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That Was Then This Is Now : Some folks believe their Woodstock memories are sacred. But is the new festival sacrilege? Whose party is it, anyway?

Times Staff Writer

“It used to be us versus them. Then, we became them and the kids became us. Except, we’re also still us . . . aren’t we?” --Hector Lizzardi, site manager for Woodstock ’94.

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On a steamy summer morning, Woodstock II is busy being born.

With a roar, Hector Lizzardi’s Jeep bounces to the top of a grassy ridge and shudders to a halt. Behind the wheel, the ponytailed man with a ‘60s heart and a ‘90s bankroll points proudly to the green meadow below.

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“This,” he says with only a hint of irony, “is where it’s at.”

In the distance, construction crews build water fountains and lay wooden foundations for an immense concert stage. Others string lines for 1,000 telephones. Within a week, 3,200 portable toilets will ring the site.

And it’s like, wow: a gorgeous pasture bursting with wildflowers in Upstate New York, covering 840 acres. Just the place for Generation Xers to collide with Tie-Died Geezers in the latest chapter of American anniversary hell.

Got your calendars out? We’ve just relived the 25th anniversary of the first U.S. moon landing and the 30th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer. Next year, we’ll kick off similar reruns for the killings at Kent State and Earth Day. You could spend a lifetime looking back.

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But the biggest hoo-hah of all is less than two weeks away. On Aug. 12, the bucolic site surrounding Lizzardi will be transformed into Woodstock ’94--a three-day rock ‘n’ roll extravaganza for 250,000 that’s trying to rekindle the magic of the original music festival on its 25th anniversary.

Never mind that this year’s Woodstock is in Saugerties, 60 miles from the original site at Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel. Or that old-timers dismiss the new festival as a corporate con job--a slick package deal that lacks the innocence and spontaneity of the original event.

Woodstock ’94 backers insist that they’re the real thing. And they abhor any comparisons to the mud-soaked music and arts event that became a defining moment for the 1960s counterculture, warts and all.

“This is 1994,” says Michael Lang, who brainstormed the original festival and is organizing the Saugerties event. “There’s a new generation involved and you can’t just cling to what happened before. You have to turn the page.”

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Yet it’s hard to ignore the past, especially for an event as historically charged as Woodstock. To some, the original rock festival has become an embarrassing ‘60s cliche. Just one more bad memory from the generation that brought us peace, love and other slogans best forgotten.

Others view the 1969 gathering as a holy moment. Even if they never attended, millions of baby boomers keep Woodstock close to their hearts and they resent anyone hijacking the memory. Time may blur their recollections and harsh facts can get in the way. But the urge to go back is irresistible.

“You could never duplicate the first event and you shouldn’t try,” says Rufus Friedman, who helped construct the original site and is now an art designer in Venice, Calif. “For better or worse, it was from another time.”

Indeed, there’s a possessiveness about Woodstock that can get nasty. Just whose party is this anyway? And what do these kids today want?

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If you’ve got big bucks on the line, the answer is obvious.

“To me, the first Woodstock festival was a large happening that got out of control and, by the grace of God, no one got badly hurt,” Lizzardi says. “At Woodstock ’94, we’re geared up for a whole new generation, and we’re not going to make the same mistakes. We have a few resources to help these kids along.”

Thirty million dollars, to be exact, much of it shelled out by corporate sponsors such as Pepsi and Haagen-Dazs. It’s a staggering amount contrasted with the $3 million it cost to stage the 1969 festival.

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But that was then and this is now. Get with the new program--every micro-planned minute of it.

Tickets to the 1994 event cost $135 for three days of music and other entertainment. Organizers want a tightly controlled festival, where concert-goers are forbidden to bring their own food or drink alcohol. Little has been left to chance, and Polygram Diversified Ventures, the entertainment conglomerate organizing the program, is determined to run a trauma-free event.

“We’re going to learn from mistakes made last time,” Lang says. “I still have my loyalties to the ‘60s, but you have to live in the real world.”

Twenty-five years ago, Lang crisscrossed Yasgur’s farm on a motorbike, barking orders and confounding reporters with cryptic hippie wisdom. He still has long curly hair and talks like Mr. Goodvibes. But he’s playing with the big boys now.

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Many ticket buyers will be under 25, Lang notes, so members of Generation X will be encouraged to speak out on social issues at the festival in various public forums and dispel the image that they’re a lazy, cynical bunch. Promoters want them to be creative, he adds, sounding like a parent eager for children to have a good time at camp.

“If all goes well, these kids will have an event they’ll never forget,” Lang predicts. “It’ll be a chance to for them to meet and see what happens in an open field for three days. It’s not just a concert. It’s a lifestyle.”

