It’s almost as if you’re telling a fairy tale now. It should almost begin “Once Upon a Time. …”
So let’s do. Once upon a time. …
There were no cellphones. And no personal computers. Which means there was no Internet. Newspaper reporters who filed stories in difficult locations dictated them to clerks who were fast and accurate back in the office. Who then shipped them to nearby editors who, when stories were big enough, handed them over to rewrite men (rewrite women were sadly rare back then) for the fastest possible polish, melding wire service information into them to make for a coherent whole adequate to the event.
And that, I confess, is what I thought of when the news came down last week of the death of Richie Havens, who became a major beloved figure in American music and culture almost by accident.
He was, legendarily, the opening act at the Woodstock Festival – or, as it said on the tickets, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair (It was also called the Woodstock Aquarian Exposition, too.)
I covered it for this newspaper. I was, so help me, assigned to it the morning of its beginning. I was a reporter of exactly 4½ months’ experience at the time. I was as “cub” as reporters get (though the actual term “cub reporter” was used only in movies, comic books and on TV).
And I was in the Woodstock press tent dictating my first Woodstock story into the phone when Havens went on. The dictation clerk could dig Havens in the background.
It was a small miracle (to me) that I’d managed to get there – facilitated by an executive secretary at The Buffalo News who got me on the right plane to Sullivan County, and the right cabdriver in Monticello, who actually did know all the back roads in the area so that he could get me a couple of miles away.
After that, pal, he said, you’re on your own. (The Thruway was briefly closed – such was the youth migration. Weeks before the event, the local press ran stories about the producers thinking they could easily handle 150,000. They wound up with almost four times that.)
So there I was filing with our amazed dictation clerk (she was flabbergasted that we’d entered a new era and were actually covering the event – and that she could hear it in the background). I was wearing an olive drab suit I’d never be able to wear again. And, yes, a tie.
By the time a truly great rewrite man named Al Zack finished with my orotund dictated drivel, my front page story sounded as if I were the second coming of Grantland Rice.
That press tent didn’t last long. In no time at all, the bad acid was taking its toll and the whole tent was converted into a makeshift infirmary. From then on, if Abbie Hoffman dropped in to kibitz with journalists, he wound up being pressed into medical service.
Producer Michael Lang, years later: “Richie Havens, as the person who started the whole weekend off, was unbelievable in the way he connected with the audience. No one wants to start so it was no surprise that he was hesitant, but I finally convinced him. I said, ‘You have to, we have to get this thing started.’ He set the exact right tone for the weekend – that we were in this together and what a miracle this was.”
The tone he set was so good that he became, at the beginning, one of the twin musical towers of the festival – the other being Jimi Hendrix at the very end, whose Monday morning set for a much-dwindled crowd of 30,000 or 40,000 had its apotheosis in his Vietnam fantasia on “The Star-Spangled Banner” for the stubborn faithful (and, according to Lang, those tripping too hard to leave just yet).
Part folk, part R&B and distinguished by a prophet’s beard and a near-saintly disposition, Havens was a kind of great Greenwich Village soul who colored the whole event far more than many admitted at the time. He gave it an opening benediction.
By the time it was over, it was a drug festival, a mud festival and an eternal tribute to inept planning as much as a music festival. Its three days of music and peace were as much a product of healthy young people under extreme duress helping each other – by necessity – through mutual hardship (rain, a half a million people learning to use God’s own plumbing facilities) as they were Abbie Hoffman’s “Woodstock America,” i.e., a nonviolent and music-loving counterculture who disdained civilization and only wanted to hear Richie Havens sing “Freedom! Freedom!” into the waning afternoon sun.
But too many people had a stake in Woodstock as legend to be detained by too much nettlesome and contradictory truth. In the classic words of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” when “the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
You have no idea how much I sympathize with younger generations who just might have had it up to here with the whole Woodstock/Woodstein era from 1965-75 when Aqaurian Art Fairs were thought to be paradigms of a new civilization and journalists could depose sitting presidents by speaking just enough truth to power.
We in Buffalo have had a lot of cultural remembrance lately – most notably in the Albright-Knox’s successful show and semisuccessful catalog “Wish You Were Here.”
On Thursday in UB’s Anderson Gallery on Martha Jackson Place off Englewood Avenue near Kenmore Avenue, the University at Buffalo Humanities Institute will begin its Gray Matter Lecture Series with a retrospective on UB’s extraordinary cultural life in the 1970s.
Participating beginning at 6:30 p.m. will be people in the know – Mark Shechner, a professor of English at the time; American Studies professor Mike Frisch, who’ll discuss the politics of the time; and, to my mind, the most important, Renée Levine, who was from 1965 to 1978 the managing director of the UB Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. Her book on it: “This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo” is definitive.
Levine is now working on a book about the single-most tragic Buffalo musical figure from that period – composer/performer Julius Eastman, once acclaimed nationally but so increasingly involved in both gay and African-American politics that even some friends lost touch with him after he moved to New York.
His unnoted death in Millard Fillmore Hospital in 1990 was, in my opinion, the single greatest lapse in our newspaper’s cultural coverage in my lifetime, but such was the obscurity his life had fallen into, there was no notice of it anywhere until Kyle Gann did so in the Village Voice eight months later. The most powerful disc of his music I’ve ever heard was recently released – Jace Clayton’s “The Julius Eastman Memory Depot” (New Amsterdam).