A music and art fair was held 50 years ago next week on a farm near Poughkeepsie, but you never hear anyone talk about the art fair part.
The music is a different story, one that continues to be told and retold.
The event that quickly came to be known simply as Woodstock became much more than what it initially was supposed to be. It included a Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame roster of talent and drew an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people over four days in August of 1969.
Longtime Buffalo News Arts Editor Jeff Simon may have been one of the only people who showed up to Woodstock in a suit. He was called on to cover the event when the paper's original choice, rock critic Dale Anderson, decided to pass.
Earlier this week, Anderson and Simon talked about their memories of one of the seminal events of the 20th century, joined by current Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers. In this edited transcript of the conversation, the three talk about why Anderson passed on a killer assignment, how Simon got to a muddy farm owned by a man named Max Yasgur thanks to an expensive cab ride, how the filmed documentary of the event may have been the best way to experience it and why Woodstock still matters today.
A lot of people over the next week as we're talking about the 50th anniversary of this event will talk about how it was kind of organic and people were surprised by how big it became. But I think you saw it coming because you were of the music scene at that time.
Dale Anderson: Oh, absolutely. We knew that this was going to be a big deal one way or the other. It had been well-publicized, the ads were out. But the bands that were going to be there were bands everybody wanted to see. So I think they were a little surprised at how many people went to it. And the people who bought the $15 or $20 tickets were a little amazed that they wouldn't have needed to do that. But yeah, we knew it was coming for months. This was going to be the big event of the summer of '69.
You have written before that the music scene in Buffalo at that time was starting to turn into something because a lot of business owners realized the Baby Boomer kids were turning 18 years old, which was the drinking age at that point. What was the music scene in Buffalo like in 1969?
Anderson: It was a fabulous time to be in a band or to be a kid going out to see bands, because lots of bar owners decided that that's the way they would get people into their clubs: Bring in a rock band and the kids would follow. There was a ton of kids out there. And music was very important to them. And the musicians were sort of like the priests of the movement. It was just a fabulous time to be in a band, and it was a great time to be a fan.
Jeff Simon, you were not far off in age from Dale. But I think it'd be safe to say that, at that time in your life anyway, your tastes in music ran to a different type.
Jeff Simon: I care more much more about jazz and classical music than I do about rock 'n'roll. But here's what I do want to say. One of the first things I did upon getting a job here was to go downstairs to the mezzanine, and as politely as I could scream at (Arts Editor) Terry Doran about the fact that we need to be covering the pop music scene a lot more than we were and to tell him that we had a Western New York reporter who was a bassist and in a band. [Note: That reporter was Dale Anderson.]
Jeff Miers, when you think about the rock era, when you think about that year in particular, 1969, how does that rank in terms of where rock 'n' roll was going?
Jeff Miers: "Game-changing" is a cliche, but it clearly was. But it's not just the music itself. I think it's the way that musicians, music lovers were all part of the same counterculture. I think that is not the case today. People were unified around their opposition to the war, and a lot of the same things we're dealing with today, racism, etc. And I think the music was so clearly a unifying voice for these concerns. And because of that, it became – in conjunction with the things that the Beatles had done, and Brian Wilson, these real visionaries – rock music was being taken more seriously as a musical form. But also it really clearly was the voice of the counterculture. And I think that's dissipated over time.
At that time at The Buffalo Evening News, Dale, you were, as Jeff pointed out, in a band, you were very young. I think you would probably agree that you were seen at least at The News as a product of that counterculture. It would have made a ton of sense for you to be the guy who went to Woodstock.
Anderson: It would have made a ton of sense. However, what happened was that I was called over to (Editor) Murray Light's desk on Friday morning, the Friday morning of Woodstock, when the people here belatedly decided that "Well, maybe we should have somebody down there." And I was in a band at the time and the band was very important to me. My job at The Buffalo News I looked at as kind of a temporary thing until we became rich and famous. And I wasn't going to abandon my bandmates at the last minute and go running off. I didn't want to cover Woodstock; I wanted to play Woodstock. I would have loved to have been there. But nevertheless, this came too late. I could not do that to my bandmates.
And you did play that gig as planned. Right?
Anderson: Yes, at Shells Lounge on Broadway. And during our breaks, we would come out, sit on the front porch and think about what was going on three or 400 miles away and kind of wish we were there.
So The News is in this position where this amazing thing is happening just a few hundred miles down the road. And then Murray Light's eyes fall upon a young, fresh-faced Jeff Simon.
Simon: It was a complete accident that for some reason, my desk is literally 15 feet away from Murray's. As soon as he looked up, the first thing he saw was my face. So he couldn't avoid me. And when Dale delivered his bad news, after that, Murray calls me over to his desk – he didn't come over to my desk; you went over to Murray's desk – he's got all these papers in front of him and he says, "This is what's going on. We want you to do this. And here's the thing: We do not want you reviewing. We want a news story." And I said "Well. OK. This is only a few hours from now. Do you mind if I call my wife and say, maybe I'm not going to be home for the entire weekend?" And I did. And she screamed, as loud as she could, "For God's sakes, do it!"
