×
Home Music Music Features

The Triumph and Tragedy of Woodstock’s Forgotten Album Producer

Eric Blackstead oversaw one of the most iconic rock albums of all time before dying alone and destitute in 2015. Now his friends want to scatter his ashes in Bethel, New York and keep his legacy alive

UNITED STATES - AUGUST 15:  Three days of peace love and music, better known as Woodstock. The crowd assembles for the 4pm session starring Richie Havens, just a part of the 250,000 who made the scene.  (Photo by Paul DeMaria/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Richie Havens performs during the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in 1969.

Paul DeMaria/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

Listen to an audio version of this story below:

Fifty years after the original Woodstock festival took place, mementos of the event are scattered across the country. Jimi Hendrix’s guitar is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; Wavy Gravy’s sleeping bag is housed at the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio (owned by former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen). Jack Casady’s bass, Johnny Winter’s chain necklace and the original plans for the location can be found at a museum on the site of the festival in Bethel, New York.

Then there’s the white cardboard box, slightly larger than a shoebox, that rests atop a used hard drive in a living room in northern New Jersey. Labeled “Cremation No. 35064,” it contains the remains of one of the most important and yet most forgotten players in the enduring Woodstock saga.

Five decades back, several hundred thousand freaks and music fans congregated at a farm in Bethel to see everyone from Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to lesser-known acts like rock band Sweetwater and folk singer Bert Sommer. Woodstock was a glorious mess that somehow managed to overcome its initial negative coverage (“Traffic Uptight at Hippiefest,” blared a New York Daily News headline). But the fortifying of its legend started the following year with the release of director Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock movie and a three-LP set, Woodstock: Music From the Original Soundtrack and More.

With its pioneering split-screen direction and name acts, Woodstock became the sixth-highest-grossing film of the year and immortalized performances by the Who, Santana, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker and others. The album was equally huge, occupying the Number One slot on the charts for a month. The commercial success of both not only cemented the legacy of the festival and the artists who performed there but also paved the way for the monetization of the counterculture; for many in the music business, the festival and its products made it shockingly clear that money was to be made from hippies.

Yet the man largely responsible for the Woodstock album is probably only known to those who diligently scan album credits. As its producer, Eric Blackstead oversaw the compiling, mixing and sequencing of the iconic album and its sequel, Woodstock Two. He worked so intensely on the first one that his health severely deteriorated, though he was initially rewarded with fat royalty checks and a degree of music-industry renown. “He just happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right people,” says friend Judy Mustille. “Just like Michael Wadleigh and [co-organizer] Michael Lang. They put something together that was bigger than he had ever dreamed of, and Eric was there and in on it. He rode a big wave.”

This summer, with Woodstock back in the news thanks to its 50th anniversary, it’s likely that the most popular Woodstock tracks Blackstead produced — Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice,” Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Sly and the Family Stone’s medley of “Dance to the Music” and “I Want to Take You Higher” — will be heard again in some form. To commemorate this summer’s 50th anniversary of Woodstock, a few of the surviving musicians who played the festival — John Fogerty, Santana, Canned Heat — will be returning to the Bethel grounds for separate concerts.

And if all goes according to plan, Blackstead will be there too, when the white box containing the baggie with his ashes will finally be cracked open and the ashes dispersed somewhere in the vicinity. His friends feel it is the least they can do for their friend, who helmed one of the most important concert albums in rock history and then became one of rock’s most baffling — and tragic — disappearing acts.

“In the middle of the rain and conditions, he didn’t lose his cool. That’s what made Eric great”

Sherman Kelly, who later wrote the King Harvest pop hit “Dancing in the Moonlight,” remembers receiving a call in 1969 from Blackstead, who was in search of hired hands for a weekend outdoor event. “He called me and some other friends and wanted someone to run a power cable to the stage and to where he would be setting up the recording machine,” Kelly says. “He said, ‘Come down — we’re gonna have fun!’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? Did you see the weather report?’ ”

The festival, of course, was Woodstock, although in some ways Blackstead had been prepping for such an event his whole life. He was born Carl Blackstead in the tony suburb of Montclair, New Jersey, in 1942, and attended Cornell. There, he majored in English, and his fellow students included Kelly and Huey Lewis. Six feet tall and sporting a droopy mustache and a long, lanky brown mane, Blackstead was a striking figure. “He was a very handsome guy, slim and good-looking,” Kelly says. “He had a very patrician profile. He looked like royalty.”

