From head shop owner to co-creator of the greatest music festival in history, the cool, calm and collected Michael Lang cemented his place in rock legend as soon as the late Richie Havens stepped out onto the stage at the first Woodstock Music & Arts Festival. 44 years on, he remains the keeper of the Woodstock flame. Here are some of his memories of that rainy weekend in August 1969...
It’s the summer of 1969. There’s less than a month to go before the festival is due to begin. What would you have been doing
Let me see... we'd pretty much finished booking the bands. I think we were in the midst of dealing with endless building permits, which were actually the only permits we were required to have. Stage construction was the main priority. The scaffolding had been delivered and we were starting to build the kids' park, clear the woods and put roads in. I remember desperately trying to get the phone lines eight miles down the track to the site. We'd taken over a motel in Bethel called the El Monaco [rather sadly, it now looks like this...] and I think we were just getting our trailers installed behind the stage. We were trying to finish a four-month job in a month. There were 300 of us on 24/7 duty.
The previous year you’d produced the Miami Pop festival so you’d already had experience of rock event organisation. What did you learn from that weekend?
Miami Pop was held at a fixed facility. At Woodstock, we were building a city from scratch. Nobody had ever built a place like this, except maybe the Army Corps Of Engineers. And they refused to talk to us. The six months leading up to the festival were really spent learning how to deal with big crowds – bear in mind we’d already planned for 200,000. So we were calculating food, garbage, water... the sound system! It was really a case of make it up as you go along. There were thousands of feet of water pipe that had to be laid, we had to dig wells, install filtration systems and build the fence... that obviously never got finished! But what I did take from Miami was a look and a feeling of what we wanted to present. We wanted people to arrive and be met with a sight beyond their imagination. That aesthetic was applied to the structures, the banners, the colours, to the parks, to everything. All that needed to fit into a schedule that would allow us to complete by August 15.
“We were building a city from scratch.”
Describe Woodstock and Upstate New York in the late ’60s...
Woodstock was a music and arts community from the very beginning. I guess it was when Albert Grossman moved up here in the early ’60s. He was then followed by Dylan and several other contemporary musicians. I became friends with The Band and with Bob, with Paul Butterfield, Tim Hardin and Richie Havens. Hendrix had moved up that year. For the most part, it was rural country and our site at Bethel was situated on a pristine piece of alfalfa field that backed onto a beautiful lake. An incredibly bucolic, peaceful place.
And then you entered the second week of August…
There were 50,000 people on site by the Tuesday. By that point, we'd finally managed to get word of our pre-sale figures. It turned out we'd sold over 100,000 tickets in advance. We knew we were in for a major, major influx of people. The Hog Farm [collective led by hippie clown Wavy Gravy] all arrived early and started working on the camping grounds. We had people working on the fence... there was a lot of fence. But frankly the priority for me was to get an infrastructure in place that could support life. I don’t think I was a wanted man yet, but as soon as we began building without permits there was a warrant put out for my arrest so I had to submerge myself into the Hog Farm. It was pretty easy... I looked like everybody else!
In today's world of social networking and mobile phones word spreads like wildfire, but in 1969 things were obviously very different...
Losing our first site at Wallkill had a lot to do with it. We lost Wallkill on the 14th July and I met Max [Yasgur] on the 15th. That was a miracle in itself. The press had picked up on the furore surrounding the Wallkill move and when we regained our footing in Bethel the papers and radio stations once again began to report our every move.
How did you feel when Richie Havens finally opened the festival on Friday?
It was a relief that after this 10-month adventure, we were finally up and running. And the sound system worked! From that moment, it was a case of strapping yourself in for the ride. Richie had this wonderful touch and an intuitive understanding of what to say and what to sing. Tim Hardin had been slated to be first on, but he’d been fighting a heroin habit at the time and was taking methadone, so he was in pretty bad shape. He just wasn't prepared to go on first in front of 300,000 people.
Why do you think people like John Sebastian and Country Joe MacDonald connected so well with the crowd?
Well, firstly I think that everyone just got it. But the bands of that era were so intertwined with the counterculture movement that they simply reflected the wishes and concerns of the audience. We were all cut from the same cloth – all of us. But people like Richie, Country Joe and John Sebastian came from the folk scene. They were all used to sitting around coffeehouses communicating with people directly and they just brought it to the stage at Woodstock.
