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Going down to Yasgur's farm

by David Lamble

Scene from director Barak Goodman's "Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation." Photo: PBS Distribution
Scene from director Barak Goodman's "Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation." Photo: PBS Distribution  

The lively new documentary "Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation" kicks into high gear 13 minutes in when we hear from Peter Beren.

"When I was 20 years old, I faced my draft physical, putting down that I was a bedwetter, a homosexual, a Communist, color blind, nearly deaf in one ear, a heroin addict, a compulsive masturbator, with contagious warts, agoraphobic, acrophobic, myopic vision and ulcers."

Beren recalls his draft-board shrink dismissing his complaints with the brusque advice to shape up in the next year in order to be morally and physically fit to fight in Nam. Beren and the half-million or so long-haired kids who found their way to rural Bethel, New York, in August, 1969, were acutely aware that the mud and rain on Max Yasgur's farm were far preferable to the mud and napalm in a South Asian rainforest.

Veteran director Barak Goodman begins the film with the three-year Woodstock backstory. It's the tale of how a curly-haired imp (Michael Lang) convinced a trio of trust-fund babies to bankroll the then-novel idea of luring a pack of dope-smoking kids into the woods to hear a new generation of rock bands: The Who, Canned Heat, Country Joe and the Fish, and the newly formed trio Crosby, Stills & Nash.

Following this "follow the money" first act, the filmmakers scoot through the mud and discover how people coped with alternating periods of baking sun and driving rain. Woodstock has been likened to a huge, temporary city that magically sprang up on rolling pasture land normally devoted to dairy cows. The first rules suspended at Woodstock were American notions of private property. Once you were there, the traffic jam behind you meant you were staying for the duration, making the next day's tickets superfluous.

While the dope and music never ran out, after one day the food and drink did. It was then that a New Mexico food commune, nicknamed "the Hog Farmers," stepped in. Under the stoned-out bliss of their leader "Wavy Gravy" (aka Hugh Romney), they made sure that everyone had a basic vegetarian meal.

While an uptight NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller threatened to send in soldiers — as had happened the year before in Chicago, and as would tragically transpire the next year at Kent State, cooler heads prevailed, and the copters remained shuttles for musicians and food.

As a then-25-year-old college radio DJ, I paid for my tickets and arrived at Woodstock with my first sleeping bag, which I promptly mislaid in search of a concession-stand Coke. For the remainder of the weekend, I relied on the kindness of strangers. As the "Woodstock" film demonstrates, the same communal spirit served half-a-million kids, with only a single life lost.

What saved the day was an outpouring of aid from the residents of Bethel, NY. As one woman recalls, "We may have been hicks, but we were sure not going to allow anything bad to happen to those kids."

It's no coincidence that some of the Woodstock kids had been at another seminal event, three months earlier: the week-long riot outside the Stonewall gay bar in Greenwich Village, NYC. The two events bookended a summer of profound social and political change, change that is still producing enormous dividends.

If you enjoy this Woodstock doc as much as I did, you may want to check into the growing library of concert memorabilia, including the three-hour-plus concert film and record album, as well as gay author Eliot Tiber's 2009 memoir "Taking Woodstock" and Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's wonderful movie adaptation (DVD from Focus Features, book from Squareone Publishers).

Opens Friday at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinemas in SF, Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and 3Below Theaters and Lounge in San Jose. The film is widescreen, in color, runs 96 minutes, in English, and is not rated, although the sensitive should be aware of an abundance of nude celebrants, dope smoking, and rock stars conversing in four-letter words.

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