Woodstock &#39&#x3B;89 in Bethel, NY.
Woodstock '89 in Bethel, NY.
Charlie Gelish

The Forgotten Woodstock: The Oral History of Woodstock '89, The Impromptu Little Festival That Could

In 1969, Woodstock had peace and love. In ‘94, it had mud. In ‘99, fire. In 2019, it had nothing at all. 

But what about 1989? The only major anniversary festival to have ever been held at the original farmsite in Bethel, New York -- which despite a week’s worth of music, tens of thousands of attendees and a utopian sense of community has been almost completely lost to time? 

Well, Woodstock ‘89 had a kindergarten teacher named Rich Pell, who on his drive home one night 30 years ago would set into motion one of the most unlikely events in live music history. Eight days and hundreds of performers. Free food and water for all. And virtually no one made a dime. 

“I still can’t believe it when I look back,” Pell says, looking back on the 20th anniversary festival 30 years later. “I was in a room for a week afterward, looking at a wall, trying to figure out what the hell just happened.” 

This is the oral history of Woodstock ‘89, sometimes called The Forgotten Woodstock, as told by the people who lived it: co-organizer Pell, musician and co-organizer Will Hoppey, property owner Charlie Gelish, former Times-Herald Record (Middletown, N.Y.) columnist Steve Israel, famed folk musician and attendee Melanie Safka, and Savoy Brown frontman and attendee Kim Simmonds. 

“YOU GOT PERMISSION AND I GOT GEAR...” 

On Saturday, August 12, 1989, Rich Pell, a teacher from Warwick, N.Y. -- about an hour southeast of Bethel -- who also played guitar and sang at local gigs on the side, auditioned to perform at an event called “Remember Woodstock,” a 20th anniversary festival at the Imperial Resort Hotel in nearby Swan Lake, N.Y. The three-day event was to feature founding Woodstock performers Richie Havens, John Sebastian, Melanie Safka and more, as well as local talent.

Pell: The promoter said, “Hey Rich, you’re really great, you can play, but I just don’t see you at the festival, man.” I said, “Cool, thanks, man.” So on the way back from the audition, the next couple exits up is the Bethel exit and I had never been to [the original Woodstock site] before. My parents didn’t let me go to ‘69; think I was 14 then. 

I don’t know what got into me, I don’t know why I did it. But for some reason, I just got an inkling to take a right turn and visit the original site. I had to stop at a gas station -- I didn’t even know where it was! I got there and saw about 300 people along this path with tents set up and boomboxes going. And they were playing all the Crosby Stills and Nash and everything from Woodstock, and everybody was having fun. 

Will Hoppey (New York-based musician): My idea was, for the 20th anniversary, I wanted to go up. I’m a musician for a living -- a professional musician, I’ve done it for 40 years. I got a lot of friends that play and I got a lot of gear. I was going to just camp and get a generator and ask my friends to come up, and we were just going to jam for free on the property to celebrate like musicians would, so to speak. But I didn’t know how to do this.

So I got a hold of Wayne Saward [caretaker of the property]. He had a line on [property owner Lou] Necketopoulis, but [Lou] was in the hospital with cancer and he was dying. In fact, he died over the week of the Woodstock anniversary.

Now it’s getting to be a couple of weeks before, and [Saward] just says to me: “Don’t tell anyone I told you this, but just go up and do it. Just go take your stuff up, and if they throw you out, then they throw you out.”

Pell: I said [to the folks at the Woodstock site], “Hey, I have my guitar in the car, can I bring it out and we can have a little sing-along here?” And a guy said, “Yeah! Bring it out man, that’s cool, great.” I just started playing guitar, and then out of the blue I said, “You know, I got a PA.” And the other guy said, “Well, I got a generator.” Another guy said, “Well I got a tarp.” And I said, “Well you know what…” And I just came up with an idea: I’m going to come back tomorrow, Sunday, and just set up. 

The next day, I had a lot of people around me watching. All of a sudden, one kid said, “Well can I play?” And I said, “Of course, sure, here’s my guitar, go ahead.” And then another guy wanted to play and I said, “Of course you can play, sure.” I was in the kindergarten mentality: When you’re in kindergarten, you can’t be negative. So I just applied that to Woodstock, and said, “Of course!” 

