Artie Kornfeld’s memories of that iconic August weekend 40 years ago are, like the mud-soaked farm in Bethel, N.Y., a little murky. But he remembers going out each night with crews to put up fences for a modicum of crowd control — only to have Abbie Hoffman and Merry Prankster Paul Krassner follow shortly thereafter to take them down.
He remembers a lunatic holding a gun to his head demanding money, and being saved by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s manager, who knocked the guy down and grabbed the gun.
And before going down to Yasgur’s farm, he remembers crisscrossing the country visiting radio stations, talking up the event and eventually generating over $1 million in advance ticket sales
(at $7 for one day; $21 for a three-day pass).
The remembrance of things past came back to Kornfeld, 66, recently at the posh W Hotel in Times Square. Warner Brothers was hosting a party to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Woodstock and, not coincidentally, the release of new DVDs of the Academy Award-winning documentary. Members of Santana, the Grateful Dead, Credence Clearwater Revival and Sha Na Na were in attendance. But the star of the day was Kornfeld, the man widely considered "The Father of Woodstock," who is credited with helping to save the Yasgur farm site from development.
Throughout the luncheon various participants hailed Kornfeld’s role in pulling off the Woodstock festival. Dressed in a brown T-shirt and jeans, Kornfeld, with his flowing gray hair, still has the air of an easy-going hippie, though the years have stooped his 6-foot-2-inch frame.
Kornfeld has been a performer, a composer, a producer and a recording executive. Over the last 50 years he’s worked with artists ranging from Sheryl Crow and Bruce Springsteen to ZZ Top and Joe Cocker. But introduce yourself as a reporter for The Jewish Week, and his response is as shocking as Jimi Hendrix’s version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock:
"I’m Avraham ben Yisroel Kornfeld. I’m a Kohain born on the stroke of the day of Rosh HaShanah."
Hear his story and that response is not surprising — because he says Jewish values have guided his career, and his faith, however vaguely defined, may have saved his life from drug addiction. But you don’t find that out until later, in private conversation, after the Woodstock story is told.
While history and aging memories have blurred the exact origins of the festival — a couple of versions made the rounds at the luncheon — it is generally agreed that Kornfeld, Michael Lang, the late John Roberts and Joel Rosenman were there at the creation.
Also, there’s little argument that there would not have been a Woodstock if it weren’t for Kornfeld. There were the cross-country trips visiting radio stations. It was Kornfeld who got Fred Weintraub, who later ran the legendary Village club The Bitter End, involved. Weintraub was then a newly appointed executive with Warner. Through 30 hours of often tense negotiation the two hammered out a hand-written contract that exchanged a cash advance for the recording and film rights. And it was Kornfeld who hired Michael Wadleigh, who directed the film.
Despite it all, Kornfeld says he hasn’t gotten rich off the Woodstock name and all the work he did. "It wasn’t about the money," he says. (The New York Times reported that he along with Lang sold their shares in Woodstock Ventures for $65,000). "I’m a cop’s kid from Brooklyn. [Woodstock] was just something that had to be said. It toppled Nixon and helped end the war."
The political nature of the Woodstock event came up time and again at the Warner Brothers luncheon. The consensus was that there were pockets of a counterculture throughout the country, but without an Internet and social networking sites, no one knew how large the movement was — until Woodstock, when over one million young people from around the country flocked to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate Bethel, near Woodstock.
Ask for more anecdotes from the 1969 festival and Kornfeld wants to move on — but not necessarily to a 40th anniversary Woodstock that’s being hyped. "It’s 99 percent not happening," he said about talk that two of his former partners, Michael Lang and Joel Rosenman are planning some sort of commemorative concert (Prospect Park in Brooklyn has been mentioned as a possible site.)
Kornfeld wasn’t a fan of the 1999 30th anniversary Woodstock concert. It caused a rift between him and Lang. Kornfeld felt that that the event was more about money than the spirit of Woodstock, of which he is very protective.
"I felt betrayed," he said. "It wasn’t about the music, about people passing a sandwich and everyone taking a bite. … It was such a dichotomy from what Woodstock meant to me and the hundreds of millions who were there and have seen the film. … Michael and I had an agreement that we wouldn’t do anything about Woodstock unless we did it together."
In contrast, he points to a couple of projects he’s working on that are more in the spirit of the original. In October, he says, he’s running a Summer of Love anniversary concert in Golden State Park in San Francisco that has free admission and free food.
Further buttressing his sentiments about the power of music, he says he has a letter of intent from the government of Morocco to arrange a concert that will be performed simultaneously there, in Geneva and in Israel.
That spirit of peace resides with Kornfeld, as well. "I put aside the reason I couldn’t talk to Michael; I now consider him one of my dearest friends." Still, Kornfeld doesn’t believe it wise to announce a 40th anniversary concert never likely to take place. "It makes you look like you’re AIG, like you’re Bank of America."
While Kornfeld’s involvement with Woodstock is the center of attention on this day, it is, he claims, "only 5 percent of his career." It is a career still going strong today, though a long way from Woodstock in decidedly un-countercultural West Palm Beach, Fla. That is where he hosts an online radio show, "Spirit of the Woodstock Nation," that goes out over Artistfirst.com Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Over the last four months, nearly eight million listeners have tuned in to hear Kornfeld interview Woodstock artists such as Country Joe McDonald.
He’s still asked to produce records. "I have offers all over the place," he says. And why not? He certainly has the track record.
As a youngster he hung out at the Brill Building, the famous Broadway home of such singer-songwriters as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Neil Sedaka and Carole King. At one time he was part of a rock band, Changin’ Times, that opened for a Sonny & Cher tour. He wrote songs with Jan Berry of Jan & Dean and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (including "Dead Man’s Curve") and with Steve Duboff ("Pied Piper," a No. 1 hit for Crispian St. Peters). By the time he was 24, he’d written over 75 songs that made the Cash Box charts, more than any other BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) writer.
He was also (at age 21) the first vice president for rock and roll at Capitol Records.
"I accomplished everything I set out to do by hard work and being an honest person with a lot scruples." It is the last two attributes — in a business not known for either — that fueled his success. He attributes both to his Jewish upbringing.
Kornfeld was born in Brooklyn. He remembers as a young child getting up mornings and going to temple with his Orthodox maternal grandfather and stopping for a bagel on the way home. His mother was active in the civil rights movement.
His father had to give up a full athletic scholarship to Syracuse University to support his widowed mother and seven sisters. "He came from Russian immigrants and worked three jobs a day almost his entire life. He was the most honest, ethical man I ever met in my life."
While that same attitude helped propel his professional life, it did not protect him from the vagaries of the real world. His wife of 17 years died of an aneurism; his daughter of a drug overdose. Kornfeld himself succumbed to the temptations of cocaine.
After 15 years of addiction, "in 1983 I prayed to God one night — please help me," Kornfeld says. "I said a little prayer in Hebrew —and I woke up totally sober."
While that seems a stretch, and he doesn’t provide any other supporting details, Kornfeld insists it’s true. A few months after his recovery, he says he and a bunch of other former addicts in Los Angeles jointly founded a 12-step program to help others kick the cocaine habit. Today, Kornfeld says he is helping 300 mainly inner-city kids through detox, lending them both financial and moral support. It’s all part of payback, part of the code of ethics he learned from his grandfather and his parents.
"I am a Jew and that says everything about me." That, and a little three-day festival on a patch of green in upstate New York that changed America.