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Woodstock at 40: Behind the Music With Bill Thompson

When Bill Thompson, the manager of Jefferson Airplane, first heard about Woodstock, he thought it would be "a pretty good show.”

Bill Thompson has seen his share of hard living. As the manager of Jefferson Airplane starting in 1968 (and of its various spin-offs including Jefferson Starship, Starship and Hot Tuna), he witnessed everything from founding member Marty Balin’s first LSD trip (Thompson acted as Balin’s sober “guide”) to lead singer Grace Slick’s alcoholic promiscuity (“One out of every seven shows we’d miss because she’d get drunk. And she had a thing where she slept with just about everybody in the band.”). And, of course, among his many memoir-worthy adventures was Woodstock, where Jefferson Airplane performed a two-hour Sunday set from 6 to 8 a.m., which Slick quickly dubbed “welcome to morning maniac music.” Thompson, who still co-owns the group’s musical rights, offers his thoughts on cashier’s checks, the “V for Victory” sign and the power of rain.

WWD: Did you sign on Jefferson Airplane for Woodstock without any hesitation?
Bill Thompson: They were anticipating 50,000 people would be coming and I thought, “That’s a pretty good show.” It sounded good to me and of course, I talked to the band about it and they said, “Sure, man, no problem.” So we agreed to do it….I just found this out — I didn’t know at the time — one of the managers, one of the guys to put up the money [for Woodstock], said, “We didn’t know what we were doing. And none of the bands would talk to us. But then we got a break and we signed up Jefferson Airplane, and that is kind of what broke the whole thing.”

WWD: Did you guys actually get paid for your set?
B.T.: When I first started managing Jefferson Airplane, the first gig we went to was Salt Lake City, and I took a check from the promoter and the check bounced….So we get [to Woodstock], seeing all these people, I started thinking, “When are we going to get our money?” So I see Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld [the two organizers] and I said, “Hey, guys, when do we get paid?” And Michael Lang says, “Hey man, don’t worry about it. Isn’t this beautiful? Isn’t this cosmic?” He shouldn’t have said that to me. So I got a hold of the managers of the other bands [Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, Santana, The Who] and I said, “Look, they might not pay us.” And by the way, both of the promoters looked like they were on LSD to me. Anyway, we managed a meeting with those guys and said, “Unless we get paid up front, we’re not going to play.” Can you imagine somebody not playing in front of 400- or 500,000 people? There might have been deaths! I guess we scared them. A few hours later, they came up with cashier’s checks [Jefferson Airplane’s was for $15,000] and we played.

WWD: What do you think made Woodstock so special?
B.T.: People are recounting the thing and what a big deal it was. You know, if you tried to have a big festival nowadays with 100,000 people you’d have a fire and I don’t know how many policemen and security guards and the food and everything you’d have to get for all of the bands. And this just happened. And if it was a sunny day, I don’t think it would have been as monumental. Because that would have been just like a regular show.

WWD: Were there any negative repercussions from it?
B.T.: One thing that people did back then, when you saw someone with long hair and a beard, you’d flash two fingers, like the V sign for Victory. We used to do that for a couple of years and it was fantastic. After Woodstock, you might be giving a V and getting a V back from a Fed! Who was going to arrest you! So that was a negative part of the event.