Saturday, August 16, 2008

Sam Yasgur

One of the great things about working in documentary films is that you have the chance to spend time with folks who have something to say. I’ve been lucky and met more than my share of remarkable people. Now that isn’t always the case, as with anything in life there are just as many disappointments as there are high points. The thing that makes the difference for me between a memorable person and a simply famous one, is their story, not just the arc of their life or their accomplishments, but the power and sincerity of what they have to say: It’s their stories I remember.

Recently I’ve been working on a project about the 1969 Woodstock Festival and yesterday we were scheduled to interview Sam Yasgur, whose father Max hosted the Woodstock Festival on one of his pastures in the rolling hills of Bethel, NY. I wish I had had the chance to meet Max Yasgur, but he passed away in 1972. From what I’ve heard he was a remarkable man. His son Sam had never before agreed to a documentary interview. He’s the County Prosecutor here and before that worked in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and had a successful career as a trial lawyer in New York City. A few years ago Sam gave up that practice and moved back to his hometown. I didn’t ask him why he decided to do that but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that one of his greatest passions in life is jumping on his motorcycle after work and just riding through the hills.

We’d never met, although we had spent an hour the previous day talking on the phone and from that conversation I knew he was someone special. While the crew was shooting in what had once been his father’s pasture, taking shots of the original Woodstock stage site, I waited for Sam. I didn’t know what he looked like and I’d forgotten to tell him what I looked like so I was concerned that he would be wandering around looking for me. About 30 minutes before our scheduled interview I saw a large black motorcycle pull into the parking lot of Bethel Woods where we would be conducting his interview. I watched the bike as it slowly pulled into a parking space and it’s driver got off, removed his helmet and slowly made his way up the hill to the main building of the Bethel Woods Center for the Performing Arts, an impressive complex of music performance venues built by Alan Gerry on the site of the 1969 concert. When he opened his jacket I saw his shirt and tie and I knew it must be him.

We fell into conversation right away and were still talking when the crew made their way back to the rendezvous point. He’s the kind of man who cuts to the chase pretty quickly, not a lot of “BS” in this guy, and before I knew it we were talking about a subject that is probably closer to my heart than any other. We both have a son, his is grown now and far from home but the two of them are still close. He asked me a question that he said spoke more about what was important in his life than any other: If you knew you had five minutes to live and you had to select one snapshot from your life to take with you to the other side, what would that image be? The catch was, the image could only contain you and one other person.

About twenty years ago Sam’s son competed in a 100-mile bicycle race. Sam was following the riders on his motorcycle and as the race neared completion his son decided to take on the additional challenge of an extra 25-mile leg – it was something the experienced riders had the option to tackle. At some point on that 25-mile stretch his son started to falter. Sam caught up with him and checked in to see how he was doing. His son was tired but otherwise ok but Sam knew his boy was near the end of his endurance. Sam smokes unfiltered Pall Malls and his son was always after him to quit, so Sam told him that if he could make it to the end, he would join him the following year and they would ride the 100 miles together. That was enough motivation for the boy to reach down very deep and finish the race. Sam quit smoking and bought himself a bike. He trained, albeit irregularly, adding a few miles every month or so but he never got close to riding the 100 miles that would be required.

That year his son was the captain of his High School football team and it seemed to Sam that he had forgotten all about the race. The day before the race was a big game, his son played well, was awarded the game ball by his team and came home that night bruised and battered. The next morning Sam asked his son if he still wanted to ride and the boy pulled on his bike jersey and the two of them set off. They never had a chance of winning the race and the two of them rode that day slightly behind the pack, his son always a few yards ahead setting the pace for his father. Near the end of the course they came upon a particularly tough stretch of road. Sam’s legs had turned to jelly and to make matters worse the surface of the road had turned to cobblestones. He was certain he was going to fall, he was having great difficulty controlling the bike and he knew if he went down he would never get back up. Just as he was about to collapse he felt something in the small of his back. It was his son’s hand steadying him and then he heard the boy’s voice, “We started this together dad and we’ll finish it together.”

When we completed our interview and the crew had packed up the gear, Mr. Yasgur put on his motorcycle jacket. The sun was beginning to set and he was preparing for a three-hour ride into Western Massachusetts to spend the evening with friends. He reached into his saddlebag and told me there was something he wanted me to see before he left. He rummaged around in the bag for a while cursing under his breath because he thought he might have misplaced the thing he was looking for. Then smiling he pulled out a weathered leather wallet and gently placed a dog-eared picture in my hand. It was the two of them, Sam and his son, after that 100-mile race, tired and sweaty and smiling. “This is the image I’d carry with me to the other side” he said.

He slipped the photo back into his wallet, fastened his helmet and road off into the sunset. I’ve heard a great many stories in my life but his is one I’ll not forget.