Advertisers described it as “an Aquarian Exposition.” The _New York Daily News_’ early coverage headlined it “Hippies Mired in a Sea of Mud.” Today, Wikipedia calls it “one of the greatest and most pivotal moments in popular music history.” Conservapedia (in the interest of fair and balanced reporting) describes the event as “marked by widespread drug use, fornication, and denial of reality.”
To promoter Artie Kornfeld, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was something much more simple and much more complicated—a miracle.
The public conscience may forever view Woodstock as Kornfeld’s magnum opus, but the record producer’s influence has extended beyond this music festival. Throughout his long career in the music business, Kornfeld helped discover some of the twentieth century’s most iconic artists, from Pink Floyd to Bruce Springsteen to Blondie. Even newer artists such as Jack Johnson owe their success to Kornfeld’s industry wisdom.
While his heart will always be in the music studio, Kornfeld still commits himself to spreading the message of Woodstock to the public. Whether promoting drug rehabilitation (Kornfeld himself fought cocaine addiction in his youth) or setting up food banks, Kornfeld never passes up an opportunity to share his life experiences.
Princeton’s student radio station, 103.3 FM WPRB, was thrilled to take on Kornfeld as a guest and interview him about his unique place in the music industry. The interview, conducted by this writer and WPRB News’ Brittany Kelleher, is available on wprb.com.
_WPRB News:_ First we’re going to start with music in general, before Woodstock. Growing up in the ’50s, what role did music play for you? When did you decide that you wanted to turn it into a career?
_Artie Kornfeld:_ My dad was a New York City policeman, and I wound up going to 14 schools between kindergarten and my graduating class in high school. I had to get the ability to know people and understand people right away, ’cause I was always the new kid in school. And I was always playing music. All my songs I did before Woodstock were all from the ability to communicate that I learned because I was always the new kid and because I loved music.
_WPRB:_ By your early twenties, you were already the first vice-president of rock-and-roll at Capitol Records, you had worked with musical legends, including Bob Seger and Linda Ronstadt, and were married and wealthy. What was it like to live a life so different from your Brooklyn upbringing?
_AK:_ I don’t know. All of a sudden, I’m living with my folks, signed for $75 a week, and within a year I already had four BMI awards as a writer, number-one records. I was already producing. I love writing songs, I love communicating, I love making music. By the time I was 24, before Woodstock, I had already had all the awards and the Grammies and all that stuff people think they want. None of my platinum albums are on the wall, because they all went to charity. I didn’t really feel that I needed them financially—and that’s why I didn’t get involved with Woodstock II or III. There could only be one Woodstock, you know? Woodstock was a miracle.
_WPRB:_ How did the idea for Woodstock come to be? Was it any different than your original vision?
_AK:_ I was working at Capitol Records, and I was known to keep an open-door policy. So a kid came in named Michael Lang and we ended up becoming very close friends—for a year and a half I supported him at my place in Manhattan. One night he said to me, “Artie, you’re always in the studio, you’re always traveling, you’re always performing, you’re always doing this or that. You don’t go to see concerts anymore.” And I didn’t. So I suggested we take a Broadway theater and make a free concert. I was dreaming. We had all the money in the world, so we could bring in whomever we want and keep it free. All of a sudden my wife said, “What if you take it outside?” Michael thought we could get fifty thousand people, I said we could get a hundred thousand. Linda, my late wife, said we could get three hundred thousand. So it wasn’t a surprise. The amount of people that showed up was not a surprise. People just were waiting—it was such a down time—for a reason to get together and just show that through music, three days of peace, love and music, that maybe we can make a difference. I was just so lucky, you know? And that’s how Woodstock really came about. It was a dream and then one day I said to Michael, “Let’s do it.” And I raised $250,000 in seed money. And then we ran out of money. And Woodstock wasn’t going to happen in May. So without telling my partners, I ran ads in about 15 cities and I sold about a million and a half dollars worth of tickets. So we had enough money to get the concert going. Because I felt that this concert was going to be history. I always felt it. This was not going to be a concert. It was going to have historic implications. It was a miracle. You can’t create miracles.
_WPRB:_ What do you think, personally, is the greatest accomplishment of Woodstock?
_AK:_ Stopping the war in Vietnam. TIME magazine called Woodstock the greatest peaceful event in the history of mankind.
_WPRB:_ Recently, you have tried to re-create the peacefulness of Woodstock through a number of Woodstock-like concerts in South Africa, Korea, and Canada. Some of these have been successes and others have not. Can you tell us more about these experiences?
_AK:_ I went to India to do a concert. I didn’t do the concert, but I started a food bank that feeds thirty thousand street people a day. Everything I do is really to get people to care more about other people and to try to give the kids of today a future.
_WPRB:_ So even when the musical performance doesn’t pull through, it’s the spirit of Woodstock that you’re looking to spread through these initiatives?
_AK:_ Right. You know, all these people making money off the name “Woodstock,” I hope they really have the spirit and I hope they really are doing it for the right motivations—and a lot of people are.
_WPRB:_ What are your plans for the future?
_AK:_ I’m speaking at a sober-fest, I’m speaking at the University of Akron, I’m going to be speaking at M.I.T. I’m setting up college-speaking for next spring. I’m also going in over the holidays and producing two albums—’cause I’ve got to get back in the studio. I haven’t been in the studio since Jack Johnson. I’ve got to get back there, it’s where I love. It’s where I live. And it’s where I’m the most comfortable in the world.
_WPRB:_ What advice do you have for young people looking to make a difference, whether it’s in music or politics or even in just their own community?
_AK:_ The thing is, I’m just trying to get people aware that they _can_ make a difference, because in the Woodstock movie, what became so famous is when I had the flower, and said, “How can I go back to a place?” And I lived in Manhattan, and I had a limousine and all the things we think we need—but the fact was, I said, “How can I go back to a place, after all this love, where nobody’s smiling at each other?” What kind of life is that? Even if you help someone across the street today, or even if you call and get a couple of people to vote—no matter which way your going—just get back involved in the system. It’s just letting people know that everything is possible if you really stick to it. That advice is: if you have a band, stick with it. And if you’re lucky you’re going to meet an Artie Kornfeld.
_WPRB:_ Well, it sounds like you’ve been able to do something that you love for your living.
_AK:_ Well, right now for me, even with my losses, I would say my life has been perfect. I have had a wonderful life and I really thank God for my life.