Woodstock At 40: Promoter Michael Lang Interviewed
In 1968, after producing the Miami Pop Festival in Florida, onetime head shop owner and fledgling music impresario Michael Lang moved to Woodstock, N.Y., and got an idea for another kind of music festival -- one that was bigger and more inclusive. Less than a year later he was at the helm of the Woodstock Music & Art Festival, the most historic musical festival of our time and an event that made both a footprint and a statement well beyond the strains of Jimi Hendrix's closing set on Aug. 18, 1969. As the festival celebrates its 40th anniversary, Lang -- who's still a partner in Woodstock Ventures and runs his own Michael Lang Organization management and event producing firm in New York -- reflects on the short strange trip ot the festival and the long strange trip it`s been since.
So what does 40 years mean to you?
It means I'm old! (laughs) What does it mean? It's interesting. I've just written a book ("The Road to Woodstock" (Ecco, 320 pages), and that was a really interesting experience because when Holly George-Warren and I first started I was offered this opportunity, and I said, "Sure, how do we go about it?" So we got together and we started doing a bunch of interviews and she did some other research and we started to put together some of the first couple of chapters. And I read it and I was horrified because it had nothing to do with me. It wasn't my voice, and I also realized it wasn't even really my memories -- it was my memories of my interviews, because you do this for 40 years (and) that's what you remember, that's the spiel and you never realize it until you have to think about it. So I panicked and I started to rewrite, and that physical act sort of opened up the floodgates and suddenly I was reliving it and it was a great adventure again. It was really enjoyable.
What kind of perspectives do you have about Woodstock now that maybe you haven't realized the last 39 years?
It's always interesting how much it resonates today and how present it still is in so many people's minds and how many people mark their lives from that point. When I looked at the coverage of the (Obama) inauguration it was interesting how many people made comparisons to Woodstock and that feeling of hope coming out of the blue. Nobody really expected Obama to win, you know what I mean? A lot of people dreamed about it but nobody thought it could actually happen. That's what's wonderful about America; suddenly it turns on its heels and goes in the right direction, and that struck me as the same kind of moment that we were in (in 1969) amidst a horrible war and we experienced terrible assassinations and an unpopular president and all of those things that were going on. And suddenly there comes this event that again, takes a left turn and suddenly there is hope again
Where did the idea for Woodstock come from?
It sort of evolved. I had previously been living in Coconut Grove, Fla. I had a head shop there and organized a lot of music concerts and did a festival, the Miami Pop Festival. It was in 1968, (Jimi) Hendrix was the headliner and we did it at Gulf Stream Park. And that experience really opened a path for me. I was amazed at the effect music had on the kids, and these were sort of Southerners. This was not a bunch of freaks. This was a college-age, late high school-age audience, and the way I booked the show was pretty eclectic; I went from John Lee Hooker to Jimi Hendrix, and they loved it all. and looking at their faces and the way music sort of transformed them really started me in that direction. Then, when Artie Kornfeld and I got together in New York the following year and became friends and started talking about music, I was living in Woodstock and that summer I went to a series of events called Sound-Outs. They were wonderful and it was in the country in a cow field, very idyllic, very laid-back. The stage was six inches off the ground. People could come and camp for the weekend if they wanted to, or if they lived locally they just went home. There were about a thousand people, something like that. But the music was great, and I thought, "Jesus, this is the way to see music. This is just heaven," and no restrictions. There wasn't any pressure, no cops, no nothing. It was just enjoyment and getting together with great people and listening to great music. And so Artie and I started talking about that, and my instinct is always to go bigger. So I talked to him about the idea of making a major concert series based on that model, kind of what I did in Miami and what the Sound-Outs were about, and through talking he and I one night just said, "Why don't we pull it all together and bring everybody we ever wanted to see and bring all the people that we all feel connected to and see what happens."
Was the vision of a "nation" in your head?
A community more than a nation. I didn't look at it as a nation, but I knew that we were all freaks and there were many of us out there and we were disbursed around the country and around the world, really. So it was like a gathering of the tribes, if you will.
