when pictures fail me…
When you think about Woodstock, who comes to mind? Well, yes, the Who—and Jimi and Janis and Richie and Sly, Santana and Canned Heat and Arlo and . . . Bert?
I had never heard of him, either. Not until the frigid end of 2017, when I visited The Museum at Bethel Woods, commemorating the iconic festival that stamped my generation, on the very grounds where it happened. Downstairs, near the restrooms, is a corridor gallery for trivia buffs: all the performers in order of their appearance over the course of what was to be “3 days of peace & music.” Given the juggling of logistics for actually starting the concert (weather, wiring, and where are they?—performers were often stuck in traffic), it’s surprising that anyone kept track of set lists and times onstage. I examined the musicians, some totally obscure to all but niche fans today. Quill? Sweetwater?
And Bert Sommer. Hmmm. My sixteen-year-old self would have seriously crushed on this cute, fresh-faced guy with a mile-wide Afro and full, cherubic lips. Bert, I would learn, was a literal poster boy for HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical. And Woodstock was his first live gig—in front of 300,000 people spread out as far as the eye could see. He would receive a standing ovation at the festival for a cover of Paul Simon’s “America,” the rest of the 10-song setlist all written by Sommer himself, and all well-received as the sun set on that first day. He was golden: just twenty years old, with a major label record contract and Artie Kornfeld, one of the key Woodstock organizers, as his manager/producer. Kornfeld had been too nervous to even watch him set up, so personal were the stakes. Bert certainly didn’t choke. Far from it. So . . . what happened?
Interviews surface that refer to “the Woodstock Curse,” delivered in a heavy Long Island “wise guy” accent so at odds with his nuanced and haunting vocal delivery. Not as a whining excuse, but more a self-deprecating “That’s life” acceptance of fate. Yet anyone who has a heart can see the hurt that he tried to joke away when trotting out his best Marlon Brando: “I coulda been a contender!” Instead, Bert was screwed by the musical political powers-that-be in the Age of Aquarius’s waning days. Also, maybe even a little—by himself.
Two days before the financial disaster that Woodstock was fast becoming, Artie Kornfeld had managed to sell film rights to Warner Brothers, also deep in the red in 1969. Certain acts didn’t make the final cut—including that of his own protégé. Bert’s competing label was Capitol, and his footage was scissored onto the proverbial cutting room floor by none other than Martin Scorcese, who was editing under Michael Wadleigh’s direction. The film would go on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary of 1970. Warner Brothers would reap a fortune. Acts captured on film and the subsequent soundtrack became world-famous. And Bert fell through the cracks.
To add insult to injury, he was cropped out of a Woodstock Special Edition Life magazine photo that zoomed in on his backup musician Ira Stone’s songwriter wife, Maxine. The long-married couple still write and perform, taking a break to share their fond Bert-memories as filtered through the wisdom of flower children all grown up. She explained recently, “It was my dress!” Not able to bear the idea of being part of the Woodstock Curse, Maxine is convinced that the photographer was simply drawn to her iconic hippie-princess garb. She has kept it all these years, and carefully brought it out to show me, along with Ira’s tapestry jacket. When Bert needed a lead guitarist for the concert, just a few short weeks away, he placed an ad in the Village Voice. Ira answered it. Synchronistically tuning their guitars to an open D, they knew they fit like a dovetail joint.
Decades later, when the Woodstock Memorial Plaque was unveiled, Bert’s name (along with some other performers) was left off. Even before that debacle he was quoted as saying “I was involved in the two most famous counterculture events of the 60’s: Hair and Woodstock. That and a token will get you on the New York subway!”
Bert also had his demons. Angel or devil—depending on how emotionally close he wanted (or was able) to get in a relationship with a young woman drawn to his aura. He eagerly “partook” of all the mood- and mind-altering paraphernalia so readily available. Janis, Jimi, and Jim Morrison got to reach the stratosphere before crashing, all at age twenty-seven. Bert could have soared in the same orbit, he was that talented and charismatic and connected. After hovering a year or so post-Woodstock, he began a slow descent—but not without a struggle to maintain altitude—and died at age forty-one in Troy, New York. The cause was organ failure, with possible complications from the Woodstock Curse.