Charlie Gelish (Property owner): [My mother and I] get up there, we see all this happening, and I had to go into the group of people and find out what was going on. They said, “Oh, we’re celebrating, we’re the Woodstock nation.” I said, “OK, you know you’re actually trespassing?” “Oh, it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,” they said. I loved it, you know, I kept my cool. So I went around to people and had to put together some type of organization in it. 

I’m there and I run into [Pell], playing some music and what not. I say, “You know what, I like this kid.” I brought him over, I said, “Look, we have to organize something here to keep it going right. We’ll make up a list of entertainment acts. Give them like 15 minutes each, depending upon what they do.”

Pell: Gelish said, “Any music that comes through here, comes through you, you understand that?” I said, “Well, thanks so much man.” I guess he saw something in me. So we decided that anybody can play, but here’s the deal: you have three songs, or 12 minutes. Which went up to about 15 to 20, but it was 12 pretty much.

We had a pots and pans band -- it was great. We had a daddy with a little girl singing a song for mommy. You can’t get more precious than that.

Hoppey: I get there and [Pell] had a little PA system with a little generator that somebody else donated, I guess. He said, “You’re Will Hoppey, right?” He asks if I’d want to play. So I said, “Yeah,” and he put me to the front of the list, which was neat.

When I got done, I said, “Hey Rich, here’s the deal: I got a truck full of gear and I got staging at home, and I know just about every musician around. I wanted to do this, but the Gelish family is kind of hemming and hawing -- but you got permission. You got permission, and I got gear, so maybe we ought to go in together. And make this a little bit bigger.” 

Pell: At first, I kind of resisted, because I said, “Well it’s nice, small, and intimate” and I didn’t know if I really want to kill this spirit of this, just small. And Will said, “Well listen, there’s going to be thousands of people coming for the anniversary -- and what you got here ain’t gonna cut it.” 

ACOUSTIC DAYS AND ELECTRIC NIGHTS

Woodstock ‘89 quickly ballooned. Thousands of people arrived at the original site and music was being performed ‘round the clock. The makeshift event would grow to host between 20,000 and 40,000 people at its peak -- as many as 250,000 people drove by to see what was going on. The event was free for all patrons, and while the music was performed almost entirely by local bands and amateur musicians -- minus Melanie, Savoy Brown and Al Hendrix, Jimi’s father -- it encompassed the peaceful community the original event had sought to achieve. 

Hoppey: The next day, Monday, I came up with my gear. We set it up in the middle of the field and here was about 1,500 people and the news was starting to come around.

That night, Monday night, we closed it down and one of the cops, a local constable guy says, “If I were you, I would move that stage down to where the original stage was. Right now. Like, tonight while you have the time.” I asked, “Why?” He says, “Tomorrow morning, Good Morning America is going to come and do the show from the Woodstock site. We got word that there’s people coming in from all over the country. You guys should have that stage down where the original stage was, because this field is going to get filled up.” So Rich and I spent all night moving shit down, setting it up. 

Pell: We had all these campfires all over the place -- you smelled the hickory and maple. There were moms and dads and children in their little chairs with a little awning, hanging out roasting marshmallows, doing their thing. Elsewhere, there was the tie-dye, young people that weren’t alive for the first Woodstock, you know, passing a joint. 

Then you got your rainbow people; they’re walking around all colorful, flashing the peace sign. Then you’ve got these two people who wanted to walk around naked, so that was fun, cool. Whatever floats your boat. 

Then, up at the top of the hill, they had free kitchens. I mean, I don’t know what the hell was in the stews they cooked, but it was everything and anything they got, I guess… we even had a recycling center right next to the stage.

Hoppey: The whole stage was two sheets of plywood, four feet deep and 16 feet wide, with another piece of plywood behind it, a four-by-eight sheet that we put the drums on so it was like a T shape. That’s all there was. And it was on milk crates so it probably wasn’t more than a foot off the ground. But it was loud. We did acoustic in the daytime -- acoustic days and electric nights.

Pell: We went from 1:00 in the afternoon to 6:00 the next morning, and did it again at 1:00 for days. I slept on the stage in a sleeping bag. I had one striped shirt, and by the end people were chanting, “Change the shirt, change the shirt.”

