Woodstock producer Michael Lang at the 1969 Woodstock Festival site. He died on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022 from complications of lymphoma in New York City.
Michael Lang, the longtime Ulster County resident and driving force behind the staging of the 1969 Woodstock festival, who changed the trajectory of rock music and the live music experience while hosting a half million people for the 1960s counterculture’s milestone moment, died on Saturday, Jan. 8. He was 77.
According to Lang’s obituary, he died of complications from lymphoma in New York City.
Lang staged the Woodstock music festival with three partners, but since August 1969 had remained the public face of the famous gathering and its enduring ideals of peace, love and music. The festival was staged in Bethel, Sullivan County, but it was planned in the Town of Woodstock, in Ulster County.
Held in the year following the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Woodstock unfolded against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and expanding divisions that continued to fracture the nation on political, generational, economic and racial fault lines. Culturally, the concert landed on the opposite end of the spectrum, away from the violence and uncertainty that defined much of the 1960s.
Woodstock was far from a financial or organizational success: major roads were shut down by concert traffic and festival-goers contended with rain, mud and logistical problems never encountered before, because a concert on the scale of Woodstock had never been held.
But the four-day Woodstock concert was also a moment for the counterculture to assemble and show the nation and world’s political leaders how they wanted to, needed to and would be heard. The counterculture took a stand at Woodstock and the movement’s crowning achievement unfolded against a soundtrack from top performers of the day, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, Sly & the Family Stone and The Who.
‘’We are greatly saddened at the news of the passing of Michael Lang, one of the original organizers of Woodstock,’’ said Bethel Woods CEO Eric Frances. ‘’Michael’s role as a visionary behind the festival has left an indelible mark on history. In an interview given to the Museum in 2006, Michael said: ‘What’s important about [Woodstock] is, I think, that it proves that it’s possible. It proves that there is another way for the world to function and for people to relate to each other; it’s proof. And that’s something to aspire to.’”
The legacy of the 1969 Woodstock festival is the legacy of Michael Lang.
“Woodstock was an opportunity, a moment, a home we had all been waiting for and working toward,” Lang wrote in his 2009 best-selling autobiography, “The Road to Woodstock,” co-authored with Phoenicia resident and SUNY New Paltz Professor Holly George-Warren.
“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,” Lang wrote. “How would we do when we were in charge? Could we live as the peaceful community we envisioned? I’d hoped we could. From the beginning, I believed that if we did our job right and from the heart, prepared the ground and set the right tone, people would reveal their higher selves and create something amazing. Woodstock came to symbolize our solidarity.”
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Woodstock also featured Joan Baez, Country Joe and the Fish, Crosby, Stills and Nash & Young, Carlos Santana, John Sebastian, Ravi Shankar, The Band and Arlo Guthrie, some of whom were early in what would become long and prolific careers.
Lang’s obituary also detailed Woodstock’s enduring impact on music and concert production. “With lighting and sound innovations by Chip Monck and Bill Hanley respectively, security, and recording and video technologies … were born at Woodstock and continue to this day,” it reads.
Organizer Michael Lang speaks to journalists at the Woodstock 25th anniversary concert August 13, 1994 at Winston Farm in Saugerties, New York. (Photo by Remi Benali/Liaison)
A Town of Woodstock resident for decades, Lang was an unassuming guy spotted fairly regularly out in the community, dining at Bread Alone Café and attending screenings during the Woodstock Film Festival, for which he served as a member of the advisory board.
And though the Town of Woodstock has a long history with the arts that pre-dates the 1969 festival by many, many years, it was the Woodstock Music and Art Fair that has shaped the famous community’s personality, its economy, its lure as a tourism destination, and the businesses that anchor its daily commerce. The Woodstock candle store is called Candlestock and its sign includes the phrase, “Peace, Love & Light.” There is a cupcake spot called Peace, Love & Cupcakes.
Lang also managed musicians, including Billy Joel and Joe Cocker.
Many remember Lang from the Academy Award-wining documentary about the 1969 Woodstock festival. He appeared throughout the film wearing a vest and riding a BSA motorcycle around the festival grounds — an alfalfa farm in Bethel, New York that is now home to Bethel Woods Center for the Arts.
But many will also remember him for Woodstock ’99, the 30th anniversary Woodstock festival he staged at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, Oneida County, New York.
