Living Off Woodstock : WOODSTOCK 20 YEARS AFTER : The aging of Aquarius : Whether for Memories or Money, Some Strange Bedfellows Harken Back to That August Weekend

Times Staff Writer

“You know, the Indians had a legend that, if you passed under the shadow of the mountain and came to Woodstock, you would have to return someday,” said Jerry Mitnick, owner of the Tinker Street Cafe. “Could be a blessing. Could be a curse. But you had to come back.”

And they do, almost every day.

This summer marks the 20th anniversary of the biggest pop music blowout of all time: the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. And even though it happened 60 miles to the south--on Max Yasgur’s farm--the faithful citizenry of the Woodstock Nation make their pilgrimages to Woodstock itself.

And to a large degree, the festival lives on in this tiny town in upstate New York, where hippies who once tripped out to three days of high-decibel Pied Piper rock are now adults running the town or supporting it by buying bumper stickers, T-shirts and other memorabilia.


Currently the festival occupies the attention, too, of Woodstock survivors who don’t live anywhere near here: its original underwriters, Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, who say they never made a dime off of it; Warner Bros., which owns the film, merchandising and recording rights to the festival and hopes to make millions; and those keepers of the Woodstock flame, such as Hog Farm commune founder Hugh “Wavy Gravy” Romney who still speaks wistfully of that August weekend in 1969 as “the greatest rush you can have this side of a pharmaceutical gathering.”

On a recent weekend, a Honda Accord with Virginia license plates pulled up to the curb next to Mitnick’s cafe and a family of four piled out. On the rear bumper was a purple and white bumper sticker commemorating the 20th anniversary of Woodstock.

The family settled in at a table across the way from where Mitnick was sitting on the front porch of the cafe. They scanned menus, and the mother, who once wore love beads at Woodstock and now is a data processor in Arlington, ordered the Max Yasgur Chef’s Salad with low-calorie dressing.

Her husband had purchased the bumper sticker for 99 cents at the Flying Watermelon tie dye shop, just down the street from the cafe. Woodstock anniversary T-shirts also are on sale there for $12 and up. One popular shirt bears a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” inscription over a map showing the location of the town of Woodstock in the center of New York state and the location of the Woodstock festival at White Lake, N.Y.

Former Blues Magoos guitarist Michael Esposito hunched over confidentially next to Mitnick, stroking his graying beard while he raised his voice above the reggae din coming from inside the cafe.

“Couples would come here to find themselves after Woodstock,” he said, laugh lines crinkling the edges of his peanut eyes. “And they would! They’d discover who they were. Really. Raise their consciousness. Then they’d split up.”

His nervous giggle rolled across the dining room/porch of the legendary night spot where Bob Dylan met the Band, Joan Baez met the New Age and a host of other ‘60s folkies hatched the music that would become the glue that briefly held together the Woodstock Nation.

“Dylan used to live upstairs,” Esposito said with an expansive, parchment-colored grin.

Ex-Band members Rick Danko and Levon Helm, who live part of the year in Woodstock, still float in for an occasional jam. Mitnick, who plays bass for his own band, the Human Condition, sometimes sits in with them. The Band was at Woodstock, he said. The festival, that is. Not to be confused with the town.

“The town didn’t want it held here,” Mitnick said.

And they still don’t. The original promoters paid $50,000 just to clean up Yasgur’s farm after the festival. And most of Woodstock’s current 7,000 residents aren’t eager to see how much clean-up would cost if it were held today.

Still, there are those who would welcome a second Woodstock, and this time in Woodstock itself--and not in a hay field halfway across the Catskills.

“The town didn’t want it to happen the first time either, but it did,” said Day Yusco, owner of a hair salon that has become something of a national clearinghouse for information on New Age events. Yusco, who had a vision of world unity shortly after the festival, came to Woodstock and established the Rainbow Tribe--a national mobilization organization that musters its members whenever an anti-nuclear or save-the-earth rally crops up.

Yusco’s Cut & Dry beauty salon is merely his day job.

Yusco, for one, plans to welcome returning Woodstock alumni on the 20th anniversary this Aug. 16. He’ll be beating a drum in Magic Meadow just outside of town and paying homage to a full eclipse of the moon, which is supposed to occur that same evening.

“We’re going to be hosts whether we want it or not,” he recently told the weekly Woodstock Times. “We will party all summer, keep the drums going. The brothers and sisters are coming home. We’re going to welcome them.”

