Elliot Tiber has seen one book become an Oscar nomination-considered foreign film representing Belgium, High Street, and another, an incredibly lifelike and emotional big screen adaptation directed by Ang Lee that debuted at Cannes in 2009. For those who don’t know the story, Tiber was responsible for keeping the festival plans going when Orange County, New York canceled the 1969 epic music festival, which he covered in his memoirs and later the movie starring Emile Hirsch and Eugene Levy. As they say, the rest is history and certainly a grand music history we are all grateful for. Now in his late 70’s but still the same cool cat as ever, he was happy to answer my millions of questions about one of my favorite moments in American pop culture.
When you look at popular festivals today and how they have somewhat changed from their original environments, like SXSW or Coachella, how do you feel? Do you think this is a good thing, or has a lot of the love that originally existed back then disappeared?
For the most part, I am still stuck in the Janis Joplin and Joan Baez kind of music and lyric that caught much of the spirit during the original 1969 Woodstock festival. I am in awe of the huge numbers attracted by many of today’s festivals, but I can’t connect with the music. With all the hip-hop, tech, electronica, and performers whose rendering of lyrics make them nearly indecipherable (to me, anyhow). So many of today’s huge throngs seem to create more violence than anything else, which saddens me. When I read about the new gatherings of young people, I rarely see the three words we focused on at Woodstock: peace, love, and music [sighs].
I really love how you weren’t afraid to pitch Ang Lee when you met him by chance. I love how this excitement is still alive, that someone would have the guts to approach someone themselves rather than the PR-friendly, corporate style where you go through their offices. When you had that initial conversation with him, what did you tell him? How did you sell, literally(!), your story?
When I met Ang Lee in the green room at the TV studio in San Francisco back in September 2007, I was wearing my special Taking Woodstock book T-shirt. I was on the show to promote the recent release of my book, while Ang was there to talk about his new Chinese-language film Lust, Caution. I told Ang how much I totally admired his filmmaking genius, especially his bravery in making the film Brokeback Mountain with Universal/Focus Features. Rare are the major film studios that will tackle the subject of gay-love relationships, which remains controversial even today. But while I told him I loved all his films, I also said to him, “They are so sad, though—everyone dies in them!” [laughs]
I knew then that I’d have only the proverbial “two-minute Hollywood ‘pitch’” with him. So I asked if he had heard of Woodstock. He got all revved up, explaining how he was a teenager in Taiwan when that was going on. He, like most of his friends, wore long hair and bell-bottomed jeans. He explained to me that the government actually would send police and military around from house to house, along with a barbershop van and men with scissors. Young people either agreed to cut their hair back to “normal” and slice off their bell bottoms, or they went to jail. He then went on to say that when Woodstock happened far across the world from Taiwan in 1969, there was suddenly a wonderful explosion of freedom for them. The phenomenon of that simple festival awakened the young people of Taiwan to the sweet taste of freedom.
When Ang asked me what I was there to promote on the TV show, I pointed at the book cover on my T-shirt and explained my pivotal role in the birth of Woodstock Nation. He was all smiles, as he gave me a huge congratulatory hug! I told him I happened to have an extra copy of my book, but had the further chutzpah to say I doubted Hollywood could make my story into a film in time for the 40th anniversary of Woodstock in 2009. He smiled and said if the story was for him, he might be able to push aside other projects. I was in heaven, just having the chance to meet Mr. Lee—let alone pitch him my story. Imagine my delight two months later when Universal/Focus Features called my agent to set up a meeting for me with James Schamus [acclaimed producer/screenwriter and CEO of Focus Features] and his staff. And so after almost 40 years of near-invisibility, the special role I played in helping to make Woodstock a reality would finally be shared with the world through the lens of director Ang Lee. Thanks to that small connection I made with Ang Lee back in that San Francisco TV green room, I have been put on the greatest roller coaster ride of my life!
Who are some modern artists you think carry the past traditions of peace and happiness, sometimes tough issues in their lyrics, well?
Madonna and Lady Gaga are the two major artists that I most respect and admire nowadays. Mostly, though, I still am stuck in my love of classical music, the songs of Judy Garland, and all that great music from the late ’60s. I like to listen to Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand. My tiny Yorkie terrier, “Wooody Woodstock,” prefers Streisand to all.
So much of the festival coverage and imagery we think of nowadays reflects on the Woodstock performances. However, your personal story is all about how the festival might not have happened if you hadn’t pitched in with your own efforts. As an artistic movement, what was it like watching this happen in person once everything fell into place the correct way?
While I have written, produced, and/or directed many of my own plays and musical comedies over the years both in Europe and New York’s Off-Broadway theatres, Woodstock is forever part of my heart and soul. Most of my other works include characters that make mention of, or are inspired by, Woodstock. But believe me, the festival didn’t just happen! It was “24/7” work for nearly six weeks. We had to contend with local opposition, corrupt politicians, harassment by police and local hate mongers—just all manner of bigotry, even homophobia. Still, as exhausting as it all was, there were magic moments that continued to happened throughout that time. We were threatened with cancellation in the days leading up to the festival’s opening day. With everything that was going on, I suddenly found I was being asked to get on the radio and tell those listening to come to the show right away. Caught up in the spirit of what was happening, I told everyone listening to come right away and announced that admission for the event was now “free.” By three A.M. the next morning, the two-lane Route 17-B had become five lanes of one-way traffic . . . all aimed at us in Bethel! [laughs] Within one day, Governor Rockefeller declared a state of emergency and closed the NY Thruway from NYC to Canada. Over a half-million people showed up by Thursday!
