Tuesday, 28 June 2011

ELLIOT TIBER: FLIPPED COP CAR AT STONEWALL, SAVED WOODSTOCK & HAD JIM MORRISON



I have wanted to interview Elliot Tiber for years because I have loved everything about Woodstock – especially the world’s first woman rock star, Janis Joplin – since I was an ugly-duckling teenager in high school.

“Richard Burnett is a faggot!” someone once scrawled in huge black-marker letters on my locker door at Montreal's south-shore MacDonald Cartier Memorial High School in 1982 when the sprawling complex had over 4,500 students.

Bugs : Class of 82
The schoolyard was a war zone. But Janis – who’d been nominated for “The Ugliest Man on Campus Contest” at the University of Texas 20 years earlier, back in 1962 – was queer too. So I felt better.

And it turns out Elliot Tiber, the man who made Woodstock happen, is a fabulous gay man too.

“Just before I came out [in the early 1960s] there wasn’t even the word ‘gay’ and you were alone in the world, a freak of nature,” Tiber, now 76, recalls. “In New York I used to go to Lenny’s Hideaway, which was a speakeasy in a basement, and The Stonewall [Inn], and they were mobbed up. It was all very scary."

Not only did Tiber – born Elliot Tiechberg (“My parents hated when I changed my name. My mom said, “Good riddance – I’m renting your room!”) – go to the Stonewall, but he was there when the Stonewall Riots broke out in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969.

Stonewall 1969 (Photo from Wikipedia)

“We barricaded the doors to keep the cops out, but when we realized we outnumbered them, we unblocked the exits and ran out onto the street,” Tiber writes in his 2007 memoir Taking Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert and a Life. “A group of us started yelling, ‘Gay power!’ Within seconds, the Stonewall Riot was underway...A bunch of us rocked a cop car back and forth, then overturned it. More people, gay men and lesbians, showed up to join us.”

“It gave me some feeling of power,” Tiber tells me. “I had never felt power.”

Ang Lee based his 2009 movie Taking Woodstock on Tiber’s memoirs. The film picks up where Tiber (wonderfully played by comic Demetri Martin) moves back home to help his parents run their dilapidated Catskills motel, The El Monaco.

Tiber thought he could drum up business by introducing Woodstock’s producers to Max Yasgur, and offers the organizers the El Monaco as festival headquarters. When the festival’s permit is revoked, he gives them his own permit for his White Lake Music and Arts Festival.

The rest, as they say, is history.

“The whole town hated Woodstock and they hated me,” Tiber says. “They still do.”

While we don’t see any of the era’s iconic rock stars in Lee’s movie, Tiber met many of them backstage, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Tiber in 2009 (Photo from Wikipedia)

“I went backstage one night and there was Janis,” Tiber says. “She was an idol. Her her music played in gay bars all the time. She was falling-down drunk and stoned. So I helped her up. I also saw Hendrix and Joan Baez. All of them came to the El Monaco to shower and eat food.”

Incidentally, when festival organizers did not invite The Doors to perform at Woodstock, Jim Morrison was deeply unhappy. But Morrison had made many enemies, including Joplin: One night at a party in NYC, he kept yanking her hair, bringing Janis to tears until finally she left. He followed her outside, stuck his head into the car and yelled at her. So Janis pinned him in the door with the window and broke a whiskey bottle over his head.

Tiber also met Morrison – who, like Joplin, was bisexual – at another NYC party. “Morrison was stoned and he and I messed around a bit,” Tiber says. “He definitely strayed.”

In that summer of Stonewall Tiber says there was also a visible gay presence at Woodstock which, of course, the mainstream media has ignored right up until today.

“There were [tens of thousands of] gay kids there,” Tiber says. “You could see them. There was no housing, there was nudity and lots of sex going on. There was no homophobia that I was aware of.”

In fact, in Ang Lee’s movie, Tiber’s character kisses “Paul” (played by Darren Pettie), a hunky carpenter helping build the Woodstock stage. The kiss happens inside the packed El Monaco bar and is one of the hottest on-screen smooches in Hollywood history. “That really happened!” Elliot says.

Culturally, the sixties didn’t really end until 1972 and by that time Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison were all dead. But that era’s generational war has morphed into today’s cultural war, one that the Woodstock Nation – anti-war and pro-abortion, and supportive of women’s rights, black civil rights and gay civil rights – has more or less won.

Bugs at the Stonewall
(Photo by Jamie O'Meara)
So I thank Tiber. He was there for both Stonewall and Woodstock.

“I didn’t put the two [events] together until years later when they became iconic,” Tiber says. “Both Stonewall and Woodstock gave me self-esteem and self respect. Before I was just a freak of nature.”

Elliot sighs. “When my dad died a year later, he held my hand and gripped it and told me, ‘You go on and lead your own life.’ It was amazing to hear that. Woodstock had also changed my father.”

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful piece, thanks for sharing.

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  2. Interesting article. A couple of points where I would say my experience differs from that of Tiber's: The word "gay" was most certainly in use when I came out in upstate New York in the late Fifties.

    And Lenny's Hideaway, for all of its subterranean location, was not a "speakeasy" by a long shot. It was the usual Mafia-run gay bar of that era in NYC (1950's.) It had a NY State liquor license, as did almost all of these places, and it operated as a small restaurant in the early part of the evening, and became a cruise bar after ten p.m. or so. It was, however, located in a basement down a long flight of stairs...and perhaps that inspired his use of "speakeasy."

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