But check your weirdness at the door. This time, nobody’s making announcements about blue and green LSD tabs from the stage. Have a blast . . . and be sure to pick up an official Woodstock condom at the souvenir stand.

“This is corporate rock and roll,” says spokeswoman Emily Rubin, who was 3 at the time of the first Woodstock festival. “Times have changed.”

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In July, 1969, I was 19 and Woodstock was shaping up as the ultimate concert. Every week, my best friend, John, and I went down to the old Free Press bookstore on Fairfax Avenue, gaping at posters showing the growing list of performers.

Janis. Jimi. Country Joe and the Fish. Everybody was going to be there. The pull was magnetic, 3,000 miles away. But that’s as close as we got.

“You’re not going,” my father said. “You’re not going to travel cross-country on a bus for five days and live in a field for three days.”

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My friend’s mother, Ida, was more direct: “Using what for money?” she said with a laugh.

Like many other teen-agers, we waited for the movie the following year to finally get a glimpse of the excitement. And then a bizarre thing happened.

As we walked into the theater, my friend and I stared at huge photos of Woodstock concert-goers lining the walls. And damned if we didn’t see two skinny kids who looked like us--muddy, disheveled and happy--in the crowd.

“I guess we made it after all,” my friend deadpanned. “What a trip.”

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It wasn’t just us. Soon, I began hearing stories from people who claimed to have been at Woodstock but clearly had not. Even those who admitted that they weren’t there spoke as if they had been in a metaphysical sense--as if movie and record hype had expanded the crowd well beyond the original 400,000.

Did it matter that Joni Mitchell, who wrote the song “Woodstock,” never reached the festival? Or that Abbie Hoffman, who coined the phrase “Woodstock Nation,” was booted off the stage when he interrupted a rock performance?

This was an event to be treasured, along with artifacts from the site, no matter how mundane. In a surprise appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” the night after the festival, rock superstar Stephen Stills held a worn cowboy boot up to the ABC-TV cameras and proudly said: “I’ve still got my mud.”

Twenty-five years later, I’ve got mine, too, no matter how metaphorical. For three days and nights, members of the ‘60s generation endured rainstorms, limited food, substandard sleeping conditions and mind-boggling traffic congestion to have a good time. They had become the third-largest city in New York, and when it was all over there was no violence. Just a lot of memories.

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In the years since, hundreds have gathered at Max Yasgur’s farm on the anniversary to pay their respects. Folks who never attended the festival quietly tour the grassy site, buy a T-shirt . . . and bring home a little mud.

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Ideally, there would have been more than mud for them this year.

A rival group of promoters had been planning a competing three-day festival on the same weekend at Max Yasgur’s farm, featuring many of the acts from the 1969 event. Performers such as Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, Country Joe McDonald, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Melanie were slated to appear at the Bethel ’94 festival, in a calculated bid for boomer bucks.

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On Monday, however, backers withdrew their $5-million funding for the event, noting that only 1,650 tickets had sold in more than a week.

“Why spend all that money if no one’s going to come?” says Harry Ruhlen, whose Frontier Insurance Group, an Upstate New York firm, was to be the major festival underwriter. “I’m sure there will be some spontaneous observance at the original Woodstock site . . . but you have to go where the money is”:

To Saugerties, where promoters are luring younger customers with acts such as Aerosmith, Alice in Chains, Cypress Hill, Peter Gabriel, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Spin Doctors and others. Organizers are also wooing oldsters with such performers as Bob Dylan; the Band; Santana; Johnny Cash; Crosby, Stills and Nash; the Neville Brothers, and Joe Cocker.

Before the Bethel festival lost its funding, Lang sniffed that his competition was presenting “an oldies show . . . a feel-good thing.”

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“I have some nostalgia for the original site, but nothing beyond that,” he adds. “There’s a whole new generation of kids out there, and this is their time.”

Ask Ariel Zevon, 17, who’s organizing “Generation Xposition: The Youth Movement at Woodstock 94.” Her activities include organizing a food drive for the homeless, setting up a child-care center, creating a “Multi-Cultural Harmony Gathering Place” and volunteering time as a peer counselor.

Ariel, a student at Marlboro College in Vermont, grew up hearing her parents talk about the Woodstock myth. Now she wants to write her own.

“There were half a million people up there and virtually no violence,” Ariel says. “And for most people my age, that’s really inconceivable.

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“Our generation hasn’t been able to come together like that, but this might be an occasion when it happens. I’d hope we can build a network of young people out of this. But it has to be our story. Something we create.”

In other words, let the old fogies with gray ponytails go somewhere else.

