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Promoter of Woodstock Survives a Rocky Path

September 03, 1987|DEBRA SORRENTINO LARSON | Larson is a Valencia free-lance writer.

The ad ran in The New York Times on Aug. 10, 1969. It promised three days of rock music from 28 performers, including Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, the Jefferson Airplane and The Who. It also warned: "All programs subject to change without notice" and "No checks accepted at the gate."

The artists appeared, the program did change and, well, let's just say no one at the gate was weeding out those bearing checks. Indeed, the gates were thrown wide open, and an estimated 400,000 people poured in.

The event was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held in August, 1969, on Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, N.Y.

Today, the irony of that ad is not lost on one of Woodstock's co-producers and promoters, 44-year-old Artie Kornfeld of Sherman Oaks, who placed it.

"I didn't even notice it--'No checks accepted.' That's funny," said the gray-haired Kornfeld, scanning the ad and breaking into a smile.

Now an independent record promoter and the manager of singer David Palmer (formerly in the group Steely Dan), Kornfeld lives with his third wife, Lesle, 31, and his stepson, Shon, 12, in a spacious condominium where his business, Kornfeld Projects, is headquartered.

On one wall hang platinum records for Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," which he promoted for Columbia Records, and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger," which he promoted for Scotti Brothers, and a gold record for the album and cassette of "Woodstock," released by Atlantic Records.

Below them are dozens of albums, many of which Kornfeld produced for Capitol Records, where at 24 he was vice president of artists and repertoire.

Conservative Look

With his short-cropped hair and conservative attire, Kornfeld doesn't look like someone who closely identified with the youth culture of that time.

"I know, I look like a gynecologist from Encino," he jokes.

Since Woodstock, Kornfeld has had a rocky personal life, which took him from New York to Miami to the San Fernando Valley.

His fondest career memories date from 1962, when he was a songwriter. He worked with rock impresario Don Kirshner in New York City and wrote or co-wrote songs for performers like the Angels, the Shirelles and Freddie Cannon.

"That was the most fun," he said, "when I was strictly a writer and hadn't produced anything yet, successfully. You'd hear Jerry Butler needed a song, or Dusty Springfield. Just landing the records was exciting. I had 30 songs that made the top 100."

In 1969, he resigned his job at Capitol Records to focus on Woodstock Ventures, a company he formed with three other men in their 20s. They made an unlikely quartet.

There were the two Brooklyn-born "idea" men: Kornfeld, 26, and Michael Lang, 23, the owner of a Miami psychedelic shop (now singer Joe Cocker's manager).

Then there were the "money" men--John Roberts, 23, who would inherit his family's pharmaceutical-company fortune, and his roommate, Joel Rosenman, 26, a Yale Law School graduate. The two had placed an ad in the New York Times that read: "Young men with unlimited capital looking for interesting and legitimate business enterprises."

Their enterprise proved to be a shaky marriage that ended in a bitter divorce.

Kornfeld recalled the night that the idea for Woodstock was conceived.

It was the fall of 1968, and Lang was broke and hanging around the Kornfelds' Manhattan apartment, he said. Lang had promoted a festival in Miami that had lost money. Kornfeld talked about how he would produce a festival.

"We sort of had a vision of how it would turn out, and that's how it turned out, exactly, the bad and the good.

"To us, it was a Ken Kesey-type trip," he said. "It was a very nonpolitical, political statement that we had to make. It was the hard-hat government attempting to squash the children of World War II veterans. Music, and rock 'n' roll music specifically, was a way out."

Roberts and Rosenman put up the front money for the festival and a recording studio that never materialized. Advance ticket sales totaled about $1.4 million. But expenses totaled $2.7 million. Roberts, backed by his family, made good on the $1.3-million deficit.

The festival's aftermath produced acrimony among its promoters. Roberts was quoted as calling the festival "a nightmare in many ways." Yet Kornfeld thought the event was "the greatest thing since the birth of my child."

In 1970, Kornfeld and Lang sued Roberts and Rosenman for $10 million in damages in federal court, claiming they were tricked into selling their share of the proceeds as bankruptcy loomed, even though Warner Bros. Seven Arts was negotiating to buy the movie rights. The suit was later dropped.

"We didn't have the money to fight it," Kornfeld said.

Nowadays, Kornfeld spends his days on the phone to radio stations around the country and in meetings at record companies. He calls what he does for a living "the same thing I always did--help other people's dreams come true."

"I have a good ear for talent and for music, and that helps."

He wasn't always as relaxed and genial as he seems today.

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