Greville St Bookstore

October 9, 2009, 6:58 am
Filed under: Music

by Michael Lang
hb $49.95

Given there were a finite number of cameras and recording equipment rolling at Bethel NY in August 1969, it seems remarkable that the Woodstock industry has managed to maintain such a healthy level of productivity over the years. This year’s 40th anniversary has brought with it a slew of new products — DVD box sets, previously unreleased recordings (Sly, Johnny Winter), the Rhino 6-CD retrospective, and Ang Lee’s film Taking Woodstock. It appears as if our appetite for this stuff is insatiable. While the whole thing could be written off as a cynical exercise by corporate firms cashing in on baby-boomer nostalgia, it’s equally possible that, living in a world daily wracked by global financial meltdown or global warming, there is something genuinely warm and fuzzy about a time when half a million young people came together to celebrate peace and music.

Michael Lang’s account of his road to Woodstock joins a host of others that have appeared over the past decade. Given his role as co-creator of the Woodstock Music & Arts Festival, you’d be hard pressed to argue his right to tell his own story. At the outset of the 1970 movie, Lang can be seen riding a horse through lush fields of grass, like some sort of dope-smoking Marlborough man. In another scene, he is seated coolly on his motorbike, mumbling inaudibly to camera, looking for all the world like the most relaxed dude on the planet. It’s a remarkable performance, given the festival’s organization was going to hell in a handbasket at the time.

Lang’s memoir dispatches his Brooklyn childhood and teens in less than a dozen pages, before moving on to his time in Miami in 1967 where, barely out of his teens, he ran a head-shop specializing in bongs and psychedelic posters. It was in Miami he got his first taste of mounting music festivals, producing a two-day event at Gulfstream park featuring the likes of Hendrix, Zappa and John Lee Hooker. Though the experience left him bankrupt, he soon had his sights on bigger things.

The bulk of Lang’s memoir is given over to the lead-up and planning of the legendary Woodstock Festival. It’s a saga fraught with drama and intrigue, populated with naive young Jewish stockbrokers, drug-addled hippies, sharks and swindlers, and simple country folk facing their worst nightmare. The logistical planning behind such a venture defies all reason, and Lang, with the support of Artie Kornfeld, and financial backers John Roberts and Joel Rosenmann, goes at it with the enthusiasm of a nine-year old. How he slept at night is anyone’s guess, as the best-laid plans go awry and the bills mount up like there’s no tomorrow. But Lang demonstrates an uncanny business acumen. With his long curly locks and relaxed smile, he is able to bridge the disparate worlds of high finance, hippies, and hokey farmers. Despite facing insurmountable odds, including members of the Hog Farm commune, Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies, and a vast peace keeping force made up of New York’s finest, Lang somehow manages to weave together a thousand loose ends into the most legendary music festival of all time.

His greatest crisis occurred one month out when local folk in the town of Wallkill voted to ban the Festival. Then, just when there were no more wheels left to fall off the wagon, Lang was introduced to dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who agreed to rent out his farm near the town of Bethel. The rest, as they say, is history. With the clock ticking, the organizers realized they could either build the stage, or a fence around the festival site. The inevitable decision to focus on music over profit was captured beautifully for posterity in the immortal stage announcement: “It’s a free concert from now on. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, what that means is we’re going to put the music up here for free. What it means is that the people… who put up the money for it, are going to take a bit of a bath. A big bath. That’s no hype, that’s true, they’re going to get hurt”. Of course, it was Rosenmann and Roberts, rather than Lang, who took the bath, when ticket receipts utterly failed to recoup outgoings.

Lang’s devotes less space in his book to the actual music at the Festival, and this may have something to do with how totally stoned he looked in the film. He runs through most of the performances, selectively interspersing his own memories with those of others who were at the Festival — performers, stagehands, punters. In many ways, Woodstock was too big an event for any one person to capture; everyone there experienced just one part of the puzzle. For some performers — Joe Cocker, Santana, Richie Havens — it was a ticket to immortality. For others, such as Quill and Sweetwater, it would lead to obscurity. By the time Hendrix finished his set around 10.30am on the Monday, Lang can only remark: “What had seemed an eternity now felt like the blink of an eye. Nothing would be the same again”. As others begin work clearing the rubbish and cleaning up Yasgur’s property, Lang headed for Wall Street and the eventual washup.

The final part of Lang’s book recounts the inevitable legal wrangles that ensued in the wake of the Festival. Lacking capital to buy their way out of debt, both Lang and Kornfeld were bought out by their partners for a song, relinquishing all rights to the Woodstock name. The big winners were Warner Bros, who bought into the film rights and made a subsequent killing. But Lang, in true hippie style, walks away from it all with a shrug, ready to move on to the next thing. My only regret is that he tells us too little about his life post-Woodstock — making albums with Karen Dalton, managing Joe Cocker and Rickie Lee Jones, and producing the 1994 and 1999 Woodstock festivals.

Lang ends his book with Barak Obama’s inauguration, referred to in the Wall Street Journal as ‘Washington’s Woodstock’. Forty years previously, Jimi Hendrix gave us his incendiary rendition of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’, a fragment of hope rising out of the ashes of Vietnam. It seems fitting that Lang ends his book with Hendrix’s words, from a 1969 poem about Woodstock: “We washed and drank in God’s tears of joy. And for once, and for everyone, the truth was not still a mystery.”

—reviewed by Des


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