Woodstock: A legend despite chaos | Music | DW | 13.08.2019
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Woodstock: A legend despite chaos

After 50 years, the legendary festival is still considered a milestone of the 1960s peace movement. But it wasn't all flowers and love. DW looks at some of Woodstock's downfalls, both in 1969 and at revival festivals.

The idea came from Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld, two concert promoters both very experienced in organizing major festivals. They had in mind a lucrative concert marathon with 32 well-known bands and musicians. Woodstock was advertised as being "three days of peace and music," and to a large extent, the festival did remain peaceful to the end. But not everything went according to plan.

1. Bob Dylan protests location

The three-day open air concert had originally been planned to be held near Bob Dylan's residence, in the New York town of Woodstock. But Dylan, along with many other residents, protested the idea. The concert was instead held from August 15 to 18, 1969 in Bethel, New York, on the grounds of dairy farmer Max Yasgur.

Festival-goers sit on top of a flower-power bus (picture-alliance/akg-images)

Festival-goers get a better view from the top of a flower-power bus

Dylan later wrote in his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, that he wasn't impressed by the crowds of hippies showing up in his town at the time. That month, he preferred to perform at the Isle of Wight Festival of Music in England instead. 

2. Huge crowds and food shortages

The organizers of the music festival had expected around 50,000 visitors. In the end, 400,000 people turned up. Singer Nancy Nevins of the band Sweetwater saw the crowd from a helicopter. "It didn't look like a crowd, it looked like a carpet," she told the Associated Press news agency. Instead of paying, people tore down fences to get to the site, there wasn't enough food, and the rain turned the ground into mud.

Rubbish piled up at the Woodstock festival (picture-alliance/dpa/UPI)

Rubbish piled up at the festival

3. The ugly remnants

When the festival was over, the people who had been at Bethel left behind a desert of mud, rubbish and feces. Debra Conway lived near the festival grounds and described her lasting impressions to the Associated Press: "Until Sunday it was really disgustingly muddy and smelly and humid. It wasn't the big glamour myth. We weren't that high on drugs, maybe it was different for the people who took drugs."

Drugs such as cannabis, heroin and LSD made the rounds at Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, two of the stars on the Woodstock stage, died less than a year later: Hendrix died of asphyxia while intoxicated on barbiturates; Joplin from a heroin overdose.

US singer Janis Joplin (picture-alliance/United Archives/Roba Archiv)

Singer Janis Joplin died of a heroin overdose at age 27

4. A financial flop

Woodstock was a concert for the hippie generation, for all those who were against the Vietnam War and frowned upon the bourgeois lifestyle, who wanted to be free, peaceful and tolerant. That was the 1960s counterculture's attitude to life.

But commercial interests were at the forefront of the investors' minds. According to research by the Austrian Society for Music Economic Research, the festival cost $2 million in fees, plus another $600,000 for legal costs and severance payments. Only 1.8 million tickets were sold and the organizers earned a further $1.5 million from the film rights to the Woodstock documentary. Without that income, the company would probably have gone bankrupt. 

Two people covered in mud at the 1994 Woodstock revival festival (AP)

Mud-covered punters at "Mudstock"

5. Woodstock II: The high-security 1994 revival

Twenty-five years after Woodstock, concert promoter Michael Lang attracted 350,000 visitors to the small town of Saugerties in New York state. From August 12 to 14, 1994, the area was not only fenced, but also guarded. Drugs were forbidden, commercial suppliers took care of the catering. After all, a ticket cost $135 (€120).

"We waited 25 years to hear this..." With these words, Bob Dylan came on to the stage: This time he was part of the party.

The event did have one thing in common with the 1969 version: the rain and mud. The 1994 festival therefore went down in history as "Mudstock."

6. Woodstock III: The catastrophic 1999 revival

In 1999, now 30 years after Woodstock, Michael Lang was in the game again, but this time he didn't prove a lucky hand. He had mobilized 250,000 spectators for a festival of "peace, love and happiness," but the festival in Rome, New York, had gone down hill.

Instead of taking place in a meadow, the whole thing was held on asphalt. The heat was unbearable, the prices for the food were high. After a peaceful start to the concert, there were riots in which visitors were seriously injured. During the performance of Limp Bizkit, several men raped a woman directly in front of the stage. Rioters damaged cars, stands, barriers and toilets. Stages and loudspeaker towers were also brought down. At the end of the Woodstock anniversary festival, some of the hooligans set fire to the concert grounds, and the rubbish lying around also caught fire. Sales vehicles and ambulances were plundered. A police operation had to stop the riots. Many called this unfortunate ending "the day the 90s died."

Woodstock or bust written across a 2009 festival bus (picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Chernin)

"Woodstock or bust" written across a 2009 festival bus

7. Woodstock: The myth lives on

Since 2017, the former festival site on the Bethel meadow has been an official cultural monument of the USA. A non-profit organization has been operating a Woodstock Museum there since the 1990s.

Meanwhile, archaeologists are trying to determine the exact location of the stage and have already found glass fragments and tops from bottles of beverages during their excavations.

Every year, there are Woodstock Revival festivals from Waffenrod in Germany to Bethel in the USA. Even though the 50th anniversary Woodstock Revival planned by Michael Lang was canceled at short notice because artists and investors had bailed out, concerts will also take place on the former festival grounds in Bethel this anniversary year, among others with Ringo Starr and Santana.

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