Woodstock ’89: Forgotten no more!

You know what they say: If you remember Woodstock '89... well, really, no one remembers Woodstock '89.

You know what they say: If you remember Woodstock '89... well, really, no one remembers Woodstock '89. YouTube

The 20th anniversary of Woodstock should’ve been a grand slam.

Boomers were eager to wallow in nostalgia by 1989 and the survivors of Woodstock were ready to go: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had just released American Dream, their first studio album since 1970's epochal Deja Vu, and Jefferson Airplane had reunited for their first record in 17 years.

Promoters were far less prepared. As the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Paul McCartney pioneered nostalgia-heavy arena tours, concert organizers were left without acts to anchor a festival lineup. Maybe that's why there was no real push to develop a genuine Woodstock 20th Anniversary festival, though it's also possible that the permit rights that plagued subsequent celebrations, including the recent ill-fated attempt to organize Woodstock 50, were reason enough for organizers not to assemble a splashy celebration.

Nevertheless, there was a Woodstock ’89. It wasn’t a violent fiasco like Woodstock '99 or a solid showcase of contemporary artists like the alt-rock era Woodstock '94. But look up “Woodstock ’89” on Wikipedia and it's there, dubbed "the Forgotten Woodstock," an appellation that acknowledges the event's obscurity but also elevates the gathering—a haphazard shindig that could only loosely be called a festival, or even a concert—to a height it doesn't deserve.

Get much beyond the entry's opening declaration and every sentence raises as many questions as it answers. "The event began with a single folk guitarist, Rich Pell, who came to the site." This may be true, but was there an audience to watch him, or was he playing to the fields? This suggests a small, provincial crowd, as does the subsequent statement: "The whole event was spontaneous. Anyone was invited to perform regardless of skill levels, and the majority of performers were lesser-known bands." Fine, but how did Pell arrange for permits from the property owners Charles and June Gelish, not to mention the water trucks, if this was a spur of the moment thing? The existence of the PA is explained away by equipment being on loan from Ice Nine (a local hard rock group, not to be confused with either the '90s punk band of the same name nor the current metal combo Ice Nine Kills) who brought the gear to the site allegedly after the crowd started to grow. Soon, the stage was filled with local artists bearing the names Jack Hardy, Target and the Psychedelic Kitchen, but somehow Savoy Brown showed up, as did original Woodstock vets Wavy Gravy and Melanie. 

All this makes Woodstock ’89 sound like something magical, a spontaneous celebration reminiscent of 1969, one that apparently attracted somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000 to 200,000 people, but the entry doesn't seem like the complete story—probably because it most assuredly isn't. It doesn't even have exact dates, after all.

The core element is true: There was a large, growing gathering in the area that was once Max Yasgur's farm, the site of the original Woodstock in 1969, but the intended official celebration was held at the Imperial resort at nearby Swan Lake, which staged a "Remember Woodstock" concert featuring Melanie, Johnny Winter, and John Sebastian over the course of August 17-19. The calendar threw the original days of the festival—August 15-17—into the middle of the work week in 1989, so a bunch of reporters camped at the Yasgur site, along with about 200 revellers, to commemorate the anniversary and, perhaps, wait until Remember Woodstock started. Eventually, this campsite evolved into a mellow week-long party, attracting a number of pilgrims and curiosity seekers. By Friday the 18th, the Sullivan County sheriff's office estimated, there were 25,000 people on site, but by Sunday only 2,000 remained.

Even the smaller of these numbers were far greater than the audience attending the festivities at the Imperial. The resort reportedly attracted no more than 200 people, so they decided to pull out all the stops to bring this crowd to their resort. Free tickets and transportation to Swan Lake were offered, Jimi Hendrix's father Al came out to Yasgur's to encourage campers to go to the official Remember Woodstock site, but it was all in vain: Anybody who headed to the original site preferred to stay there because it was "sacred ground."

The campers stuck around at the farm, fanning rumors of an impromptu Grateful Dead appearance, but winding up with Melanie, who headed out to the campground after singing at the Imperial. The lack of big names wasn't the only thing that changed in the years since the original festival: Acid was now passé. "Muskie," the captain of the onsite ambulance corps, told the New York Times, "You could make a lot of money if you had the aspirin concession here; this is a beer-drinking crowd."

A bunch of people drinking beer in a field sounds like the kind of festival that could happen at any place in the United States during the middle of August, which is surely why Woodstock ’89 is the "Forgotten Woodstock": It was a local arts and music event, not something seminal, a notion underscored by this half hour of footage from the event.

Granted, this festival wouldn't have existed if people didn't want to recapture the spirit of '69, but circumstances conspired to have this particular anniversary be something homespun and appealingly ramshackle. Seen through the prism of today's overblown festival culture, not to mention media cycles driven by meaningless anniversaries, the misshapenness of Woodstock ’89 is pretty endearing in retrospect.

That said, it's better to savor Woodstock '89 as a story, because all these rosy feelings disappear as soon as you listen to a note of the music. No amount of good vibes would be able to make three days of bands like Ice Nine tolerable.