Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Woodstock has arrived

This morning's delivery from the printer included the long-awaited copies of Woodstock: The Oral History, 40th Anniversary Edition. Copies will be shipping from the warehouse this week and you should start to see it alongside the other Woodstock books in displays in bookstores near you soon. You can always order a copy here as well.

So today's a perfect day to run the first part of our interview with Joel Makower, the man behind the book. In today's installment, Joel talks about what motivated him to work on this book and the challenges involved in making it happen. Look for part two to be posted very soon.

Q. Hi Joel. Thanks for sitting down with us to talk about the book. Let's start with an obvious question: did you attend Woodstock?

A. I was not at Woodstock. I was 17 years old during the summer of 1969, living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and playing (keyboards) in a so-so rock band called The Oedipus Complex. However, my sister, who lived in the Haight Ashbury, went. She didn't read papers or watch TV, but she heard on the street that there was a free concert being given on Bob Dylan's farm in Upstate New York—and that was sufficient information to entice her to go out to Interstate 80 and stick out her thumb. Her journey is one thread of the tapestry of my book.

Q. Speaking of the book, how difficult was it for you to find people who'd talk about the concert? I see that some musicians and residents of Sullivan County were resistant to discussing it all—and for very different reasons. Anyone in particular you would have loved to interview for the book that turned down your request?

A. The biggest challenge was to find a relative cross-section of individuals who could help tell the whole story of how Woodstock happened—and almost didn't: producers, performers, doctors, cops, neighbors, shopkeepers, kids in the audience, Wavy Gravy, Abbie Hoffman, Mrs. Max Yasgur, the guys who made the movie, and so on. There were so many threads to weave together, and figuring out what they all were—and which ones I wanted to include—was the biggest challenge. The community of individuals who produced the concert was fairly accessible and willing to share their stories. Getting to musicians was another story. Many of their gatekeepers wouldn't let me through, and some—Jerry Garcia, Arlo Guthrie, and Country Joe McDonald come to mind—simply didn't want to participate, each for their own reasons. (I later met Joe -- he and I were on Oprah together during my book tour for the original edition, and he apologized and said he regretted not taking the time to talk to me.) In contrast, other musicians—Richie Havens, Joe Cocker, David Crosby, Paul Kantner—were happy to talk.

And then there were the townspeople from the area surrounding the concert, who still felt the scars of Woodstock 19 years later, when I did my interviews. Some people were forthcoming but many others still seemed in denial—they simply wish the whole thing had never happened, and didn't want to participate in anything that might further its memory.

Q. What were you doing leading up to your work on the book?

A. I've long had an interest in the various threads that made up my generation. In 1985 I wrote a book, BOOM! Talking About Our Generation, that chronicled the music, media, politics, and culture from 1955 to 1975—from the emergence of Elvis to the end of Watergate. That was a seminal period.

And Woodstock was a seminal moment, not just for the music, but for what happened, and what didn't, at the event. Woodstock easily could have been a disaster. The promoters were thrown off their original site just five weeks before the event and had to scramble to find another site—Max Yasgur's farm—and build a virtual city . . . which never got completed. There were no gates; anyone could get in. The place was packed with kids who were ill-prepared to spend three days in the country. There was inadequate food and medicine, and plenty of drugs.

Oh, and it rained. A lot. Sometimes violently. Any number of horrible things could have befallen, literally, on the hundreds of thousands of souls out in Max Yasgur's muddy alfalfa field. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller called out the National Guard. The news media proclaimed it a disaster.

But it wasn't. And the story of why represents a window into who we were in 1969—the politics and sensibilities of the time. And that, as much as anything, is the story that fascinated me, the one I wanted to tell.