Woodstock at 50: Michael Lang On What He Learned From The Iconic Festival And Why He Wants to Do It Again

George Holz
Michael Lang

"We're trying to make it something that penetrates and engages people — we could lose the planet if we're not careful," Lang says.

Michael Lang has built much of his legacy around the famed Woodstock festival he co-created in 1969 but he could do without the constant comparisons.

For decades, large gatherings would compare themselves to the iconic event -- in 1987 the American Physical Society's called their annual meeting “The Woodstock of Physics” while the Welsh Hay Festival has take to describing itself as the “Woodstock of the Mind.” Lang, who still owns the trademark to Woodstock with his partners in Woodstock Ventures said he has mixed feelings about the comparisons, but said he found one recent moniker -- that the famously failed 2017 Fyre Festival was to be a “Woodstock for Millennials” -- particularly egregious.

"That’s ridiculous," Lang explained during a meeting at Beverly Hills’ Crescent Hotel, telling Billboard he just finished watching Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

"The guy was trying to pull a scam. They never focused on the music, it was more about hanging out with models. That’s not Woodstock, that’s people stealing from others," says Lang, who was in LA taking meetings for his next big project — Woodstock 50, a huge commemorative festival in Watkins Glen, New York. Aug. 16-18. Besides meeting with the big talent agencies in town, Lang said he also was in LA for a meeting with MedMen, one of the Southern California’s biggest dispensary operators, to discuss developing a signature cannabis strain for the festival.

"My first business was actually a head shop in 1966” Lang says laughing, recalling a phone call from the head of police in Coral Gables when he first tried to open a store in the Florida town. 

"He was this old New Yorker who just told me I was in the wrong place," Lang recalls. "So I’m opened up the shop in Coconut Grove."

That move a few miles west would lead to an introduction with Richard O'Barry, the dolphin trainer of the popular show Flipper who helped Lang launch Miami Pop, a 1968 concert that paid homage to Monterey Pop a year earlier with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker and more. The second day of Miami Pop was nearly rained out, but undeterred, Lang relocated to an upstate New York artist enclave known as Woodstock and began looking for a site to hold an even bigger outdoor festival focused on peace, music and three days of communal experience. 

Working with partners Joel Rosenman, Capitol records Artie Kornfeld and John P. Roberts, heir to the Polident denture adhesive fortune (and bankroller of the festival) found and lost several sites in the upstate New York area to host their site until eventually settling on Max Yasgur's 600-acre dairy farm near White Lake in Bethel, New York.

What followed were three days of incredible music by Richie Havens, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who and Jefferson Airplane. By the time Joe Cocker took the stage on the final day of the festival, nearly 600,000 fans had descended on the site. Despite warnings from New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller that he was considering sending in 10,000 New York National Guard troops in to disperse the event, the muddy and rain soaked festival was considered a life-changing experience for many in attendance and would go on to be memorialized in the Warner Brothers 1970 film Woodstock, which earned $50 million in box office receipts and is one of the highest grossing documentaries of the 1970s. 

Today, Lang spends his time preparing for Woodstock 50 which he hopes catalyzes the music community and young people to tackle new challeges like climate change, social justice and the importance of civic participation and voting. Billboard sat down with Lang to discuss his plans to celebrate the legacy of the iconic festival and what he hopes to accomplish 50 years after the famous festival.

You were living in Florida when you first conceptualized Woodstock? What drew you to New York?

My shop in Coconut Grove had become the unofficial headquarters of the underground counterculture. David Crosby and Joni Mitchell would visit and Richard O’Barry conceived the idea for Miami Pop in my kitchen. But things were also changing in the Grove — houses were coming down and high rises were going up. It was becoming sort of famous, and, kind of over. I decided it was time to move back to New York. I loved living in a small creative town. I knew about Woodstock, I had been there as a kid and it had a big music scene with crazy artists and bacchanals that were right out of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Folk music manager Albert Grossman moved there in the early sixties and brought Bob Dylan and The Band. Janis Joplin was coming up all the time and the Beatles were visiting. It was thriving music scene. 

It took you months to settle on a site -- at one point you were kicked off a site and had to relocate to another with less than a month to go. Why did you have such a difficult time back them?

We always described Woodstock as three days of peace and music. We were not going to have politics because the political situation at the time was pretty violent. So we described ourselves as wandering minstrels; jazz and folk people that wanted to host a communal gathering. When my crew started showing up for work, the local towns people saw these long haired hippies and people started freaking out. There was a big generation gap back then. Young people and their parents had nothing in common There was a lot of fear and eventually after going back and forth for months and building on a site, the city of Saugerties, New York passed Local Law No. 1 that made it almost impossible for us to produce the festival. So we closed up and I put everybody on the radio and went to the newspapers to tell people we were looking anyone who had an idea for a site. 

How did you come to meet farmer Max Yasgur who allowed the event to happen on his land?

