It was the dream assignment for a 19 year-old college dropout looking to make his name in music journalism. Plus, nobody else at Billboard wanted to cover the Aug. 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair way up in Bethel, New York.
That lucky break paved the way for Danny Goldberg to hop in a limo with one of the soon-to-be-legendary event’s publicists for the ride to Max Yasgur’s farm for three days of peace, music and his first major byline. As an anti-war rock lover with that “insane confidence of youth,” Goldberg walked the Woodstock grounds for three days with notebook in hand. While there, he was able to easily wander backstage to get a peek at some of the headliners, and drew a few sideways glances from the dirt-caked hippies who wondered how he’d managed to stay so clean amid the rain, mud and muck covering the 400,000 blissed-out attendees.
Before he went on to a five-decade career as a record company president, P.R. man, manager (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Hole) and author of the recent Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain, Goldberg was an idealistic cub reporter looking to bring a bit of starry-eyed poetry to the pages of Billboard, in a piece that ended with the idyllic kicker: “Woodstock was a celebration of joy which wiped out, at least temporarily, the persistent feelings of meaninglessness that permeate our culture. Questionable as a business venture, it was, at least, a moment of triumph for the better side of man, in a time when the devil seems so often to be winning.”
Check out Goldberg’s first-person account of the assignment that changed his life below (interview edited for space and clarity).
I had gotten a clerical job at Billboard maybe nine months earlier — in the latter part of 1968 — after I dropped out of college and I found out that the people on the other side [of the office] got into concerts for free and and got free albums. I’d written maybe six or seven reviews of live shows at that time, when nobody else wanted to cover something, and I got 30 cents for every inch that was published in the magazine, so I was thrilled to do it. To get a byline was your identity. Usually I got to see tertiary artists — like Mr. Flood’s Party, who were signed to Atlantic at the time — but certainly nobody famous.
Once I got to Billboard, I felt like I was more in the audience than covering it, and nobody else wanted to [cover Woodstock.] There was a generation gap, with the serious writers who were at least 10 years older than me who wanted to go to the Copacabana, where they got free drinks and dinner… those were the coveted gigs. Nobody had the slightest interest in going upstate and dealing with something like that.
I knew it was happening, because [I] was living in New York, being that age… I read the Village Voice and paid attention to what was going on in music. They asked me if I wanted to go on short notice, but it was an instantaneous yes. I was given the number of the press agent, Jane Friedman — and still, to to this day my heart swells with appreciation for her. We went up there in a limo as I recall: Jane, another member of the PR team, Rod Jacobsen, me and a writer Vince Aletti, who was covering it for an underground paper called The Rat. We must have gotten stuck in traffic at some point, but I think the driver had some information about a back road, so it didn’t take six hours. But it probably took longer than it normally would have. When we got close, we saw people naked skinny dipping, and you got the sense within a few miles of what was going on.
I had a hotel room, which was surreal. I had been a big druggie in high school, and identified with the culture, so I was spiritually with them. But people were like, “Why don’t you have any mud on you? Are you a narc?” The limo took us to the hotel and I walked about 20 minutes to get to the festival. It was easy to get backstage — there were no laminates — but I didn’t stay backstage very long. I saw Joe Cocker and Joan Baez, but I wanted to experience [the festival], so I just wandered back into the crowd and tried to experience it as much as I could. I was definitely into the counterculture and the romance of hippie culture, so it was easy for me to shift mental gears back into that, even though now I had a job and wasn’t stoned.
Being young was helpful. I was probably dressed the same way I’m dressed now: jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt. I blended in. I was one of them. I had taken acid [in the past], I knew all the music, I was against the war, there was nothing I was “trying” to do. I just happen to also be able to write.
I don’t remember what I was thinking about. I just wanted to experience it and when I got home, get it all down. I really felt like more like a member of the audience than a reporter in my head. I was really taken with the sweetness of the crowd and the vibe of it and some of the music and I just figured the story would kind of write itself. And it did. I also had a certain sense of mission to stick up for it, because the New York papers had been negative about it, the New York Times especially. I felt like, “I’m the young person, I’m supposed to speak for us… these older writers don’t get it.” It was all in my head. I didn’t have to do any research. I didn’t interview anybody. I talked to people, but not the way a journalist would, just being there. It was a long piece for Billboard, but not a long piece compared to the New Yorker or something.
I was there most of the time. But even then at a certain point I liked to go to bed. I think there are things I missed… like Sly & The Family Stone. But there were two artists that stuck with me. One was Santana, who I’d not seen before or even heard, and that was so exciting to discover something in real time and how great they were. The other was Johnny Winter — and he was not in the movie, so I know I actually remember him. His records were not amazing, but he was amazing as a live performer, and it stayed in my brain and I remember being there and enjoying it. I didn’t see Jimi Hendrix at the end, [though] I keep thinking I did because I’ve seen the performance so much. That’s definitely something I saw in the movie. There’s no chance I was up that late and saw him — I left. But in my mind it’s still so much one of the signtuare moments of Woodstock.
I think I had a little notebook that could fit into my pocket, and I would occasionally take notes… not extensive notes, though, just a few. I kept a lot in my head, and the minute I got home I wrote it because I knew it had to run ASAP. Billboard was published on Mondays, so it probably ran that next week, and I had to have the copy in by Tuesday. It was just about feeling it and trying to document it. I knew there were some stylistic things I had to do — I would be more freaked out now if I had to do it — but I had that insane confidence of youth, a misguided sense of entitlement, and I was convinced that I understood this. I had been at the magazine long enough to understand something about it, but I went outside the boundaries with some of that poetic shit. They took a few lines out, but left in what they left in.
I don’t remember how I got home. I must have gone back with them, but I do remember that I worked harder on that piece than anything I’d done before because I knew it was a bigger deal.
I was hoping to be able to get that [flower power sentiment] across, and I was very grateful for them letting me keep as much of it in there as they did. You have to understand they were much older editors, it was not their culture or their music. They were grizzled veterans of the music business, and whoever it was, they were very nice to give me that amount of leeway in a trade magazine — especially because then it was a very cut-and-dried trade business magazine. It was a big deal to me to try to do that and I was really pleased that I was able to do that. That’s how I looked at myself, as that guy who was going to be able to wave that flag.