Gelish: We had to get the state police to come in and keep order. A lot of things that had to be done. I bought Radio Shack walkie talkies so I could communicate with everyone so I knew what was going on on the property. For eight days, I was inside of it.

Hoppey: Wednesday night, there was a full lunar eclipse. It fell right on the middle day of the Woodstock anniversary. It was a full lunar eclipse, and everyone in the field is watching this eclipse. It was spiritual, and a folk singer named Jack Hardy was playing, and he was playing a song called with the lyrics “call down the moon.” It was just incredible. 

During that time, I got away from the stage for the first time in days, and I walked to the top of the hill and I got a chance to look down at all the campfires and all the tents and at the stage. It was like a little jewel at the bottom of the hill with all these campfires. It was gorgeous.

"IT WAS EVERYTHING THIS OTHER THING WAS NOT"

Meanwhile, the “Remember Woodstock” event at the Imperial Resort Hotel in nearby Swan Lake was floundering, despite being heavily promoted and featuring original acts from Woodstock ‘69. The event was canceled a day early, even after organizers visited the Bethel site, begging people to come to their festival instead.

Steve Israel (former Times-Herald Record columnist): The paper set me up with a hotel room there because they thought thousands of people were going to be at this event --  at least that’s what the promoters thought, who were clearly not on the level. 

I get there, and I see there’s nobody in all these impromptu parking lots. I was there the first night and there was nobody there. We were counting people by the person: “one, two, three...”

Pell: On Thursday, the guys from “Remember Woodstock,” the promoters come to us, and they want to get on our stage to ask everyone to go over there. So we said, “Yes, of course you can!” Oh boy, the crowd threw stuff at them and booed. They had like four buses ready to bring people over. You could see the buses at the top of the hill and they’re pointing, “We have four buses, the concert is free now! You can go over there for free! Just get on the bus, get on the bus!” People yelled “No, rip-off, boo, go away.” We were all looking at each other, we didn’t rub it in or anything. We just said, “Well, there you go.”

Israel: All the sudden we got word that at the original site all these people were showing up. The paper then shifted me to cover that event. Then all the performers got word that there was nobody at this thing. So a bunch of them went over to the original site, about a 20-minute drive away. 

I couldn’t believe it. There were so many people there that the editor of the paper rented us a house that was caddy-corner from the original site. That was our little newsroom.

What blew me away was how they just slapped together the stage, with two-by-fours and a leaky, blue tarp and some amps and people just started playing. You could feel the spirit -- it was impromptu, it was everything this other thing in Swan Lake was not. Folks were left holding more than $50,000 worth of bounced checks and broken contracts from the [Remember Woodstock] concert promoter, a Philadelphia-based boxing firm that bankrolled the concert. 

Melanie Safka (famed folk singer): I got wind that the people were gathering at the original site and someone was putting together a stage of some kind, and there were 30,000 people. At that point, the promoter of the Imperial Hotel event gathered us all and told us in no uncertain terms we would not be paid if we attended that impromptu gathering, and most likely we would be arrested. Of course I went.

When I got to the field (Friday) it was incredibly exciting. I was introduced to Jimi Hendrix’s father, Al, and he is the one who introduced me on that very makeshift stage with a generator. I felt like Santa Claus, or a human campfire. 

Pell: When Melanie played “Candles in the Rain,” her big [1970 hit], with the full moon, it was just... it was magical. 

Hoppey: Melanie looked at me and she said, “This is the little concert that could.” She said how that event over at Swan Lake she got hired for had everything -- it had so much sound and so much light, they spent thousands of dollars on it -- and they got nobody. And we came out here with nothing and we got all these people. 

Pell: She gave me a big hug and a kiss and said, “Richie, this is beautiful.” And I said, “Thank you, we just all wanted to follow in what you did at the original Woodstock.” 

Kim Simmonds (frontman of Savoy Brown): I think immediately, when you’re a professional musician and you’re doing this kind of impromptu stuff, you get the sinking feeling like, “Oh, what’s going on here?” But we went to the site anyway. I’m not sure how serious I took it, and when we got there it seemed like it had just been thrown together. 