But when Yusco and his tribe assembled for a dry run in the Magic Meadow on the night of the last full moon in May, they were interrupted in mid-drumbeat by Woodstock Police Chief John Salters and his officers. They ordered the tribe to disperse and ticketed 45 cars for illegal parking.

Esposito was among Yusco’s drum beaters.

“I’ve been playing here off and on for 26 years,” he said of his adopted hometown.

Esposito and his fellow Blues Magoos didn’t get to play at the Woodstock festival, but he showed up as a spectator--one of 400,000 or so who lived for three days in the mud--and later migrated permanently to the town of Woodstock, where he became a lay priest at a Catholic church.

Today, he repairs bicycles for $10 an hour and lives in a small shelter behind the Tinker Street Cafe. Like Mitnick, he plays guitar every so often at the Tinker Street Cafe. He’s still optimistic, but a little more cynical about the Woodstock Nation than he was 20 years ago.

“It’s not the same now,” Esposito said with a sigh. “I don’t know if it could ever happen again or not. I don’t know what it is exactly that’s different. I think it’s the money.”

“The question has always been: How do we potentially exploit it?” said Eric D. Frankel, vice president for marketing of Warner Bros. Domestic Pay-TV & Network Feature Film Sales division.

Then, as an afterthought, he added: “Exploit in a positive way.”

When Woodstock happened 20 years ago, Frankel was 11 years old and attending summer camp near Lookout, Pa., “just over the mountain from Woodstock.” He remembers all the counselors at the time, clamoring to leave camp for the weekend so they could join in.

Today, Frankel has his own office on the 13th floor of the Warner Communications building in Rockefeller Center in New York.

“We’re not just mean businessmen trying to make a buck,” he said. “We really care about this stuff.”

Indeed, Warner Bros. commissioned a full-time film editor to cull through thousands of hours of outtakes from Warner’s 1970 “Woodstock” documentary film. (Along with a pair of platinum albums, the movie has earned millions for Warners over the past 20 years.) According to Frankel, the present plan is to “put together this two-hour TV special where you’ll get to see the full songs. We’ll make it an entertainment special but we’ll also get into a lot of whatever-happened-to kinds of things.”

Singer Richie Havens, for instance.

Answering his own question, Frankel notes that Havens, who sang a memorable rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” at Woodstock, now does voice-overs for hamburger and Maxwell House coffee commercials.

“We’ll talk about other things too,” he said. “There were just a lot of unique things going on at that time. People could be drafted but they couldn’t vote. People wore their hair long to rebel against their parents.” But it’s a different world now, Frankel said. A different language is spoken.

When Frankel speaks about the “Woodstock minutes” that Warner Bros. has produced in conjunction with MTV and VH-1, for example, he uses terms such as “promotional vehicle” and “profit center.”

A repackaged “Woodstock” documentary will have a “sell-through price” of only $29.95 when it comes out on videocassette from Warner Home Video. What with the T-shirts and posters and other nostalgia items Warner will sell through its Licensing Corp. of America division this summer, Frankel sees Woodstock profits potentially approaching the legendary levels of Warner Bros.’ biggest TV winner of all: Bugs Bunny.

“We’ve turned Bugs Bunny into a $25-million-a-year business, taking these old clips and juggling them and formatting them and doing whatever and turning them into the most popular show on Saturday morning. It’s nice if you can sort of keep up the art form and make money at the same time. ‘Woodstock’ is a labor of love. Hopefully we’ll end up with a profit in the process.”

“Woodstock” is nostalgia, he added. It is not sacred.

In the documentary, Joan Baez pats her pregnant belly at one point and tells the crowd that her husband’s in jail for draft resistance.

“Boom--we cut to today,” said Frankel, bouncing in his chair. “Her son’s 19 years old. She and her husband have been divorced for years. It’s a curiosity.”

David Crosby, Steven Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young appeared publicly for the first time at Woodstock.

“Boom--20 years later. They’ve probably gained an aggregate of 150 pounds between ‘em,” said Frankel. “We certainly know that David Crosby has had his ups and downs, has spent time in jail, has had a major drug problem, has been rehabilitated and has put out a best-selling book.”

The Grateful Dead are also doing well.

