Michael Lang calls hosting 600,000 strangers “the best time of my life, outside of family [events] . . . We made the dream happen — showing that people could live compassionately together — and we made it all up as we went along.”
Lang co-organized and promoted the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in the summer of 1969, in Bethel, NY. One of the all-time great cultural happenings, the three-day-long concert attracted a small city’s worth of fans to see performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Now Lang, 74, has put together a book of rarely seen photos from the festival. “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music” (Reel Art Press), out Tuesday, reveals that it wasn’t all good karma and rainbows. There was also plenty of mischief, skinny-dipping, public fornication — and trash.
“[It] became a celebration of what the ’60s stood for: Peace, love and a hell of a lot of fun,” he said. And although the festival earned no money, “Thousands of people have told me that Woodstock changed their lives. That is gratifying.”
Here’s a time trip to 50 years ago.
Originally the festival was scheduled to take place in a Wallkill, NY, industrial park. But, said Lang, “We got thrown out by people who were afraid of being invaded by hordes of hippies.”
Just one month before showtime, the promoters struck a deal to rent the 600-acre farm of Max Yasgur, 45 miles away in Bethel. (Cost: $ 70,000.)
“Max’s was a milk farm and there were cows wandering around from neighboring properties,” recalled Lang. “This kid [above] crossed over the wire fence to get a glass of milk directly from one of the cows. I assume that the people watching are city kids getting their first taste of country life.”
In conceiving Woodstock, Lang and his partners hoped to create an uninhibited atmosphere. Nowhere was this more evident than at Filippini Pond, located on a farm adjacent to Yasgur’s and owned by one William Filippini.
“On Thursday night [before the festival was to begin the next morning], upon realizing that we would be getting more of a crowd than expected, we rented Mr. Filippini’s land. The lake was our water supply — we purified the water — and it was like a beach where you wore no clothes,” Lang said.
“Mr. Filippini went to bed [on Thursday] and woke up to find a lot more people than he expected. He was a little shocked to see a couple making love on his porch, but he handled it well.”
John Sebastian had been the Lovin’ Spoonful’s singer and guitarist until going solo in early 1969. While changing planes in Albany that summer, he ran into a group — Lang thinks it was the Incredible String Band — that was en route to Woodstock.
“John decided to come down with the other group. He set up a tent in the artists’ compound and was just hanging out. After an on-and-off rain day, he was standing on the stage and Chip [Monck, lighting director] asked if he would do a few songs. The stage was wet and we couldn’t set up an electric band. John was tripping pretty heavily at the time and asked if he had to. Chip said, ‘Yeah, you have to.’ John borrowed an acoustic guitar from Country Joe [McDonald], grabbed Chip’s hand and held it [when he wasn’t playing] for most of the set. It was the biggest crowd he ever played in front of.”
Sebastian performed gratis but other acts were well-compensated. The top rate, $ 15,000, went to bands such as The Who, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jefferson Airplane. “Jimi Hendrix got paid $ 30,000 for two sets, one that was supposed to be acoustic,” said Lang.
“But [his acoustic set] was forgotten in the mix and he still received $ 30,000.” Playing only the second show of their career, Crosby, Stills & Nash received $ 10,000, as did the the Grateful Dead. The bargain of the festival: a relatively untested Santana played for only $ 1,500, which, Lang said, was the lowest rate paid.
“Joe Cocker was a surprise,” said Lang, who heard the singer on a cassette tape but had never seen him perform.
“I thought he was an amazing, black, blues singer — and then here comes this crazy Englishman. Joe had so much power and emotion on stage. He went on right before the big rainstorm. Then he came off stage, looked up at the clouds and said, ‘Did I do that?’ ”
Other English performers embraced the spirit of Woodstock less successfully. Lang remembers Pete Townshend of The Who being particularly grumpy: “He didn’t want to be there and complained about all the hippies And the band wanted to be paid the balance of their fee before going on stage.”
Then the political revolutionary Abbie Hoffman — “probably high on acid,” figured Lang — wandered on stage as the band performed and “Pete swatted him on the head with his guitar. I heard that Abbie appeared at the hospital in Monticello the next day and was pretending to be me.”
“This is a perfect example of turning lemons into lemonade,” said Lang of the “huge” Sunday rainstorm that transformed the farm into a muddy swamp.
“The storm was intense, with winds of 60 or 70 miles an hour,” he added. When it finally dissipated, “everyone began banging on cans and chanting, ‘No rain! No rain!’ ”
But even the mud got leveraged into an asset.
“People made a party out of it. They turned a mudslide into a game and just had fun playing,” Lang recalled. “Then, after rolling around in the mud, you took a dip in the [Filippini Pond] and got cleaned up.”
“When it all ended, after three days, there were kids who thought they would live at Woodstock forever,” said Lang. “They stayed and helped us clean up — and a few never did leave. Some of the Woodstock attendees wound up moving to the area.”
The end of the festival meant returning to reality for Lang, however.
“That day, I had to go down to our bank on Wall Street and face the music. We had spent a lot more than intended. I remember flying down in a helicopter. We took off over the site and I saw a giant peace sign that the kids had made of garbage. The cleanup took three or four weeks.”