When most people picture Woodstock ’69, they think largely of the fan’s perspective, envisioning the hundreds of thousands of free loving humans gathered to see some of the top musical acts of the era and revel in their desire for social unity. What makes for just as interesting of a story is Elliot Tiber’s back of house account of the people that combined forces to make such a seemingly impractical festival function relatively successfully given the outrageous circumstances.
Elliot Tiber helped secure the Woodstock festival location in 1969 and published his memoir Taking Woodstock in 2007, which was made into a movie with the same name in 2009. The story depicts the unpredictable adventure that saved his family from bankruptcy and transformed him forever.
Internally struggling as a young, semi-closeted gay man, Tiber enjoyed a thriving career and whimsical lifestyle as a successful interior designer in NYC. It contrasted drastically with his dingy family life to which he returned on weekends to help run his parents’ failing motel business, the El Monaco, in a defunct resort hamlet in White Lake, NY within the town of Bethel. Pouring his own money into the rundown property and working tireslessly on repairs and keeping his homosexuality undetected, he endlessly sought the approval of his unaffectionate parents.
When he read about the proposed Woodstock festival in the paper, Tiber helped secure a location for the festival after learning it was under serious threat of being cancelled entirely. The festival permit for Wallkill, a town about an hour east, was revoked due to concerns over how the estimated 50,000 attendees might negatively impact the town. Tiber had just purchased his own permit for $1 from the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, planning to host his own, much smaller, annual music festival. Realizing he held the golden ticket Woodstock Ventures desperately needed, he offered it to them, hoping the festival would take place on his family’s property and serve as their saving grace from financial ruin.
Although the El Monaco sat on unworkable swampland, Tiber connected the festival organizers with nearby farm owner Max Yasgur, whose property was twice as big as the Wallkill site. Festival co-creator Michael Lang disputes this detail in his book, The Road to Woodstock, claiming Tiber connected his production team to a realtor who showed them Yasgur’s farm. Either way, the organizers struck a deal with Yasgur for Woodstock to take place on his property, and the El Monaco became the official Woodstock festival headquarters where people could buy tickets for the event, party at the motel bar, mobsters would come looking to extort them for money, sufferers of bad acid trips could recuperate, and where Tiber claims one woman would suddenly give birth. To this day, however, there is no current knowledge of the identities of anyone born at Woodstock.
Sidenote for those confused by the Woodstock location changes: Wallkill was the second choice location after Woodstock Ventures could not find a suitable location in Saugerties, the town bordering Woodstock, an hour north of Wallkill. In Lang’s book, he described the Woodstock area as a musical epicenter where several well-known musicians had been migrating. Saugerties was known for hosting mini-music festivals throughout the summer in a beautiful rural landscape under the stars, a picturesque experience that inspired Woodstock Ventures to embark on a bigger festival in the area.
Tiber’s account provides a colorful backstory and invaluable context to the movie which should not be seen before reading the book. His book is a quick read with comedic storytelling, at times slinking into hyperbole which leaves the reader questioning if certain events transpired exactly as Tiber describes. The entertainment value will keep the reader amused and engaged, written in a style and brand of humor well suited for David Sedaris fans.
The Taking Woodstock movie adaptation, directed by Ang Lee and starring Demetri Martin as Tiber, sounds promising between those two key players, but the movie skulks along awkwardly with dull acting and a lack of context that leaves the viewer fairly underwhelmed. It’s hard to tell if Martin’s portrayal of Tiber while in White Lake is reflective of how Tiber actually conducted himself in the rural environment to mask his homosexuality, or if it’s just dry acting on Martin’s part.
One of the most glaring omissions from the movie is Tiber’s raunchy depiction of his sexual encounters in NYC, which probably account for nearly half the book. Tiber also describes a shack on the El Monaco property he used to carry out various sexual exploits, which was not alluded to in the film.
The movie does a disservice to Tiber’s unique lens on experiencing Woodstock by nearly completely avoiding Tiber’s internal struggle that made for nearly as compelling a story as the struggle of producing the Woodstock festival itself. The festival had already been thoroughly depicted in the 1970 Academy Award winning documentary, so the movie disappoints by blandly reenacting the festival happenings already captured on film.