May 14, 2022

Woodstock organizer Michael Lang, engine of 1969 festival, dies at 77

Michael Lang, longtime Ulster County resident and driving force behind the organization of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, which changed the trajectory of rock music and the live music experience while welcoming half a million people for the defining moment of the counterculture of the 1960s, died on Saturday Jan. 8. He was 77 years old.

According to Lang’s obituary, he died of complications from lymphoma in New York City.

Lang organized the Woodstock Music Festival with three partners, but since August 1969 he had remained the public face of the famous gathering and its enduring ideals of peace, love and music. The festival was held in Bethel, Sullivan County, but was planned for the town of Woodstock, Ulster County.

Held in the year after the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Woodstock was set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and the growing divisions that continued to fracture the nation on political, generational, economic and racial fault lines. Culturally, the gig landed on the opposite end of the spectrum, away from the violence and uncertainty that defined much of the 1960s.

Woodstock is far from a financial or organizational success: major highways are closed to concert traffic, and festival-goers face rain, mud and never-before-seen logistical problems, as a concert at the Woodstock scale never happened.

But the four-day concert in Woodstock was also a time for the counterculture to come together and show the political leaders of the nation and the world how they wanted, needed and would be heard. The counterculture took a stand at Woodstock and the movement’s crowning moment was set to a soundtrack from the era’s top artists, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Sly & the Family Stone and The Who.

“We are very saddened by the news of the passing of Michael Lang, one of the original organizers of Woodstock,” said Bethel Woods CEO Eric Frances. ”Michael’s role as the visionary behind the festival has left an indelible mark on history. In an interview with the Museum in 2006, Michael said: “What is important in [Woodstock] it is, I think, that it proves that it is possible. It proves that there is another way for the world to work and for people to relate to each other; That’s the proof. And that’s something to aspire to.

The legacy of the 1969 Woodstock Festival is the legacy of Michael Lang.

The Woodstock Festival launched careers and innovations in the industry

“Woodstock was an opportunity, a moment, a home that we all looked forward to and worked towards,” Lang wrote in his bestselling 2009 autobiography, “The Road to Woodstock,” co-written with the Phenicia resident and the Professor SUNY New Paltz. Holly George-Warren.

“For me, Woodstock was a test of whether people of our generation truly believed in each other and in the world we were struggling to create,” Lang wrote. “How would we do when we were in charge? Could we live like the peaceful community we imagined? I was hoping we could. From the beginning, I believed that if we did our job right and from the bottom of our hearts, set the stage and set the right tone, people would reveal their higher selves and create something amazing. Woodstock came to symbolize our solidarity.

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Woodstock also featured Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby, Stills and Nash & Young, Carlos Santana, John Sebastian, Ravi Shankar, The Band and Arlo Guthrie, some of whom were early in what would become long and prolific careers.

Lang’s obituary also detailed Woodstock’s lasting impact on music and concert production. “With the lighting and sound innovations of Chip Monck and Bill Hanley respectively, security, recording and video technologies … were born in Woodstock and continue to this day,” it read.

The face of the famous gathering also produced Woodstock ’99, other tributes

Organizer Michael Lang speaks to reporters at the Woodstock 25th Anniversary Concert on August 13, 1994 at Winston Farm in Saugerties, New York. (Photo by Rémi Benali/Liaison)

Remi Benali/Getty Images

A resident of the town of Woodstock for decades, Lang was an unassuming guy spotted fairly regularly in the community, dining at the Bread Alone Café and attending screenings during the Woodstock Film Festival, for which he served as an advisory board member. .

And although the town of Woodstock has a long history with the arts that predates the 1969 festival by many, many years, it was Woodstock’s music and arts fair that shaped the famous community’s personality, its economy , its appeal as a tourism destination, and the businesses that anchor its daily commerce. The candle shop in Woodstock is called Candlestock and its sign includes the phrase “Peace, Love & Light”. There’s a place for cupcakes called Peace, Love & Cupcakes.

Lang has also managed musicians, including Billy Joel and Joe Cocker.

Many remember Lang from the Oscar-winning documentary about the 1969 Woodstock festival. He appeared throughout the film wearing a vest and riding a BSA motorcycle around the festival site – an alfalfa farm in Bethel, New York, which now houses the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.

But many will also remember him for Woodstock ’99, the 30th anniversary Woodstock festival he hosted at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, Oneida County, New York.

