Michael Lang Goes Back To The Garden
Following a valiant battle with a rare form of cancer, the renowned and controversial Woodstock co-founder passed away on January 8 at 77
Woodstock co-founder and music industry impresario Michael Lang died on January 8th following his battle with a rare form of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He was 77.
Before gaining renown and infamy for his role in the Woodstock trilogy of concerts, Lang ran a head shop in Florida. His first foray into concert promotion came about in his involvement with the May 1968 Miami Pop Festival, which drew 25,000 attendees with a line-up that included included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Mothers of Invention, Blue Cheer, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Blues Image.
Yet it was when Lang relocated to Woodstock, NY, and linked up with fellow co-founders John Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and John P Roberts, did he cement his legacy with the iconic Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held on a hot, wet August weekend in 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, about 40 miles southwest of the town of Woodstock in neighboring Sullivan County.
If you are reading this site, you don’t need a recap of Woodstock; you already know.
VIDEO: Amplified Woodstock documentary
Yet in light of Lang’s passing, it’s hard for many of us to ignore just how much his legacy has been tarnished by the shit show that was Woodstock ’99. I remember it all too well, being on the ground that weekend covering the festival for SPIN.com at the time. On her new album, Debbie Gibson declares that The Body Remembers. Well, my poor flat feet will never forget the jellyfish-sized blisters I accrued walking up and down that hot cement tarmac in Rome, NY. If not for the press badges we received that allowed us special on-site parking–allowing us the luxury of crashing in the car instead of muddy fecal matter–I never would have survived the weekend.
But there were over 400,000 people in attendance risking dysentery after the porta potties overflowed into the trough of potable water made available for attendees. So if you wanted to drink clean water so necessary for surviving a weekend walking from one end of an old military base to another, you had to cough up $4 for a 20 oz. bottle of Poland Spring. We were there until the bitter end, witnessing all of Lord of the Flies chaos unfold before high tailing it out there before it became actual Hell on Earth.
VIDEO: Woodstock ’99 Trailer
And when you pair that with the smug laissez-faire reaction by which Lang and the other organizers had towards the pandemic of sex crimes inflicted upon many of the women in attendance (especially on that HBO documentary), its hard to shed a tear for this guy. I’ll give him Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, which might have been corporatized beyond the hippie dreams of the original festival but featured some of the concert series’ best performances by Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Bob Dylan, Melissa Etheridge and Blind Melon among others–albeit sponsored by Pepsi and Apple.
Beyond the foibles, however, his work as a concert promoter and music impresario should never be denied when you consider how much the Woodstock Nation he helped build would go on to define the last 50 years of pop culture and live music. Every significant large capacity music festival organized in the last half century owe Lang a great debt of gratitude for being the first man to forage such opportunities for the concert industry heading into the 1970s where giant festivals were becoming more commonplace.
This morning on Facebook I was also recently reminded of Lang’s crucial presence in the very town for which his mighty vessel was named. It was a lovely remembrance from Morning Becomes Eclectic mastermind Nic Harcourt, who was the influential music director of Woodstock’s own FM rock station WDST at the time of the 1994 concert.
“If you spent any real time in Woodstock these past 50 years, you knew Michael,” he wrote. “He was the visionary who put together the original @woodstock festival in 1969, and the 90’s reboot and anniversary shows. But more than that Michael was an artist manager and an integral part of the community and town of Woodstock, and he cared about the town and its artists.
VIDEO: Green Day at Woodstock ’94
“When the ‘94 festival was first proposed. I along with the rest of the team at Radio Woodstock 100.1 WDST immediately got behind the project, and I believe helped bring it to fruition through our support in the community. I will never forget our meetings with Michael, securing opening slots for a handful of local unsigned bands for the first day. My memories of Michael are of a kind, incredibly driven man. Whenever I have been in town these past 24 years (since I left) I would often see him briefly on the street, and always with that smile. Woodstock and his friends around the world will miss you Michael. 🦄”
A planned Woodstock 50 festival in 2019 was cancelled after a series of permit and production issues, venue relocations, and artist cancellations, adding even more cracks to the foundation of the Lang legacy in the wake of the ’99 debacle.
But it’s kind eulogies offered by the likes of Mr. Harcourt and Woodstock icon Carlos Santana that remind us just how loved and appreciated he was by those whose lives he touched on a personal level.
“Michael Lang was a divine architect of unity & harmony,” Santana wrote in a statement. “He gave birth to Woodstock, the festival that manifested 3 glorious days of peace & freedom. He will no doubt be orchestrating another celestial event in Heaven. Thank you Maestro. You and Bill Graham are now united in the light of our divinity and are supreme love.”
Michael is survived by his wife Tamara, their sons Harry and Laszlo, and his daughters LariAnn, Shala and Molly.
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3 thoughts on “Michael Lang Goes Back To The Garden”
Beautiful obituary. I loved reading these tributes. And the ’99 debacle and Woodstock 50 problems … None of it matters when compared to the lasting legacy and all that the enduring ideas of “Woodstock” — freedom and art and collaboration and upstate awesomeness — have meant for over 50 years now. That’s a good reminder for anyone seeking to be remembered for moments of grace rather than setbacks.
Thank you Ken!
Thank you, Ron for this beautiful tribute to Michael Lang.
I particularly enjoyed the original Woodstock Documentary, 3 Days That Changed Everything,
plus that great ’69 playlist!