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Meditations on Mud, Music and Revolution
Three new tales of the woodstock festival on its 40th anniversaryby Jay Blotcher

Whether you had a front seat on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy field and were blasted awake by Jefferson Airplane’s morning maniac music, or were stranded in your car all weekend on the New York State thruway; whether you were a Bethel resident whose front lawn was trampled by tie-dyed pilgrims or a flower child momentarily wilted by the brown acid; whether true believer or still-irate detractor; whether you saw it as the beginning or end of an era, you have come to realize that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair was far more than the sum of its freakishly beautiful parts. Billed as “3 Days of Peace & Music”, the seismic eruption henceforth known simply and universally as “Woodstock” has delivered on its promise and become a bona fide moment in American history.

This month, 40 years after the last bands were helicoptered out of the fields into legend and the final VW microbuses departed for their next happening, the so-called “Aquarian Exposition” will be commemorated in numerous ways; among them is an anniversary concert on August 15—the opening day of the festival—at Bethel Woods, the site of Yasgur’s verdant paradise. Called “Heroes of Woodstock” the concert will feature several bands that originally shared the stage that weekend in 1969.

Also on August 15, Ang Lee’s new film Taking Woodstock, opens nationally. The 2007 book on which it is based, by Elliot Tiber, has been reissued in a movie tie-in edition: Taking Woodstock: A true story of a riot, a concert and a life (Square One, 2009, with Tom Monte). Michael Lang, (one of the four businessmen known collectively as Woodstock Ventures who created the festival), has penned his own tale: The Road to Woodstock: From the Man Behind the Legendary Festival (Ecco, 2009, with Holly George-Warren), and also produced a Woodstock documentary for VH-1 and the History Channel that will air on the anniversary weekend, directed by Barbara Kopple (who shot the Woodstock 25 concert in 1994 in Saugerties).

Roll arts writer Jay Blotcher—a mere nine-year-old the summer of the festival, and one who continues to nurse a mammoth case of Woodstock envy—conducted interviews with James Schamus, screenwriter-producer of the film Taking Woodstock, as well as with memoirists Elliot Tiber and Michael Lang. As three different facets of some psychedelic Rashomon, the film and books offer a heady mix of truth, fable and mythology. Yet together they reaffirm Woodstock’s place as a watershed moment in American counterculture.

Director

TAKING LIBERTIES, HAVING FUN: TAKING WOODSTOCK: THE MOVIE

James Schamus, the celebrated screenwriter-producer for Focus Features, recalls the day when his longtime collaborator Ang Lee (their film projects include Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain. and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) came to him with a new idea. Lee had been on a press tour for his sensual thriller Lust, Caution, and was in the green room of a San Francisco morning TV show when another guest gave the director his new memoir, titled Taking Woodstock. In a telephone interview from his Manhattan office, Schamus recounted the subsequent conversation between the pair.

“I’ve been reading and enjoying it… and I don't know if there’s a movie there,” Lee told Schamus. “There might be, but take a look.” Schamus then read the slender volume and was charmed. He called Lee, employing the signature candor that has marked and sustained their working relationship for more than 15 years, saying, “Ang, we’ve found something for you to do that’s not completely depressing, like your last six movies. Let’s give this a shot.”

The author of the memoir, Elliot Tiber, tells his side of the story in a telephone interview from his Manhattan apartment. “I knew who (Lee) was and I told him how much I admired his work,” Tiber recalled. “'But,' I said, 'In all of your films, everybody dies in the end.' He laughed. I said, 'Wouldn’t you like to do a comedy?'”

Black comedy is more to the point in Taking Woodstock. In 1969 Tiber (ne Eliyahu Teichberg), the son of two ne’er-do-well Eastern European immigrants, was helping his parents operate a failing motel called El Monaco, in the Sullivan County hamlet of White Lake. One day in July 1969, Tiber learned that a group of event promoters had just been thwarted in their plans to stage a rock concert in Wallkill. According to the book, Tiber got Michael Lang on the telephone, lured him over to the dilapidated motel and then connected the group with dairy farmer Max Yasgur, a neighbor down the road apiece in Bethel. Yasgur offered up his cow fields for the concert-without-a-home.