The last night of this rally was marked by riots and fires. Lang in his autobiography wrote, “During performances by acts like Limp Bizkit, Korn, and Rage Against the Machine, the mosh pit was a scary sight. The surfing public became quite aggressive, and we were horrified to find out later that there were reports of women being sexually assaulted.

Deputy State Senate Minority Leader Joseph Griffo (R-Rome) told the Poughkeepsie Journal in 2019 that Lang’s plan for Woodstock ’99, for the most part, had been “very good.”

“There are always things you could do differently,” Griffo, who was mayor of Rome when Woodstock ’99 was held, told the Poughkeepsie Journal. “The concert went very well. Everything went well until the very end. Things happen. Any criminal activity is unacceptable.

Lang also hosted a 25th anniversary Woodstock concert at the Winston Farm property in Saugerties, where he originally wanted to hold the 1969 festival. Woodstock ’94 brought together the Woodstock nation and the MTV generation and featured spectacular performances by Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Green Day, who were among dozens of bands to perform.

“In true Woodstock style, the community spirit lived on, it rained like hell, Mud People abounded, and Woodstock ’94 made money for everyone but us,” Lang wrote in his autobiography.

Lang’s obituary acknowledges that “the magic of the original Woodstock could not be replicated”, although a concert produced by Lang approached the significance of Woodstock 69. Held in Berlin the night after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it brought together people from West Berlin and East Berlin. for the first time in a generation. Lang, along with singer Joe Cocker, helped negotiate with East German authorities for the right to produce a concert on the east side of the wall.

Plans for a 2019 Woodstock 50th anniversary concert were announced to much fanfare. But the festival failed to gain traction due to a lack of permits, location change, lawsuits, and disputes between Lang and his Woodstock 50 team, and festival supporter Dentsu Aegis.

“Lang’s desire for a 50th birthday celebration was a personal disappointment,” his obituary notes, adding that in September 2019, the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., honored him with a Life Achievement Award for his contribution to peace.

Brooklyn Boy Settles North of Woodstock

Michael Lang grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, according to his book. His father installed heating systems and his mother kept the books of the family business. Lang like millions of American children grew up listening to rock and roll – Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bill Haley and the Comets.

Lang was the only one in his family to play an instrument and he joined a rock and roll band, as a drummer, when he was 12 years old. .”

As a child, he spent summers attending camp in Sullivan County, where he would stage Woodstock as an adult. During the winters, the Lang family would take road trips to Miami and Canada.

In 1962, he enrolled at New York University while still in his senior year of high school. After transferring to the University of Tampa and then re-enrolling at NYU, he finally dropped out of college in 1965, moved to Miami, and opened a main store which, Lang writes in his book, became “the hub of the Miami underground”. .” He welcomed live music to his shop and expanded his efforts to promote bigger shows with musicians including Ravi Shankar.

This led Lang, with a partner, to organize the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 with Chuck Berry, the Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. It drew a crowd of 25,000 people.

A year later, Hendrix would deliver a stunning performance to close the Woodstock festival. His signature instrumental rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” on lead electric guitar remains, over 50 years later, a defining moment of the 1960s.

After organizing the Miami Pop Festival, Lang wrote in her book, “I thought it was time to go back to New York. Ninety miles north of the city, Woodstock had become a magnet for musicians. I remembered its artsy, small-town vibe when we went there in the fifties. The city used to attract artists and bohemians. My girlfriend Sonya and I decided to check it out for ourselves.

Community reactions to Lang’s death

Woodstock Film Festival executive director Meira Blaustein posted on Facebook of Lang: “I loved you so much.”

Laurent Rejto, founder of the Hudson Valley Film Commission and co-founder of the Woodstock Film Festival, said of Lang on Facebook: “I will remember Michael Lang as a loving father and a family man, before all. I will miss his sweetness, his kindness and his Peter Pan spirit. He has always been so nice to my children.

Steve Bohn of Ulster Park, the former manager of a Starbucks on Massa Drive in the city of Ulster, said Lang came to the cafe several times a month, ordered a classic espresso, sat down and thumbed through the New York Times while seeming perfectly fine that no one recognized him.

Bohn liked having Lang at the cafe, and if there was an interesting concert coming up in the Hudson Valley, he would mention it to Lang. Bohn recalls Lang thinking the 2017 Bob Dylan concerts at Hutton Brickyards in Kingston, hosted by the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, were a good idea.

“He was always patient and generally talkative,” Bohn recalled.