“How about we focus on a thin, dark-haired Jerry Garcia, then switch to a slightly paunchier, gray-haired Jerry Garcia,” he said. “But he’s more popular today than he was back then! The Grateful Dead can sell out three shows at Giant Stadium, which accommodates 70,000 people, in, like, an hour-and-a-half! Now that’s something!”

And it’s something that Warner Bros. wants to tap into.

“We went out to the marketplace and found that interest is phenomenal,” said Karen Spitz, director of apparel licensing for Licensing Corp. of America. “Macy’s has a ‘60s store. Happy faces are back. Kids are wearing tie-dyed clothes. Major merchandisers like J.C. Penney are interested.”

Spitz couldn’t remember exactly where she was when Woodstock occurred, but she believed she was working: licensing the sale of Woodstock decals. She has been licensing cartoon characters and movie memorabilia for Warner Bros. for 23 years.

One of her first jobs involved T-shirts and doodads from the old ‘60s TV series “Batman.” This year, she’s doing it again--for the new Warner movie version of “Batman.”

She expects the money to be rolling in from “Batman” and Woodstock all the way through the Christmas holidays. Both have what professionals such as Spitz and Frankel refer to as “legs.”

Still, even optimists like them acknowledge that Woodstock and “Batman” will probably peter out after the first of the year.

Woodstock may be a terrific profit center, said Frankel, but it’s no Bugs Bunny.

Reclining on an Indian blanket in his upstairs nook of the Hog Farm communal house in Berkeley, Hugh Romney looked like a beached walrus in a fright wig. His sweat shirt read “Hog Farm,” he wore a pair of sunglasses and he snickered after every sentence.

“Woodstock was created for wallets,” he said. “It was for promoters to make a lot of money. But the universe kind of moved in and did a little dance and a bunch of us were fortunate enough to have been used in that dance; to surrender ourselves to that energy which is, I guess, the greatest rush you can have this side of a pharmaceutical gathering.”

Better known to the Woodstock faithful as Wavy Gravy, Romney turned 53 this year. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has tried to remain faithful to the precepts of the hippie life style: peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. A placard over his bed depicts the traditional peace sign of a three-branched “Y” enclosed in a circle, followed by the line “Back by popular demand.”

Down in the kitchen is a bulletin board with a work roster. Everyone does a stint of cooking and cleaning up and laundry at the Hog Farm. In the dining room is a 20-foot-long table where institutional meals of high-fiber, organically grown, macrobiotic edibles are served up each day.

Even in his exalted position as Hog Farm founder, Wavy does his share. A note stuck to the refrigerator door reminds Romney to “fix Zippy.”

“That’s what we named the washing machine,” he said. “Everything’s got a name.”

A TV Special

As Wavy Gravy, Romney is a professional clown, entrepreneur and elder statesman of the Woodstock Nation. He removes his false teeth, reddens his nose with rouge and har-de-har-hars like cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn whenever he can. After years of clowning for free at children’s hospitals, he has been working the college and club circuit recently, trying to “generate revenue.”

“I’m going out more and more to do that, whereas not too many years ago, I would never do anything like that--especially appearing in clubs where people would have to pay to see me,” he said, his toothless grin fading into a head-shaking sadness.

“I would never do that. But we’ve got to pay the rent. So that’s a major change for me, where I do what I must to earn revenue.” Lately, his activist brand of comedy has tended toward the morbid. When fellow Woodstock alumnus Abbie Hoffman was found dead of a drug overdose on April 12, Romney organized a wake and wrote a May Day eulogy urging Woodstock survivors: “Don’t mourn . . . organize.”

“Friends are starting to die off,” he said. “People are starting to die of natural causes. I’m 53. I remember when 53 was old. I was never going to live to be 53.”

This year, the commune Romney started on a Verdugo Hills hilltop will be 25 years old. Sociologists conjecture that hundreds of communes were spawned by the success of Woodstock, but few of them survive.

“We have lasted I think because we don’t take ourselves that seriously,” he said. “We have a real good sense of humor and we allow each other a lot of slack. You can do anything you want as long as you don’t hurt anybody else.”

Wavy and the Hog Farm achieved national notoriety even before Woodstock, by nominating its mascot, Pigasus, for President in 1968.

But it wasn’t until 1969 that the Hog Farm achieved permanent prominence as the hallucinogenic security force that kept order at Woodstock. It was from the Woodstock stage that Romney uttered the words that guarantee him immortality.