By then, Blackstead had changed his name to Eric Jr. after his father, a vice president of marketing at the Sun Chemical Corporation. The younger Blackstead was nicknamed “Kicker” for his love of football, and Kelly remembers his friend as an adept backgammon player. (“You could lose money pretty fast,” he recalls.) But Blackstead was very much a child of his rock & roll time. He learned guitar, which he briefly played in a local band called the Masque, and sang in a school group at Cornell called the Sherwoods. After graduation, he started his own company, Side Show Productions, to manage and produce music acts.

Eric Blackstead at the Mar y Sol Music Festival in Puerto Rico, in 1972.

Eric Blackstead at the Mar y Sol Music Festival in Puerto Rico, 1972. Photo credit: Glenn H. Abbott

Thanks to connections he made in the then-small music business, Blackstead was hired by Wadleigh’s movie company as music adviser and performance coordinator for the official Woodstock documentary. Blackstead wouldn’t be recording the actual performances; that job was overseen by engineers Lee Osborne and Eddie Kramer, who (playing off the festival’s motto of “three days of peace, love and music”) recalls the event as “three days of drugs and hell.” It was Blackstead’s job to make sure the recordists and the performers were more or less in sync and to oversee the crew on site. “He was the head guy,” says Carlos Jimenez Freer, who worked alongside Blackstead at the festival. “He would stand behind the engineers and dictate what he wanted. He was in charge. And in the middle of the rain and conditions, he didn’t lose his cool. That’s what made Eric great.”

But the genuine hard labor followed. With a Woodstock movie also gearing up, Blackstead was put in charge of assembling the companion album, which would be released by Atlantic Records’ Cotillion label. Starting in Los Angeles in January 1970, and then shifting to a studio in New York, he and a team of assistants painstakingly pieced together the album, which had as many hurdles as the gathering itself. Some groups, like the Grateful Dead and Creedence Clearwater Revival, didn’t want to be on the album thanks to their dissatisfaction with their performances. Columbia Records almost withheld tracks by Santana and Sly and the Family Stone until Atlantic executive Jerry Wexler and promoter Bill Graham both intervened and convinced the label. Ravi Shankar’s management took the tapes with him as soon as the sitar master’s performance was over, and to this day no one has found them. Blackstead’s friend Judy Mustille says it was Blackstead who swayed all involved that the record should span three LPs, a rarity for that day — and that he withheld the tapes from Atlantic and Warner Bros. (who handled the film) until they agreed.

Between the recording conditions (with their occasional glitches and helicopter buzz) and the demands of artists, Blackstead oversaw an album that wasn’t entirely pure. Two of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tracks, “Wooden Ships” and “Sea of Madness,” came from a Fillmore East show shortly after the festival, since Neil Young was reportedly not happy with the recordings. Arlo Guthrie’s mic gave out during “Coming Into Los Angeles,” so the version heard on Woodstock was taken from a show at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. To this day, no one is sure exactly where the two Mountain tracks on Woodstock Two were recorded, but they’re not from Woodstock itself. The drums on Ten Years After’s “I’m Going Home” were augmented by an L.A. jazz musician.

Blackstead’s health short-circuited due to the workload and he was rushed to a New York hospital.

But Blackstead didn’t simply want a collection of live tracks; he wanted a cohesive album that replicated the experience of a festival. “It was recorded in the middle of a hurricane, basically,” says Tom Flye, Blackstead’s assistant engineer. “Eric was dedicated and wanted everything to be as good as it could be, so there were a lot of problems that had to be solved.” Blackstead made a tape loop out of audience applause, which was then cross-faded between songs for continuity. “That’s how we kept the feel of a live performance,” says Flye. “He didn’t want things to stop and start. He wanted it to sound as much like a show as possible.”

Similarly, the cricket noises at the beginning of the album came not from Woodstock but from a sound-effects record. The crowd chanting Country Joe McDonald’s “The ‘Fish’ Cheer” (“Gimme an F. . . . Gimme a U…”) weren’t loud enough, so under Blackstead’s direction, a gaggle of studio employees shouted along in the studio. The same went for the famous “Rain Chant,” a clatter of pots and pans that was also concocted in the studio. “There is a ton of fake stuff,” says producer Andy Zax, who sorted through the tapes for an upcoming, unadulterated Woodstock box. “To one degree or another, the Woodstock soundtrack record is a pretty fraudulent artifact. But a lot of it was defensible. There were technical reasons or artist preferences.”