Lee and Schamus decided to move ahead with adapting Tiber’s book, the screenwriter-producer said. “It was the opportunity to make something that was very modest, very simple, very joyful. For us, maybe it was the time in our lives, but also the time in Ang’s career; I thought it was really important for him to do something that was about something hopeful and restorative and, in an important way, fun.”

In crafting the screenplay of Tiber’s reminiscences, Schamus wanted to illuminate what he saw as a chain of serendipitous events that led to the gathering in Bethel, starting with Tiber’s phone call to Lang, which he refers to as “a shot in the dark” which launched “a much bigger, insanely impactful, world-historical event.”

“It’s not as if Elliot produced Woodstock,” Schamus added. “Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman and John Roberts and Arnie Kornfeld produced the event. But it’s just one of those things that happened. You know, some guy’s sitting in a motel in Bethel, New York, and there’s not much going on, and he reads the story in the local paper and he says, Oh, I've got a permit, whatever, and called them up.”

The film Taking Woodstock is rife with magical flourishes, reflecting the ethos of a generation of youth living during the Age of Aquarius. Once Tiber places his call to Woodstock Ventures, the world around him changes. A fleet of festival organizers, led by a curly-haired biker in a fringed leather vest (Lang) descends on El Monaco. The place hums with life, as freaks and hairies follow to secure rooms, camp out on the lawns and ball in the bushes. The confluence of positive vibes—with a little help from pot brownies—transforms Tiber and his parents, reconnecting them with a joy that had slipped away decades ago.

Schamus had been a fan of comedian Demetri Martin, who plays Elliot Tiber, and lobbied for him as the lead of the film. “I think Demetri is just an incredible find and I'm very proud that Ang took the leap of faith and he’s thrilled with the results,” Schamus said.

Martin plays the dutiful son who comes to understand not only the world and his parents, but also himself, as he faces his homosexuality. Schamus’s poetic license depicts Tiber as a wide-eyed naïf who grows spiritually and sexually. In the book, however, Tiber was a seasoned veteran of S&M gay bars, and claims to have taken an activist role in the June 1969, Stonewall Riots that heralded the gay rights movement. (Stonewall historian Eric Marcus, who recently interviewed Tiber on the matter, found factual errors in his retelling and now doubts that Tiber was involved.)

The canvas of Taking Woodstock is crowded with colorful, outsized characters that seem more archetypes than people, but the conceit melds nicely with the fairy-tale quality of Schamus’ screenplay and Lee’s direction. As in Louis Malle’s sentimental Atlantic City, Taking Woodstock’s plot demonstrates that destiny is always lurking around the corner, in perfectly timed newscasts, lucky telephone calls and random but valuable people. Lee chose to employ a multi-screen technique to tell his shaggy-dog story, an homage to Michael Wadleigh, who did the same for his still-electrifying 1970 documentary Woodstock. “We were very influenced by that film,” Schamus said. “It’s not simply a document of the time; it’s a true work of art.”

If Taking Woodstock wears its heart on the sleeve of its peasant shirt with unabashed sentimentality, we are so charmed by the results that we willingly join the time-travel. Production designer David Gropman and costume designer Joseph G. Aulisi have painstakingly recreated rural America 1969 and its clothes, buildings, cars and landscapes.

While the sweetness and joy are omnipresent, a dose of reality intrudes upon the action towards the end of the film, when Michael Lang tells Elliot Tiber of his next project: a December 1969 music festival in Northern California starring the Rolling Stones. That concert, also known by a one-word name, Altamont, became as infamous as Woodstock was celebrated, when one man was stabbed and trampled to death by Hell’s Angels gang members hired as event security.

Schamus defended raising the specter of Altamont.

“It’s neither dire nor ironic, but it is real,” he said. “That is to say, you can't embrace the joy and the hope of Woodstock without having a sense of the reality of what the world actually was then. Otherwise, it’s fake, you know?”

