He was the man behind Woodstock. But as synonymous as his name became with the music festivals (there were three in total), his subsequent Woodstock iterations didn’t fare so well. We all know the history of Woodstock ’69 and how no one was prepared for the festival (billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music”) to draw 400,000 people to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.
The miracle that was Woodstock deluded Lang and made him think a trilogy was what the people needed. But Woodstock ’94 and ’99 were sh*t shows. And what was supposed to be Woodstock 50 was canceled, and Lang went down a path of lawsuits and controversies. A few years later, he died.
The Face of Woodstock
Michael Lang, with his curly afro and fringed vests, was only 24 when he became the face of Woodstock. Although he promoted other festivals (before and after Woodstock), nothing compares to the “Three Days of Peace and Music,” held between August 15 and 18, 1969. When acts like Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young show up to your festival, lives will indeed change.
“There’s a moment when Michael Lang changed the world,” John Sebastian, frontman of Lovin’ Spoonful, told Rolling Stone. Sebastian was there, standing next to Lang when one of his “minions” came running toward him to give him the news…
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
“The fence is down. Folks are coming over the top,” the minion told Lang, who then looked around at the scenario before his eyes, and said aloud, “Well, I guess we now have a free festival.” No one was prepared for what was about to take place.
Neither Lang nor his partner Artie Kornfeld were fazed by the rain that turned the ground to mud or the rush of bodies that stormed in, forcing the event to become “a free concert from now on.” During the festival, Lang told a reporter, “Everybody pulls together, and everybody helps each other. And it works.” He then laughed when he declared the event “a financial disaster.”
A Brooklyn Kid With Epic Dreams
Lang, a Brooklyn kid, dropped out of New York University, moved to Miami and started working at a head shop in Miami. It was there that he began organizing concerts. He co-produced 1968’s Miami Pop Festival (featuring The Jimi Hendrix Experience, John Lee Hooker, and Chuck Berry).
He then teamed up with Kornfeld, who was vice president of Capitol Records at the time. Their original plan was to open a recording studio near Woodstock in New York’s Hudson Valley, which was becoming a counter-culture magnet ever since Bob Dylan had settled there after his motorcycle crash. Lang and Kornfeld soon decided that a massive festival would be the next best move.
Landing on Yasgur’s Farm
A music festival was their way of promoting not just the area but their ideals. Lang, Kornfeld, and their business partners John Roberts and Joel Rosenman started Woodstock Ventures. Through a network of friends, they managed to get the heir to a denture cream fortune to fund their financing.
The goal: to put on a music festival like no other. All their planned locations fell through, so the four businessmen finally found a 600-acre farm that belonged to Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer in Bethel, New York (you can go ahead and sing the lyric from Joni Mitchell’s song Woodstock now).
Hope for the Hippies
In 2004, Woodstock officially earned a spot on Rolling Stone’s “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.” In 2009, Lang told Rolling Stone, “Woodstock came at a really dark moment in America,” which made it a beacon of hope for many young people.
“We thought we were all individual, scattered hippies,” David Crosby related in 2004. “When we got there, we said, ‘Wait a minute, this is a lot bigger than we thought.’” He and his band flew in by helicopter, witnessing the New York State Thruway at a standstill from above and the masses of people herding to the festival.
Like Aliens Landing in a Perfect Storm
“You couldn’t really wrap your mind around how many people were there” Crosby explained. “It had never happened before, and it was sort of like having aliens land.” Joan Baez, who was also on the roster, remembers the “mud and the cops roasting hot dogs and people wandering around in the nude.”
“It was like a perfect storm,” is how Baez described it, and Woodstock was “the eye of the hurricane.” But the performers and festivalgoers had their own perspectives, albeit different from each other. For Lang and his team, Woodstock was “a financial disaster,” despite the smiles on their faces when they discussed it in the 1970 documentary.
A Few Months Later… Altamont Happened
In the documentary, Lang said, “Look at what you got there. You couldn’t buy that for anything.” Graham Nash recognized that Lang “played an important role” in Woodstock and brought it “to the forefront of American music.”
If you know of Woodstock, then you know about the Altamont Free Concert that took place in California in December of 1969. Lang was recruited at the last minute to help organize what became a tragic event. You probably already know about the death that occurred during the concert.
Lack of Planning Created the “Horror Show”
Audience member Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death during the Rolling Stones’ set. Lang spoke about Altamont in 2014, saying that it was “a missed opportunity and the result of a lack of planning.” He explained how it was thrown together at the last minute, made a rushed relocation, “and really wasn’t thought throughout.”
The security, or lack there of, was in the hand of the Hells Angels, who “were pressed into a role they weren’t suited for.” What could have been a great day in music, Lang added, “degenerated into a horror show.”
Time for Two More Days of Peace and Music
By the time the ‘90s came, Lang was looking to go for Round 2 at Woodstock. On the festival’s 25th anniversary, Lang returned to Woodstock, but it was actually in Saugerties, New York, and not on Yasgur’s farm. This time, Woodstock ’94 was promoted as “2 More Days of Peace and Music.”
