Was Woodstock a Crisis or a Disaster?

Looking Back 50 Years on a Magical, Out-of-Control Event that Defined a Generation    

8/16/19 – – Fifty years ago, August 15, 1969, the organizers of the “Woodstock Music and Arts Fair” were operating in full crisis mode. The festival, marketed as “An Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music,” was off to a very shaky start.

Hours away from the first performer taking the hastily erected Woodstock stage, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Mike Lang (all in their twenties) were seeing any hope for a profitable venture slip away. More than 50,000 people had already been camped out on Max Yasgur’s 600-arce dairy farm in Bethel, New York, for two days. Unable to adequately control access to the site, there was no choice but to allow open, free admission. Now there were 250,000 people waiting to hear the first scheduled band, Sweetwater, which was stuck, along with tens of thousands of hopeful concert goers, in a massive traffic jam on the New York State Thruway.

Making matters worse, the business manager for the Who, sensing uncertainly in the air, was insisting upon cash payment before the band would go on. No money, no Tommy! Bad acid (LSD) was making the rounds, resulting in medical emergencies (there were two drug overdose deaths at Woodstock). Food, drinking water and toilet facilities designed to accommodate only 100,000 were already being overwhelmed. And periods of heavy rain were in the forecast for the next few days.

What a disaster, right?

Not so fast.

In Chapter 1 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“What a Crisis Is and Is Not”), we discuss the difference between a “disaster” and a “crisis.” A disaster is something bad and irreversible that’s already happened. A crisis is an unfolding situation that doesn’t have to end in disaster. The distinction is important, especially when you’re dealing with a challenging but fluid situation.

Faced with daunting logistical issues, the organizers of Woodstock didn’t hop on the first helicopter out of Bethel. With the whole world watching, they improvised, made good decisions and took decisive action. Richie Havens kicked things off in place of Sweetwater, the Who got their cash and food was brought in from local farms to help feed the estimated 500,000 people who would eventually arrive, mostly on foot. The organizers worked through the crisis to pull off a very imperfect, but magical event that still captures our imagination a half century later.

It took decades for Roberts, Rosenman, Kornfeld and Lang to come completely through the storm. They settled dozens of lawsuits and more than $1 million in debt (profits from the 1970 film “Woodstock,” co-directed by a young Martin Scorsese, helped). Not accepting the label of “disaster,” they had the resilience to make their crisis have a happy, historic ending.  

A personal reflection: Our positive perception of Woodstock is helped by the fact that the unstructured, spontaneous, counter-culture nature of the event appealed to the young people drawn to Yasgur’s farm in the summer of 1969. (Not sure a three-day concert without cell phone charging stations, safe spaces or sushi bars would be as well received today.) Having just graduated from high school, facing the possibility of being drafted into the Vietnam War, playing my drums in a garage band and living within a few-hour drive of Bethel, I was tempted to get myself “back to the garden.”

The $18 cover charge (for all three days) was not a problem. The outlook for rain didn’t bother me. Many of my friends were going. But three things kept me from being an eyewitness to history: I had a summer job that required my attendance on Saturdays, I’d have to talk my father into using his car, and I was worried about the availability of parking. Seriously. Offered an opportunity to enjoy three days of unsupervised Dionysian pleasure, I balked because of the parking.

Of course, I was right about the parking. And I guess that helps explain why I became a crisis counselor instead of a drummer in a rock band. 

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