For most people, the reality of Woodstock is Michael Wadleigh’s film. What was your reaction when you saw it for the first time back in 1971?
I thought, and still think, it’s terrific. Michael did a great, great job of transferring what was happening on the ground to the movie theatre. The music selections he made and the documentary footage gave a real authentic representation of what went on that weekend. When I first saw it, I felt like I had experienced the whole thing again.
Was there any point during the weekend when you thought a large-scale disaster loomed?
No. I'm a really positive person and when things get weird I tend to become very calm, so I maintained a fairly even keel throughout the whole event.
Describe the backstage compound…
Everybody was just hanging out. Usually at festivals these days, a band will arrive, play their gig and leave. At Woodstock, pretty much every band and performer hung out for the entire weekend. All the artists were curious about each other and it was a chance for them to really spend some time together. The side of the stage was always packed with people watching each other.
“The energy created between Sly Stone and the audience was something I’d never seen before and never experienced since.”
What were your personal musical highlights?
There were so many. Richie [Havens], Joe MacDonald doing the Fish Cheer [ie. “F-U-C-K!”], Jimi Hendrix's set at the end. His Star Spangled Banner echoed all our thoughts. CSNY were incredible. Introducing Santana to the world was a thrill. Joe Cocker played an amazing set. But if I had to pick a real highlight it would be Sly And The Family Stone doing I Want To Take You Higher. The energy created between Sly and the audience was something I’d never seen before and never experienced since. It was like a southern revival meeting but with a congregation of half a million all involved in the call and response.
Most of the bands came away from Woodstock having had a positive experience. But there were a few that, at the time, didn’t look on it quite so favourably. The Who and The Grateful Dead…
Well, peace and love weren't really part of The Who's mantra, but they were such an amazing live act we thought it would be wonderful to have them. Pete [Townshend] had an attitude throughout the entire thing. He was talked into doing it by [production co-ordinator] John Morris, just as the band were finishing a tour in the States and were looking forward to going home. But since then, Pete has told me that it was one of the most amazing shows of their lives. The Grateful Dead thought the whole thing was a great experience and they all hung out for the entire weekend. They did, however, hate their performance.
And there were certain financial difficulties that arose…
Both bands wanted cash before they went on. I explained to them that we had no cash, but we could give them a cheque at the end of the weekend. Looking back, I probably could have got the money for them, but then if I did, what was to stop everyone else wanting the same treatment? This was a really, really big fear of mine that I didn’t express to anyone at the time. So I told them that I would make an announcement that they didn’t want to play and we’d move on. Eventually, my partner Joel [Rosenman] had to get the banker out of bed in the middle of the night to get them the money.
“I spent an afternoon with Dylan trying to encourage him to drop by.”
Was there anyone that you really wanted who didn’t make it on to the bill?
Well, I didn’t try to book Dylan because I thought it would completely alter the dynamic of the festival. But I did want him to be a part of it in some way and I spent an afternoon talking to him about it, trying to encourage him to drop by. I think I would have taken the same approach to Lennon. I wanted John Lennon very badly, but I don’t think I would have announced that he was going to play. And the Stones... they were just too big. Not that Jimi Hendrix wasn’t a big act, but he felt more of a part of our culture at that time. The Stones would have overshadowed the rest of the bill.
The further we get away from Woodstock, the more amazing it seems that the whole thing didn't collapse into a life-threatening catastrophe. What was your secret?
I think a lot of the success had to with our planning. We’d done a lot of groundwork. I’d been to a whole bunch of shows that year and noticed violent undercurrents particularly when it came to people without tickets wanting to get in for free. We wanted to ensure that anybody that came to our event was welcomed. Of course, in the original plan we had gates and tickets booths! But we also had free kitchens, free stages, free camping grounds. We had collectives like the Hog Farm who helped kids from the city who had never been to the country. They all encouraged people to share and help other. Woodstock wasn’t a mainstream festival. The counterculture was heading to an event run by their own. We just avoided the silly confrontations that stupid rules can create.