REBIRTH BY BLOTTER ACID: TAKING WOODSTOCK: THE BOOK

For Elliot Tiber, the Woodstock Festival offered no less than a rebirth. At the time, he was fitfully living a double life: as Mama’s boy to suffocating parents in Sullivan County while exploring life as a gay Manhattanite. The book Taking Woodstock explores both lives with astounding candor and eloquence, as well as with some allegations that border on the fantastic.

Revisiting the roiling, hectic but ultimately fulfilling days of 1969 was not difficult for Tiber, who became an award-winning writer and playwright in Belgium. The real challenge was containing the sprawling tale of his life. The first draft was 1,000 pages and took five years. But, Tiber insists, “I remember every detail as if it was yesterday because—and the reason for the title—I’ve been 'Taking Woodstock' with me for all of these years. That was no problem. It was just a question of organizing the material with Tom (Monte, Taking Woodstock book co-writer and editor) so it had a beginning, a middle and an end. I write in stream-of-consciousness style which publishers hate.”

James Schamus, in streamlining the story for film, subtracted some stirring—and salacious—details from Tiber’s fitful journey to becoming an openly gay man. While some of the accounts beggar belief— sharing drinks in a gay bar with Marlon Brando and Wally Cox, being a protégé to artist Mark Rothko, having a drug-fueled sexual encounter with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote -- Tiber is especially vivid in depicting the travails of gay life in the 1950s and 60s: an era when gay men were hassled and assaulted constantly, not only by street thugs but also by rogue policemen.

By nature a pushy person (a quality transmitted through the womb by his equally fearless mother) Tiber was pleased to have the chance to shove his book into Ang Lee’s hand in 2007. “I told him about Woodstock and my involvement and I gave him my book and that was it. I was just thrilled because to get to him is impossible, let alone submit something.”

Two months later, a representative from Focus Features called Tiber, then living in Florida. He was flown back to New York City for meetings with Focus Features executives, who pledged to complete the film in time for the 40th anniversary of Woodstock—little more than a year away. Impossible, Tiber thought to himself. Several months later, Elliot Tiber was on set for the first day of shooting in Columbia County and meeting actors cast to depict his parents, friends and himself.

Known by friends for his abrasive character, Tiber nonetheless took pains to behave with Ang Lee and James Schamus.

“They don't like authors to be on set because authors get very upset that you changed this, you changed that,” he said. “Writers interfere with the shooting and it causes delays.” When lead Demetri Martin came to ask if he was walking and talking properly, Tiber said, “This is Ang Lee’s movie; he is telling you what to do and I’m not interfering.”

Asked about watching Demetri Martin playing a version of himself, Tiber responds playfully, “Did you say version or virgin?” When it is pointed out that the cinematic Elliot is far more innocent than the real Tiber was, the writer responds with uncharacteristic tact.

“I was very delighted with what Demetri did, because I think he captured the whole sense and feel of the story. As a consultant to the film, I gave suggestions to the actors and for the script—some of which they did [accept] and most of which they didn't—they had their own vision.”

When conversation comes around to Michael Lang’s book, The Road to Woodstock, Tiber begins to bristle. After all, the pivotal action of his book, that he introduced Michael Lang to Max Yasgur, does not appear in Lang’s book. The co-organizer of Woodstock claims that colleagues, not Tiber, introduced Woodstock Ventures to the shrewd dairy farmer.

“It's not possible,” Tiber said of Lang’s account. “Max was my milkman for ten years. He came when I had festivals on my grounds for nine years. Max donated milk and cottage cheese to my actors because we had nothing—no money, no income. It’s ludicrous.”

“There's only one explanation I have for it all is that it’s 40 years later, and everyone has their own memories. So my book is my memoir and it doesn't matter to me what the others say. It doesn’t make a difference; I know what happened and I tell it.”

Michael Lang, who read Taking Woodstock, said in a telephone interview, “The book is pretty much a fanciful idea of what I think [Elliot] would have liked to have done for us. The facts are that he made the call and that’s why we got to Bethel and, of course, we will be forever grateful to him for that. And he had some involvement: we rented his motel and he was very helpful to us. But he didn't really have a relationship with Max or the permit—we didn't really need a [festival] permit. We needed building permits. So all of that was just fanciful.”

