Michael Lang, the co-creator and organizer of 1969’s Woodstock Music and Art Fair, and its follow-ups Woodstock ’94 and the ill-fated Woodstock ’99, died Saturday at the age of 77 at Sloan Kettering in New York City. The cause of death was a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to family spokesperson Michael Pagnotta.
He last appeared publicly just before the COVID pandemic hit around the 50th anniversary of the festival, which was marked by controversial will they-or-won’t attempts to stage a Woodstock 50 festival that played out in the press.
Lang was born in Brooklyn. He attended college in New York City and then jumped into concert promotion in his late 60s. He was responsible for the first multi-artist event, the 1968 Miami Pop Festival. This festival featured Jimi Hendrix as well as Frank Zappa and John Lee Hooker.
Woodstock, New York, was where he moved to start a three-day festival. Woodstock, co-founded with John Rosenman and Artie Kornfeld, was created by John P. Roberts and John P. Roberts. The event, which attracted some 400,000 people to a Bethel, New York farm owned and managed by Max Yasgur, is considered one of music’s most significant events. New York State’s Thruway to be closedMany people left their cars abandoned and used other means to get to the festival grounds.
Woodstock was held at a time when the United States was experiencing great social upheaval. Many thousands of American youth were drafted in Vietnam and then killed in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile back at home, the hippie movement was influencing art, fashion, film and music, as the tagline to the festival — “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music” — illustrates.
The festival exceeded all expectations — and everyone’s worst case scenarios — when a mini-city spontaneously erected to take in the tunes, and many mind-altering substances, throughout the three-day showcase. The Grateful Dead and The Who were among the 30+ bands that performed on the bill. Lang is featured in a 1970 soundtrack album and documentary film that details the weather problems, scheduling issues, and general lack of preparation for what would be the most important cultural moment of the 1960s.
Over the three days, there were many drugs consumed. Lang recalls one incident. Variety, when Jerry Garcia passed some acid to Carlos Santana, who thought he had several hours before he had to perform, and then was rushed onstage, high as a kite, only to deliver one of the weekend’s most compelling performances.
“He battled that guitar because he thought it was a serpent,”Lang.
Woodstock, as a pop-culture phenomenon and a baby boomer right of passage, would last many years beyond 1969. The timeless punchline that Robin Williams, comedian, and many others will use in the future decades is a great example of this: “If you can remember Woodstock, you probably weren’t there.”
It was also immortalized in song, notably Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Woodstock”Take a look at the 1970 album “Deja Vu,”Even as recent as 2017, Lana Del Rey’s song was released “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.”
Woodstock was so well-known that Lang was able stage two anniversary shows. In 1994, to mark its 25th birthday, Lang co-produced Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, NY, about 70 miles from the original Bethel site. Mudstock was born after the second day and third days of Mudstock were marred by torrential rainstorms, turning much of the festival field into a huge mud pit. Primus, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, and Green Day also remember being drenched in mud and having it thrown at them by the crowd. The line-up included both legacy acts such as Santana and Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joe Cocker and John Sebastian. It also featured contemporary alt-rock artists like the Cranberries and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Another commemoration of the festival, Woodstock ’99, was held at a third site altogether, in Rome, NY, and drew about 400,000 attendees in person and many more who watched via pay-per-view. While shy of the gate-crashing and mass muddiness of the ’94 festival, the festival made news for the violence and vandalism of the audience, with Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff”The festival’s unofficial theme song, but it was not meant to be an emblem of peace and love. Although none of the 1969 Woodstock original artists were granted complete sets, some musicians did return to be part of other bands. The festival was a mix of hip-hop and modern music, with performances by Rage Against the Machine (DMX), Kid Rock and Dave Matthews Band as well as a few veteran performers. Lang faced difficulties when Lang tried to stage a fourth Woodstock Festival in 2019, due to the persistent bad taste about commercialism and reports regarding sexual assault.
In 2019, Lang’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to produce a 50th anniversary Woodstock festival suffered a series of insurmountable setbacks after announcing a bill of heavy hitters that was to include Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus and Dead and Company performing Aug, 16-18 in Watkins Glen, NY. Backers of the Woodstock 50 festival — financial partner Dentsu and its investment division Amplifi — pulled their support in April after an initial investment of more than $32 million, setting off lawsuits. But Lang’s biggest problem was getting permits from local authorities, which were short in coming even after a change of location and a capacity finally set at a lowly 75,000 before Lang finally gave in and pulled the plug.
Lang spoke of the demise of it when he was speaking to VarietyAugust 2019, “It was just one bizarre thing after another, but I definitely feel lighter.”
Lang is survived by his wife Tamara, their sons Harry and Laszlo, and his daughters LariAnn, Shala and Molly.