Music brings out his best
There’s a moment in the documentary “Woodstock” when Michael Lang walks his BSA Victor motorcycle out from a clutter of ladders, cables and wooden slats piled beside a trailer in an open field. A wan-looking reporter asks about the challenges of putting together a music festival. Lang shrugs and smiles. “The biggest hassle is dealing with the politics,” he mumbles, fidgeting with the motorcycle. “Are you going to put on another one?” the reporter asks. Lang steps on the kick-start. “If it works,” he replies.
This exchange is one of the few times the public has seen the face behind the festival that changed rock ‘n’ roll. What people probably don’t know is that by the time the movie was released, in March 1970, Lang had sold his rights to the Woodstock name and been a firsthand witness to Woodstock’s psychic opposite: Altamont.
A cultural high point and a cultural low. It’s fitting that Lang was in both places and that his memoir, “The Road to Woodstock,” written with Holly George-Warren, keeps up the fight for positivity. He points no accusatory fingers while adding another layer to the growing stack of books -- including fellow producers Joel Rosenman and John Roberts’ “Young Men With Unlimited Capital” and Joel Makower’s “Woodstock: The Oral History” -- that have been released to coincide with the festival’s 40th anniversary.
Lang presents the Woodstock story in an easygoing fashion, while George-Warren collects the interviews (both new and archival) that appear throughout the book. We hear from Carlos Santana, Richie Havens and Abbie Hoffman, among others. Set designer and last-minute MC Chip Monck and head of security Wesley Pomeroy are excellent additions, helping to boil the business of the festival down to its human core.
Indeed, among the joys of “The Road to Woodstock” are the voices. Jerry Garcia confesses that the Grateful Dead were too stoned to play. “As a human being,” he says, “I had a wonderful time . . . but our performance onstage was musically a total disaster that is best left forgotten.” The Dead was one of a small number of performers left out of the film and soundtrack album; others included Neil Young, Janis Joplin and the Band.
Woodstock, of course, almost didn’t happen. Lang’s initial plan, developed with Capitol Records A&R; man Artie Kornfeld, was to build an exclusive recording studio in upstate New York. Enter the moneyed Roberts and Rosenman -- both in their early 20s -- and the studio idea morphed into an outdoor music festival in Wallkill.
Bands were selected: The Jimi Hendrix Experience was contracted to receive $32,000 for an opening and closing set. Canned Heat would make $12,500. Ravi Shankar, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez, meanwhile, were all offered less than $10,000 for their appearances.
On July 15, the town of Wallkill refused to grant the necessary land permit. In the ensuing scramble, Max Yasgur, owner of a 2,000-acre dairy farm, agreed to let Woodstock Ventures use his land. But the fences were never finished, which meant that by midday on Aug. 15, 1969, the first day of the festival, Woodstock Ventures was officially putting on a free show.
An expected crowd of 250,000 swelled to nearly twice that number. Expenses, estimated at $750,000, eventually reached $2.5 million. Vilified in Monday morning’s papers, Woodstock would become hippie legend by Thursday.
Even now, Lang savors every minute of it, despite the fact that Woodstock Ventures ended up $1.4 million in the hole. About 80 lawsuits were filed locally, and Roberts’ family had to make an emergency guarantee of more than $1 million to the bank.
“It tore at me,” Lang writes, “that he and Joel had not had the same amazing experience at Woodstock that Artie and I had. For whatever reason, they’d spent a miserable three days stuck in the telephone building in White Lake and now John was having to pledge his trust to pay his bills.”
With the Roberts family threatening bankruptcy, Lang and Kornfeld sold their Woodstock shares for $31,750 each. Between the film and a pair of albums, Warner Bros. made $50 million in the next 10 years.
Such a circumstance can make for bitterness, but Lang remains relentlessly upbeat. He drifted in and out of artist management and helped create a pair of revival Woodstocks -- one in 1994 and another in 1999 that dissolved into fires and rioting.
Cultural moments are impossible to duplicate, but it’s to Lang’s credit that the mythology of Woodstock still evokes a wide-eyed sense of possibility, despite its often unsettling echoes in commercials for Coke and blue jeans and life insurance.
“In the past forty years,” he writes, “Woodstock has been the elephant in the room of my life. To keep it in perspective, I have chosen to make the room much bigger.”
We could all benefit from that advice. The music gets turned off and we have to get back to whatever this business of real life might be. But it’s worth remembering that the music was why everyone showed up.
Ducker is a writer in Los Angeles.