Introduction from "Taking Woodstock: The Shooting Script"

In adapting Elliot Tiber's memoir for the screen, writer James Schamus first had to figure out where "Woodstock" actually exists.

Being here, at Woodstock, now.

Woodstock, of course, didn’t happen at Woodstock; it happened at Bethel, New York, apparently in August 1969. To be at Woodstock was thus to be in the idea of Woodstock, but somewhere else than Woodstock. If you were in Woodstock in mid-August 1969, you weren’t there.

Woodstock was an event, that is to say, something that didn’t just actually happen, but an actuality that came into being, when something—when many things—happened. A human actuality is a possibility that is immanent in us as a kind of freedom—and the event that represents that actuality to us is never simply identical to the specific temporal-spatial confluence with which history tries to pin it down. That’s why events like Woodstock are meaningful—the happening of them is not just the same thing as what happened at a specific place and time; nor are such events merely “symbolic” representations of abstract ideas, for they have a reality that, in important ways, exceeds mere fact or image.

Hence the hidden truth in the adage “If you can remember Woodstock, you weren’t there.”  Because, no matter how drug-soaked your memories, even if you were there, there and then, the act of remembering—that is, the affixing of the experience to a specific temporal-spatial locus—circumscribes the event, makes of it a fact, more than an actuality. But for us to realize that actuality, we must somehow return there.

Thus the paradox: to let Woodstock continue to be an actuality, so that we can be here with it, now, we must remember enough to want to go back there, then.  What is possible is, of necessity, past

This paradox was very present to the Woodstock generation itself, inextricably tied to the “innocence” we associate with the event. It was and still is often expressed in “Eastern,” Zen-style language, but the conception of time Woodstock invokes is also very Judeo-Christian: to take the journey to Max Yasgur’s farm was, as Joni Mitchell put it, to “get back to the garden,” that is, to the Eden before the creation of human history and time whose origins are, in Milton’s words, our “first disobedience.”  Human freedom—which Richie Havens so memorably and spontaneously praised in song at Woodstock—exists only in human time, a kind of temporality that owes its existence to original sin.

To tell the story of the event that is Woodstock is, necessarily, to follow narrative modes and conventions that treat the happenings of human history as unfolding in some kind of causal order. We assume that when we choose to narrate that one thing happened after another thing, we mean to understand that the earlier thing participated in the causes of the later thing. A “good” story often foregrounds the seemingly trivial details that later, surprisingly, turn out to have been “causes” for the story’s denouement. 

In narrating Taking Woodstock, though, we embraced a chain of events that were as accidental as they were causal; indeed, it is precisely the openness to and acceptance of accident that so inspires us about the Woodstock generation; and any proper narrative of that event should try as best it can to embody that openness. The scholar Gary Saul Morson, in his Narrative and Freedom, has written beautifully about how narratives need not “destroy the openness of time,” but can embrace contingency—and thus freedom—by creating what he calls a “plurality of temporalities.”

If our modest approach to storytelling in Taking Woodstock is not quite ambitious enough to live up to Morson’s main examples (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are his literary heroes), in a small way we still want to contribute to the unfolding story of freedom that is the Woodstock story. To do so, we kept to the margins, to “a” story about Woodstock rather than “the” story, to a peripheral sphere where the center of the meaning of Woodstock could be found, in a sense, outside the defining circle.

And so happenstance brings us the story of Elliot Tiber, the son of the owners of the El Monaco Motel, who happened to be there then, and who made a phone call to Woodstock producer Mike Lang, inviting him to come to his family’s motel in White Lake, New York, after hearing that the neighboring town of Wallkill had pulled the permit on the festival. Did that phone call lead directly to Max Yasgur’s farm, three miles down the road from the El Monaco? Every participant involved remembers the chain of events differently, but no matter.  It was a call that, in Elliot’s wonderful telling, served as a tiny crack in an edifice that, a month later, would spectacularly tumble, revealing to him a new, alternative reality that catalyzed his own—and millions of people’s—search for freedom.

Part of that alternative reality is the story of the pioneering lesbian, gay, bi, and (as we now name it) transgender communities that formed an integral part of the Woodstock Nation, but whose roles have been effaced under the weight of a dominant, primarily straight image of sixties counterculture. Indeed, the very language of “Be Here Now,” cribbed from the work of Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), an associate of Timothy Leary’s at Harvard during the early days of LSD experimentation, is a case in point. Alpert’s transformation into a leading guru of sixties counterculture forms an important narrative thread to the history of that era; his later work as an “out” gay man, working at the forefront of AIDS awareness and prison reform, among many other causes, is less well known. If there is indeed a “plurality of temporalities” to celebrate in the Woodstock story, part of that celebration involves the excavation of these alternative histories.

In telling this small slice of Elliot’s story (his memoirs could be the basis for ten movies, from his sexual awakenings as a gay teen in fifties New York onward), we hope to simply let Woodstock happen, even as we witness and celebrate the extraordinary band of young visionaries and entrepreneurs who paused at the El Monaco on their way to Max’s that summer. The entire story is infused with the “outside” joke that we never depict Elliot as ever getting to the concert himself; for our hero, as for us, the event itself remains just over the horizon.

Of course, the journey to Max’s farm didn’t just end with a weekend concert. For many of the team who produced Woodstock, that journey led them, just three-and-a-half months later, farther west, to Altamont, California, just north of San Francisco, where they went, as Mike Lang explains to Elliot in our film’s final scene, to put on “a truly free concert,” one that would feature the Rolling Stones—and the Hell’s Angels. The spectacle of violence and death at Altamont has come, in retrospect, to mark “the end of the sixties,” and, in the context of Taking Woodstock, a final reference to it could be taken as somehow “ironic,” a knowing nod to the shattering of the Woodstock Nation’s dreams. But perhaps we should understand Altamont (as well as the Manson Family’s Tate and LaBianco murders, which occurred just prior to Woodstock) as themselves “causes” of the event we celebrate. It is not as if, in August 1969, an entire generation was innocent, and in December 1969, with Altamont and the arrest of the Manson Family, that innocence had ended; rather, Woodstock created, and continues to create, a kind of innocence that remains, in defiance of conventional temporality and causality, an immanent, potential, and productive force—long after the sixties ended. 

Oh, and by the way, Taking Woodstock is a comedy!

—May 2009

Excerpted from “Taking Woodstock: The Shooting Script” Copyright © 2009 by James Schamus. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press,

Taking Woodstock: The Shooting Script” is available online from the Newmarket Press website and at the following online booksellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, IndieBound and Woodstock.Com