Elliot Tiber’s spirited and bestselling memoir from 2007, Taking Woodstock, cowritten by Tom Monte, was made into an acclaimed 2009 motion picture by two-time Oscar winning director Ang Lee. Its “prequel” of sorts, Palm Trees on the Hudson, was released to critical acclaim in 2011. Now comes the mammoth, 480-page After Woodstock: The True Story of a Belgian Movie, an Israeli Wedding, and a Manhattan Breakdown. Rapturous in tone and immense in detail, the book spans more than thirty years of its author’s life.
Taking Woodstock may be Tiber’s own version of Citizen Kane: just as Orson Welles was a boy wonder at 25 when he created the film, Tiber was a young 34 when his life was changed forever by the 1969 Woodstock Festival. But this is a powerful second act. It starts after the festival; after the million-plus concertgoers and the sounds of Richie Havens’ “Freedom” finally helped Tiber clip the tight strings of his overbearing tsunami of a mother. It shows an author matured, evidencing a clear grasp of literary form and structure, depicting life as art as he looks to shape the rest of life after Woodstock.
There are shades of Kerouac. The book begins and ends with Tiber driving a car, putting him literally on the road, though with a slightly freer and more discursive prose style than we have seen from Tiber before. And with a clear design that pervades the book, the first sentence (“The early afternoon sun blazed in the September sky, shining like a single spotlight on me.”) is essentially also the last sentence (“The early morning sun blazed in the May sky, shining like a single spotlight focused on the road ahead.”). If ever there was a full-circle story, this is it.
In this new work, Tiber recalls the trajectory of his life with sparkle and pizzazz. He recalls his first week on the West Coast some six weeks after the Woodstock miracle, including a stay with Jerry and Felix, two drugged-out buddies from Brooklyn living in a slightly broken-down Hollywood mansion that belonged either to 1930s actress Marie Dressler, or to the Indian actor and Jungle Book star known only as Sabu. Things are so strange there that Tiber never really knows for sure which one actually owned it.
Later on, Tiber describes a chaotic “one-day-stand” at the 1979 New York Gay Pride Parade, spent with the gorgeous but dumb-as-talcum-powder “Stevie Strong” and his small group of equally young friends. Chapter after chapter, Tiber pulls his reader in so closely that one feels utterly present. From the descriptions to the crisp and often hilarious dialogue, the narrative is a relentlessly-paced witches’ brew of highs and lows; of wit and despair.
And then, there’s André Ernotte. Aside from the continuing mass of anger and recrimination that is Tiber’s mother, Sonia (even her second marriage in Israel to a Russian widower does nothing to quell her frequent bouts of rage) the portrayal of the late Belgian director/playwright Ernotte stands out the most. One of the most unexpected delights of this book is, when all is said and done, it is essentially a warm and beautiful love story between two gay men who chose each other over all else for nearly twenty-eight years. As a couple, they are perfectly suited. Tiber describes himself as a big and sloppy dog, while Ernotte is reserved and cat-like.
With this new love by his side, there is seemingly nothing that Tiber cannot do, from a critically-acclaimed Belgian TV show to a first novel that becomes a bestseller and is turned into a film (under Ernotte’s direction). That film become a semi-finalist for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars in the late ‘70s. Upon his return with André from Belgium back to New York, Elliot works with André on a series of original plays, off-Broadway and elsewhere regional.
Soon, he finds himself plugged back into his years-ago connection to the Hudson Valley area when he shares his special Woodstock experience with the national press on the legendary festival’s 25th anniversary. In the middle of all this, though, something called “the gay cancer” starts to kill several of Tiber and André’s friends. The onset of the AIDS crisis in the early to mid-‘80s, revisited here by Tiber in the book through what surely must have been tear-blurred eyes, grips Tiber’s life in a way that traumatizes so many. It is only his slow return to the increased sharing of his Woodstock story that restores Tiber, like a life-filled elixir—just as André begins a rage-fueled addiction to alcohol and pills. The story of what happens to these two men, and how Elliot comes more than ever to embrace the love and trust of his younger sister Renee, will very nearly devastate anyone who has ever loved and lost.
Some readers may feel that Taking Woodstock, like the Greek dramatist Sophocles’ first play Oedipus the King,contains the truest and best of Tiber’s written work. However, just as Sophocles created a trilogy of tragedies based around the Oedipus myth with Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus , Tiber’s third memoir, After Woodstock, also brings a trilogy of sorts to an end. And so, as Oedipus at Colonus remains most celebrated for its brilliant use of language and philosophical musings about life (both its tragedy and splendor), Elliot Tiber’s After Woodstock stands proudly as this often erratic but brilliant man’s heart-filled masterpiece.
In the foreword, director Ang Lee celebrates Tiber’s new work as “a brave, hilarious, mortifying, and heartbreaking story.” Of course one must decide for oneself if one agrees with this assessment: As with all things in our lives, it is the choice to do or not to do that defines and shapes us. Mr. Tiber’s choices, some good and some bad, are all there for you to discover for yourself. Take a stand, make a choice, maybe even change your life—After Woodstock is there, waiting to share itself with you.
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