The highest-profile of the original concert’s founders and the producer of the epic upcoming Woodstock 50 Festival at Watkins Glen, Michael Lang can stake a legitimate claim to intellectual ownership of Woodstock, but he doesn’t. He is a “we” person when he talks, and over time you begin to notice that there are three levels to his use of that pronoun: The first “we” is himself and his closest associates, those insomnia gluttons and multitaskers managing the impossible complexity of booking and overseeing Woodstock 50. The second “we” is his generation, the ’60s youngsters who pulled it off against all odds the first time.
And the third “we” is the human race, for Lang remains an idealist and a planetary voice, even after getting off the line with Imagine Dragon’s people. Lang sounds young on the phone, sounds in fact almost exactly like the prepossessing kid who emerged as the accidental star of the successful Woodstock motion picture, as notable for his preternatural composure amidst the chaos as for his boyish good looks.
My brief telephone interview with Woodstock torchbearer Michael Lang played out, for me, much like the scene in Groundhog Day in which all of Bill Murray’s amorous moves seem contrived and comically ineffectual. Everything that had been spontaneous and charmed the day before now turned stilted and forced, seeming not only rehearsed but off a beat, misaligned – not just acting; bad acting.
The proof is in the file (see above illustration). See the dense, long blobs of Rorschach audio? That’s me pontificating. The comparatively brief, flat and low-amplitude plateaus between them? The thoughtful Lang doing what he could. I talked far too much and with mad redundancy, baby. There is a way non-actors speak when trying to invest scripted language with reality, a lexicon of hesitations, elongations, pitch effects and disfluencies (um, uh) that are entirely unnatural but used by the tin-eared to represent the qualities of natural speech. I nailed it. I even detect a few moments of a stock NPR vocal inflection, an Ira Glass glissando, that heretofore had never made an appearance in my mouth. WTF?
But let’s roll this back for a post-mortem, a cold anatomy of embarrassment. How did it come to this? Even though I had already written twice about the Woodstock 50 preliminary lineup announcement, parsing it as best as I could for its surface and hidden messaging, my brilliant editor suggested that I take up Lang’s people on their open press offer of some Michael time. The window that the publicist specified was not only short; it was expired, by several days. I figured it would never happen.
Hours after I sent my inquiry to the not one, not two, but three implicated publicists and media groups (Woodstock 50 is, if anything, a multiplayer affair), I received an unsigned and curt response in the affirmative. “Michael Lang will call you at Noon ET tomorrow.” It was all I could do not to respond in the same font and color, “I will answer my cellular telephone.”
At noon I was ready. My questions were clear on the page but fresher in my mind, themes already forming and awaiting Lang’s input to bring them to fruition. I felt the fine, neurological readiness for give and take, the precarious act of holding your own line as you also respond to the incoming data with plasticity and a willingness to end up somewhere other than where you were aimed. I felt poised for a great interview and even began to fantasize about Mr. Lang instructing his people to hire me on the spot, or – who knows? – maybe booking the Sweet Clementines for the third stage.
At 11:45 a.m. ET, my cellular telephone rang. A curt, professionally British woman informed me that Michael would be calling at 4 p.m. instead. Fine, I said, and had a day. When the cellular telephone rang again at precisely 4 and I pretended not to know who it was when I said “Hello?” I knew I was f*cked. What followed, on my end, was a very poor caricature of what would have happened for real at noon. Good thing Mr. Lang was gracious and patient as I told him all about himself.
I can barely comprehend the complexities that go into booking something like Woodstock 50, the players and their demands, the timing, the balances involved in putting together a lineup that is going to be scrutinized, interpreted, vetted as if it were a newly discovered Shakespeare play. Given those industry realities, is it even possible to prosecute a vision through the process? Do you feel you achieved the festival you wanted?
It isn’t everything I wanted to include, but you know acts book a tour a year ahead, sometimes even more, so not everybody is available when you’d like to have them. But overall, I’m very pleased with the lineup. I think it is amazing: multi-genre, multi-age. It is really everything that we wanted it to be.
What did you want it to be? What were some of your keynotes and keywords going in?
It was very much about diversity and about finding people who are engaged in the social issues that we are dealing with. The legs that Woodstock stands on are activism and sustainability. So, we want as many artists as possible to help us engage people in those issues. That was a major consideration. A lot of the artists that we have are very vocal about social issues and have their own issues that they are especially concerned with. But overall, I wanted it to be an amazing array of great music.
In a formal statement, you wrote: “Woodstock 1969 was a reaction by the youth of its time to the conditions we faced,” implying that to be true to the spirit of the original, Woodstock 50 has to respond in different ways to different conditions. I read that as you preparing the old guard – your generation – to expect a festival that is more about the broad cultural function of the original concert than the narrow facts of it. You know, warning us that is not NostalgiaFest 50 and that many of the acts will have lots of MacBooks and no guitars.
It’s basically a show for young people. We certainly wanted to have all generations involved, but the focus is on the people who are going to save our bacon, as the saying goes, in the future: the kids who are going to inherit the problems and hopefully be part of the solutions.
You booked the Zombies!
We were really thrilled to get them.
When I first watched the Woodstock movie years ago, I remember thinking that it was your calm amidst the chaos, your composure and nonchalance, that made everything seem okay, seem normal. Is composure your superpower? Do you even feel the stress?
It’s weird, but the weirder things get, the calmer I get. It’s just my nature, I guess.
I am probably not the first to notice the conspicuous absence of major ’90s-associated acts in this lineup, i.e., the acts that were featured in the two ’90s iterations of the festival – no headliners on the order of Green Day, Weezer, Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters et cetera. Was this intentional at all?
It wasn’t just by accident. We are returning to our roots, and the reasons Woodstock happened in the first place. It was something of its time and of the conditions we were facing that brought us all together. In a lot of ways, we seem to be moving backwards, with what’s going on with Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement, and global warming and the fact that we have a government that seems to want to ignore it. So, we’ve gone back to that original motivation, and we look at acts from those days and acts from these days, and that is kind of what this one is about.
So, no Beatles again?