The 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival has brought with it a bounty of books from those who organized it, attended it, wished they hadn’t attended it, or missed it altogether. If your local bookstore resembles mine, a display table of Woodstock memorabilia, including DVDs, coffee mugs, and posters, competes for space with eight new books on Woodstock published within the last few months.
Even for those like myself who actually remember trekking the long and winding road to the festival, this dizzying display of marketing “peace and love” can seem bewildering. But then again, Woodstock itself was confusing. Without even counting the reunions (concerts repeated in 1994 and 1999 under the moniker of “Woodstock”), it’s unclear whether the original 1969 event was really a single happening. Or was it instead, simultaneously, a rock music festival, a countercultural party, a political protest, a free-love carnival, a psychedelic drug expo, the world’s largest improvised town meeting – or something more?
Purporting to sort it all out for us is The Road To Woodstock, the memoir (as told to and transcribed by Holly George-Warren) of Michael Lang, one of the 1969 Woodstock festival’s cocreators.
The jacket copy of “The Road to Woodstock” calls Lang “the man who started it all.” Some of Lang’s partners might take issue with that claim. But publishers’ marketing copy aside, Lang does reveal himself in “The Road to Woodstock” as an extraordinarily convincing capitalist of a particular flavor. Relying on direct quotes from many of the key Woodstock organizers as well as musicians and their managers, a portrait emerges of Lang as an extraordinary trickster, a character as large and charming as Melville’s “Confidence-Man.”
Miriam Yasgur, wife of Max Yasgur, whose farm made the event possible, sketches this portrait of Lang: “It takes Michael about fifteen or twenty minutes to charm you, and having spoken to him for a while, he really put us at ease. He explained the way it was going to be, and he made it sound like everything was going to be so simple and not anything that big. He has a way of ingratiating himself – I think he’s a born con man. Even though you know you’re being ‘had,’ you can’t help but like him.”
Lang presents himself, however, as the loftiest of idealists: “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.” At least that’s how he opens his memoir.
The shift from the generational “we” to “I” follows soon. Lang tells of his early success as an entrepreneur running a shop selling countercultural paraphernalia (pipes, papers, posters) that evolved into producing successful outdoor concerts with big-name rock bands in the Coconut Grove, Fla., area. Any number of potentially dangerous disorderly situations were apparently defused by Lang’s unflappable nature and his cool demeanor, characteristics that served him well at the Woodstock festival. Although clearly a great music fan, Lang explains few of the reasons for his musical predilections and devotions.
He fast-forwards his narrative as he moves from Florida to Woodstock, an small, upstate, New York town with a long bohemian history. Lang’s timing for his move was astute. Woodstock was in the process of reconstituting itself as a haven for highly accomplished rock innovators like Bob Dylan, The Band, and Jimi Hendrix.
There he met Artie Kornfeld, head of A&R at Capitol Records, a kind of hip capitalist not unlike Lang, but with considerably more money and connections in the music industry. The two formed a friendship with young venture capitalists Joel Rosenman and John Roberts. These four became the nucleus of the leadership that made the Woodstock festival a reality. (Ironically the festival was actually held a 40-minute drive from Woodstock in Bethel, N.Y.)
Lang’s account of the three-day event does suggest that he was the “mastermind and creative genius” who faced all the unforeseen events associated with Woodstock (countless bad drug trips among the half-million crowd, lack of food and sanitation, etc.) and kept everything working. Whether you believe this or not, Lang’s relationship with his three key partners has been contested in print and through the media in the years following Woodstock.
If you crave more information about Woodstock after reading Lang’s book (and you probably will), I would recommend Pete Fornatale’s “Back to the Garden: The Story of Woodstock.” The book offers what Fornatale cleverly identifies as “the Rashoman effect” (named for a Japanese film where a crime is described through a dozen different narrators), a very broad spectrum of completely different, even contradictory perspectives on Woodstock, offered by organizers, performers, and attendants.
Whatever the Woodstock festival meant, it was too capacious for even the trickiest mastermind to narrate fairly on his own.
Norman Weinstein, who writes about arts and culture for the Monitor, is the author of a forthcoming biography of Carlos Santana.