Last weekend marked the 42nd anniversary of the Woodstock festival and the Manson family murders. The two events passed with little if any fanfare, just a brief mention or two from the mainstream media. Then came the news of John Calley’s death and the combined weight of the three got me to thinking again about days of old.
August of 1969 was a strange time to be living in Hollywood. First came the news of a slaughter of celebrities up in the hills followed less than a week later by the seismic explosion of a huge music festival in New York. Most people don’t connect them but combined they changed the face of rock music forever. This month I thought I would discuss the nicer and more obvious of the two and next month explain what the days of Helter Skelter did to change the industry.
Let me start off my saying that I wasn’t at Woodstock (I’m probably one of the few of my generation who claims not to have been) but as a young teenager I followed the news of it feverishly and devoured everything that I could get my hands on about it, remember that it was the cover story that week in Time and Life magazine and seemed to be all anyone in L.A.’s music scene was talking about, especially all the bands that had passed on performing there. Lot’s of shaking of heads and regrets.
But what I did get to do that very few can say they did was to see almost all of the raw footage that made up the film before it was edited and released. One of my uncle’s dear friends was John Calley, then the studio head at Warner Brothers and as gracious, elegant and intelligent a man as you could ever find in tinseltown.
He was once described in a magazine article as “the blue in the toilet bowl of Hollywood” which was a pretty accurate assessment of him.
Fred Weintraub, a new executive at Warner Bros. is often the man credited with the idea to make a movie out of the Woodstock festival and indeed was the one who brought it to the studio’s attention, as he was trying to make his mark as a worthy new hire at the studio and being a New York club owner caught wind of the festival early on. But it was John who actually convinced the board to put up $200,000 to make a documentary film about the festival. Everyone at Warner’s thought he was crazy at the time, the studio was nearly bankrupt and Mr. Weintraub had to fly into LA at the last minute to help convince his new partners that this was a worthwhile investment. John and my uncle were discussing the Monterey Pop festival film one night and John thought that this was a way for the studio to make a couple hundred thousand bucks on the cheap with little investment or commitment on their part. Ironically the film of the Woodstock festival would end up saving the studio.
As the film was being edited and assembled in New York the raw footage was shipped to Los Angeles for the executives to see and to make suggestions to the licensing departments of the music labels as to which groups to include in the film. John rightly realized that the biggest obstacle to the film would be getting some notoriously difficult labels chiefs to agree to allow their bands to appear without demanding exorbitant fees for their appearances. Clive Davis, the then all powerful head of Columbia records forbade any of their artists from appearing in the film with the exception of Santana and then only because they hadn’t released their first album yet and Clive thought that it would be a good way to promote an unknown band for free. He had stood backstage in the mud with all of his artists for three days and should have had a better idea of the importance of being in the film but ultimately when John balked at the fees Clive was demanding for his artists they were all cut out, a big mistake. As all of this film was being looked at with no rhyme or reason to it, John saw to it that I was allowed to sit in the screening room and look at all of the then raw footage.
What I saw of the raw footage and what I saw on the screen at the premier screening in L.A. left me shaking my head in confusion. Act’s that were listed as headliners were missing altogether, live footage was replaced with studio tracks, the running order was completely disrupted so that there was no sense of the time or scope of the event.
More than a third of the final film was made up of interviews and crowd shots that had nothing to do with what was happening on stage and often were shot after the festival was over. Interviews with the most important people responsible for putting on or running the festival were deleted or so heavily edited as to be nonsensical, (Bill Graham, Eddie Kramer, Lee Osborne, Chip Monck, etc.) All of the necessary footage was right there to make one of the great documentary films about a watershed cultural event and yet somehow the studio missed the boat completely. How did this happen?
One of the biggest problems with the Woodstock film has been it’s editing. It has now been released no fewer than four times, each time adding and changing things. There is the original film released in March 1970, a directors cut (awful sound and picture quality) a 40th anniversary Ultimate Collectors edition(very long winded at 3 and 3/4 hours) and a European version which is the worst of them all. For the sake of brevity I am going to confine my comments to the original film because that’s what I was around for and have first hand knowledge of but with a little exploring on the internet I am sure that you can find information on all of the versions.