The pace was frenetic — the result, says Flye, of concerns over possible bootlegging of the festival tapes as well as an imminent movie, which was released in the spring of 1970. “We were there nonstop,” says Flye. “Every once in a while, we would take a few hours’ break, go home, take a shower, grab a tuna sandwich, then come back. We’d put coffee in anything we could make. We’d order chocolate milkshakes and pour coffee into them.” Wearing a brown safari hat, his briefcase at his side, Blackstead listened over and over to the tracks deep into the nights. When his back gave out, Flye and others in the studio hurriedly grabbed pillows to prop him up and make him more comfortable.

On one of the last days of work, Blackstead’s health short-circuited due to the workload and he was rushed to a New York hospital, where he suffered a collapsed lung. For the rest of his life, he endured only one working lung, with what Mustille calls “a huge scar on his back, gigantic, like a pirate’s scar.” But at that point in his life, even hospitalization didn’t slow him down. In his hospital room, Blackstead listened to a test pressing of his masterpiece, a record that would not only crystallize an era but hopefully launch his career as one of rock’s most celebrated producers.

The Woodstock album had a price tag of $14.98 — steep for a time when albums were only a few dollars each — and had pre-orders of 200,000 copies, impressive for a triple LP. “Stock lots of this one,” Cashbox told its readers; sure enough, the record quickly sold 446,000 copies in its first three weeks and was the Number One album in the country for four weeks.

Blackstead benefited from the windfall, at least in the beginning. Kelly remembers his friend flashing a $90,000 quarterly royalty check about a year after the album’s release, and Blackstead shared an apartment on New York’s Upper West Side and bought a Norton Commando motorcycle. His clout in the business was such that he sneaked Mustille into an Aretha Franklin recording session in New York, despite Franklin’s demand that no female guests be in the studio while she was working. “She saw me and I got kicked out, but I was in heaven and Eric got me there,” Mustille says. “He had a lot of friends in the business and a lot of contacts and power. He was at the top of his game then.”

“He was living on the kindness of strangers”

Blackstead put plans in motion to capitalize on his success, which included overseeing a second volume, Woodstock Two, in 1971 (it peaked at Number Seven) and making plans to sign clients to Side Show Productions. But the first signs that he would have trouble capitalizing on his Woodstock renown came in April 1972, when he served as audio consultant for Mar y Sol, a three-day festival in Puerto Rico with a mind-blowing lineup: the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, Fleetwood Mac, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, the J. Geils Band, Black Sabbath, and a new-to-the-game Billy Joel. Unlike the similarly conceived Fyre Festival four decades later, Mar y Sol, set on an island and featuring tents and camping, actually took place. “They were taking a chance at a second Woodstock,” says Freer, who worked on it with Blackstead. “And there were better musicians at Mar y Sol.” But only 30,000 attended, locals were enraged by the festival taking place on Easter weekend and an accompanying album didn’t sell anything close to Woodstock, not rising higher than Number 186 on the charts.

During the festival, Freer noticed his friend smoking, which didn’t seem like the smartest idea given his lung issues. “I kept saying, ‘You’re not supposed to smoke,’ ” Freer says. “He said, ‘Carlos, don’t tell anybody.’ He kept that top-secret. He thought it would hurt him [in the business].” Blackstead had other demons that returned to haunt him. During and after college, he’d amassed speeding tickets and had his driving privileges curtailed for two months. Always amenable to drinking, he was nicknamed “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Black” for the way alcohol would alter his personality. “He’d order his first rum and Coke and I’d hear the horror stories the next day,” says Freer of times they’d go out. One of his front teeth was knocked out during a fight with a construction worker in a Georgetown bar. In 1977, he was arrested for drunk driving in upstate New York. He seemed to live everywhere, including Washington, D.C., the Virgin Islands and Costa Rica.

