Baron Wolman has a lot to say about the recent cancellation of Woodstock 50. “The whole thing is insane,” the rock photographer says. “An event of that magnitude has to be planned well in advance. Not just a month in advance, not just six months in advance, but probably two years in advance. To get the permits and the space and to really think through what you’re going to have to deal with when thousands of people show up. It’s definitely not just about the performers.”
If anyone would know, it’s Wolman, who was at the original Woodstock in 1969. As Rolling Stone‘s first chief photographer, Wolman heavily documented the festival, witnessing legendary musical moments like Santana’s psychedelic “Soul Sacrifice” and Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick belting “Somebody to Love” in her iconic silk-fringed dress. Wolman’s main focus, however, was the heart of the festival: the attendees. Whether they were camping out in tents or bathing in the nude with their children in tow, Wolman captured the essence of what it felt like to really be there.
“It was a perfect storm,” Wolman tells Rolling Stone from his home in Santa Fe. “Fifty years later, people are still talking about Woodstock and the meaning of it. Clearly it was and still is an important event to show how far we’ve gotten away from the the peace, love, and music of Woodstock. Fifty years later, what other event do you think about? The bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Berlin Wall going up and down. And Woodstock.”
How did you first hear about the original Woodstock festival?
Jim Marshall and I had a book contract called Festival! The Book of American Music Celebrations, in which in 1969 we traveled around the country to all kinds of music celebrations. Blues, bluegrass, country, folk, everything we could find. Halfway through our journey, we heard about Woodstock, and so we said we’ve got to go there for that, with no idea what it was all about. I told Jann, “You know, this Woodstock thing is going on. I’m going to be there; I’m going to shoot for you guys.” So I was basically shooting for the book and shooting for Rolling Stone.
What was it like to get there?
It was crazy. I looked on the map and I said, “Oh, here’s the fastest way to Woodstock, I’m just going to run up there.” Well, 72,000 other people think the same thing. So then I thought, “Wait a minute…” I pulled out my AAA map and I saw there was a county road going exactly the same direction parallel to 17B, headed toward the venue. I said, “I bet nobody knows about that,” so I took a left turn and got on that road. There was nobody on that road, and I sped up there as fast as I could.
Sounds like a secret shortcut.
Yeah, it was. Along the road close to the festival, I saw a motel. I stopped and I said, “‘Hey, do you guys have any rooms?’ ‘Yeah, we’ve got rooms.'” It was two nights or three nights. Everybody was out in the mud and the rain and shit. I’d go back to my motel and get a good night’s sleep. It was literally 10 miles from the venue and nobody knew about it.
That’s lucky. With the bad weather and lack of food, did you ever worry about your safety?
I never worried about my safety. I had a great time. The people in the front were starving; they ran out of food. Backstage, they had a barbecue for the performers. I didn’t realize that or I would’ve gone back and eaten, too. I would just eat whatever I could find. I was so wired and so excited and it was such an adrenaline rush because I’d never seen anything like this. I call it the gathering of the tribes, where only good things were happening. I always tell people it was a disaster waiting to happen that didn’t. That was one of the miracles of Woodstock: It could have been horrible, and it wasn’t. We all really believed, “Wow, we can all get along! And if we can get along, maybe the world can get along.”
The military and the counterculture were at each other’s throats. It was 1969, there was still a draft, the Vietnam War was going on, everybody hated everybody. But the military came with their Medevac units and helicopters to help take away the people who had medical problems. And I thought, man, that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We’re all in the same country, why are we hating each other? The military and the counterculture, for one brief weekend, were getting along in the way it should be. But you know…the dream of Woodstock petered out pretty quickly.
At what point did you realize that Woodstock was a huge deal?
Look, you could not stand on the stage and see 400,000 people and not realize it was a big deal. That was the largest gathering of people up until that time. I knew it would be memorable, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what it would come to mean for society or for generations following.
