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The Irony of Woodstock : The Celebration of the Age of Aquarius was also the weekend the music turned into money

June 18, 1989|ROBERT HILBURN

Janis Joplin was already on her way to becoming a rock legend when she stepped on stage 20 years ago at Woodstock, her trademark bottle of Southern Comfort in hand.

Arguably the most compelling white blues singer of the era, Joplin was an electrifying performer who put so much emotion into each concert that her every night on stage had the feel of a triumphant final stand.

Befitting Joplin's status in rock, she was paid $7,500 at Woodstock--$1,250 more than the Who in the year of "Tommy" and $2,500 more than the highly regarded new teaming of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Concert promoter Bill Graham, who was at Woodstock, smiles today when he thinks of Joplin's fee and the bottle of Southern Comfort. They underscore for him the way rock 'n' roll has moved from the innocence and idealism of the late '60s to a $6-billion to $8-billion-a-year industry, complete with corporate sponsorship and its own 24-hour cable TV channels.

He shakes his head and says, "Do you realize that if Woodstock took place now, Southern Comfort would pay her a million dollars for just holding that bottle?"

Echoing the view of most of the more than a dozen top pop industry veterans asked about the event, Graham sees Woodstock not principally as a great musical moment, but as the day corporate America saw the big money to be made in rock. Indeed, Woodstock itself was a grand attempt to escalate the scale of rock.

"People like to talk about Woodstock as changing music, but the music community had already been shown by the Monterey International Pop Festival (in 1967) that a new generation of artists had arrived," said Joe Smith, president and chief executive officer of Capitol-EMI, Inc.

"Woodstock took rock to the next level--not so much the musicians themselves as the pictures that went around the world of those half a million people standing in the field. Those photos were spectacular, and they made corporate America realize that this youth culture was no longer some freakish, underground scene. Woodstock legitimized rock 'n' roll, and it sent out the message that there was a lot of money to be made in it."

The result was a revolution in rock radio formats, an onslaught of megabuck record contracts and a stampede to vastly larger venues. All this initially celebrated the "underground" rock showcased at Woodstock, but in the end, ironically, it worked to squash the radical or experimental edges that had been associated with the festival.

Graham believes that rock would have eventually been subjected to many of the same commercial compromises, but suggests that Woodstock's dramatic impact escalated the process by as much as five years.

Lou Adler, who produced the Mamas and the Papas' hits in '60s and later produced Carole King's "Tapestry" album, perhaps puts it most succinctly: "If Monterey made rock 'n' roll an art form, Woodstock made it a business."

Questions about the importance of Woodstock invariably lead to expositions on the influence of the earlier Monterey festival, held June 16-18, 1967 at the 7,500-capacity Monterey County Fairgrounds, south of San Francisco.

"Monterey didn't have the numbers of Woodstock, but it was the catalytic force that really took what was an embryonic contemporary music and sounded the clarion call," says Clive Davis, who as president of Columbia Records signed Joplin after seeing her at Monterey.

"I've always felt that Woodstock was more confirmatory and celebratory than a turning point in music. If anything, Woodstock was Monterey II."

Agreed Capitol-EMI's Joe Smith: "Monterey introduced many of the acts that headlined Woodstock. . . . Jimi Hendrix, Janis, the Who, Grateful Dead. It was amazing. Anybody who was at Monterey that weekend knew something was happening that would forever do away with Steve and Eydie and Frank and Tony as far as the heart of the record business."

Lou Adler, co-director of the non-profit festival, said Monterey was aimed at showcasing the brightest and best of rock's established and emerging stars.

But the impact of Monterey wasn't just musical. The festival also showcased an emerging life style: hundreds of craftsmen set up booths, offering tie-dyed T-shirts, incense, psychedelic posters and hash pipes. Though the attendance was a small fraction of Woodstock, there was a strong sense of a new-age awakening.

Musicians later spoke about Monterey in wistful terms similar to what fans would say about Woodstock.

Brian Jones, the late Rolling Stones guitarist, spoke about the weekend to a Newsweek reporter: "I saw a community form and live together for three days. It's so sad it has to break up."

The impact within the record business was also immediate.

Clive Davis, now president of Arista Records, was still feeling his way as the new head of Columbia Records, a giant in the industry that had been slow to get into the rock scene.

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