He’s in Australia to hand-deliver his latest completed project to a key player in rock’n’roll history. Chip Monck was the MC at Woodstock. Yes, the guy who warned a generation about the brown acid has been resident in Melbourne since the 1980s – but that’s another story.
The magnificently packaged 10-kilogram timber crate that Zax presents to him contains 432 songs on 38 CDs (267 of them previously unreleased), chronologically documenting the entire “3 Days of Peace & Love” of August 1969.
“In the build-up to this, I decided to start getting pedantic with people who couldn’t get the brown acid quote correct,” Zax says.
“Right,” Monck chuckles, reading his verbatim monologue from the package. ” ‘It’s your trip so be my guest.’ Everyone keeps leaving that part off.”
The two Americans have never met before now, but the bond they share is strong. Zax was a mere toddler in ’69, but via the time-scrambling magic of meticulously sourced and restored audio, he has arguably lived inside Woodstock for longer than any man alive.
“Something happened during those three days,” he explains with a deep frown, apparently still mystified after nine maddening months in an editing suite with hours of previously unheard tape and engineer Brian Kehew, “and I think the meaning of that something remains in flux. But for a large-scale, somewhat historic event whose name is recognised by people all around the world” – he’s relishing the understatement here – “the amount of facts that were available regarding what actually happened at that event have been surprisingly thin and poorly documented and incomplete.”
Not any more. Even at $US799 ($1155) a pop, all 1969 units of this massive box set sold out on release (an array of edited packages for the more frugal are still available). Their existence in the public domain means the primary source need never again be misquoted, misrepresented or manipulated by “a whole lot of encrusted layers of artifice and fraud and chicanery”.
Here are just two examples. On the relatively harmless side, fans of the late festival opener Richie Havens must finally concede that his standing boast about having played for three hours is exaggerated: his unexpurgated set list comprises eight songs.
On the more sinister side, it’s telling that Jimi Hendrix’s estate was the only party that refused to wave through Zax’s exhaustive edit. Under-rehearsed second guitarist and all, the truth of that historic appearance is a lot messier than the official myth. Two tracks remain under lock and key. The only ones Zax was allowed to use are the amply finessed Eddie Kramer mixes long known to history.
That painful omission aside, Zax’s heroic effort “to reclaim an event that had not necessarily been treated well by history” might describe the recurring motive that keeps this USC filmmaking graduate glued to the world of music preservation.
As a reissues producer for Warner Music and Rhino Records, his catalogue is equally strewn with big names – Little Richard, Rod Stewart, Talking Heads – and glorious obscurities. It was his instinct for timely rediscovery that brought the great ’70s singer-songwriter Judee Sill to public awareness in 2005, 25 years after her death.
“I like lost causes and I like underdogs and I like people that I feel haven’t gotten their due,” he says. “My sense of her at the time was that this was somebody who should be like Nick Drake; somebody whose work escaped most people’s notice at the time, but it holds up; it’s remarkable.
“You know, some records just weren’t of their moment. Judee Sill’s records, maybe they weren’t built for 1971, ’72. They do feel like they were built for 2007, 2008. That’s when I noticed people were starting to really respond to them and now she feels canonical. And that thrills me.”
Some other projects, he admits, “feel like they’re still ahead of the curve”. He waxes animatedly about “this very, very weird baroque pop ensemble of the late ’60s called the Neon Philharmonic”, which still failed to find an audience with a 2005 reissue.
“Those records may have been built for 2027 or 2030,” he says. “Who knows?”
Which brings us back to that plume of smoke billowing across the San Fernando Valley in the summer of 2008, and the untold treasures destined to remain undiscovered in the never-collated box sets of the future.
“I’ve never done a project for Universal, so that was unexplored territory for me,” Zax says. “We’ll never really understand the full magnitude of that loss because … no one has walked into a thrift store yet and found one of those records and taken it home and gone, ‘Oh my God, this is the greatest record! We have to find the tapes! We have to do something with this.’
“I often feel like the best moments are when you’re sitting in the studio, you put the multi-track tape on, and you don’t know what you’re gonna hear. You kind of feel like you’ve broken into the tomb and suddenly here are the answers to all of these questions. You hear it, and then have a karmic obligation to present it to the public, properly and correctly. To me, you get the reward then. All of the work that comes after is just the price you pay for getting that upfront.”
The Woodstock 50: Back to the Garden reissues are out now through Rhino.
Michael Dwyer is an arts and music writer