One thing I remember is that I wanted to have a picture of the entire crowd that I saw in front of me. The widest angle lens I had at the time was this 24 millimeter. And that 24 millimeter — which is pretty wide, especially from that distance — still could not encompass the entire crowd.
Tell me about that photo of you playing cowbell with Santana behind you.
Well, that’s a good story. Bill Graham took that picture. He brought Santana, and he was sitting back there playing the cowbell and I took a picture of him. He said, “Baron! Sit down, let me get a picture of you playing the cowbell.” So he actually got a better picture of me than I did of him. There’s been a tour for the past two or three years of memorabilia. That very same cowbell is in the show. It’s rusted now, but I looked at that thing and said, “I played that mother!” You never have enough cowbell.
What was the best act you witnessed?
Santana, far and away. And not only because the pictures I took of him, but because of his story about being totally stoned going on stage. You know that story…he and Jerry Garcia. He said his guitar felt like a steel snake in his hand, he had no idea what he was playing. He looked out at the audience and he said, “All I saw were eyes and teeth.” But that set..It’s become mystical and identified with Woodstock, for sure.
And what was your least favorite act to watch?
That’s an unfair question [laughs]. I photographed most of the performers prior to that for Rolling Stone, so by the time I got there when I saw the people I said, “Wait a minute, the story is not the performers, the story is the people.” So I spent three days mostly among the people. Occasionally on the stage, you know, I got John Sebastian and a couple other ones. There are a lot of performers I would have liked to have had more pictures of, but I made that decision.
Tell me about photographing the surroundings. What was it like having cows around?
They were there because they were there. That was their land, that’s where they hung out. You have to remember that this whole area was a dairy farm area. There were dairy farms everywhere. The biggest one was Max Yasgur’s farm. He had a lot of influence in the area. He was a Republican, and when he saw what was going on…first of all, he offered his place. The producers said, “Look, it’s going to be a mess, but don’t worry, we’ll clean it up afterward.” They spent a lot of money cleaning it up and replanting it, and the next year they planted in corn, and it was the best crop of corn that he had had in ages, probably because of all the human waste in the dirt.
Do you ever get tired of telling people about it, 50 years later?
Well, 50 years later, that’s all I’ve been talking about. 51 years later, nobody’s going to be talking about it in the same way. I had this incredible exhibit in Italy on Woodstock that they flew me over to speak about. We’re having exhibits everywhere of Woodstock images. There’s stories being written, you know, the PBS film. There is another film, I think it’s called “The Making of Woodstock,” which is going to come out next week and it’ll be screened in theaters but also available online, which is, as far as I’m concerned, the true, true story of how Woodstock happened, because it was shot over a period of time in the Nineties when all of the participants were all alive, their minds and memories were sharp. You really see how this thing evolved from a potential disaster into the success that it was, in spite of everything. It’s a fabulous film.
We recently published a story about Eric Blackstead, the forgotten Woodstock album producer. Did you know him?
I don’t think I knew him. He lived in Santa Fe for a while, and I didn’t know that. I really enjoyed that story. I might have known him, but here’s the point: There is so much about Woodstock that has been discovered this year. Stories like that. The real story behind some of the fantasy stories about Woodstock, because the people who are still alive, especially those who produced it and were on the inner circle, they’re telling the true story about what really went on. They have no reason to amplify it or beautify it. They’re telling what really happened. And for me, that’s been a real education, for sure. The whole thing with the movie and how they had to borrow money to get the film, you know? Things like that. 150 miles of film? 16-millimeter film? 18 guys shooting 24-7, collapsing, having somebody take over for them when the collapsed and fell down, because of carrying that heavy camera around? Those are the real stories of Woodstock.
I feel so lucky to have, Number One, run into Jann when they were getting Rolling Stone together. Number Two, to have been asked to be the photographer. Number Three, to live through a period of time that was relatively simple and relatively peaceful, even though there was a war going on. There was a lot of violence and a lot of demonstrations. But I feel so lucky to have been born when I did, and I’m so lucky to be as old as I am now, because I don’t want to be around for the coming apocalypse.