Woodstock: Peace and love, man

A random concert, with an audience—almost all strangers but some of those strangers would become and remain friends. To this day. In travel terms, it might as well have been a ‘galaxy far far away’, the distance from Milwaukee to Bethel. But I was in the right place at the right time to hear about an amazing concert event and be able to get in my car and drive to the event.

Sitting in the studio at WZMF-FM radio in Milwaukee I would sometimes answer the phones. We were a station with a small staff so we all did a little of everything. In fact, I remember we all had 3rd Class FCC licenses (which we casually referred to as 3rd-phones). We needed this basic permit as we were required to take transmitter readings. Test qualifications for the permit: breathing, ability to sign ones name, answer a few questions, and pay the fee.

One morning in July I received a phone call from a potential advertiser. They were putting on a rock concert and thought advertising their event on Milwaukee’s “Original Album Rock Radio Station” would be a good idea. Duh. So I took down the information and by the time I got off the air George, our intrepid ad sales guru, was in the office. George was one of those guys who could sell one-pound boxes of sand to people sitting on a beach. He called the concert promoter, got the information, and in short order (the concert was about a month away) spots were on the air. A lot of spots. It seemed like every couple of hours another 60-second spot aired promoting this concert. On a closer listen to the ads I realized that it was more than a concert. It would be a multi-day rock music festival, and it was taking place ‘out of town’. Still, it sounded great and I’m thinking “I gotta go.”

More than 30 acts were signed to perform including Richie Havens, Tim Hardin, Ravi Shankar, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Country Joe McDonald (and the Fish), Santana, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, The Band, Johnny Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, and Jimi Hendrix. Tickets were priced at $18 advance, $24 at the gate. To put the ticket price in perspective, if you were driving to the show you’d fill the tank in your car with gasoline for just 35¢ a gallon. The festival lasted three days and drew about 500,000 people. And while there was no significant security force to mind the throng, the festival was relatively peaceful. It was reported that two people died (insulin killed one and a tractor the other). Two babies were born. Chaos was part of the mix but so was a sense of humanity and mutual good vibes.

All in attendance will attest to Woodstock delivering an amazing three days of peace, love and great music. August 15, 16, & 17, 1969 branded everyone of an age (and certainly all who attended) as the Woodstock Generation. I know I felt it then and feel it now. And like most of the people you meet who tell you how great it was to be at Woodstock, most of those people weren’t there. An unscientific fact is that if everyone who says they were at Woodstock were actually at Max Yasgur’s farm that summer, the number attending would have totaled in the millions. But in reality it was closer to half a million. The festival was documented with a feature film and multiple soundtrack albums. And my memories of Woodstock are crystal clear. After all, I saw the film and listened to the albums. And truth be told, I was NOT there. (To my credit I never told anyone that I was there. Honest.)

On the surface Woodstock seemed like a very good idea. Create a live music event with every big name in music, advertise it all over the country while still in the glow of the “Summer of Love”, put tickets on sale, and wait for the money to roll in. The festival was an absolute success, except for turning a profit. It wouldn’t be the first time that a successful idea can go awry. After all, it’s been proven that at least one idiot can lose money operating a casino. Happily Woodstock had a successful film and series of albums. And an amazing amount of good feelings. So let’s celebrate. Music is in us and we are in music. I was fortunate enough to have worked with four of the Woodstock performers: Joan Baez, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens and Melanie.

My good fortune of working with, listening to, and connecting with Havens, Baez, Cocker and Safka (Melanie) is cherished. But in reality, we are all connected just by listening. And perhaps there is something to playwright John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation”. Or the variations, as in the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, “Six Degrees of der Kommissar” or your own life experience. We are all connected. What we do and say and how we live is all connected. And thinking of Woodstock, maybe we all were, in fact, at Max Yasgur’s farm. In less than six degrees. Peace and love, man.

2019-09-23T12:58:23-04:00Music, Rock History|

About the Author:

David Steffen is a long-time music biz veteran, getting his start in FM radio before spending 20+ years in the record industry, working at A&M Records , BMG and BMG Video as senior executive in marketing and head of A&R. He then spent two years successfully revitalizing jazz label, GRP Records. He holds a Master’s degree in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University and spent time teaching at the collegiate level before relocating to the Mendocino Coast (wine country!). Today, David is a writer and independent publicist, as well as editor of the monthly newspaper, The Lighthouse Peddler. He can be reached for comment at Jazzdavid@aol.com.