Let’s start at the beginning. The very first major act to sign up for the Woodstock festival and the one that led to most of the other act’s getting on board was Credence Clearwater Revival. They got a whopping $10,000 to be the featured and closing act of the second day. Credence drummer Doug Clifford later commented “Once Credence signed everyone else jumped in line and all of the other big acts signed up” They wound up not going onstage until 12:30 am and at John Fogerty’s insistence were edited out of the film, something that the other members of the band still express great bitterness over. Having seen the footage of their performance I can see why Fogarty killed it. They stuck to only their hits and played quick rushed versions of them with little if any improvisation, you could have just played the albums over the speakers and not known the difference by and large. John Fogerty put some of the blame for their lackluster performance on the fact that they got such a late start and had to follow the Grateful Dead’s truly nightmarish performance.
One of the performances that I was most looking forward to watching was the Dead’s set. You would think that a band that was signed to the same label as the studio producing the film would get pride of place and be heavily featured in the final release. Instead, other than a couple of quick clips of Jerry Garcia backstage holding up a joint to the camera you would never even known they were even there.
A band that had a vast amount of experience playing live, had played countless festivals before and was used to big crowds, in short a band that should have hit it out of the park, just stunk the joint up. They were appallingly bad. Garcia came off stage admitting that it was their worst performance ever. How could this happen?
Members of their crew blamed the sound system, (something Eddie Kramer takes great umbrage at, saying that everyone else had the same set up and other bands turned in great sets and that for years afterwards the sound system known as the “Woodstock System” was used over and over again at large festivals to great effect.), that Bob Weir had been shocked by a microphone (although no one else was), etc. Years later, I asked Bill Graham what had happened that night and he said that he thought that they just got spooked by the crowd and the event, that as one of the most experienced acts there, they knew full well what was happening and the importance of it and it just got to them. And then when Garcia talked to Fogerty afterwards backstage he got him freaked out as well. I don’t know if that was the case but from seeing the raw footage something must have happened.
Janis Joplin followed Credence and with her new band turned in a slightly above average set for the lack of rehearsal time but also was cut from the film at Columbia Records head Clive Davis insistence. But then Sly and the Family Stone turned in maybe the best show of the entire weekend. Vibrant, lively, up-tempo, polished and riveting. He had the crowd up and dancing almost from the first note. By the end his afro was quite literally steaming. So much for sleepy crowds and bad sound.
Sunday, August 17, 1969 is the day that confused me the most in it’s portrayal in the film. Now granted things had gotten way off schedule by this point and a lengthy rain delay was no help at all, but what does that have to do with the edited film and it’s portrayal of the day?
Joe Cocker started in the late afternoon and is well represented by his performance of “A Little Help From My Friends”, the rest of his performance is no better or worse so not a bad choice of song for the film.
Country Joe came back and played his scheduled set with his full electric band as opposed to his acoustic set on the second day. This has been a source of great controversy over the years as Country Joe has always claimed that he was forced out onto the stage immediately after Ritchie Havens opened the festival on the first day and performed his now legendary “Fish Cheer”. Let me state here for the record that this is absolutely untrue, he performed solo on Saturday, the second day of the festival following Quill (who never made it into the film) and immediately before Santana. The film footage which shows him waiting backstage with his guitar in the background while Quill is playing and then shows Santana’s roadies setting up behind him at the end of his performances is definitive in establishing when he actually played. Both of his performances have been yanked out of context by changing the actual running order during the festival. And then to make matters worse in the film along comes Arlo Guthrie who actually performed on the first day immediately before Joan Baez. Then in the film comes Crosby Stills and Nash playing “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” acoustically, when they actually arrived late and wound up being the last scheduled act of the festival on Sunday night, but in the film they appear very early on. I was totally confused by now and then after another long delay comes Ten Years After’s performance of “I’m Going Home”, one of the most bombastic, boring, long winded, self indulgent things in the entire movie. They had played great versions of “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” and “I Can’t keep from Crying” right before that could have been included easily in the time allotted to “Going Home” and were much more interesting songs. Then came two of the great performances of the festival both of which never made the film. The Band turned in a ten song performance that included a stand out version of “The Weight”. They were followed by Johnny Winter who was just blazingly good, of all of the great guitarist at Woodstock he was the best, better than Hendrix in my opinion (for reasons we will discuss later) and his take on “Mean Town Blues” is one of the standout efforts of the entire festival.
