm—the site of the main stage—and unfortunately, weren’t ever able to make it there, because just beyond where they’d parked was an armed guard blocking all entry to the festival during the day. When they tried to enter the festival at night, it proved impossible. Also, the mosquito situation was next level. Then, it started to pour.

Not all was lost, though. For one, the Opitzes had brought a ton of wine, which they traded with their friendly neighbors for food and “refreshments,” says Lary. He also notes: “There was a local radio station that was broadcasting the whole thing, so we were able to listen to all of the music sitting in somebody’s tent, eating their food and drinking our wine.”

Several months ago, my wife and I rented an Airbnb near where Lang’s Woodstock 50 celebration was supposed to take place (i.e. Watkins Glen)—you know, just in case. Of course, we had to cancel our reservation, but as a consolation, we’ll be seeing Hamilton at Proctors this Saturday instead. But one of these days, we’ll have to go on down to Yasgur’s Farm.

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