The final night of that gathering was marred by riots and fires. Lang in his autobiography wrote, “During the performances of acts like Limp Bizkit, Korn and Rage Against the Machine, the mosh pit was a scary sight. The audience surfing got pretty aggressive, and we were horrified to later find out that incidents of women being molested had been reported.”
State Senate Assistant Minority Leader Joseph Griffo (R-Rome) told the Poughkeepsie Journal in 2019 that Lang’s plan for Woodstock ’99, for the most part, was done “very well.”
“There are always things you could do differently,” Griffo, who was mayor of Rome when Woodstock ’99 was held, told the Poughkeepsie Journal. “The concert went very well. Everything went well until the very end. Things happen. Any criminal activity is unacceptable.”
Lang also staged a 25th anniversary Woodstock concert on the Winston Farm property in Saugerties, where he had originally wanted to hold the 1969 festival. Woodstock ’94 brought together the Woodstock Nation and the MTV generation and featured show-stopping performances from Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Green Day, who were among the dozens of bands to perform.
“In true Woodstock style, the communal spirit lived, it rained like hell, Mud People abounded, and Woodstock ’94 made money for everyone but us,” Lang wrote in his autobiography.
Lang’s obituary acknowledges that “the magic of the original Woodstock could not be duplicated,” though one concert Lang produced approached the importance of Woodstock 69. Held in Berlin the night after the Berlin Wall fell, it brought people from both West and East Berlin together for the first time in a generation. Lang, along with singer Joe Cocker, helped negotiate with the East German authorities for the right to produce a concert on the east side of the wall.
Plans for a 50th anniversary Woodstock concert in 2019 were announced with great fanfare. But the festival failed to gain traction because of a lack of permits, the changing of venues, and lawsuits and disputes between Lang and his Woodstock 50 team, and the festival’s backer, Dentsu Aegis.
“Lang’s desire for a 50th anniversary celebration was a personal disappointment,” his obituary notes, adding that in September 2019, the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to peace.
Michael Lang grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, according to his book. His father installed heating systems and his mother kept the books for the family business. Lang like millions of American kids grew up listening to rock and roll — Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bill Haley and the Comets.
Lang was the only one in his family who played an instrument and he joined a rock and roll band, as the drummer, at age 12. He also played drums in his school band but, he wrote, “marching and uniforms were not for me.”
As a kid, he spent summers attending camp in Sullivan County, where he would stage Woodstock as an adult. During winters, the Lang family would take road trips to Miami and Canada.
In 1962, he enrolled at New York University while still in his senior year of high school. After transfering out to the University of Tampa and then enrolling again at NYU, he finally dropped out of college in 1965, moved to Miami and opened a head shop, which, Lang wrote in his book, became, “the hub of the Miami underground.” He hosted live music at his shop and expanded that endeavor to promote larger shows with musicians that included Ravi Shankar.
This led Lang, with a partner, to stage the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 with Chuck Berry, the Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among other acts. It drew a crowd of 25,000.
A year later, Hendrix would deliver a show-stopping performance to close out the Woodstock festival. His iconic, instrumental performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” on solo electric guitar remains, more than 50 years later, a defining moment of the 1960s.
After staging the Miami Pop Festival, Lang wrote in his book, “I thought it was time to head to back New York. Ninety miles north of the city, Woodstock had become a magnet for musicians. I remembered its small-town, artsy vibe from when we used to visit there in the fifties. The town had a history of attracting artists and bohemians. My girlfriend Sonya and I decided to check it out for ourselves.”
Woodstock Film Festival Executive Director Meira Blaustein posted on Facebook about Lang: “I loved you so very much.”
Hudson Valley Film Commission founder and Woodstock Film Festival co-founder Laurent Rejto said of Lang on Facebook: “I will remember Michael Lang as a loving father and a family man, first and foremost. I’ll miss his sweetness, kind demeanor and his Peter Pan spirit. He was always so nice to my kids.”
Steve Bohn of Ulster Park, the former manager of a Starbucks on Massa Drive in the Town of Ulster, said Lang would come into the café several times a month, order a classic espresso drink, take a seat and flip through the New York Times while seeming perfectly fine that nobody recognized him.
Bohn enjoyed having Lang in the cafe, and, if there was an interesting concert coming up in the Hudson Valley, he would mention it to Lang. Bohn recalls Lang thinking that the 2017 Bob Dylan concerts at Hutton Brickyards in Kingston, staged by the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie, was a cool idea.
“He was always patient and usually conversational,” Bohn recalled.