I went and I literally went in a suit and tie. Because we had no idea what it was going to be like. I thought it was going to be a series of concerts. You know I was going as a representative of the news and a polite young man trying to be respectable. And I was never able to wear the suit again.
So you end up on a plane and you fly downstate. You find yourself with a cab driver who has a plan to get you to Max Yasgur's farm. In that cab ride on the way to what would become known as Woodstock, what is going through your mind?
Simon: I still don't know how big a deal it's going to be. I do know that what they're saying is that it's closing down the Thruway, that you can't move anywhere, that nobody can go anywhere. And I asked the cab driver, "Can you get me to this thing?" And he said, "I know a whole bunch of back roads. And yes, I can get you there. It won't be cheap." It wasn't. "But I can get you as close as anyone can get there." And at that point, that's all I cared about. I wasn't even thinking about the event itself. All I cared about at that point was actually showing up.
What do you remember about the actual event about the music, about the scene?
Simon: One of the things that the movie does extremely well is the feeling of coming over the hill and seeing the crowd. It's one of the OMG moments of all time. When you first saw what was going on, you thought "Oh my God, this is unbelievable. This is absolutely unbelievable." And remember, Murray told me I was there as a reporter, not as a critic, so it's amazing how much of the music I missed until I was able to see the movie.
Once you were able to see the movie and listen to what had happened there, you're pretty harsh about some of the music. This is what you wrote: "As great as so much of it is, some of it is just awful. For every Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, Richie Havens, Melanie ... and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, there was a substandard Janis Joplin – which she always admitted – and stuff, especially at the beginning. That's completely unlistenable." In retrospect, what went wrong with the music at Woodstock?
Simon: Their first idea was that the first night was supposed to be folk music. That's lovely. And God bless them for giving this eternal thing to Richie Havens. It couldn't have happened to a sweeter human being that he would become the virtual image of Woodstock. But Dale was talking about those incredible names. They were what what people were going to see, not the folk music. And so having a whole night devoted to them – what kind of planning is that?
Looking back at Woodstock now, was it the start of something? Or was it the end of something?
Miers: That's a great question. And the answer, I think it's both. As we've seen with what happened with this year's attempted Woodstock, it's a different animal to basically just put together a lineup of artists who work for Live Nation, throw them all together with no real sense of continuity or purpose. And just make it a festival with no theme really, other than, "let's just get a bunch of big name acts here." I think the initial festival, the idea of it was a lot more loose and clearly hippie. It just wasn't really cynical at all. I think it was hopeful. I think it was poorly planned, and shambolic. And some of the artists were also kind of shambolic, but there's something about it that that suggests that music can be a focal point. ... So I think it was the beginning of something. And I think the reason we keep returning to it as a theme, as an image, is because it still feels like the beginning of something that's worth pursuing.
Simon: I want to ask these guys, both of them, what they felt when they saw the movie.
Anderson: I love the film. It sort of made up for the fact that I hadn't been there in the first place. I said, "Well, this is probably a much better experience than anybody who was at Max Yasgur's farm could possibly have had." I think seeing seeing the movie is the way to go to Woodstock.
Miers: I grew up with the album, the triple vinyl, and saw the film when I was pretty young. And of course, I romanticize it. That just seemed like magic to me. These people were gods. They were watching Hendrix! You know? He didn't even really sell that many records. He wasn't that hugely popular. He was not really a mainstream success. But look what we're talking about. That man just changed it all. Sly and the Family Stone. I never got the chance to see that in real life. For someone who wasn't able to see those bands when they actually existed ... The movie was insanely great.
Any chance something like this could ever happen again?
Anderson: Well, never say never. Yeah. But I mean, it would take some sort of an organic movement, much like the counterculture was in the '60s to sort of rise up. And come together. You could see it as a religious kind of thing. So it could happen. I don't think it's going to happen in quite the same way that Woodstock did. And of course, people know lot more about logistics, accommodations, crowd control, all that kind of stuff.
Simon: I don't really know what rock festivals are like now. But I think rock concerts today really have the same kind of definite desire to prove, in Joni Mitchell's words, "We've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
Miers: What I'm observing in Buffalo right now, with some of these grassroots festivals, as they grow is an espousing of that idea. And in my lifetime, for my generation, the initial Lollapalooza festivals, really did have that kind of vibe. It felt like there was a counterculture, there was a purpose to it. You felt like you were driven to become more engaged civically in causes. I still completely believe that. And I know an awful lot of people who still believe it. Now, whether it can happen in that kind of way, again, we'll have to see. But stranger things have happened.