Talk a little bit about what sounds like a very interesting relationship with Joel Rosenman and John Roberts, who certainly weren't part of that community when you first met them.
It was (interesting), and it probably required all four of us for this to have happened. We were all very young. John and Joel were very straight, preppy types looking for a business venture, and it was at best an uneasy partnership all the way through because we were sort of thrown into this. We signed our papers in February, Woodstock happened the following August and so there wasn't a lot of time to bond and get to sort of understand where we were all coming from. I could have landed from Pluto as far as they were concerned, and Artie was sort of somewhere in the middle but I think he sort of migrated to Pluto in their eyes over time, so it was uneasy. But they were infected by it, as we all were, and once we were rolling I think they were pretty much locked-in. And I separated myself at some point. I started my own organization within the organization to actually produce this thing, and that I think is why it was able to happen. I think if we'd try to come to terms with every detail together it never would have happened.
There are many great stories about convincing artists to play at Woodstock -- The Who, for instance.
Well, I wasn't there for that one. John Morris did that, and the way they booked that...(Morris) and Frank Barsalona, who was (The Who's) agent,) invited to Frank's house for dinner, got him drunk and wouldn't let him go until he agreed to play. They were doing something, another show, in the area the week before, and wanted to go home. It was the end of a tour, they had had it and they weren't hippies. This (Woodstock) vision was not their vision, but Frank was convinced that it was important for their career, and he and John managed to talk him into it.
And he got to smack Abbie Hoffman with his guitar, so it had to be worth it in the end.
Yeah, it was a really solid shot with the guitar. Abbie was burning to talk about somebody named John Sinclair who had been jailed for smoking a couple of joints and got 15 (sic) years in prison. He wanted to make an announcement about John Sinclair's plight and talk to the audience about it. We were sitting on the side of the stage, and I said, "Abbie, if you really have to do this, after the set I'll let you make an announcement." I realized he had stopped along the way from the hospital tent to the stage and picked up a few tabs of acid on each of his stops, so at one point when Pete turned to adjust his amp and turned away from the audience, Abbie saw a vacant mic and he was drawn and just went to it. And I think when Pete turned back he had no idea who was at the mic. He didn't know it was Abbie, didn't know what was going on. He just saw someone at his microphone, and in that same movement of turning back to the audience he just took his guitar and whacked him across the back of the head, and I heard it. It was a big whack. And Abbie went down on one knee, got up, jumped out over the stage and out into the audience.
I think the Hendrix conversation was probably the toughest of all of them. Of course Jimi at that point was the biggest rock act in the world, and I had set a Favorite Nations policy where the top I would pay any band was $15,000 and that was it. And so when I approached Jimi, or his manager Michael Jeffries, I offered him $15,000 and he had just been paid $150,000 to do a show at Madison Square Garden, which was supposed to take place two weeks before Woodstock. The last time I booked him it was a $5,000 booking -- that was in Miami the year before. And I said, "I can't pay what you want." Jimi was living in Woodstock at the time, with Michael, and Jimi and I would sort of run into each other here and there and I knew he wanted to play, so I had that advantage. And one day I went to his agent's office to try and kind of definitively get this done or not and came up with the idea of offering him two shows; I wanted him to open the (festival) with an acoustic set and close with the band, and I would pay him $15,000 per set, so now he's getting $30,000. The agent said, "No, no, that will never fly," and I said, "That's all I can really do. I'm not gonna blow off every other act I've booked to have Jimi, there although I'd love to have him." The other problem was that I'd also established this idea of alphabetical billing and everyone getting 100% billing because I sort of wanted this equality between everybody, and I had no problem with any other group except for Jimi because, again, Michael wanted him to have 100% star billing. And I said, "You'll get it -- so will everybody else!" We eventually worked it out that, "OK, he'll do the two sets. We'll take $30,000 if you throw in $2,000 for expenses." He had to get a little edge in there somewhere to say, "We got more than anybody," so that was probably the most interesting booking.
