Woodstock At 40: Promoter Michael Lang Interviewed
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.