The comic possibilities are endless: Pepsi lampooned the aging Woodstock generation--spreading waistlines and all--in a wickedly funny Super Bowl commercial this year, and TV talk-show hosts have also had a field day with imagined reunions. In one comedy bit, gasping festival-goers are told to avoid the green Rolaids tablets, and counselors talk people down from bad yogurt trips. Imagine the festival reaching its climax, when 400,000 people rise from their BarcaLoungers to do the M-A-A-L-O-X cheer.

Yet others aren’t amused. To them, Saugerties is the equivalent of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. A rock ‘n’ roll desecration.

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“That festival has become Peace-Love Inc.,” charges Michael Wadleigh, who directed the award-winning film made of the original festival. “Woodstock ’94 is totally commercial. It’s owned by sponsors and it runs counter to the real meaning of Woodstock.”

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The meaning of Woodstock. It sounds heavy, but what’s the point? Ask those who were there, and they’ll tell you hype and history are not the same.

“People take the Woodstock thing much too seriously, building it up,” says Friedman, who helped build the original site. “It was more like a children’s crusade, because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We narrowly averted a disaster up there. We all acted professional, but it was like going to Boy Scout camp.”

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The near-misses would curl your hair: rainstorms that threatened to wash away the entire festival. Fierce winds that could have toppled rickety light towers, instantly killing hundreds. A dangerous shortage of food and water.

Some folks traveled thousands of miles and never even got to hear the music. Gail Collins, then an Ohio teen-ager, drove to Woodstock and got caught in a monumental traffic jam. After three days, she was lucky to get out.

“When I saw people roaming through the woods and across the mud, it looked like the end of the world,” says Collins, now a New York Newsday columnist. “But people survived and nobody was mean. Maybe that’s the best thing.”

For Elen Orson, Woodstock was a beautiful bubble that burst. People were fighting against the Vietnam War and demanding the right to live a different lifestyle, free from materialism, she says. It lasted three days.

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“This was like any other dream not based in reality,” says Orson, who was then a 16-year-old assistant to Michael Wadleigh’s crew and is now a supervising film editor for Walt Disney animation living in the Hollywood hills. “When we tried to go on and live that way, reality intervened. It had to.”

If she had time, Orson adds, she’d travel to Yasgur’s farm once more--to see what’s changed, check out what remains and to remember one crazy summer.

“I’d go back to that field, because I have such a clear picture of it in my head,” she says. “It’s like a house I used to live in, and I’d like to know if it matches the image in my mind. Lots of people have that urge.”

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On a scorching afternoon, 25 years later, I’m finally on my way to Woodstock. My wife and I are looking for the original festival site, and it’s hard to find unless you make the correct turn down a dusty, unmarked road.

Before we arrive, however, there’s another memory to hunt down. Some 27 summers ago, my wife went to summer camp near Bethel and she’s obsessed with the idea of revisiting the long abandoned site. If only we can find it.

Does anyone remember Camp Mi Hansa? Locals frown and scratch their heads, but to my wife it’s as clear as yesterday: bright red bunkhouses where girls and boys held midnight trysts. A large swimming pool. The tennis court that doubled as a dance area, and wide open woods. The memory is crystal clear.

After some detective work, we track down an old lumber-store clerk who knows the exact location. We follow his directions, climb a mountain road and suddenly the camp’s in view. There’s only one bunkhouse left, crumbling and padlocked. The tennis court is in disrepair; the pool cracked and empty.

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Picking our way through a field of waist-high weeds, we take one last look before driving off. The camp site seems smaller and less imposing to her in retrospect, yet it really doesn’t matter. It’s the recollection that counts.

Ten miles from Yasgur’s farm, we’re racing myth and memory down the road. We zip past T-shirt stands, cut through fields and there it is: a sprawling canvas of meadow and sloping hills that once held 400,000 true believers.

There’s a small plaque marking the site of the original stage and no one around except for a film crew making a rock video. We’re alone with images of Jimi Hendrix, peace signs and teen-agers making love in the woods.

“This is the place, man,” says a Bethel ’94 booster who cruises by in a red pickup. “Forget Saugerties. This is the real place.”

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But what does that mean--to aging hippies or skeptical 20-year-olds?

You can soak up vibes for only so long before realizing that an empty field is an empty field. People made history here big-time, yet it won’t happen again unless they come back and rediscover the magic. In Saugerties or anywhere else.

“It’s great that somebody’s trying to dream up Woodstock again, but it can never be the way it was or exactly how we remember it,” Orson says.

“We’ve got a new generation now. Maybe they’ll show the world that we can still be decent to each other. Maybe they’ll come up with a new message.”

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Or they might just have one helluva party and call it a day.

“Also good,” Orson says. “Listen, if you make it up to Woodstock, go skinny-dipping in the lake for me. And stay away from the brown acid.”


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