And, ironically, he wound up playing to the smallest crowd of the weekend.
He showed up Sunday at noon, and I spoke with his manager and said, "We'll put him on at midnight. That's probably the best spot." And Michael Jeffries said, "No, no, no. Jimi's got to close the show." And I said, "Are you sure you want to close the show?" and he said "Absolutely, we want to close the show." And so he went on at 9 o'clock Monday morning. It's just the way the weekend went.
What happened to the acoustic set?
He never showed up.
But you were ready for him?
Oh yeah, totally. I was ready for anybody on Friday to play an acoustic set.
Of course, you were ready for anybody to play, just start the show. Were you on pins and needles that Friday afternoon?
We were, because nobody was getting through (the highway). I was trying to convince Tim Hardin to go on. He was there but...was just not in shape; he was on methadone and had just kicked heroin recently and he just wasn't prepared to take on that responsibility. So finally we talked Ritchie (Havens) into it, but I was looking for ANYBODY with a band and equipment.
Like you said, it's just the way the weekend went.
Somebody said to me, "What's the plan?" The answer was, "Plan?" People got there as they could. It was easier to get the bands in than the equipment 'cause the roads were so jammed. The bands we could helicopter in; the equipment had to be trucked for the most part. And we had booked sort of day by day; we had bands scheduled on individual days. It was a question of who was there and who was ready. That's how the order went.
And you stayed calm, cool and collected. How did that happen?
Stupidity, I guess. (laughs) I don't stress, and the more pressure I'm under the less I stress. I don't know why; that's just how it is.
Back to the bands -- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?
That was an instant booking. I was working with an agent named Hector Morales who worked at William Morris...and we were sitting in his office doing our work and in comes David Geffen and he says, "You guys gotta hear this!" "What is it?" He says, "These guys from the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield" which were two of my favorite bands, so how great could this be? He played us a test pressing of the (first Crosby, Stills & Nash) album and it blew us away. It was an amazing piece of work, and I booked them. I said, "They're great -- what can I say? What do you want?" He asked for $10,000, and I thought was ballsy of him, but it WAS David Geffen and I also knew they were going to be instantly huge, so I agreed right on the spot with him.
Did you know Neil Young was going to be part of it at the time?
I didn't think so...But when I was doing the book I found the original contract and all four of their names were on it, so there you go.
Were you aware at all that Joni Mitchell was in New York pining away that she couldn't come?
No, because she was never booked. She was gonna come with David (Crosby), I guess, 'cause they were seeing each other. I had no idea that she was even coming until she didn't, and then she wrote that amazing song.
What was your reaction to "Woodstock?"
I was blown away. I'll tell you how I heard it; it was really interesting, I was in L.A.; I went out to try and make some film deal happen. And this convertible pulls up alongside of me and it was Stephen Stills and he says, "You gotta follow me home. I said "OK," so I followed him to his house and he said, "You have to hear this song. I just finished it," and he and Dallas Taylor were there and they played it for me live and...what can i say? It was like an anthem to this thing we'd all sort of been through, and he explained what happened, how Joni had written it over the weekend and they had just recorded it and everything. It was amazing.
What was it about hearing Santana before the festival that made you take a chance on them?
Well, Bill Graham sent a couple of tapes that sort of knocked me out. (Santana) was completely infectious; the rhythm section was beyond belief, and Carlos's guitar lines were this amazing sort of rock-Latin-I didnt' know what. I just knew it was great music and exciting music and it took me three seconds to say, "Yes, we'll take them," and it was the best buy I ever made. Bill gave them to me for $1 500. And I got a tape from Artie Kornfeld of Joe Cocker and the Grease Band. Denny Cordell and Artie knew each other; I guess they were in the islands together on vacation and he give (Kornfeld) a tape and Artie gave me the tape and we thought this was this really great British black blues. Then the picture came and it was this skinny, white, sort of crazed-looking guy. But he had amazing talent so again, we booked him kind of instantly.
You had other negotiations with Bill Graham before Woodstock, too.