What was it like when you were working with the people involved, some of whom we may not think of as important or even know as household names?
I didn’t really know one person from another, and it was all happening so quickly. I was hired by Mike Lang, who was really the leader of Woodstock Ventures, to be the trusted liaison with local government and the citizens. As the days progressed and Lang’s team continued to use my family’s El Monaco motel as headquarters, we all started to become a special kind of affectionate family in the fast-paced and hysterical days that preceded the start of the festival.
When you found out your book was indeed going to be put on the big screen by Ang Lee, were you worried about how it might be misinterpreted?
I was deliriously happy that Ang Lee was making my book into a movie. I was hired as consultant on the picture, but did not have final say on certain things like casting. But there was no way for me to really know what Ang Lee’s interpretation would be. I was not at all concerned about it, though. While I had done several films and lots of television in Europe, this was my first Hollywood movie so I was simply grateful for this once-in-a- lifetime opportunity.
What did you think people who saw the film, myself included, took away that we might not normally have imagined, or maybe viewpoints we wouldn’t have made as important, if the movie didn’t exist?
If viewers are able to experience the joy and beauty of what happened there in Bethel during that festival—not just for me, but for everyone who was there—then I am happy. I was so delighted that my role in Woodstock would finally be acknowledged. And Ang told my story in the film from my own point of view (POV), as he promised he would. I even joked with him that I didn’t want no car chases, Chinese kung-fu battles, or military tanks in my movie! [laughs]
I loved the film, by the way, having seen it twice, and assume the adaptation must be a great reflection of your original work. Writing your memoirs is a big deal. If you mess up, people discontinue reading what could turn out to be an incredible story. When you taught creative writing at The New School, how did you stress to your students, “This is wrong, and this is the correct method?” Is there really a right way to write one’s memoirs or personal essays?
I was given total freedom to teach as I wished at The New School. I called my course: ABSURD, TWISTED COMEDY WRITING. I do not now, nor did I then, criticize students for ever being “wrong” about anything. My focus has always been to teach students how to discuss freely their own “point of view” and to always tell their own stories in “their own way.” Most student writers find being original and expressing their own unique qualities quite hard to do. I found ways and means to ease them into free thinking—but I always left the lights on.
During this whole time, you were in the closet. Oddly enough, you would think being a part of an artistic clique, whether in this era or now, would make you feel more at one with yourself, but it seemed you were unable to come out for some time. And that’s understandable as a personal milestone. When did you decide to come out and why?
I was never really “in the closet,” as it were. I always knew in my gut, and in my groin, that I was gay—no question. By the time I was in my early 20s, I was living in New York’s Greenwich Village and was at home in what was then the artistic gay mecca of America (still is, in my opinion). But you had to be careful back then—really careful. There were really only two gay bars back then in the city: Lenny’s Hideaway, and the Stonewall Inn. Things were dangerous, because homophobic thugs would lurk outside the clubs and they often robbed and beat up lone gay strollers. Everything for me clicked, though, on June 1969 the night that I joined with my gay brothers and sisters at the Stonewall Inn where we fought back against years of harassment from both the police but also from intolerant straight society. My parents were the last two people on the planet Earth to not know I was gay—and at Woodstock, I came out to them too!
You also taught art design history and fine art. If one thing is missing from the art movements we see around us, what is it?
I get ill reading of the art exhibits and museum showings these past few years, and in the present. Hanging dirty linen, used dinner plates, parts of animals . . . that, in my opinion, is NOT art. When I attended Brooklyn College, I was lucky to have studied painting/art with Mark Rothko—one of the founding fathers of Abstract Expressionism—and also the genius painter Ad Reinhardt. When I paint these days, I still remain in the Rothko school—it is my foundation, and I think that a sturdy foundation in the traditions of art are missing most of all these days. Even someone like Andy Warhol—who some blame for the slide away from the tradition of art into the purely commercial and conceptual notion of “art”—knew the rules well enough before he started to toss them aside and reach for the soup can.
Why do you think we don’t have a big, mainstream artist like Andy Warhol, who at one point had his own MTV show?
Frankly, we don’t have the right kind of TV shows because I am not in charge [laughs]. Seriously, if they would just let me have one week, I would revolutionize media arts to comply with MY standards so completely that practically no one would be able to handle it. I can see it now, Elliot Tiber Television – ET-TV. Can’t you?
Art is certainly important. If people can worship musicians, why not artists, right? How do you think people are passing on the Woodstock memories to the next generation? Yourself included, and other people?
My first memoir, Taking Woodstock, is published in fourteen languages worldwide. I get invited to speak in many countries, as well as various universities throughout the US. I am so encouraged, even a little surprised, by how the current young generation of college students have responded to my book and movie. They tell me that my story has stimulated and encouraged them to give fuller life and meaning to their art, music and writing. That makes all of it so worthwhile . . .