In the years he ran the Gypsy Wolf Mexican restaurant out on the Bearsville Flats, Bill Durkin said that he couldn’t count how many people asked him the eternal question: “Where was the Festival?” Durkin said he got so tired of the question that he took to pointing to the maybe 10-acre field across Route 212 from his establishment and telling them… “right there…it was right there…” and laughed as jaws dropped and people ran out to take photos…
I don’t know if Michael Lang ever heard that particular story, but he surely heard hundreds, probably thousands of tales of his monumental work, the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and how instrumental it was in shaping the lives of the Baby Boomer generation, in creating a musical context along with a host of icons to shepherd a generation shaped by war, political riots, assassinations of our heroes and leaders, but was nonetheless seeking empowerment.
Another of Woodstock’s many myths says that if you spend three nights in the shadow of Overlook Mountain, you will always come back. But if you ask people why they came here in the first place, you could point to the quiet guy with a Buddha-like smile, curly hair and twinkling eyes and his creation, an event that made worldwide history.
Yea, Michael Lang passed away on January 8, but not before taking us for a great ride on the Harley he rode up on in the movie before declaring a free festival back in ’69. Why did you come here? Well, hey man, it’s Woodstock!
There are stories of him producing a festival in Florida before Woodstock, but we’re talking solid pieces of legend here. I do remember (yes, I’m that old) the Original Sound Outs, summer of 1967, 1968, out in Pan Copeland’s field off of Glasco Turnpike, beautiful warm Catskill days and nights where, on a flatbed stage (or maybe it was freshly built pine) we heard up and coming artists like Jerry Jeff Walker with David Bromberg, Ritchie Havens, Happy and Artie, Colwell-Winfield Blues Band, Tim Hardin (with Gilles Malkine accompanying) and maybe long forgotten ones like Chrysalis, the immortal Cat Mother and the All Night Newsboys, Major Wiley. I even got a snippet of stage time myself.
Michael was there, I hear, captivated by the magic. From there the idea…the inevitability appeared. It would be called Woodstock!
But the town fathers, seeking to protect the bucolic artists community (forgetting how much upheaval those same artists had provoked in the 1920s and 1930s) said, no, not here, brother. And Michael wandered in the wilderness, rejection from Saugerties and Wallkill, too, until he landed at Yasgur’s, and it was on. The stories are well known. Maybe 50,000 would come. (More like 500,000.) Tickets were something like an astronomical $18 for all three days. Didn’t matter. Nobody had them anyway. The gates and fences went down and Michael smiled. I don’t know if partners Rosenman, Roberts and Kornfeld smiled. Probably not so much.
But from the time Ritchie Havens cranked up ‘Freeeeedommm!’ to Hendrix’ Anthem on Monday morning it soared, taking on a larger significance, and a more significant hunk of worldwide attention every moment. The list of artists was stupendous and careers were carved out of Woodstock clay.
The movie is still watched, the music is still heard regularly. Michael Lang moved on.
He produced a concert at the Berlin wall after it came down. Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties finally featured Bob Dylan, along with nineties artists. Woodstock ’99 at the old air force base in Rome, NY, didn’t come off well.
He managed Joe Cocker, Billy Joel…and tried for a 50th Anniversary Concert, but wandered again and couldn’t find the right venue.
He got involved with the Woodstock Film Festival in the early 2000s, and in 2011 was named the extraordinary Festival’s first Spirit of Woodstock award winner. In 2019, the Muhammed Ali Foundation in Louisville honored Michael with its Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to peace. He and Holly George Warren together wrote The Road To Woodstock, a New York Times bestseller.
I only knew him a little. We had a cadre of individuals that would go up to Leon Gast’s (RIP dear Leon) house to watch boxing and we’d hang there, and then I’d only see him on the street in the town where we both have lived for some 50-odd years now, for a brief hello. But to be a Woodstocker is to be one who has been touched by Michael Lang. You don’t have to be living here, you can be a citizen of New Paltz, Costa Rica or Japan or Australia or Russia and still be a Woodstocker…and that’s because of Michael Lang.
Thank you, Michael. Sleep well.
Michael Lang dies at age 77
Michael Lang, organizer of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair (as well as the 1994 sequel) and longtime Woodstock resident, died of cancer January 8. He was 77.
A family spokesperson said he died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City after a battle with a rare form of Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
He is survived by his wife Tamara and his five children — Shala, Lariann, Molly, Harry and Laszlo.
A photographer’s point of view
I hate it when people I’ve photographed get divorced or worse, die. As a photographer documenting time in a town where I have lived for over 30 years… these kinds of changes are happening more often and they won’t be stopping.
Michael Lang — I didn’t know him well but photographed him over the years for stories about the Woodstock festivals, past present or would it be again in the future?
Always that question living in Woodstock.
I appreciated Michael. He was always pleasant, quick with a smile, easy for a photo, even when the interview was yet another replay of the same questions being asked.
Seeing him drive down the road or walking through town (in the days when we did that) confirmed that, yes, this is Woodstock. There is the myth of Woodstock, and there is the town, and both exist.
What a destiny Michael had in creating something that touched so many people and fed the creative souls of many artists and people of that generation onward.
I am sorry he is gone. Too soon. Too tragic.
We never know how the story of life will end. This one was truly a sad surprise.
— Dion Ogust