There are many Bill Graham stories. (laughs) Bill Graham came to me one day and said, "I'm pulling your show," and we had a big sort of showdown meeting at Ratner's next to the Fillmore East. Apparently I had booked most of the acts he was going to have at the Fillmore that spring and summer. So we worked out a deal eventually and I invited him up to emcee. And he declined with a typical Bill comment; "We can't both be God on the same day." But after that we became pretty friendly. He did me one of the biggest favors of anybody by sending that Santana tape, and the rest is kind of history.
What kind of outreach, if any, was made to the Beatles?
The Beatles weren't touring then...and were in the process of breaking up. The discussion was initially about John Lennon; I invited John Lennon to come with the Plastic Ono Band, but...our government was not interested in having him come because of his Vietnam War position and he had been busted (for drugs) in England, so they used that as an excuse. Apple sent me a letter saying they were going to send an art installation from the Plastic Ono Band and also offered James Taylor and Billy Preston. All three would have been great, but the letter arrived around the time we were losing the site in Walkill and we were kind of distracted, so those never got finalized.Amidst all the chaos that was Woodstock, were you at all concerned about it turning into something catastrophic?
I had been to every major show that summer and there were lots of problems at every event that summer, mostly around gate crashers and the way the audience and promoters dealt with each other. I knew people were coming (to Woodstock) without money and tickets. I knew that; I always did. And this was going to be a place where everybody was welcome. We did three campgrounds and the free stage so that anyone who showed up for any reason had a place to go to hear the music and could get through the weekend and have a great time. That was my approach to crowd control. We were planning for 200,000 people, and you can't police 200,000 people. You can't sort of force order. If it goes bad, you are in big trouble no matter what happens, and I saw that at each one of these other shows where there was a problem. We spent a lot of time thinking about how to deal with that. Wes Pomeroy and I planned to have security on site without guns, without uniforms; they were there to help people. The idea that we'd have somebody with enough sway as head of security to liaison with the State Police and keep them outside of the perimeter of the event, not on the inside of the event, and all of those things were how we approached crowd control. And we thought from day one that if we did it right, if we gave people more than they were expecting and brought them to nature, everybody would behave and show their best sides. And that IS kind of what happened.
Do you have your own very favorite memories of performances or personal interactions that weekend?
My favorite moment was when it started, when I actually got somebody on stage and the sound system worked and all of that started to kick in. That was really the highlight for me.
Was there a point that you realized it was going to be history?
I don't think we ever looked at it during the weekend...Well, that's not true. I guess by Saturday, when everybody had arrived or everybody who was gonna get there arrived, we knew that this was going to be a historic moment. Nobody ever thought about whether it would resonate or not, or how it would resonate, but we knew that this was extraordinary.
Can you assess the other two Woodstocks, in '94 and '99?
94 was wonderful. It was a bridge. We had a lot of the legacy acts -- Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joe Cocker, Santana -- and then on the other side, on the other hand we had the (Red Hot) Chili Peppers and Metallica and Aerosmith and it was a great mixture. I'd say the audience sort of grew to about 350,000 over the weekend. It had its own problems, its own sort of mechanics...but everybody had a great time. It was just a great week and it rained, but then people came back. It was just a magical weekend; obviously we weren't creating magic again in the same way you never can repeat anything like that, but it had its own charm and it's own wonderful people who were there, and musically I thought it was a terrific combination of bands. 99 was very different. I was convinced that it was time to move into the new millennium, band-wise, and Artie never agreed. But I thought it was going to have more of a jam-band feel, but it was a time when (music) was very edgy. There was a lot of anger, and I think that came across. It was an amazing line-up; I think we had a total of 300 bands that weekend, but I think it was too edgy. It became more of an MTV event than a Woodstock event.
Could you sense there was a different spirit or mood to that crowd?
It wasn't the crowd's mood; it was the reaction to the music. The mosh pit...You could see the earth move, because it wasn't just a few hundred kids in front of the stage or a few thousand; it was a couple of hundred thousand kids lifting off the ground instantaneously. It was scary. In the middle of that, if something went wrong or if you fell, you could get hurt badly and that worried us a lot.
