by Donald Gibson
Dec 04, 2009
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock when, in August of
1969, half a million people made a pilgrimage to Max Yasgur's dairy
farm in upstate New York for "three days of peace and music." More
than just a concertalthough with such artists as the Jefferson
Airplane, Sly & The Family Stone, CSNY, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix on
the bill, it was quite the concertThe Woodstock Music and Arts Fair
ultimately reflected the ideals and convictions of a generation of
For all that's been written on Woodstock, relatively little has
addressed the nuts-and-bolts details of its genesis and
preparationcertainly not to the extent that the festival's
co-founder, Michael Lang, does in The Road To Woodstock: From The Man
Behind The Legendary Festival. In a narrative that's equally
pragmatic and personable, Lang chronicles the integral decisions and
logistics that went into making the event possible and how even the
most unforeseen circumstances were handled (and, more often than not,
overcome) along the way. It's an engrossing read throughout,
certainly for music fans but also for anyone interested in pop
culture in general.
In this exclusive conversation with Donald Gibson of Blogcritics
Magazine, Michael Lang revisits The Road To Woodstock to speak of the
festival's underlying objective and how its legacy continues to
inspire and manifest in constructive, conscientious ways today.
In the book, you write, "For me, Woodstock was a test of whether
people of our generation really believed in one another and the world
we were struggling to create." How long after the event did you think
that ideal came true?
I don't think it ever really fully came true. I think it's still
manifesting today. What we got was a taste of what it would be like
if people became more of a family of man or of humanity rather than
the environment that we were in. To me it just signified that there
is the possibility of us creating a better world to live in and to
relate to each other in a better way.
The event certainly captured a sort of spirit or zeitgeist. Do you
feel that kind of momentum and communal spirit can still be nurtured?
I definitely do. Not necessarily at a concert or festival, but
wherever people come together with good intent, I think there's
always that opportunity to create that kind of spirit. And it has a
lot to do with being willing to actually put yourself out for your
beliefs... I think that that's always going to be a possibility.
In the planning stages of Woodstock, what was it about a mass
gathering in one location that appealed to you in expressing the
counterculture's ideals that a tour of smaller events spread out over
cities or over time wouldn't necessarily have achieved?
What we were looking for was to bring the whole community together.
We didn't realize how big it was. We thought to bring these
like-thinking people together to see each other and celebrate the
efforts we'd been making over the past decade and come together as
sort of a tribal gathering, if you will. I think that was the
attraction for me and obviously for a lot of other people. It was
just that wanting or longing for us to become a community in one
place at one time. That was the attraction over a tour. It wasn't
just about entertainment; it was really about becoming this community.
You planned for 200,000 people. Then it became clear more than that
was showing upand they weren't paying to do so. If it had gone
according to planned and you'd actually gotten 175,000-200,000
people, do you think it would have resonated and become as
significant as it turned out?
I don't know if it would've resonated the same way around the world
as it did. I think it certainly would've resonated as well for the
people who were there. The fact that it was freewhich people point
to as one of the things that made it so specialin my mind was just a
happenstance. I don't think that had anything to do with it. Our
attitude on how to deal with it was probably significant. We didn't
do stupid things to try to cure something that was already a fait
accompli. Most people coming were looking to buy tickets; we just
didn't have ticket booths. So I think that the experience was the
result of really the environment that brought people into. And they
would've had a very special experience in any case. That a million
and a half people were on the road and they had to close the freeway
and they had to close the Canadian border and the traffic jam
stretched for 100 milesthose are the things that build legend... I
think the significance of what could've happened and what did happen
would've been the same.
What distinguished Woodstock from what happened at Altamont and some
of the negative vibes at the Isle of Wight?
Again, I think it's planning and intent. There was no planning at
Altamont. And the result was kind of chaos. And the Isle of Wight,
their intent was to make a bunch of money. Nothing wrong with that,
but that was really their main focus. And I think that they dealt
with it poorly and that resulted in all those bad vibes floating around.
Woodstock seems to be an anomaly, but an anomaly in a very positive sense.
Yeah, I think that's true. But again, it's because of what we were in it for.
Obviously there are parallels now to then. You had a war that many
disagreed with and rallied against. We're engaged in a war now that
most people don't agree with. Do you see any other parallels, either
socially or musically?
I do. Musically, I think it's a very different time. The Internet,
Pro Tools, and technology have sort of taken it to a whole new
accessibility, both for sharing it and for making it. The music
business in itself is in such strange shape and is in the midst of
trying to figure itself out. It's kind of an interesting time and one
I think that will produce a new direction eventually. Sociologically,
there are those movements that were started in the '60s that were
looked at as accoutrement to the hippie generation or whatever...
There were, I thought, very important and very insightful
sustainability movements afoot. There were green movements afoot. The
first Earth Day was after Woodstock. Holistic medicine, alternative
treatment, all of those organic pursuits seemed to have flourished in
the '60s amongst the counterculture and then disappeared into
mainstream life and emerged again as a big part of our worldsome
unfortunately because of a threat like global warming, but others
because we were right about the healthy nature of living.
In the acknowledgment section of the book, you say, "I realized that
much of what happened at Woodstock and the months leading up to it
was a result of my own inner journey. That's something that's usually
hard for me to reveal." In what ways was that difficult?
It's something I don't usually share with people. I do what I do and
internalize the things that get me to certain decisions, certain
actions. This is how I've always been. I'm very private. I guess it's
a fear of being thrown off course.
So I just never go there, that's not my style. And so in writing the
book, I had to sort of delve into that. It wasn't just the results of
those things; I wanted to let people see what the internal process
was. And it was very rewarding at the end of the day.
In your opinion, what is it about music that makes people want to
get together to hear it collectively?
I've always thought that music was a great communicator and a great
bridge that strikes you on an emotional and gut level. In that era in
particular, the groups and artists were very much involved in the
counterculture and very much the voice of the counterculture in a
way. As diverse as those groups werefrom folk to Jimi Hendrix, funk,
blues, and everywhere in betweenall of the artists in one way or
another were very much committed to the ideals that we were as a
community committed to.
Do you still believe in music's power to shape or at least to
constructively influence a society or generation?
The Road To Woodstock: From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival by
Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren is published by Ecco, An
Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
For more information, please visit Woodstock.com.