When it comes to telling the true story of Woodstock, more properly known as “An Aquarian Exposition: The Woodstock Music and Art Fair,” it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited for the role than Michael Lang. Now, 40 years after the world-changing event and right on time for the various activities celebrating the anniversary, the man who conceived the festival has decided to tell his story in The Road to Woodstock, co-written with Holly George-Warren.
One thing you learn early on in his book is that Michael Lang is a die-hard optimist. There’s no dream that can’t be realized, no obstacle that can’t be overcome. That attitude served him well on the road to Woodstock, because to say there were obstacles to getting the festival up and running would be a major understatement. Lang also manages to find the good in people, and despite profound disagreements with his Woodstock Ventures partners and others, there is no mudslinging here.
For the first 50 pages or so of The Road to Woodstock, Lang describes his childhood in Bensonhurt, Brooklyn. His father was an engineer by trade, but took on various side projects, including running a Latin music club called the Spotlight on the Upper West Side of New York. Lang’s summers were spent at camp in the Catskills, and in winter there were road trips to Miami. In the summer of 1961, he discovered Greenwich Village. He attended NYU, the University of Tampa, and NYU again before giving up school for good. During his time in Tampa, he had visited the bohemian area of Miami known as Coconut Grove, and in the fall of 1966, he and his then girlfriend packed up the car and headed for the Grove.
The idea was to open what was then known as a “head” shop, selling rolling papers, pipes, and other related items. Of course the local authorities weren’t very happy about it and his first store in South Miami was shut down. He found a vacant space in the Grove, got a license for his business this time, and prospered at the new location. Lang then moved into concert promotion, an effort that culminated with the two day Miami Pop Festival at Gulfstream Racetrack in Hallandale, Florida in 1967. The festival was headlined by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. May 18, the first day of the festival, went perfectly. The next day brought a monsoon to South Florida. An omen? Despite the downpour, the festival was considered an artisic, if not financial, success.
Penniless, and burned out on South Florida, Lang found himself living in the town of Woodstock, 90 miles north of New York City. Woodstock had become home to many musicians and artists. Bob Dylan was living just outside of town, and of course The Band were at Big Pink in nearby West Saugerties. The cafes were full of music, and there were Soundout concerts every weekend in a park near town. A friend of Lang’s was playing in a band called Train, and they asked Lang to manage them. It was as a part of this job that Lang went to Capitol Records in New York to meet A&R man Artie Kornfield. Kornfield hated the band, but ended up finding a soulmate in Lang. Soon, their musings turned to ideas of building a recording studio, and putting on a music festival in Woodstock.
While they searched for land for both projects, Lang and Kornfield were referred to a couple of young venture capitalists named John Roberts and Joel Rosenman who were financing a new recording studio in Manhattan. The four met in February, 1969, and although they were from a different worlds, the parties were sufficiently intrigued to form a partnership called Woodstock Ventures. Roberts put up the money, and with Rosenman handled the business administration and ticket distribution. Kornfield was in charge of publicity and advertising. Lang was the hands-on producer of the festival, booking the talent, designing and preparing the site, and putting together the production team.
The festival was never actually going to be in the town of Woodstock, but it was decided early on by the partners that it would be called Woodstock no matter where it ended up, in an effort to reflect the artistic spirit of that community. The first serious location was at an abandoned industrial park in the town of Walkill, in Orange County, N.Y. It was actually a horrible looking site, but the partners decided that they could upgrade it enough to make it work. It certainly wasn’t the place of Lang’s dreams, but at that point he wanted to get the site nailed down, and he agreed to go along. It was March, and the festival was just a little more than four months away.
Many meetings, and many roadblocks followed. During this period, Lang continued hiring people, setting up offices, and booking bands. He had no choice but to operate as if the approval of the site by the local authorities was a done deal if they were going to be ready for the weekend of August 15. Impresario Bill Graham threatened to pull all of the acts out, which, given his ownership of the Fillmore East, he had the clout to do. Lang managed to settle that one. Citizens groups rose up to protest the festival. On July 15, a month from the festival weekend, the partners application for a permit was denied by the town of Walkill. Lots of work on the site had been done. Thousands and thousands of dollars had been spent. Woodstock had no home.
A day after the permit rejection, the office received a call from one Elliot Tiber, claiming that he had land in White Lake for the festival. Lang immediately rushed to meet Tiber at the broken down El Monaco motel which Tiber ran with his parents. The land that Tiber had in mind, behind the motel, was a complete disaster. Tiber agreed to call his friend Morris Abraham, a local realtor, to show the group other properties in the area. It was on that drive that Lang first saw Max Yasgur’s farm on Hurd Road, just off Route 17B, and realized that it was the perfect site. Introductions were made, a meeting took place, and a deal was done. Woodstock had finally come to rest in the town of Bethel, N.Y.
Construction proceeded frenetically for the next month. Townspeople were reassured. More bands were booked. More and more money was spent. Tickets were printed and sold. Advertisements were placed. Filming and photography were arranged. Concessions were set. Members of the Hog Farm commune were flown in to handle the kitchens, the bad trips, and security. On site health care was provided for.
People started arriving early that week. By Friday morning, August 15, there were 200,000 people in Max Yasgur’s fields. Construction remained incomplete. Among the missing elements was ticket-taking booths, and the fence meant to protect the organizers from festival crashers. The California band Sweetwater was supposed to open the festival that afternoon, but they were stuck in the massive traffic jam that was building on the route to the site, all the way back to the N.Y. Thruway.
Lang spied Richie Havens backstage and asked him to get things started. Havens, despite his reluctance, went onstage at 5:07 p.m. that day. He finished his set, but since there was no one else to play at that point, Lang kept sending him back out there, six or seven times, until Havens had played pretty much every song he knew. He went out one last time and improvised a performance of a song that became famous as “Freedom.”
The rest of the story has been told and retold over the years. There was rain, there was mud, there were drugs, but mostly there was music, and an amazing sense of community among the nearly half a million people who attended the festival. Lang recounts the various fires he had to fight during the festival, and provides opinion on the performances of the various bands. Testimony from Woodstock staff, musicians, and festival-goers is interspersed throughout the book.
When it was all over, Woodstock Ventures had lost a fortune. Eventually Lang and Kornfield were bought out by Roberts and Rosenman, who assumed the debts, but ended up making a fortune on the film and music rights. Lang returned to artist management, and worked with Joe Cocker, and Billy Joel. He continued to promote concerts, and in 1994 he re-teamed with Roberts, Rosenman and PolyGram president John Scher to present Woodstock ’94, the 25th anniversary of the original, near Saugerties, N.Y. Five years later, Lang was part of the disaster known as Woodstock ’99 at Griffiss Air Force Base near Rome, N.Y. Somehow, Lang even manages to put a good face on what was, by most accounts, a horror show.
This is a great read for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of how the seminal event known as Woodstock came together. Lang writes in a conversational style and he is as easy going in print as he is in person. There is no one would could have told this story better, and it’s a story that bears telling.