What do you think is the perceptual state of the Woodstock brand as a live event now?
I think that it always hearkens back to the 69 event, somehow. That is the prevailing wind, and when people think of Woodstock they don't think, unless you were there, they don't think 99 or 94. They think about the 69 event.
So you don't think you did permanent damage in 99?
You know, the truth is I think the aftermath of 99, the imagery of kids sort of dancing around the fire, was more dramatic than the actual event. The problem with 99 sort of erupted after the last act went off stage, and it was really a couple of hundred kids who were running rampant. I think that it has its ramifications, but I don't think it did any real damage in that sense.
Interestingly, it was Europe that really grasped on to the festival idea after Woodstock, and it took a long time for the United States to re-embrace it again, at least on the same level.
There was a law, a local law, that's about that thick (holds fingers apart) that was passed after Woodstock to prevent it from happening again. Europe just...embraced the culture. I think a lot of that was the result of the film, frankly, spreading that idea. Festivals for a long time were few and far between in the States. There were small ones, great ones, but nothing that major, and just in the last few years they've really started to grow again.
Do you feel the Woodstock stamp on the current crop of festivals?
Of course, and it's amazing how much closer and closer they get to our original model as time goes on. But I think they are really well-run and I think that they're well-booked...and have learned lessons from other experiences. Bonnaroo and Coachella in particular are terrific events, and I think they'll go on for a long time because they focus on the music and the experience of the people and have got the right spirit. I'm very gratified to see them succeed and continue.
Do you feel what they're doing on the Woodstock site these days, with the Bethel Woods performing arts center and museum, maintains some of the Woodstock spirit?
You know, it does and it doesn't. I think it is evolving into something that can work well. It's great that it's there, and the museum, I think, will become something that will be intersting and it's important it's evolving. It's a beautiful facility and, of course, (if) someone builds a museum to something you've done you've got to like it. Bethel was never the easiest town to do anything in, so there's always going to be a controversy. Ang Lee...went to Bethel to do scouting for his movie ("Taking Woodstock") and they lasted three hours and were run out of town, so they shot it near Massachusetts. It's just a very difficult place to do anything.
What was watching "Taking Woodstock" like for you?
I couldn't get enough distance on it. I thought I'd be able to remove myself and watch it as a movie. That didn't work. But I thought there were some great performances in it, and it certainly captures the times really well. Watching all those people travel down the road and approaching the (festival) site, I really got the feeling of being in the middle of it again. Demitri Martin (as Eliot Tiber) was a lot of fun to watch, and Jonathan Groff, who plays my character, did a good job.
What is the status of a Woodstock 40th anniversary festival?
It's not going to happen -- it's certainly not going to happen before the fall, at least. We were trying to do something in September in New York and promote the climate change issue. But it's just not going to be possible. We couldn't get the money together. We're looking now at something possibly around Earth Month in April. Whatever we do it's going to have to be tied to something that has some real gravity.
Musically what do you think a Woodstock festival would look like now?
If there were a lineup there would be a lot of legacy bands -- The Who, Santana, Crosby, Stills & Nash, maybe Joe Cocker -- and it would be people like Steve Earle and Ben Harper. And there is certainly room for the Chili Peppers or Dave Matthews and that kind of thing. But that would be the shape of the music.
Will you at least get some people together with a bottle of champagne or something to toast Woodstock's anniversary?
Well, there's still a bunch of things happening. I produced the documentary for VH1 and the History Channel I produced with Barbara Kopple directing. We have two books, the memoir ("The Road to Woodstock") and we did a book with Genesis Publications, a box set of photographs and artwork and interviews, a really beautiful thing. We have book signings and readings and a photo exhibition...And then on the (anniversary) weekend we've lined up with the (Paul Green) School of Rock; Paul put together an all-star band for us that we shot for the film, and we're doing a series of events in all the cities where the schools are located, free shows in all those markets. So the torch is kind of being passed, which