Friday, August 14, 2009

Woodstock:pictures and a thousand words

The images photographer Elliott Landy came away with from a three-day weekend in upstate New York in 1969 captured 500,000 souls and the essence of an entire generation.

The official photographer of the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival however, says covering music wasn't his top priority during the culturally explosive 1960s. Nonetheless, he found himself with camera in hand at the forefront of a powerful buzz that drove the revolution-as-evolution ethic for his generation.

'I was born and raised in the Bronx where I spent the first 20 years of my life, but I really grew up when I went to Europe,' says Landy, a free-lance photographer who traveled to Denmark on his first professional assignment in 1966. He was in his early 20s.

Landy covered anti-war protests and demonstrations for abortion rights during the culturally turbulent decade, as well as celebrity-laden events whose glamour rapidly faded in the photographer's eyes, dissolving into an artificial world of ego trips and sensationalist-seeking establishment media. The medium was changing, as well.

'I often shot in black-and-white and in color. There were no computers then, and the magazines wanted them either one way or the other,' says Landy, never one to shy away from technological advances.

'The peace demonstrations and the Hollywood celebrities were better (suited to) black-and-white,' he says of his early images of a bejeweled Elizabeth Taylor, Marlene Dietrich and Richard Burton.

Home in the 1960s was a small, first-floor apartment on the west side of Manhattan, where he built an eight-foot sink to serve as his darkroom. The walls were lined with shelves and stacked with negatives, chemicals and books on photography. His time was spent taking pictures, then going home and processing the film from late at night until the early morning.

When Bill Graham opened the Fillmore East in the spring of 1968, Landy had free run of the place.

His images from the era include Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, The Who - captured wailing amid sonic carnage of acrid smoke - and an intense Jimi Hendrix, cutting an imposing figure against the multi-colored splash of the Joshua Light show in the background. Watching Janis Joplin, he says, is a personally favorite memory.

'Going to the Fillmore and seeing Janis play really encapsulated the rock 'n' roll psychedelic head-trip experience,' Landy says.

As a result of his Joplin assignments, he was hired by The Band to visit their house in Woodstock. On Easter weekend in 1968, while the instruments and microphones were set up downstairs where the group recorded the 'Basement Tapes' with Bob Dylan, Landy shot the Civil War-style inspired photographs that became the art for The Band's album, 'Music From Big Pink.'

Magazine cover assignments followed in Life magazine, Rolling Stone and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as album cover art for Van Morrison's 'Moondance' and work with Bob Dylan.

Dylan was living a reclusive life at the time following his motorcycle accident. Landy and Dylan became friends, allowing the photographer to shoot intimate family pictures - a rarely seen side of Dylan - including Dylan's wife Sara and the couple's small children. His most enigmatic pictures captured Dylan in a humorous moment that eventually graced his 'Nashville Skyline' album, and of him sitting in front of an old British cab at his Woodstock home.

In the summer of 1969, concert organizer Michael Lang rode his motorcycle to Landy's Woodstock house to ask if he would be interested in photographing a festival he was planning nearby. With little more than a verbal agreement, Landy became the Woodstock Music Festival's official photographer.

In the 1970s, Landy was happy to escape the commercial demands of photography, spending most of the decade traveling around Europe with his family, his lens capturing more personal moments with his children.

Landy returned to Woodstock to live in 1990. With a view of the mountains, he has found the 'mellow peacefulness' many of his generation were seeking. Musically these days, he has a preference for singer-songwriter Tom Pacheco and artists local to the Woodstock community like Leslie Ritter and Scott Petito. He probably embodies the Woodstock 'spirit' as well as anyone on the planet, documenting in images, and expressing in words:

'They came looking for music and new ways.
They found a hard path - there were miles to walk; rain and mud;
not much food to eat, nor shelter to sleep beneath; life was not as they usually knew it.

But something happened.
There was peace and harmony despite the conditions.
Woodstock became a symbol to the world of a better way of life - of freedom, of love, of spiritual union between many. There was hope.'

'Nearly 500,000 people gathered together to celebrate life,' writes Landy in his 1994 book 'Woodstock Vision, the Spirit of a Generation,' a first-person photographic journey released in 1994 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the festival.

The promise of that hope he says, is not an overnight achievement, but something that continues to blossom. 'The coming of a new consciousness,' he says 'is a slow process.'

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, June 2004.