Despite the sales of the Woodstock sets, Blackstead also felt he wasn’t fully paid for his work, and he frequently clashed with label executives about compensation. “He made some good money, but he felt he still had a bunch of tapes and wasn’t going to let them go until they paid him properly,” says Kelly. “It was an ugly impasse for a while.”

When artist and teacher Shannon Dow met Blackstead in upstate New York in the early Eighties, his blond hair and blue eyes reminded her of the actor Peter O’Toole. Dow recalls Blackstead driving around in a blue Volkswagen Beetle with no heat and looking thin, since he had little money and no possessions (not even a copy of the Woodstock album). “He was living on the kindness of strangers,” she says. He talked about Woodstock and his memory of seeing a photograph of a vagina above Grace Slick’s bed at the festival. “[Woodstock] was the highlight of his life, in many ways,” she says. “But he was never regretful or complaining about anything. He did not seem bitter.” He tried to curb his drinking and became a devotee of the Indian guru Swami Muktananda, whose ashram was in the Catskills. In 1984, the last album with Blackstead’s name attached to it — a collection of standards by a local singer on a small indie label — was released.

August 1969: Full-length portrait of English singer Joe Cocker, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and blue jeans, performing at the Woodstock Music Festival in Bethel, New York. (Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images)

Joe Cocker performing at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969. Photo credit: Fotos International/Getty Images

In the early Nineties, he wound up in Los Angeles, staying with Mustille and her family at their Pasadena home for six months. Since Blackstead had little money, Mustille offered her friend a free room. All the while, she would see him on the phone, taking to industry people and trying to make deals. He told her he felt unfairly treated and had been blackballed by the business, but, like Dow, she says he never seemed broken by the experience. “He was a pretty optimistic person,” she says. “I had discussions with him, like, ‘What are you going to do if it doesn’t work out?’ He would say, ‘It’s going to work out. I can’t do anything else. I’m a producer.’ ”

Eventually, Mustille learned what he was trying to pawn off. One day, Blackstead opened a silver case he had stashed in her garage and told her the reels of tape inside were recordings of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. (According to John McDermott, catalog manager and producer for Experience Hendrix LLC, the masters were always with the Hendrix estate, so Blackstead would likely have had alternative mixes of the same songs.) When Blackstead told her he was going to visit a friend in Northern California, he asked her if she could keep the tapes while he was gone. “I said, ‘That’s not going to happen,’ ” she recalls. “My concern is that he was dealing with people in Los Angeles, and if they knew there were Woodstock tapes in my garage they would come and get them. It was a safety issue.”

In the end, Blackstead took them with him on a bus trip to Northern California. He left the Los Angeles music business behind, this time for good.

In 2005, Andy Zax began rifling through boxes of tapes from Woodstock that had just been shipped from a New York facility to a Los Angeles storage space. Some of the tapes still sported Blackstead’s handwritten notes. With the 40th anniversary of Woodstock looming, Zax began the process of compiling an updated collection, which would include previously unreleased recordings. (A 38-disc box of the complete, unadulterated Woodstock performances, co-produced by Zax, will be released next month.) One person missing from the project (as well as a slightly expanded 1994 collection of the first two Woodstock sets) was Blackstead himself. “I never spoke with him or contacted him,” says Zax. “Honestly, I didn’t know he was still alive back then.”

Few did. After his stay in Los Angeles, Blackstead soon found himself in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he spent some time on Wavy Gravy’s relocated Hog Farm and helped a local photographer with a show based around her collection of Sixties photography. He started a company for the “production of live performances” (and also sold “products in connection with recording studio”) in Santa Fe, where he was also fined for driving with an expired license.

At one point, he crammed most of his belongings into a storage space, which proved catastrophic. With funds running low — royalties from the Woodstock albums had dried up by then — he was unable to keep up the payments for the unit, and an ad in the June 3rd, 1992, edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican announced that the contents of the unit — “professional music equipment,” compact discs, tapes, and furniture — were to be auctioned off.

At one point, he crammed most of his belongings into a storage space, which proved catastrophic.

In a panic, he called Mustille, who offered to call a lawyer to help him retrieve his belongings. Those possessions, it turns out, included Blackstead’s own copies of some of the Woodstock recordings in various configurations. But it was too late: The auction took place, and David Vaccaro, a former Hollywood stunt driver who had relocated to the area, stumbled upon boxes of tapes labeled “Woodstock 1969.” “I just about crapped my pants,” recalls Vaccaro, who wound up buying them and two of Blackstead’s guitars for a bargain four-figure price.

