It was fifty years ago today, that Robert Mittleman, after being packed into Stephen Dunn's brothers' station wagon, a new Mercury, along with his main squeeze Susan Smith, buddies Larry Pecker and Freddie Rosen, knew that this was going to be some kind of happening, something big, something they'd be remembering for a long spell.
Thousands…no tens…no, HUNDREDS of thousands of gate-crashers pin-balled around, but the vibe was chill. Nothing Altamont-y in the air. Expectations were high, but levels of entitlement really weren't. Co-organizer Michael Lang saw it thusly: “Elements of the festival were deeply grounded in the underground movement, but the focus would remain peace and music.
This was THE defining artifact for the time capsule that is the 1960s in America. The 60s spun into to 70s, and Mittleman's life took some wilder spins than that Mercury could have steered into; he's a boxing lifer, now, but before that, the Detroit, Michigan native taught high school, graduated into being a definitive player in LSD distribution channels, managed some heavy-weight musicians, and, well, let's just say his non-existent Wiki page doesn't do the chapters of his being justice.
Now 75, and living in Philly, with his daughter, and putting off on telling me about the very promising heavyweight he's probably going to be signing until the deal gets glued together solid, Mittleman kindly took me down his memory's lane, and brought me to Yasgur's farm, and gave me his recollection of three days of peace and music, and acid dealing, and oh yes, he answered a lingering question for me: did Pete Townshend mean to smash Abbie Hoffman in the head with his axe after the counter-culture vulture tried to snag the spotlight inappropriately.
“We got there, and I knew what it was,” Mittleman told me, of the Thursday his Detroit crew arrived, his boys and his aesthetically ultra-gifted WASP gal-pal (Smith below, with RM, at the festival, listening to Richie Havens, or Country Joe McDonald, or Santana, or….) who, he admitted, he believes he should have married. And, another tidbit I got along the way to how he got to Yasgur's farm–that acid that bummed out so may, the brown stuff?–it wasn't his…Mittleman acid was orange, or pink.
The son was born into a middle class existence in Detroit, mom ran the house, and oversaw Robert and two sisters, and dad owned lamp factory.
“It was a late 40s, 50s upbringing,” he shared. “The first I knew of rock ‘n roll was probably Bill Haley and the Comets, “Rock Aroud the Clock.” I was doing “The Chicken Dance” up and down the aisles of the movie theater. Maybe the movie was “Blackboard Jungle?” It wasn't my father's music. Although I must say I liked his music…the big bands…Sinatra, Dean Martin, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw.”
Music, that infected his soul, in a way that book learning didn't. “In junior high, what was I? Probably a jerk. I gambled a lot, at the bowling alley, in pool halls. I'd look around for girls. Did I go to school or mostly skip? I did my share of skipping but I passed. I was never in love with playing sports, I played freshman football, did pony league baseball when I was 14,15. I graduated high school in January of 1961. It was a big school, so big the ninth and tenth grade went from 12-4 PM, and the juniors and seniors from 8 am-12 noon. Five thousand kids in a school bult for 3,000. I had lousy grades in high school, a 1.8 average. I was a bookie, you heard of football cards. I read in a magazine, I wrote a place, I think in Texas, you could pay $20 for 200 cards. So I was selling the football cards in high school. A kid got caught, a teacher pulled him in.” The kid gave up Mittleman, and Robert got called to the principal's office. Col. Clark, good dude, served in the same ambulance company as Ernest Hemingway in the WWI that featured Franco.
“Really nice guy. His daughter married Charlton Heston. He couldn't meet too many kids, he'd meet the best kids, and the worst kids. I was in the latter category. He saw that my grades were in the lower quarter, but my intelligence showed to be in the upper quarter.” If he could get Mittleman a path to an entry exam, the principal asked, would Robert attend? “I would, but I don't think I could go to school around here, with my lousy habits,” he told the school boss.
The Colonel rolled some dice and took a chance on the smart but iconoclastic lad. Michigan State furnished a slot, and Mittleman took a seat there in March 1961. When the Vietnam war started cooking, and more young folks got snagged to serve, a local doc gave him a deferment. “He gave Jewish guys deferments,” because he knew the logic of the war-crafters was off, and so, he told me, did Mittleman. He was a pli-sci major at MSU.
In 1965, he graduated, and would need a straight job. “My father, my junior year, he said to get a teaching certificate, he told me, ‘You're a lazy bastard, you don't wanna work retail, you teach, you work ten months a year, you get out every day at 4 PM. Unlike my son, I listened to my father.”
To a point, it must be said…
There was a teacher shortage, so a job wasn't so hard to find. He taught at the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, on the east side of Detroit. “You heard of it? Where Joe Louis started boxing. I taught whatever they needed.” He'd teach a theater class and would play records, the kids would write their own little play. The school was mixed, racially, some dug Malcolm X, others didn't. “But you didn't see politics so screwed up as it is now. Trump, he's an absolute buffoon, an oaf!” He spells it out–O—A—F. “He's one hundred percent racist.” We went off road, and Mittleman fleshed out his bio, and raged some against the current White House occupant. “I promoted a fight with him…2002, Wladimir Klitschko against Ray Mercer, I got to the know the Donald, he was a Democrat, or should I say, acting like a Democrat. The Clintons were at his wedding.” We both ponder the twists and the turns and how life and boxing are both theater of the unexpected.
Part 2 coming up; Mittleman, who managed Oscar De La Hoya for a spell, ends his teaching career, meets Susan Smith, revolutionizes LSD delivery mechanisms and decides to pile into the Mercury and hit Woodstock, with about 5,000 hits of acid in his possession. He'd help a load of festival goers kiss the sky….