Melanie: An Interview

Melanie Safka was rifling through more than 30 years of musical memories and plucking out some of her favorite moments.
There was her performance at Woodstock in 1969, her appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 and one particluarly memorable slot on the fabled Ed Sullivan Show.

During Melanie's appearance, Sullivan allowed fans to gather around her while she played. What the seemingly stodgy Sullivan allowed was something that has remained Melanie to this day: 'He let me be who I was.'

Melanie was born in Astoria, Queens, at the westernmost edge of the borough looking up at the glittering Manhattan skyline with all its promises. She inherited musical skills from her mother and learned to sing and play guitar, but her goal was to become an actress.

'I went to acting school, but I was really shy about going to auditions,' she says, adding that she felt a little out of place. 'Those were conservative times. We're talking 'Fiddler on the Roof' times and I was a hippie,' she laughs. 'And this is before there even were hippies. It was still the time of the beatniks.'

She recalls one significant audition.
'They wanted a girl who played the guitar - which was really freaky at the time - for the character of Barbara Allen in 'Dark of the Moon.'''

With the address in her hand she ran to the audition, but ended up by mistake at the Brill Building, a musical hit factory at the time with offices providing spaces for some of the biggest songwriters, publishers and music industry people of the time. Her accidental audition resulted in her recording the demo for her song 'Beautiful People.'

The song became her first release and introduced Melanie to its producer - Peter Shekeryk. Their partnership became a lifelong alliance. Shekeryk, Melanie's husband, runs the business end of things. The couple has three children, all of whom are involved in music.

Melanie was working in England in 1969 when she returned to New York to appear at a three-day gathering in Bethel in August. She was interested in performing there because, 'It sounded like camping for three days out in the country,' she says. 'So I asked (the promoters): 'Can I do it? They said: Sure, kid.' '

At festival time, she realized, like most, how she underestimated the scale of the concert. Traffic was at a standstill and the gridlock required many performers to arrive by helicopter. The musical lineup featured some of rock's biggest names.

'I thought, 'Oh my god, there's Janis Joplin,' ' she says. It was a weekend that a 22-year-old novice musician could only fantasize about - surrounded by pop music royalty and faced with the prospect of performing in front of hundreds of thousands of people. 'I thought, 'I'm just a girl with a guitar, they're never going to put me on that stage.' '

The nervousness among the performers was evident right from the first morning. 'I could hear Richie (Havens) when he was singing 'Freedom...Freedom...Freedom...' It was scary.'

While she waited in a tent to go on, extreme anxiety brought on a coughing attack. 'I started getting this real deep bronchial cough. Joan Baez heard me coughing and she sent an assistant over with a pot of hot tea. It was like nectar of the Gods.'

Shortly after Ravi Shankar performed, the sky threatened rain. 'I thought, 'If it rains then I won't have to play,' ' she recalls. Instead, a legendary concert moment was born. 'People from the Hog Farm or some other group were saying some inspirational things about lighting candles to keep the rain away.' As the candles began to flicker, she was told it was her turn to take the stage.

'So I had to walk the plank and I watched the hillside (become) completely lit up with candles, like the flickering millions,' she says. 'I had an out of body experience.'

A few days later, she put the experience to song. 'I started thinking about it, what literally was right in front of me,' Melanie says.

A year later, the song was played on radio stations across the country. 'We were so close, there was no room/ we bled inside each other's wounds...'

'Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)' sold a million copies and showcased a singer who began the rock concert tradition of striking matches and holding their flames aloft.

After stringing together a number of hits in the early 1970s and world-wide tours, she grew frustrated with the box that music executives were trying to put her in.

'There were so many things I wanted to do. I wanted more creative freedom. And I didn't like the image they were coming up with,' she says. With her anthem, 'Look what they done to my song' Melanie became an independent artist. She and her husband formed Neighborhood Records and set up the stage for her versatile style to fully blossom in any way she imagined.

What she did not anticipate, however, was the popularity of a cute, catchy tune that only took a few minutes to write to capture everyone's attention.

'Ironically, my husband put out 'Brand New Key' and ruined my life forever,' she says of the song consumed by a mass audience that pigeonholed her more than the major labels managing her career. 'Of course, it became a big hit,' she scoffs, sarcastically.

Thirty years, three children, and a lifetime of concerts have passed.
For pop historians documenting the past, it has been some journey.
For the artist who continues to write, create, release independent records and tour the globe,
these are all just steps along the path of the long, winding, and endless road.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
The Saratogian, June 2004.