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Destination: New York : Flashback to Woodstock : Twenty-five Years Later, Exploring the Area That Hosted a Generation-Defining Event

July 24, 1994|JACK SCHNEDLER | Schnedler is travel editor of the Chicago Sun-Times

AUGERTIES, N.Y. — You can still buy a ticket to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair at a couple of downtown Saugerties shops--but the price has risen just a bit in 25 years. Framed behind glass in one store window, an $8 one-day ticket to that legendary "Aquarian exposition" sells for a cool $49.95. Think of it as nostalgia markup.

And figure it's still a lot cheaper than the $135 ticket price for Woodstock '94, next month's 25th-anniversary spin-off of the generation-defining original. The 1969 counterculture festival promised "three days of peace and music" and delivered a mind-blowing communal romp for 500,000 flower children, few of whom had bothered to purchase a ticket. Can next month's possibly top that? Stay tuned for results of it and Bethel '94, another festival scheduled for the same weekend.

Woodstock '94--featuring a potpourri of acts aimed more at the Grunge Generation than aging Aquarians--is scheduled for Aug. 12-14 on yet another Upstate New York dairy farm, with a projected audience of 250,000. The 740-acre Winston Farm adjoins Interstate 87 on the outskirts of Saugerties, a Hudson Valley community of 4,000 a dozen miles east of Woodstock itself--and 75 miles northeast of the 1969 festival site near Bethel.

That's right. Neither the genuine article 25 years ago nor next month's well-financed flashback can claim a Woodstock address. There will also be a second 25th-anniversary festival in Aug. 13-14 at the original location--but it has to settle for the name Bethel '94. That's because rights to the Woodstock label belong to the 2 1/2-day Saugerties event, which is being organized by '69 festival guru Michael Lang.

If your head is spinning over all that cross-pollination, stay tuned for a combined history-geography primer to sort out the jumble of fests and locations.

And if flower-power nostalgia--or a passion for outdoor mega-concerts--is whetting your appetite for Woodstock '94 (or the geezer-oriented Bethel '94, which has booked Richie Havens, Canned Heat, Iron Butterfly, Judy Collins, Fleetwood Mac, Melanie, John Sebastian and Blood, Sweat & Tears), the allure of those extravaganzas could trigger an August pilgrimage to a swatch of the U.S. East that has been a leisure-time magnet for at least a century.

On the other hand, if you would eagerly detour 500 miles to avoid any mass gathering that features deafening music, September or October would be a better time to orbit Planet Woodstock. What you'll discover is a region somewhat down at the heels economically but rich in history and scenery, stretching from the Catskills "Borscht Belt" in the west to Gilded Age mansions and dozing Rip Van Winkle hamlets along the Hudson in the east.

Distances are short by California standards--roughly 125 miles on meandering highways from Bethel at the southwestern extremity of the Woodstock Zone to the superb Shaker Museum near Old Chatham at the northeastern limits of the three-day circuit I drove last month. Another 50 miles north from the Shaker site lies the stylish Victorian spa resort of Saratoga Springs, and no more than 100 miles to the west is quaint Cooperstown with its National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

The center of Planet Woodstock is the Ulster County village, population 2,300, that gave its name to the 1969 festival as well as the hippie subculture spotlighted by the powerful 1970 "Woodstock" documentary movie.

Woodstock has been an artists' colony since 1902, when Englishman Ralph R. Whitehead set up a handicraft community, Byrdcliffe--which still functions under the umbrella of the Woodstock Guild. Over the decades, the community developed a reputation as the Greenwich Village of the Catskills.

A local tradition of summer performing-arts programs, beginning with the Maverick Festivals held from 1915 to 1931, inspired popular-music fests in 1967 and '68 at the Pansy Copeland farm near Woodstock. Meanwhile, powerful music manager Albert Grossman had moved to town in the '60s and brought along such big-name clients as Bob Dylan and The Band. So the Woodstock name carried the proper cachet when Michael Lang and his partners began mapping out the 1969 event.

However, no outdoor settings around Woodstock itself were suitable for a mass musical camp-out. Lang wanted to use the Winston Farm site at Saugerties (the same one that has become the Woodstock '94 venue), but local authorities wouldn't issue a permit. So the '69 festival wound up near Bethel, bringing the Woodstock name with it. The rest is pop-culture history.

If you're too young to remember hippies, or if you slept like a latter-day Rip Van Winkle through the '60s and '70s, Woodstock amounts to a living-history village showcasing that nearly vanished social species. Hippiedom still hums along Tinker Street, the main drag, although it plays a sometimes dispiriting commercial tune--currently keyed to making some bucks from the upcoming Woodstock '94.

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