I called a local realtor and he picked me up in his Buick and we went right into the hills, came up over a rise and saw this large grassy site shaped like a bowl. It was magic. I made a deal with Max right away, but the problem was that during that month we had 22 days of rain. We're putting roads down and the next day, we're putting the same road down again because it sunk. At first we had support from all of the facility owners in the town, but slowly, again, there were issues. People in the town started getting worried all these hippies were going to come up and raid their town and steal their daughters. There was an atmosphere in the country with fear and violence -- it sounds very familiar to what is happening today. 

But Max stuck by you?

He was a reformed Jew, the biggest landowner and businessman in the community, and wouldn't budge. And once the kids started to come and interact, all that fear was gone.The women in the town started making sandwiches and bringing water out to the kids who were streaming in while farmers were pulling them out of ditches with their tractors. And it became this really interesting kind of thing -- morphing from suspicion into a community.

When did the first people show up?

People started arriving 10 days early and they were just staying at the festival grounds. We brought in the Hog Farm and Wavy Gravy to help set up some of the big outdoor camping spaces. The idea was for them to acclimate the kids and get an early start on community building.

What about the bands? How did you select the legendary lineup?

I booked the three hottest bands at the time — Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat and Credence Clearwater Revival. That gave us immediate credibility and the word got out and then suddenly the stone was rolling downhill. Then we started adding bands left and right. I remember when David Geffen walked into our office with a test pressing of Crosby, Stills and Nash. He put it on the turntable and made a deal right there on the spot. Same thing with Joe Cocker. We heard his voice and booked him pretty quickly. I think we all surprised when we later found out he wasn’t black.

Were you expecting Woodstock to be profitable?

Yes, because we had sold 186,000 tickets in advance. We knew that meant we would get slammed, but we had no idea 600,000 people would show up. If you watch the movie there is a scene where Bill Graham is seen telling a local news channel that in India, they ward of big armies of killer ants by digging a large trench, filing it with oil and lighting it on fire. He was sort of suggesting that was one way to deal with the huge influx of people.

What was the biggest musical moment for you at Woodstock in 1969?

There are so many, but the one that I remember really well was when we finally convinced Richie Havens to open the show, which was about 40 minutes late from where we planned to start because we couldn't get equipment through the traffic. When Richard went on and the sound system worked, that was a big moment for me. We made up everything as we went along. I had this vision in my head, but there was nothing really concrete to work against. Nobody had ever done anything like that before.

Let’s talk about Woodstock 50, which is happening about 90 minutes east of the 1969 festival. How did you settle on Watkins Glen?

I have been working on it for two years. looking for a location in New York state and hadn't found one that worked. I started looking at other states like Colorado, just trying to find the perfect field. I was at the end of my rope and had heard about this racetrack that was a four-hour ride from my house in New York, so one day I went to take a look. I went up and met the people that were really nice and kind of excited about the idea and gave me a tour of the place. Outside the track there is this 1,000-acre field that is amazingly beautiful. You don’t feel like you’re at a speedway.

How are you planning to configure the site?

We’re going to have three main stages and we're going to try and create these neighborhoods with highly-curated, smaller stages and curated foods, curated entertainment, comedy, spoken word and acoustic performances. There is going to be a lot of NGOs (non-government organizations) onsite at the festival to talk about sustainability, and HeadCount is going to be involved along with Global Citizen and Conservation International. They will be doing work to engage people and encourage them to get involved and vote.

It as a camping festival? 

Yes and there will be car camping, tent camping and a big glamping program because there's not a lot of hotel infrastructure. We will have an older demographic so accessibility is important. 

Who is booking the festival?

Danny Wimmer Presents is doing the booking and I’ve been working with Gary Spivack. We have an incredible production team who are highly experienced in putting together a lot of big festivals around the country. The lineup will be a mix of some of the old bands who are still performing and a lot of new headline talent. Probably more than any other festival's ever had. It'll cross genres from rock to pop, folk and hip hop. It's kind of representative of this idea of engagement and trying to steer toward acts that are heavily involved in social issues. So there's some real gravitas in the performance and we want it to live on beyond the event. It always kind of bugged me that things like Live Aid, which took a tremendous amount of effort and a huge production, just end after the concert is over. So we're trying to make it something that penetrates and engages people into getting involved. We're in a situation where we could lose the planet if we're not careful. 

How do you capture that element of the unexpected that made the first Woodstock so iconic?

In 1969, people came to have three days of peace and music and to experience community. That what's made it made it so special. So we're hoping that engagement puts people in that space again and they leave with purpose as well as having an amazing life changing experience. The one thing that people have always said to me when they approached me about how Woodstock changed their life was that it changed how they related to other people. It was about life, it was about counterculture and the things that we were facing together. People came out feeling they could move the goal line a little closer to what we were really striving for it and see if it could work. 

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