“At Woodstock, I was able to announce breakfast in bed for 400,000, which was when we introduced hippies to granola,” he said. “Nobody’d ever seen it. ‘What is this? Gravel?’ People didn’t quite trust the earth enough. We went around with Dixie cups to people in sleeping bags handing it to them. ‘Eat this. It’s good for you.’ ”

Romney negotiated an $8,000 fee from the festival’s original promoters to fly 100 Hog Farmers into Woodstock to keep order during the three-day festival.

It turned out to be a rain-soaked, mud-crusted, hungry, thirsty, musical disaster area, according to Romney.

“But something wonderful happens in disaster areas,” he said. “People tend to get off their own trips to help their fellow critter. There was a lot of people helping people helping themselves. So the whole thing lifted itself up by its collective bootstrap into a state of grace.”

By the time Woodstock was over, the state of grace was gone.

“I’m always waiting in the wings for the next time I feel that particular vibe where the hairs on my arm leap to rigid attention and you can almost feel the invisible strings moving you down the road that surpasseth understanding,” he said. “Howdy Doody had more free will than I did during Woodstock.”

After it was over, he and the Hog Farm continued traversing the country in their psychedelic buses, moving from music festival to music festival. They sold the buses in 1971, moved to Berkeley and started the Babble On answering service in 1974, and settled down in the Bay Area to await the revolution.

Romney recalls feeling his arm hair stand on end briefly a few more times, particularly in recent years when Live Aid and the Amnesty International concerts brought thousands together in a momentary musical gathering of collective good will.

But, he said, “I’ve never had it stand on end again for three days in a row.”

After 20 years, the patrician pair who underwrote the Woodstock “Aquarian Exposition” are still together, still dreaming of a Woodstock reunion concert and still grumbling that they haven’t earned their money back from the first Woodstock.

“If you’d bought U.S. Savings Bonds for $1.8 million in 1969, you’d easily have earned more money than we did,” said John Roberts.

Nevertheless, complained Joel Rosenman, the two entrepreneurs are still characterized in news stories as “greedy promoters who ripped off the masses for thousands of dollars and then left the landscape to rot.”

“We didn’t make any money on this,” said Roberts.

“We still haven’t,” chimed in Rosenman.

Which is not to say that they haven’t done quite nicely for themselves in other areas. Their fifth-floor office in a tony New York City address just off Park Avenue reflects comfortable if modest success. On one wall is a framed New Yorker cartoon depicting a TV news anchor saying that 97% of American adults distinctly remember attending Woodstock.

“I understand someone’s hawking little clods of dirt from Max Yasgur’s farm these days,” Roberts said.

“It’s like (Elvis Presley’s Memphis home) Graceland,” said Rosenman. “There are people out there who want to buy that dirt clod because they want to touch that memory. And they don’t care if it’s Woodstock air spray or hamburgers or toilet paper or underwear. If it’s called Woodstock, that’s the memory.”

The afternoon stock reports flash on a TV screen across the room and Rosenman is temporarily distracted. He mutters under his breath that the price of Warner Communications stock has gone up.

For $1 million 20 years ago, Roberts and Rosenman made a pact with Warners. They sold their film, broadcast and merchandising rights but retained the right to stage another Woodstock concert. What they have found this past year is that another Woodstock is impossible without cable, video, film, sound track and T-shirt rights.

Since the ‘60s, the word “ancillary” has crept into the concert business. Staging the latter without subsidy from the former is impossible. Roberts and Rosenman’s Woodstock Ventures have been unable to strike a compromise with Warner Communications.

They despair of Woodstock ever happening again.

As recent Princeton grads in 1969, Roberts and Rosenman already had inherited small fortunes. They were the right investors at the right time when Woodstock came around. They had been trying to horn in on the burgeoning rock music business before they ever met Woodstock visionary Michael Lang (currently manager for British rocker and Woodstock alumnus Joe Cocker).

Lang, who now lives in Woodstock not too far from the Tinker Street Cafe, convinced Roberts and Rosenhan that a big crowd--maybe as many as 50,000--would pay $8 each for a full day of rock and roll. Spread over three days, it could amount to more than $1 million.

When the money was eventually tallied, however, cash receipts only amounted to about $620,000, according to the pair. After the first day, the gate keepers abandoned any hope of collecting tickets or demanding entrance fees. Perhaps 97% of America did attend Woodstock, Roberts observed wryly, but fewer than 10% of them paid to get in.