Blackstead was beside himself at the time. “He said, ‘All my stuff is in there!’” Mustille recalls. “It was devastating to him.” (Over the years, several parties have expressed interest in buying the tapes from Vaccaro, including a mysterious man with a European accent who claimed his father had been in the Gestapo and offered to exchange the recordings for artwork stolen by the Nazis. The offer was declined, and the tapes — still owned by Vaccaro and still unsold but in the possession of Los Angeles consultant Dan Melson — remain in a secure storage space in California. According to a letter from the legal department at Warner Bros., which released the film, the tapes cannot be exploited or released in any form by whomever owns them.)

In 1996, Blackstead began planning a festival of his own in Costa Rica. The Rainforest International Music Festival would feature world-music acts and benefit environmental causes; in his pitch letter to potential investors, Blackstead presciently described it as a way to “save man’s destruction of his own environment.” But thanks to what friends felt was industry badmouthing of Blackstead, the festival, scheduled for 1998, never moved forward.

He lived so quietly that his neighbors didn’t even know his name or who he was.

Soon after, Blackstead circled back to where it all began. He returned to Montclair, New Jersey, moving in with his mother in her house. She footed the bills until, too old to maintain a residence, she sold the property and moved to a smaller home, where Blackstead lived in the basement. For more than a decade, he lived so quietly that his neighbors didn’t even know his name or who he was. Ingo Schweers, an artist and graphic designer, met Blackstead during this time and recalls him with a limp, a cane, a gray ponytail and a missing front tooth. Schweers says he had no idea his new acquaintance was involved with Woodstock and was shocked when Blackstead mentioned it one day. “He said he was probably the only person involved in Woodstock who didn’t get rich or have success,” recalls Schweers, who sensed his friend was “more of a rebel” and still wasn’t getting along with the music business.

Blackstead’s tranquil world was shaken, though, when his mother died in 2012. (His father had died in 1967.) Forced to leave her house, he began a period of intransigence, which included living in a dank apartment in crime-riddled Newark, New Jersey. “It was big enough for one bed and a small table and no window,” says Schweers. “It was like a chicken cage. He told me horrible stories about people getting shot or robbed there.” To escape, Blackstead would take the bus to Montclair and hang out in the library, reading up on the 2008 stock market crash and hoping to write a book about inflation. He moved several times, once to a basement apartment that also served as the control room for a noisy recording studio, and then to an apartment above a drugstore.

In early 2015, Blackstead suffered a heart issue and was hospitalized. When he was released, he was forced to sleep outside his apartment building in Bloomfield, New Jersey; he hadn’t paid his rent. (He was eventually let back in.) Early in the morning of May 28th, Schweers got a call from the landlord. A platonic female friend, who was sharing the apartment with Blackstead, found him sitting motionless at his kitchen table, a bottle of vodka nearby; a stroke had killed him at 72. His death certificate listed his occupation as “music producer.”

Befitting the poignancy of Blackstead’s life, the story had a suitably tragic coda. Thanks to a delay in obtaining approval to release his remains from a local morgue, Blackstead’s body sat in storage for five long months. Once it was released, his friends, including Schweers, Freer, Dow and Mustille, contributed enough money to raise the $1,405 needed to get Blackstead’s body out of the morgue and rightfully cremated; MusiCares, the Grammy charity organization that supports musicians in need, eventually reimbursed those expenses. Although Blackstead had pulled together one of rock’s landmark albums, only one newspaper, the local Montclair Times, published an obituary.

If Blackstead’s friends have their way, his journey will not end there. Ideally, they would love not only to spread his ashes somewhere in the Woodstock or Bethel area but mount a plaque in his honor. At his home, where he retains the box with his friend’s ashes, Schweers — who, with Freer, has taken it upon himself to keep Blackstead’s memory and legacy alive — pulls out a plastic bag containing a gold ring with what appears to be a Roman soldier on its crown. At one point, Blackstead’s friends thought they would have to sell it to pay for a marker plaque, but now it looks as if they may have enough. The ring, the last remaining personal effect of Eric Blackstead, is returned to its plastic bag.

 

Newswire

Powered by