So what really triggered my interest in this person, nearly fifty years later? It’s a little complicated. Let’s start with “Jennifer.” The first Google search I did, simply out of curiosity, revealed a video of the opening song he performed on that first day. He sits cross-legged and barefoot onstage, with a green headband lassoing that billow of hair. His eyes close as the song opens:
Jennifer’s heaven, for Jenny I’d stay
Skin shining white as a dove
Lying beside her I melted away
Into her river of love
Nice, I thought—a sweet, floating tune from an adorable hippie right out of central casting. He evoked a bit of Donovan (“Jennifer Juniper”), even in the subject muse name. What came next vocally, however, was a full-throttle grip and release:
Whoa, I’m lost in a maze
Counting the ways that she smiles
Time is slipping away
Lost in the arms of her love
So gentle and wild
The tuning fork of his essence pierced me right then and there. I needed to know more.
Nowadays, I tend to look back to see who and where I was (or was not), at certain times and places in my life. Then—maybe—figure out the “whys.” In August 1969 I was sixteen, but not a counterculture hippie chick. Wanting to revisit the era and see where I fit in, the only way was to listen to the music, watch the documentaries, and read the accounts that followed. Down the white rabbit hole I went, keeping an eye peeled for the trace of a formidably gifted ghost who shoulda been a contender.
Woodstock afterglow resulted in “We’re All Playing in the Same Band,” Bert’s optimistic takeaway from the experience that reached #48 on Billboard’s Top 100. I can’t recall ever hearing it on my car radio, so by then the curse was perhaps starting to take effect. The three albums that appeared between 1968 and 1970 were all chockfull of golden nuggets, but went nowhere. He was hard to pigeonhole, with a delivery ranging from Bert Bacharach-esque to hard-driving folk to Itchycoo Park-type ear worm. He shifted musical gears often, like a sports car driver knowing he could take the sharp curves—ones that offered the best views of both the rainbow and the abyss. The lyrics often were laced with emotional complexity and delicate introspection, traits that were unusual when you consider that they were written by someone barely out of his teens.
During a dip in his fortunes, Bert was spotted selling leather goods in the Village by his friend and album cover designer Frank Yandolino. I was going to art school and lived on Bleecker Street, perhaps at that very time. Did I pass him on my way to class? Did he try to sell me a hand-tooled belt? (How could I have resisted?) I briefly had my own lost, barefoot hippie to try and coax away from the ledge. Kent was just eighteen, and my tenement’s tar roof was such a long way from the beaches of San Diego. (But just a short LSD trip to the littered sidewalks below.) After two whirlwind weeks that hot July of 1972, my surfer-hippie and his harmonica were gone, and I was, like the Gilbert O’Sullivan song, alone again, (naturally).
A bizarre kids’ TV show (The Krofft Supershow) in that godawful hump year of the decade, 1976, had Bert as a character called Flatbush, part of Kaptain Kool and the Kongs, who makes his entrance dressed in goofy attire and prat falling flat on his face (flat bush—Get it?). This, just a few years after penning the lyrics:
You could hear him screaming
As he looked beyond the door
His only son was lying in a heap upon the floor
And from his wrists that opened wide
His life had flown from deep inside
(from “A Note That Read”)
Another (and what would be final) grasp at the brass ring for a music career that registered on the American radar was back at Capitol, this time with Ron Dante producing. A flashback to what this unlikely pair was doing in 1969: Dante had a #1 hit with “Sugar, Sugar,” as the lead singer for The Archies, while Bert was exiting the Woodstock stage with the announcer’s tag “the rather magnificent Mr. Bert Sommers [sic].” In 1977, Dante was lucratively handling Barry Manilow, and added Bert under his other wing. Again, Bert’s career couldn’t reach the heights of his talents.
I mentioned him to friends whose paths might have crossed with his in an upstate New York college town, where he settled for a spell in the mid-70s. One recalls teary phone calls with an ex of Bert’s. What he could not express in real life was distilled in his music.
And when it’s over
And as you light your cigarette
Feeling much older
Knowing that there was no regret
Touching your shoulder
Feeling the joy in what we’ve done
As we sailed into the sun
With our hearts and souls as one
Feeling free as the sea
(from “And When It’s Over”)
And when the recording years were over, he joined a band in Albany, The Newports, playing local clubs and street festivals. The crowd size might have changed in the twenty years since Bert first sat cross-legged on that brand-new stage at Bethel Woods and implored people:
Smile ’cause we all need one another
It only takes a song to understand
but he continued on the road he needed to travel, all the way to his final gig.
And when Woodstock was over, twenty-five years later, new film footage of the concert emerged that revealed what a genuine treasure Bert Sommer was at that golden moment when we found the best in what we’d all come to look for—America.
And now, nearly fifty years later, he is still “rather magnificent.”
words copyright sharon watts
video courtesy of youtube