Others Were Paid

But the performers, farmers, fence builders, sound and light engineers, lawyers, agents, accountants, doctors . . . everyone got paid. Except for Roberts and Rosenman. The day after it was over, they met with the bank and found a loan of $1.8 million due. Even after selling off the film and much of the merchandising rights to Warner Bros., they were still $300,000 in the hole.

While they have never given up the idea of a second Woodstock, Roberts and Rosenman haven’t been living in the past. After Woodstock, they funded, then later sold, a Manhattan recording studio.

Their big money deals since Woodstock have included leveraged buyouts of a chain of retail farm supply stores, a gift wrap manufacturer and a candy mint company. Two years ago, they underwrote a $2-million Caribbean treasure hunt.

In 1974, they recorded their early entrepreneurial escapades in an autobiography entitled “Young Men With Unlimited Capital,” to be reissued this summer by Bantam Books. Last year, Warner Bros. planned to turn it into a feature film.

“They had it cast (Emilio Estevez as Roberts, Ralph Macchio as Rosenman) and budgeted ($12 million) and it was supposed to go before the cameras last year,” said Roberts. “Then there were apparently disputes and now it’s on hold, as they say.”

Warners may have earned millions to their pennies, but the real Woodstock legacy was never about money, they said. Nor was it about pot or drugs or even the music.

“Woodstock was one of the first major media events where the participants were conscious of how the media was covering them while they were being covered,” said Rosenman. “They’d read the headlines from the stage. Everybody knew what the impact was while they were in the middle of it.”

The crowd itself represented the legacy, they said.

“It was a fun-loving, expressive, potentially explosive, dangerous creature,” Rosenman continued.

“There was a sense of tolerance,” Roberts added quickly.

“But there was, I don’t know, a kind of savagery in a sense too,” Rosenman said, weaving his fingers back and forth in a vain search for the right words to describe it. “There was so much raw power there. Savagery is the best word I can think of, but a savagery that proved to be noble somehow.”

For the modern archeologist, relics from the Woodstock Nation are all over the little town that gave the festival its name.

A six-foot-high candle that was first lit in the summer of 1969 has been burning nonstop during regular business hours at the Candlestock shop two blocks down from the Tinker Street Cafe. A Woodstock devotee once offered to pay the store owner $5,000 for the candle, nicknamed Mt. Steph, but she wouldn’t sell it.

A gold record of Bob Dylan’s album “Planet Waves,” awarded to Band member Levon Helm, hangs over an old Empress jukebox in the Colonial Drug store. A Grateful Dead T-shirt franchise, Not Fade Away, operates across the street from the Tinker Street Cafe.

“Half the kids in town are named Sky or Meadow or Dylan,” said Theresa Funicello, a Woodstock resident for more than a decade.

Woodstock has its own horoscope emporium (Astrology & Connection), health-oriented pizza shop (Whole Wheat Pizza) and meditation supply store (Dharmaware--"crystals, taos drums, etc.”).

“I moved up here in 1974,” said author and poet Ed Sanders, member of the ‘60s group the Fugs. It wasn’t to recapture any of the glory of the Woodstock festival, he said. The Fugs had broken up just a few weeks before the concert and Sanders “didn’t even try to get invited to play.”

“This is an 80-year-old art colony. Painters used to come here because of the light. The blue stone cliffs. The patterns of lichen. The primary colors.

“The musicians came later. They brought that American art form known as acid rock with them. You could live here for next to nothing for quite a while and make music. But, thanks to Reagan and the Republicans, the rat race has intensified. You can’t buy a house here now for less than $200,000.”

Just outside of town is a bend in the Esophus Creek known as Big Deep, where hundreds of hippies stripped and swam on hot summer days during the late ‘60s. Sanders was once among them. After the Woodstock festival, when more and more flower children drifted through, the town council forbade swimming in Big Deep.

Recently, Sanders has led a drive to reopen the swimming hole, nestled in a steamy green meadow of ash and poplar. He swims there nude regularly, just like in the old days.

“There are too many artists with bad teeth,” he said. “You can get a Honda for what it costs to get your teeth fixed these days, you know? But somehow musicians and artists make it through. Woodstock will probably be home to the first generation of rock and roll senior citizens.”

Then, after a pause:

“It’s the nearest thing to paradise I’ve found. It’s the light I think. Primary colors. You just can’t keep primary colors down.”