On August 15, 2009 Woodstock turns 40!  Hard to believe isn’t it.  After all these years, the Festival’s mix of music and peaceful coexistence still resonates as strongly as it did on those three days in 1969.

On June 30th, a new book hits shelves that not only tells the story of those 3 days in Max Yasgur’s field, but also the events leading up to the Festival and the incredible amount of work, determination and just plain luck that made it one of the most famous music festivals of all time…at least thus far.  In “The Road to Woodstock”, Michael Lang, one of the four organizers of the festival, worked with Holly George-Warren to create more than just a reminiscence of the festival’s highlights, but rather a fascinating first-person account of all the trials and tribulations that went into creating those 3 legendary days of music, peace and love.

With the summer music festival season in full swing here on Figment (we just had the Merchants of Metal Festival on June 6th and the Under the Big Top Festival on June 8 – 10th) we thought it would be a good idea to talk to Michael Lang to see if this architect of Woodstock’s experiences might prove insightful and useful for our budding organizers when planning their next Festival, and thankfully he was game, no pun intended.

You can either listen to the interview [audio:Michael_Lang_interview.mp3] or read the interview

Figment:  The 40th Anniversary of Woodstock is August 15 – 18, 2009.  Why do you think 40 years later Woodstock is still such a cultural touchstone and symbol of peace and liberation?

Michael Lang:  Well, I think part of it is because when it occurred in 1969, it was so out of context.  We were in a terrible war in Vietnam, there was a lot of unrest in America, the government was very conservative and unresponsive to what certainly the counterculture was interested in, and suddenly in this huge generation gap comes this very special shining moment, when a huge peaceful community arrived.  So it was kind of like a light in the darkness, and I think that was a symbol of hope for people.  And I don’t think that has been extinguished over these 40 years.  In fact, I see a lot of the roots of what we’re doing with today having been planted in those days.

Figment:  From almost the beginning the Festival was plagued with issues – from having to move the site to a huge overflow of fans to all these different things.  How did you keep it all together and what’s it like putting something like this together?

ML:  [laughs] I had the time of my life.  I mean I love big things with lots of moving parts anyway, and it was, for me it was a dream just to be able to…to be a part of it was a dream come true.  To try and make this vision that Artie and I, Artie Kornfeld and I sort of dreamed up in his living room over the course of a few [laughs] late nights…and to have it happen in a way that we sort of aspired to in terms of how people related to each other, and kind of being able to prove that when we were in charge the world was kind of a kinder place.

Figment:  You worked with Holly George-Warren on your book.  What was the writing process like and was it fun or hard revisiting all of those memories?

ML:  You know it was very hard in the beginning.  It was hard first of all just to establish a rhythm with Holly, because I really had to make a commitment to go back there before I could really remember in a real way what went on other than all the things I’ve talking about for all of these years.  So I’d do interviews and Holly would write them up and we’d go over them, and they weren’t really resonating.  So I started to write as well, and I started to rewrite things and when I actually made the commitment to I guess to revisit that in a real way, everything sort of opened up and we got into a real nice rhythm together.  I really enjoyed it after that.  In the beginning, I was sort of completely panicked that I wouldn’t remember. [laughs]

Figment:  So is it harder writing a book or throwing Woodstock?

ML:  It was definitely [laughs], it was definitely more complicated throwing Woodstock, but I don’t know which was harder.

Figment:  Well, going back to some of things you do remember about the show, there’s a lot of legendary performances.  Was there one that was a favorite or were you too busy dealing with everything to actually take in a lot of the show?

ML:  I took in a lot, because a lot of my time was spent on the corner of the stage and my office compound was right behind the stage, so I got to experience a lot of the music.  The stage and our P.A. was kind of the lifeline for the festival anyway.  You know, I’ve thought about this a lot, the highlight, there were so many of them, the Hendrix rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, and Joe Cocker, and Crosby Still Nash and Young’s debut into the world, and Santana’s sort of amazing performance were all startling moments, but I guess you know the most, I guess the performance that had the most impact for me was Sly & The Family Stone.  That set was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.  Just the response of the audience the way that energy sort of took off from his performance was unbelievable.

Figment:  Yeah, I’m a big fan of Sly…

ML:  I’ve seen him dozens of times and I’ve never seen anything approaching this performance.

Figment:  Really?

ML:  Yeah.

Figment:  Do you think it was just brought on by the moment?

ML:  Yeah, I think he just picked up on that energy in the crowd and just threw it back.  There was this…during “I’m Gonna Take You Higher” there’s this call and response that goes on that’s like a half-million people at a gospel revival [chuckles] it’s unbelievable.

Figment:  I understand in the book you talk a little about the negotiations you had with Albert Grossman to get Dylan to play Woodstock.  What was that like and why in the end did Dylan not end up playing Woodstock?