Blood Sweat and Tears followed Johnny Winter and if anyone could make a claim for having performed poorly because of sound system problems it was them. With only an eight track tape machine and a cobbled together mixing board in a trailer out back, Eddie Kramer was doing yeoman’s work, but when you have to lose one track as a “click” track to synchronize with the film and are only left with seven active mike feeds there is only so much that you can do. And with a band the size of Blood Sweat and Tears with all of their horn and keyboard players it meant lots of times they where trying to share mikes which resulted in all of the predictable problems. But that is still no excuse for the usually rock solid vocalist David Clayton Thomas to be horribly off key for the entire set. At one point you can see Fred Lapius shaking his dead in disgust. Needless to say all three bands never made it into the film.
Finally early Monday morning after most of the crowd was already burned out and leaving, Paul Butterfield played a sharp set of blues only to be followed onstage by Sha Na-Na! How these guys, a novelty 50′s vaudeville act got to play at the festival much less appear in the film and then go on to have their own TV show is a complete mystery to me. To make matters worse they then were edited into the slot right after the Who’s legendary late night performance which made no sense at all. You go from the complete darkness of Saturday night to the jarring bright light of early Monday morning, not a easy juxtaposition at all. The worst part of their show is that by the time that they got off stage it was mid morning before Hendrix was able to appear and the vast crowd of 400,000 had dwindled to just a handful. The crowd shots during Hendrix’s performance are embarrassing, with more people seeming to be in the process of clean up than actually watching the show. Hendrix had the option of playing late Sunday night as the closing act of the festival but declined thinking that everyone would be too tired and let Crosby Stills and Nash take his place instead. A huge mistake on his part because by the time he appeared everyone was gone! Much has been written about Hendrix’s Woodstock performance and many regard it as one of the highlights of his short career. I am not among them. I watched his complete performance several times and while it is some of the best footage of him playing in terms of sound and video quality, it isn’t close to being his best work and is to be blunt, disappointing. He played with a marginal pick up band that included a very unhappy Mitch Mitchell on drums, who quit the band immediately thereafter, Billy Cox on bass, who was brand new to the band and a rhythm guitarist and two percussionists whom he never played with again. It is really no better that a very good jam session, albeit with Hendrix as your guitarist but still just a jam session. Because of their unfamiliarity with one another, Hendrix is forced to do all of the heavy lifting and as such had to reign in almost all of his flamboyant stage theatrics and concentrate on his playing to good effect but the band is not supportive at all and actually get in the way of most of his playing. Starting with a lackluster “Message of Love” and finishing with an abbreviated “Hey Joe” his 130 minute set is a fitting close to the festival, by then exhausted, fragmented and spent.
The ironic thing about the original film is that it won the Academy award that year for best documentary. Years later, over drinks one night, right before he quit Hollywood for good out of disgust with what it had turned into, John Calley said that Woodstock was the only Oscar he ever won that he felt he should have given back. He wasn’t pleased with the film, being a consummate storyteller he felt that the film hadn’t told the story of the event at all, but admitted that the money it had made had saved the studio from certain bankruptcy. Such are the ironies of Hollywood and the music business.
I think that I will let the final words here be those of Bill Graham, the legendary promoter who spent all weekend backstage at Woodstock and was responsible for bringing some of the major acts to the festival. In an interview given in 1971 he said,
“A few years ago, a couple of geniuses put on something called the Woodstock Festival concert and film. It was a tragedy. Groups recognized that they could go into larger cattle markets, play less time and make more dollars. What they’ve done is to destroy the rock industry.”