Lang has kinder words for the Ang Lee film. “There are some terrific performances, charming. It stays away from a lot of the places Elliot goes in the book. But it’s a fascinating look at his family dynamic and also brought me back to those days.”

Writer

COMPASSIONATE CAPITALISM, PSYCHEDELIC VISION: MICHAEL LANG'S THE ROAD TO WOODSTOCK

For historians, musicologists and scholars of the American counterculture, Michael Lang’s The Road to Woodstock is a bright, engaging read. His reminiscences are measured, clear-eyed and reflect an astounding level of recall. Complementing his tale, co-writer Holly George-Warren has interviewed numerous people who worked to make the Woodstock Music & Art Fair something that was, if not a resounding financial success, then a glorious garden party for hippies whose principles and ramifications still resonate across the world.

Lang, who continued to work as an event coordinator and producer after 1969, and who still lives in the Ulster County town that inspired the festival’s name, said that writing his memoirs was not a priority. But the idea of telling his story would arise sporadically over the years, he said, especially after reading yet another inaccurate account of the festival.

“Every time I read something that annoyed me, I thought about it,” he said in a telephone interview. “I hate reading what people think I was thinking when I did things.”

About 18 months ago, a publisher approached Lang with the idea of a memoir. Having excelled in producing concerts and films, Lang was nonetheless daunted by the idea of working on a book. “I suspect it was making the commitment to really emotionally go back there and relive it,” he said. But once he began writing the first chapters, Lang found he was sparking corners of his brain that had lay dormant for almost four decades.

“Suddenly things became really vivid: seeing faces and smelling smells and remembering actually being in places.”

In The Road to Woodstock, Lang recounts the union of executive suits and laidback hippies, each with a different work style, who nonetheless plowed ahead to defy a fleet of challenges: A looming deadline, a huge cow field that needed to be electrified, and scores of angry Hudson Valley villagers (all but carrying pitchforks and torches) who vowed to keep the concertgoers from laying waste to their quiet world. It is a testament to Lang’s vivid storytelling that as they follow the day-to-day struggles leading up to August 15, 1969, readers will hold their breath in anticipation—even while knowing that Woodstock Ventures eventually prevailed.

The Woodstock fanatic will be thrilled by the snapshots of behind-the-scenes players in the book, as well as a complete list of the performers and their set lists, guaranteed to decide any barroom argument between grizzled festival veterans.

What repeated inaccuracy in the oft-repeated legend of Woodstock irks Lang the most?

“There is somewhat of a perception that a lot of it was accidental, [but] a lot of people worked very hard to actually make it happen.”

“The only thing that I think is a little off the mark is that everybody thinks that it was a trouble-free and amazing confluence of factors that all coalesced around the fact that [admission] was free, It really isn't that. It was free because we didn't get the fences and the gates and the ticket booths up; there wasn’t any place to buy them. Most people who were coming were looking for places to buy tickets.”

Lang continues to master his role in bridging the worlds of capitalism, entertainment and progressive politics; he produced a concert at the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, and also produced Woodstock 1994 and 1999. He also plans to shoot a film long in development—a Russian classic of magic realism literature called The Master of Margarita -- as well as mount a Broadway musical. Its working title is The Summer of ’69.

For four decades, Lang has heard people canonize and demonize him for the Woodstock festival. He has weathered scholars and sociologists who have characterized Woodstock alternately as the zenith of the counterculture movement and the death-knell of it. But Lang stands by his claim that the event had positive ramifications that defined the American agenda for decades to come. Woodstock not only gave a global platform to issues of human rights, demilitarization and environmentalism, he said, but the festival succeeded in closing the American generation gap.

“I think what happened at Woodstock is everybody recognized that these were just kids…their own kids. And it put everything back into perspective for people. That really went a long way to opening up the conversation and communication between kids and their parents, this generation and the next.”

Ulster County writer Jay Blotcher’s cousin Nancy Mulinelli was a member of Jimi Hendrix’s retinue at Woodstock; her backstage pass read “Girl 3”.



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