ML:  You know it wasn’t actually with Albert, cuz Albert wasn’t managing him by then.  Albert…they had parted ways.  Dylan was one of those people I really revered most in the world.  I thought that because, he was you know so put upon by everyone as being the sort of, the leader of a movement, which he never wanted to be, from what I’d know of him, that I really didn’t want to try and make a booking effort.  But I did go to see him, and I spent an afternoon with him at his house a couple of weeks before the festival, and invited him to come thinking that might be a sort of an easier way to go where he wasn’t advertised and so there wasn’t this pressure, but he did not.  He went to the Isle of Wight a couple of weeks later, perhaps if I’d made an offer he might have come, but I think it worked out for the best anyway.  He would have been too, I think, too much of a focus for what we were doing anyway.  It’s the same reason I didn’t try to book the Stones or The Beatles, although I did try and get John Lennon.  I didn’t want it to become about any one act, I wanted, we all sort of felt that we wanted this to be about the people and about the sort of the whole family of music and musicians that were involved in the counterculture.

Figment:  Well, speaking of the counterculture, obviously here were quite a few leaders of the counterculture that were there, one being Abbie Hoffman, and I guess there’s always been a rumor and again I don’t know if any film of this exists [laughs], it’s always something I’ve, a story I’ve always heard about it.  Is it true that Pete Townshend hit Abbie over the head with his guitar when Abbie took the mic during their set?

ML:  Oh yeah, there’s no rumor about it.  I was sitting right next to Abbie when he jumped up and grabbed it.  And in fact, Barbara Kopple and I, Barbara’s a director and she and I are just finishing a documentary for VH1 that will air the weekend of the festival called “Woodstock:  Now & Then”, and while we don’t have the footage we do have the audio track of Abbie grabbing the microphone and then sort of being bonked.  I think the Who have the footage, because they got all their outtakes, and so I don’t think they’re letting it out, but it was certainly not legend it actually happened.

Figment:  Okay, and did he recover from that?

ML:  He did.  Quickly.  [Laughs]

Figment:  Thankfully…thankfully.  So I wanted to ask you too, what’s your involvement with the new website

ML:  Well, we’re in partnership with Sony Legacy on putting that together and it’s, you know, we’re still tweaking it and all, but we’re hoping it becomes a useful tool.

Figment:  And what other projects do you have coming up, beyond the book, that you’ll be doing in regards to the anniversary?

ML:  In regards to the anniversary, we’ve got a couple of things.  Something with the School of Rock, who we also shot for this documentary that we did for VH1, and possibly on the anniversary weekend with their schools around the country .  My book is coming out, I have another book which we’re doing with Genesis Publications that will be out in July.  The Ang Lee film is coming out, nothing to do with us other than it’s “Taking Woodstock” which is…about us, I guess. [Laughs]  So there’s tons of Woodstock related stuff going on all summer.  We were trying to do, and I’m still frankly holding out some hope, for an event at the end of September in New York which will tie into Climate Week and this, the meetings that are going to happen in Copenhagen a couple of months after that, which relate to you know the world, different governments policies towards global warming and the things [Figment – climate change], and climate change exactly.  It’s the follow up to Kyoto.  So we’re hoping that Woodstock becomes sort of the way to get that message out, if we can pull this together.  It’s very difficult this year to get sponsorships for these events.

Figment:  I’ll bet. I can imagine.  One other kind of legendary story, is it true that a lot of the bands on Saturday night you had to talk to them about playing longer since there was such a huge overflow of fans.

ML:  No, absolutely not.  In fact, the reverse was true.  We were running so late that we were hoping people would play shorter sets.  You know, look at when we finished.  I mean, Friday night we finished I think 2 hours late, Saturday we were 4½ hours late and Sunday we were about 12 hours late [laughs].  So the last thing we wanted were longer sets.  The only one we wanted a longer set from was Richie Havens because we couldn’t get bands ready in time to go on after him.  But after that it was a question of trying to fit everybody in.

Figment:  And is that based on, when you are talking about Richie Havens, is that based on the fact that people were having a hard time actually getting to the site?

ML:  Yeah, people were, equipment was stuck on the roads getting in and just the overwhelming congestion in the area.  We started flying equipment by helicopter, but it took awhile to get everybody organized.  We actually only started an hour late which was a miracle I thought.  [laughs]

Figment:  That is a miracle.  I’ve only been involved in some small things and I know the logistics that go into these things, and I can only imagine how crazy it must have been.

ML:  It was amazing.  We were hiring every helicopter in the state just about to get everybody in.

Figment:  Well, that leads me to my last question and then I’ll let you go.  If you had to do it all over again would you?

ML:  Of course, I had the time of my life and I think that it was a great experience for everybody who, or almost everyone who attended.

Leave a Reply