We’re righting a great wrong here.
And we are, at long last, fully explaining why. Please note the accompanying piece by Dale Anderson explaining why he did not cover one of the greatest musical events of our era, Woodstock.
We covered it the wrong way at the time, but even that was a triumph (of which more later).
I ought to know. I was the wrong way that we covered the event. My colleague, Dale, would have been the right way and explains why he wasn’t the ideal pairing of writer and assignment, why he had to demur.
So instead, The Buffalo News sent the wrong person to cover the event – me. You cannot imagine how inapt a choice I was to cover Woodstock in August 1969.
I was a very raw reporter at the time. The old phrase “cub reporter” wouldn’t have been entirely inaccurate. I’d only been working as a reporter for five months.
Worst of all, I was, at that moment of my life, doing everything possible to prove that I could fit into the responsible, adult, tie-wearing, workaday world. I had, just a few months before, been an early proto-slacker. I was well on my way to being a completely unnoticed life dropout who spent my life partaking of the rich Bohemia on display in the splendid bars of Elmwood Avenue.
To understate considerably, early marriage altered my downward trajectory. At a certain point in our married life, with a bad novel of mine stuffed into a drawer, my wife insisted, for some reason, that a paycheck – any paycheck at all – would be a nice marital gesture on my part. I couldn’t honestly disagree.
So I came back to The News, where I’d begun as a copyboy five years before. My timing was superb. The paper was in the middle of a youth hiring wave. I was allowed to sneak in through the back door.
And on that Friday morning when our late editor Murray Light decided – almost literally at the last second – that the event upstate was just too large to be ignored by a New York State newspaper with a new young staff, I was sitting at my desk 10 feet away from him. I was his second choice – probably because I was in his sight line.
It isn’t hard now to imagine his thought process: “There’s Jeff. He’s young. He’s ambitious. He’s up for anything. And he won’t be missed doing anything else.”
So there I was at the moment of my life when I was trying desperately to fit into the functional workaday world – where Richard Nixon was president and TV’s Top 10 shows included “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” – and I was sent to Woodstock. Even though classical music and jazz were what I truly cared about, I became one of a half-million people attending an event that announced to America that something really new was happening in other cultural precincts entirely.
Neither Murray or I really understood the nature of the event he was sending me to so I was told to adhere strictly to certain rules – chief among them that I be reachable by telephone as much as humanly possible. Somewhere within, he suspected how very green I was and he wasn’t going to have any part of a major demographic shift in his newsroom announced by a wasted young reporter run over by a tractor in Bethel.
So there I was on the way to Woodstock.
In an olive drab suit and tie that I was never able to wear again after the weekend was over. (I never put it on the expense account, either.)
The editor’s secretary – one of the most competent human beings I’ve ever met – had gotten me on a plane to Sullivan County and, as per the editor’s instruction, a motel room in Monticello.
And it is there that one of our three triumphs took place.
In retrospect, I give myself credit for only two things that weekend. One of which is this: I got there.
At the crucial moment, I found – and trusted – the right person: a Monticello cab driver who I knew was overcharging me absurdly, but who told me straight out that though traffic was frozen in every direction all over Sullivan County, he could get me a couple of miles away through back roads.
It was his cupidity I trusted – the smirk on his face you can always see on the face of provincials the world over when a self-appointed cosmopolite can be fleeced. I knew that for too much money, he would deliver me right where he said he would.
And he did.
So there I was, in a suit and tie, after a trip through the backwoods of Sullivan County, trudging up the road and over the last hill to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel.
The work I did over the next few days was barely acceptable in my opinion. (Murray made it clear: I was there as a reporter, not a critic.) What I filed looked awfully good on the paper’s front page because my leads seemed suitable (why not quote T-Bone Walker for “Stormy Monday”) and a great rewrite man rewrote wire service stories into the piece in an inspired simulation of my “style.”
The ruthless truth is that I didn’t write anything good about Woodstock myself until I reviewed Michael Wadleigh’s movie months later.
The big triumph was our newspaper’s: We had been canny enough to cover Woodstock. A most unlikely newspaper had recognized a news moment that couldn’t be ignored – an event that signified a change far bigger than just the worst traffic jam in New York State history.
A minor triumph belongs to me, though. I refused to buckle under the hype.
My great revelation about the event happened months later at a Joni Mitchell concert. She sat down at the piano to sing “Woodstock,” the song she had written for Crosby, Stills and Nash.
She explained casually that she had written the song weeks before the event. Never mind its lyrics in the past tense (“by the time we got to Woodstock/we were half a million strong”): It was all hype written beforehand, not a truthful account.
And that’s the important thing that happened that weekend. The peace of it all may have been as much a product of drugs and rain dampening fiery tempers as a radical transformation among American young people in 1969.
Pete Townshend of the Who wasn’t buying everyone’s return to “The Garden.” He called the Woodstock experience “awful.” The band’s set was laden with problems, including an intrusive Abbie Hoffman. Townshend later said, “What they thought was an alternative society was basically a field full of 6-foot-deep mud laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in, then [expletive] the lot of them.”
He also claimed “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was inspired by Woodstock.
With a lot of reportage, though, I watched as the mythology of need merged with the journalism. The Joni Mitchell festival that people wanted to happen was reported often as if it had.
“The flat blue acid” is “poison” was an early announcement from the stage by John Morris. In a couple of hours, the press tent was transformed into an infirmary.
That I wasn’t fooled by it was, no doubt, a product of my ignorance and my deep desire to figure out if I had any chance at respectability.
Listen to the Rhino six-disc box set of the music now, and as great as so much of it is, some of it is just awful.
For every Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Richie Havens, Melanie (no kidding, she wasn’t bad) and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, there was a substandard Janis Joplin (she always admitted it) and stuff, especially at the beginning, that’s completely unlistenable now.
Wavy Gravy, of the peacekeeping Hog Farm, said of the event, “Let’s face it. Woodstock was created for wallets. It was designed to make bucks. And then the universe took over and did a little dance.”
What we’ll never know – not even now, 45 years later – is, what would have happened if this newspaper had been able to report on that dance the right way?
With someone who knew all the steps.
But our perfect correspondent for that event was committed to playing bass in a band called Lavender Hill.
For now, the question will have to stand as the answer.
At least, we’re among those American newspapers that can ask the question.