We had fun and enjoyed playing the event, got into the spirit of it and so forth, but my main memory is not being able to take it too seriously as a professional. I don’t remember exactly but I assume we were thinking, “What the heck are we doing here?” 

Hoppey: Me, my lead guitar player and Al Hendrix got a bottle of some kind of hooch and we all got fucked up in my van. And let me tell you, look in Al Hendrix eyes -- he looks just like his son, man. I mean, I swear to God, it was spooky cool. 

THE MAGIC HAT

Woodstock ‘89 reached its peak capacity on Friday and Saturday, growing in numbers despite incessant rain and chilly temperatures. Logistical issues that accompany an unplanned festival -- water, bathrooms, safety -- arose throughout the week, but Pell (the emcee and heart of the event), Hoppey (the tech guy and stalwart rocker who played with his band every night) and Gelish (the organizer who made sure the ship remained afloat) received help from the community they’d created over those few days. 

Hoppey: [Entertainment and counterculture fixture] Wavy Gravy came over, and said, “What do you guys need?” I said, “We need the porta potties emptied again.” And Wavy gets up on stage and he takes off his hat and says, “This is a magic hat: For every dollar you put in this hat, two more will appear magically.” And he sent around this hat. This hat is a freaking souvenir heirloom, man, he sent it out into the crowd. This thing came back not full of [singles], it came back filled with fives and 10s and 20s. This was everyone helping everyone. People donated everything -- a tanker truck full of fresh water, for free. Where do you get that, man?

Wayne Ludwig was a drummer, a guy I knew from an open mic night. He came with a brand new set of Ludwig drums [no relation to the company]. He left those drums there all week long as the house kit. He let more than 200 drummers play on his brand new set of drums. 

Pell: I would get on stage and ask for gas for the generator, and suddenly I had 10 cans of gas. I’d ask for more food for the food pantries, and the guy from a supermarket would come and give them all kinds of food. Anything we wanted, we got. A wallet was stolen and the guy got it back with all the money intact. 

Hoppey: When the famous people started coming over and more crowds started coming, we needed a perimeter, because we didn’t have any fence or anything for the stage. There was nothing. I called my buddy, I said, “I need the brothers, man, I need the biggest, ugliest, friendliest teddy bears you can find.” So about 12 of them come up and they look like the Hell’s Angels, man, and I tell them, “This is what I need. I need a perimeter around the stage. I want you to be really friendly, like big, scary teddy bears.” 

Sure as shit, they came, and people backed out. And they didn’t have to do a thing, never had to say a thing -- it was as peaceful as peaceful could be. But they were intimidating, so nobody tried to get backstage to see Melanie or Savoy Brown.

Gelish: I took care of the [security] guys. And they enjoyed it. They got fed, they were into the music and all they had to do was be cool. And that’s what I said to them. “We just got to work together on this… we’ll get through it, it’s only eight days.” 

TRUE WOODSTOCK SPIRIT

After a full week of day-and-night performances, which included hundreds of acts — all playing for free — and music performed beneath a lunar eclipse, it was time for Woodstock ‘89 to disperse. 

Gelish: All I did was say, “OK we’re wrapping this up,” I told [Pell], I told [Hoppey], I told security, “OK, Sunday is the last day. We’ll have to wrap this up. People are going to have to start leaving.”

Safka: For me, it was perhaps the most incredible reunion of them all. To some degree because of the risk -- I never did get paid for that one at the Imperial Hotel -- but mostly, it was because it was real.

Israel: If there’s any kind of true Woodstock spirit, that was it. I’d never seen anything like it and probably never will again. 

Hoppey: It was everything you could’ve possibly wanted. Everyone cooperating with everybody, and everybody right until the end, picking up garbage and taking care of the land. It was probably better than Woodstock, because when we left that field it maybe wasn’t spotless, it didn’t look anything like the end of the concert in ‘69.

Pell: I stayed there the next day and helped with the clean-up. And helped dismantle everything and get it back to the way it was. I couldn’t believe my luck, though. I mean, oh my God. I had no idea any of this was going to happen. I didn’t go there to do this, it just popped in my head, I’m going to come with my guitar and start playing.

It was unbelievable. Somebody wouldn’t believe it. It’s a lie, but it isn’t! We were like the mouse against the lion, and the mouse won! For once, the mouse won. For once.

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