First Draft Follies: Woodstock

Welcome to First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. The material is presented “as is” from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets — [like this] — for clarification.

This edition is particularly folly-ish, and prime example of how easily I wander off-track when something interesting catches my brain. Because let’s face it: Woodstock had nuthin’ much to do with beer. For the record: I was not at Woodstock. Indeed, I was not even aware it was happening. (I was an exceptionally oblivious fifteen-year-old.)

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Eight hundred miles east of Milwaukee, four men of disparate personalities and backgrounds were organizing an event that they hoped would make them rich. They planned to hold the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August in rural upstate New York.

The quartet spent the summer of ‘69 lining up acts; researching the merits of temporary toilets; signing food vendors, and scrambling to find a location after their first choice was snatched from them at the last moment. Hugh Romney and the Hog Farm commune agreed to operate a free food kitchen, babysit kids on bad trips, and provide concert “security.” (For that task, Romney informed a Woodstock Ventures representative, he would require “‘fifty cases of seltzer bottles and three truckloads of chocolate cream pies as ammunition.’”) (*1)

By opening day, August 15, 1969, a city-sized swarm of hippies, heads, and freaks had established camp at Max Yasgur’s farm. Outside the site, vehicular traffic overwhelmed the region’s roads and highways.

The cops, fearing the worse, blockaded the parking lots, a decision that exacerbated the chaos and produced the largest traffic jam in New York state history. Thousands of people abandoned their cars and walked the last several miles.

For three days, a crowd estimated at anywhere from 100,000 to a half a million, listened to music, danced, sang, made love, died (two people), and sloshed through odorous mud spawned by torrential rain.

The “official” food supply–hot dogs and hamburgers–ran out almost before singer Richie Havens, who went on first because the opening act was stuck in traffic, plucked a guitar string. “Bring food,” the organizers begged the outside world.

That was easier said than done, thanks to abandoned vehicles and barricaded highways. Locals who knew the back roads delivered carloads of cold cuts, water, soda, and fruit juice, but, given that all the nearby towns combined were not as large as Woodstock City, their efforts fed the encampment’s fringes but not much more.

No matter. Most attendees were beyond caring about food. Kids drank acid-laced kool-aid and water, smoked and ate hash, ingested god-knows what other drugs, and guzzled wine from that basic hippie accoutrement, the goatskin.

Beer was conspicuous by its absence. Art Vassmer, who owned a general store in nearby Kauneonga Lake, sold out his stock of six-packs. Some kids hauled in coolers loaded with beer, but that ran out long before the music did. A local bar owner showed up with a truck loaded with beer.

It sold “like crazy,” less because kids craved beer than because liquid of any sort was welcome on a hot day in August in a temporary city cut off from the outside world.(*2)

Nor did any of the long-haired, mud-soaked trippers care whether the national beverage was available or not. Who needed beer when pot, hash, and acid were as accessible as the air and rain and far more fun?

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*1: Robert Stephen Spitz, Barefoot in Babylon: The Creation of the Woodstock Music Festival, 1969 (New York: The Viking Press, 1989), 90. *2: Joel Makower, Woodstock: The Oral History (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 217.

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