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Book Review: Back to the Garden by Pete Fornatale

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Quick! Name the group whose 1969 album sold over three million copies, had three hit singles that each went to #2 on the charts, and won the 1970 Grammy for “Album of the Year” over the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Need a hint? They also performed at Woodstock.

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It wasn’t The Band. It was neither Creedence Clearwater Revival nor The Grateful Dead. Although these three bands, along with the act in question, played at Woodstock, not many of the people who only saw the movie or had the two record album knew it. For various reasons, none of the four were included. (Answer at the end)

On a very hot Louisiana summer night in 1970, a friend and I saw the movie Woodstock for the first time. It was at a drive-in theater on a monster sized outdoor screen, and the sound was terrible. Those small speakers that attach to the car windows weren’t exactly Bose quality. Little did I know that a twenty-one year old hippie that attended the concert in Bethel, New York would one day be my wife and share a farm house with me in Bethel, NC. Over the years we have shared many stories about Woodstock and how it affected us and our generation.

For many, especially fans of New York City FM radio, XM Sirius Satellite Radio, and WFUV radio, Pete Fornatale is a household name. As he says, it was “Just after midnight on July 27, 1969, twenty minutes into my debut program at WNEW-FM in New York, I did my first live commercial.” It was for The Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

Forty years later, music fans observe the deaths of two of rocks icon’s, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They died within fifteen days of each other. We also note the 40th anniversary of the documentary film, Woodstock. Over the years, this production has won the praise of critics as “the benchmark of concert movies”. Numerous books, articles, and audio products have been released over the decades and on May 11, 2010, Fornatale’s book, Back to the Garden — the Story of Woodstock and How It Changed a Generation, hit the streets.

A twelve page introduction is the author’s primary opportunity for writing. He gives a brief overview of the prevailing world and national politics and what was happening in music at the time. Instead of chapters, Fornatale divides his book into sections containing interviews categorized by performer — in the order they appeared on stage. The first section is for “Friday,” the day performances began. Richie Havens is the first on stage and is the first topic in the book. Interviews and comments from a dozen different people from stage hands and the announcer to other performers are included along with comments from Havens himself. Havens recounts the events that led to him being the first to go on stage. (The fact that he had the least amount of gear was a major factor.)

How many guitarists do you know of that would love to play for over 100,000 fans in a live concert? By the time Jimi Hendrix took the stage on Monday morning, most of the crowd had gone home. They weren’t all hippies. Many of them had jobs and had to be there Monday morning. Still, estimates as high as 180,000 have been made (with adjectives like, “sparse” & “thin”) of the crowd that had breakfast with Jimi. Hendrix’s insistence that he close the show resulted in less than peak crowds as the shows had run late all weekend. Even if the estimates were high by a factor of three, that would still have been 60,000 people. He did a two hour set of eighteen songs, many of which included lengthy improvisations. Interviews in the twelve pages devoted to Hendrix include bass man Billy Cox (who performed with Jimi at Woodstock), rock critics Ellen Sander and Billy Altman, film maker Michael Wadleigh and Fornatale himself. Humorous anecdotes, poignant stories, and insider technical info fill the pages, not only of Hendrix, but throughout the book.

A convenient list of interviewees labeled as “Players” follows the introduction and offers one- or two-line descriptions of the characters. The only thing missing from this book is a DVD or a link on YouTube!

Would I buy Back to the Garden, The Story of Woodstock and How It Changed a Generation? Yes! Whether you’re a Woodstock veteran or the grandchild of one, this is an indispensable book for music lovers.

Answer: Blood, Sweat, and Tears.

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  • http://deathknellforseriouscriticism.blogspot.com/ Kate

    Pete is indeed a household name here in WFUV territory. Thanks for the review!

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