Friday, July 30, 2010

It Was 40 Years Ago Today

"You can't say that civilization don't advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way."
Will Rodgers (1879 - 1935), New York Times, Dec. 23, 1929

The Powder Ridge People's Festival 1970

I was there for four days and nights from Thursday through Sunday. It was the beginning of my radicalization along with the first Earth Day and Vietnam War Moratorium that same year. The Powder Ridge People's Festival was truly a tribal experience with more than 30,000 young people learning to care for one another without the benefit of electricity, water or food. My friend Marc and I were recruited to run the Free Store which was next to the Free Kitchen. We started off with a limited stock of canned food and rice that grew exponentially from donations as the weekend progressed. By Sunday we had enough supplies to feed an army and we did just that. The drug culture of 1970 was never more apparent than it was at Powder Ridge. There were illicit "drug stores" set up on both sides of the main drag with make-shift counter tops advertising the "very best", "Acapulco Gold", "Panama Red", Mescaline, Mushrooms and Acid. People were making love everywhere you looked, under blankets, in the bushes, in old school buses. Yes, there were flying pigs in helicopters and the flying rumors abounded. A young man was apparently screaming in delirium that the band "Ten Years After" was about to preform on the main stage. By Saturday the pond was posted with the skull and crossbones. We trusted in each other, we learned and we survived with a smile.

Powder Ridge Rock Festival: The Greatest Concert That Never Happened

Forty Years Ago, There Would Have Been Much Music In Middlefield

It was called the greatest rock concert that never happened. The Powder Ridge Rock Festival, 40 years ago this weekend, promised that the biggest names in the business — Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, Sly and the Family Stone —would play on the grassy slopes of the winter ski resort. But a last-minute court order prevented the bands from ever taking the stage.

Some 30,000 people showed up anyway, many camping for nearly a week on the sylvan hillside. On the roads, determined state troopers encircled the 300-acre area. The town cut off electricity, hoping to drive away this youth invasion. The kids stayed on, strumming guitars, pounding drums and swallowing drugs that turned the sky into melting rainbows.
"Welcome to the Powder Ridge People's Festival," a bearded youth from San Francisco proclaimed to visitors at the gate. "One birth. No deaths, and the most beautiful [mind-blowing experience] you've ever been to."
The Powder Ridge Rock Festival — which was to be held July 31, Aug. 1 and Aug 2, 1970, at the ski area — has entered into local folklore. "Imagine," said Susan VanDerzee, editor of the local newspaper, The Town Times. "Janis Joplin was going to perform in Middlefield! This story just resonates with people. The festival was less than a year after Woodstock, and for people who didn't make it there, this was a chance to experience what that was like."
Powder Ridge owner Lou Zemel envisioned a modest music festival. "It looked like a good opportunity," said Zemel's son, David, who goes by the original family name of Zemelsky. "Summer is a tough time for ski resorts. This was a chance to make some extra money."
A decade earlier, Lou and Herman Zemel were the appliance kings of Connecticut, their brash newspaper ads promising unbeatable deals on ranges and color TVs. But Lou had tired of the hard sell. He dreamed of owning a ski resort, and in the late 1950s, persuaded Herman to join him on a venture to develop 250 acres of wooded slopes on Beseck Mountain, on the Middlefield-Meriden border.
"He loved to ski, and I think he thought of [Powder Ridge] as his retirement job," Zemelsky said. The Powder Hill Ski Area, as it was originally called, opened in the winter of 1960 and attracted crowds because of its up-to-date amenities. The resort boasted a Swiss-style lodge with an open fireplace and saunas where skiers eased aching muscles after a day on the slopes. Lights were installed for night skiing, and snowmaking machines worked their magic when Mother Nature wouldn't cooperate. It was a success. Still, what do you do in the summer?

