Taking Stock of A Great Gay Life: the Man Behind Woodstock, Elliot Tiber
The Summer of Love conjures up images of Flower Children, dancing through a haze of hashish smoke, as they "drop out," and rock out to the sounds of Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Santana, and The Grateful Dead. People actively rejected the conservative culture of the 1950s, they protested injustice, and hoped to reinvent society for a new generation.
Yet, gay people seem to be oddly missing from this utopian movement. Until a very important concert took place that summer in a sleepy hamlet in Upstate New York.
"Woodstock changed everything," said Elliot Tiber from his home in Manhattan. "At the time we were finally classified as a lifestyle, no longer perverts or deviants. At Woodstock, the gays were mingling with everyone else, and there was a lot of sex going on. Nobody seemed to care, it had never happened anywhere else like this. I came out at Woodstock when my parents saw me kissing a man. It was a wonderful time, that’s why I’ve been so connected to it for the past forty years."
The concert was originally supposed to be held at another location, in Wallkill, NY. However, the locals were not pleased with the idea. The rural community did not want, "10,000 drug addicts, hippies, homosexuals, and dirty lesbians raping cows."
Tiber understood people not wanting drug addicts but had no idea how or why a lesbian would rape a cow. The industrious Tiber, who was a professor of art in New York City, and worked as a decorator, also served as the Bethel Chamber of Commerce president. He was able to grant the Woodstock organizers a permit to
hold the event, initially at his parents’ hotel the El Monaco. When land proved inadequate he suggested his milkman’s land, as they only had to deal with cows on his property.
By the time the event was in full swing the police put flowers in their helmets and were respectful of everyone, even the famous Dykes on Bikes that showed up to offer complementary security.
"Nobody wanted to mess with the Dykes on Bikes and the police must have gotten a contact high from all the marijuana smoke," said Tiber lightheartedly.
Even though Tiber issued a permit to host Woodstock in Bethel, the reception of his neighbors was not very warm.
"People drew swastikas, and wrote ’faggot go home’ on our house. My parents understood the swastikas but not the faggot part. Don’t know where they got that idea," he said of the slur. "I was a designer. Faggot hairdresser maybe, but faggot designer? No," said Tiber wittily.
While his mother was initially not pleased with the event taking place, and the El Monaco Hotel hosting the hippies and musicians that descended upon their town, she was pleased with what cash they earned. After she hid money in mattresses, and her brassiere, they were able to pay off the hotel’s mortgage in one day which was needed - as the bank threatened to take over the failing hotel.
The summer of 1969 was a notable time for Tiber beyond Woodstock. He was so busy it is improbable he had time to notice Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in July. On a sad note, the summer began with the death of Judy Garland on June 22.
"I went to the funeral home where they had Judy," said Tiber. "There must have been 10,000 or 20,000 people in the streets. From the first time I saw her in concert she, her voice, resonated with me. I realized that over the rainbow there must have been a better home for me somewhere. I went to her shows, gave her roses, met her...I was a little obsessed."
His home life was really one in which the magic of Oz and its heroine was desperately needed. His artistic ambitions were not nurtured by his family, and from an early age he knew he wanted to live life for himself, not them.
"My parents always discouraged me, even though I was always doing something artistic. They wanted me to become a rabbi, as my mother was very religious," said Tiber, but he challenged their insistence on a religious vocation. "At my Bar Mitzvah I told them I would be a hairdresser, an interior decorator, or a dancer with the Metropolitan."
His independent spirit did not keep him home much longer after he became a man.
"I left home at 18," he said fondly. "I supported myself. I painted neckties, murals for people, and sold paintings. I didn’t sell them for great amounts but I was living in Greenwich Village, where all the artists were."
Eventually, he studied art at Hunter University, and Brooklyn College where he was taught by the likes of Mark Rothko. This was the beginning of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, a movement that defined the art of the mid-twentieth century as much as Woodstock performers influenced music.
He also frequented the Stonewall Inn, as it was one of the few gay bars in operation. It was backed by the unlikely marriage of mafia money, police who turned a blind eye in exchange for cash, and gay clientele.
"It was terrible in those days. If you left the bar alone people would try to frisk and beat you up, so you’d leave with others to get a cab," recounted Tiber. "We were looking out the windows, there were cop cars there, some cops came inside for their money. The other cops hung outside the bar, just looking mean. In those days they looked at you and made you feel dirty and sick. Well, I shouted, ’Let’s turn over the fucking cop car and get Mayor Lindsay out here.’ Someone started to chant gay power, which I’d never heard before. We barred the doors until Lindsey came. Then 1,000s of people started to show up."
When asked if he can somehow separate one of the events from the summer of 1969 as the most pivotal, to his development as an artist, writer, filmmaker, and gay activist, Tiber said that would be impossible.
"No, I can’t separate them. I’ve been living with Woodstock and that summer for 40 years," said Tiber with a fond sigh.
However, while the man who saved Woodstock - to the delight of hippies and anger of conservatives - has been a fixture on talk shows and retrospectives about those three days of peace, love and music the gay man that saved Woodstock has really only come out publicly within the past few years. Often times "gay" was edited out of the story.
After the release of "Taking Woodstock" in 2007 Tiber went on a TV show in San Francisco to promote the book. He was told to wait in the green room until his time slot. Filmmaker Ang Lee entered the room shortly after.
Tiber recognized Lee and, with typical Brooklyn chutzpah he told him that - while he loves his rather heavy, emotional films - it might be a nice change of pace to do a comedy.
Lee said yes. Tiber flew to the set in Yonkers, New York, from his home in Wilton Manors - he contemplates moving back, as he misses the strength of the gay community. They interviewed Tiber for five hours. Production set up shop in an old airplane hangar. He found himself surrounded by all things Tiber and Woodstock.
"I felt like Citizen Kane," Tiber said.
In the opening of that masterpiece of American cinema the value of the title character’s life is represented by the wealth, art, and possessions he collected. Kane’s life however is seen as empty, summarily devoid of anything but money and greed.
Tiber’s artistic life however has been vibrant, as an educator and activist. In the fall a new book he wrote, entitled Palm Trees on the Hudson comes out. He describes this as being a prequel to Taking Woodstock, and promises to be a tale of "the mob, Judy Garland, and interior decorating." SFGN will review the book when it is published.
Tiber promises to earmark some of the money for a special event he wishes to organize.
"I’m trying to organize a Gaystock," he said. "It’ll be three days of peace, love, music and equality. I want about 75 percent focused on gay rights leaders. There will be entertainment too, but I want it to be a platform of performers who are LGBT and can’t get a break because they’re gay."
So far GLAAD is interested, and he is talking to a city on the Gulf Coast here in Florida as a possible location for the event. It seems that 41 years later the spirit of social change that swept across our country has not, and will not leave Elliot Tiber alone. However, rather than dwell on that pivotal time in history as frozen in the past, he still uses it to produce, create and give back to society.
For more information on "Taking Woodstock," and the upcoming book, please visit Squareonepublishers.com