A Folk Music Tanglewood

Lou Zemel was deeply involved in left-wing politics. He could count among his friends Pete Seeger and the Weavers, Joan Baez and other folk singers of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Zemel envisioned at Powder Ridge a folk music Tanglewood, where people could gather in the idyllic mountain setting, listen to music and talk about a better world. Music festivals would also solve the summer cash-flow problem when the ski lifts sat idle.
In the summer of 1963, the Weavers became the first group to play Powder Ridge. Seeger and Baez came the following summer. The Baez concert was a big hit, drawing more than 3,000. But when residents complained about all the traffic clogging their country lanes, Lou Zemel decided to take a break from the concert business. For the next six years, there were no big events.
Then, in 1969, Woodstock happened. Seven months later, Zemel was approached by a group of New York businessmen calling themselves Middleton Arts International. They had a tantalizing offer: For a generous sum, Middleton would lease the ski area for a three-day rock festival of Woodstock bands. Names included Joplin, James Taylor, Sly and the Family Stone, the Allman Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, Grand Funk Railroad, Richie Havens and more.
The New York promoters also offered a nuisance fee of $10,000 to placate Middlefield town officials.
Fifty thousand tickets went on sale and in just a few weeks, nearly half were sold.
Townspeople were nervous, voicing concerns at local meetings. Zemel tried to reassure his neighbors. "These are wonderful kids," he told the newspapers. "I believe the entire country can learn something from the way in which this festival is handled here, both by a healthy welcoming attitude from the residents and competent planning by the producers." Residents were skeptical.
A legal battle began with suits and countersuits. On July 27, 1970, days before the rock festival was to open, Superior Court Judge Aaron Palmer issued an injunction barring the event. The court order threatened performers with arrest if they showed up.
In the previous weeks, the mysterious New York promoters had vanished, making off with perhaps $500,000 in ticket sales. Some suspected it was a scam from the start.

13 Kids In A VW

In spite of state police ringing the area, thousands of young people were finding a way in. "The kids just parked their cars and walked," said former Middlefield resident Bob Rand, who was 18 at the time. "The cops let the locals pass. I had a VW bug and was picking up kids along Route 66. I remember trying to squeeze 13 kids in the car."
Local boys led parties of young people with backpacks full of camping gear over the back side of Beseck Mountain like Indian guides. By Saturday, the crowd at Powder Ridge had grown to about 30,000.
Lou Zemel was frantic. "I've got anarchy on my property," he screamed into the phone. Zemel had contacted Mark Masselli, then 19 and working at a Wesleyan University summer program. " 'Anarchy' is not a word you would expect from Lou Zemel if you knew his politics," Masselli said. "He was desperate."
Already a seasoned community organizer, Masselli was enlisted to help out, making sure everyone had food and water and comforting those freaking out on drugs. "They gave me a 650 Norton [motorcycle], which I rode from Powder Ridge to the police roadblocks to see what was happening," said Masselli, who is now president of the Community Health Center, with headquarters in Middletown. "The problem was I had never ridden a motorcycle before."
Most people have happy, if hazy, memories of what was dubbed the "unfestival." "It was a great time," Rand said. "It didn't seem to matter that none of the bands were coming. People just made their own music and camped on the hill. There were even families there."
Looking at the sea of multicolored tents pitched along the ski slopes, with people cooking meals over open fires, it could almost be a Boy Scout jamboree — but with a lot more hair and fewer clothes.
The peaceful gathering of campers on the mountain was in stark contrast to the heavy drug scene at the foot of the hill. In this area dubbed "The City," dealers pushed through the crowd, crying "Acid, mescaline, acid, mescaline!" William Abruzzi, M.D., medical director at the Woodstock festival, would later tell Life magazine that the drug scene at Powder Ridge was far worse than that at Woodstock, with hundreds of "bad trips."
Sanitation was another problem. Festivalgoers cooled off, mostly without clothes, at the pond at the foot of the slopes. "The Powder Puddle" had to be closed to swimming because of high bacteria counts.
The high point was the performance by Melanie, the only headliner to show up. Because electricity had been shut off, the popular folk singer played her hits "Lay Down (Candles In the Rain)" and "What Have They Done To My Song Ma" with her equipment plugged into the generator of a Mr. Softee truck. "It was a beautiful moment," Masselli said.
Touching, also, was the reaction of residents as the crowds began their trek home. Locals, waiting out on their lawns, met the bedraggled kids with sandwiches and water from their garden hoses.
Townspeople never forgave Lou Zemel. His son David, now 59, remembers the shame of those years and how his father strove to make it up to people, offering discounts on ski passes to locals, sometimes letting them ski free.
David now runs an organic farm in Durham. People say nobody beats Zemelsky's tomatoes.

(Reprinted from The Hartford Courant 07/30/10)