Times had changed since the ‘60s, so the ’94 lineup was somewhat of a “bridge” between the original one and the more contemporary music that people were listening to. Original acts, like Joe Cocker, Santana, and CSN, shared the stage with newer bands, like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Aerosmith, Metallica, and Nine Inch Nails.
Woodstock ’94 vs. Woodstock ‘69
“There were echoes of 1969 in upstate New York today,” reporter Kevin Newman said of the festival. While some things were “pretty much the same,” others were “very different.” The same? Joe Cocker was at both shows.
The truth is, very few fans at Woodstock ‘94 were around in 1969. Still, some things naturally reoccurred, like the mud. And yet, the experience of mud in ‘94 was different compared to ‘69. “Twenty-five years ago, concert-goers were forced to endure the stuff,” said reporter John Northcott. “Now, it’s an organized attraction.”
What’s Woodstock Without the Mud?
Just like in ’69, the ’94 fest also saw heavy rains “turn the farmer’s field into a quagmire,” said Northcott. Many concertgoers decided to go home early because of the mess. But lots of people viewed the mud as a “defining element.”
“Best time of my life,” said an attendee covered head-to-toe in mud. All the mud led to the festival being nicknamed “Mudstock.” The New York Times described it as “a sea of mud and trash and amid evidence of anarchy,” and the band Primus, which performed there, even had their song My Name Is Mud on the setlist.
Fence Hoppers and Injured Fans
Another similarity to the original fest was that in ’94 the fences also had come down and people got in for free. “I wish I didn’t waste 140 bucks on a ticket, because I just walked in and nobody looked at my ticket,” said one woman in a bikini top at the event.
There were quite a few downsides to the 25th anniversary event. There were over 1,000 injuries over the weekend. There was also the common complaint that the whole event was “overly commercialized.” A woman wearing a souvenir sweatshirt said she bought it for $45 (which would be $75 in 2021).
It Cost a Pretty Penny, Too
But it was “worth it,” she said. Let’s not forget that those who paid to get in already dished out $135 for tickets. And a three-day pass to the beer tent cost $250. Back in ’69, the three-day pass was only $18. The location, Saugerties’ Winston Farm, is about 100 miles away from Yasgur’s Farm.
Although the festival was equipped with drug dogs, a security brigade dubbed the “peace patrol,” and chain-link fences, festivalgoers smuggled food and drinks (and obviously drugs) over fences and through the bushes.
Half a Million People With FOMO
Half a million people flocked in from around the country; no one wanted to miss out on something great. It was said to have been even bigger than ‘69’s, with two stages and round-the-clock MTV coverage. Woodstock ‘94 also hosted two large stages that each held constant live music.
Speaking of once-in-a-lifetime moments, people got to participate in mile-long conga lines with half-naked people. These human trains couldn’t be stopped, either. If you were in the way, you were going to get trampled over by a train of muddy people chanting “Primus Sucks.”
The Third Time’s Not Always a Charm
It goes without saying that Woodstock ’94 was nowhere near as ground-breaking as its predecessor. Still, the 1994 fest — which was broadcast on MTV — led Lang and his team to host yet another Woodstock only five years later.
Woodstock was about to become a trilogy with Woodstock ’99, but the third time around was not a charm. If anything, the third concert came a lot closer to the chaos of Altamont than the peace and love of the first two festivals. “My takeaways from Woodstock ’99 are a bit complicated,” Lang said in an interview.
What Went Wrong With Woodstock ‘99?
Perhaps the better question would be what went right with Woodstock ‘99? According to Lang, people had “an amazing time” and there was “lots of amazing music,” but it was a scorching hot weekend. The festival, which took place in Rome, New York, was set up at an air force base (Griffiss) “where the heat was reflected from that tarmac” and became “really problematic.”
He described the music as being “kind of angry,” and the audience was “young and of the same headspace.” The 30th anniversary of Woodstock left Lang feeling “a little bit conflicted.”
Heat, Angst, and $4 Water Bottles
Woodstock ‘99 started out with good intentions, but it quickly spiralled into a chaotic, angsty debacle. Lang and his team were relying on the Woodstock brand to draw hundreds of thousands of people, who paid $150 per ticket. The heat, as Lang pointed out, truly was a factor.
The heat wave brought temperatures up to 100 degrees each day, and there was little shade from the sun−not to mention the long lines to the water fountains and the $4 water bottles. Fans lost their patience early on, not long after the gates first opened.
The (Relative) Calm Before the Storm
Festivalgoers – and there were about 200,000 of them – were dealing with heat stroke, dehydration, and exhaustion. The first day of the four-day event was a “Pre-show” with opening act type bands, and the second day was only a tad more eventful, with ’90s bands like Jamiroquai, Live, The Offspring and Bush hitting the stage.
Korn, which was at the height of its popularity, had an incredible set (the band calls it their best show ever) which highlighted the second day. But as soon as day three rolled around, things got dark. It started with all the garbage piling up…
Day Three Turned Dark
Garbage and plastic bottles were all over the grounds, and the portable toilets were quickly becoming unusable. If anything resembled the original Woodstock, it was the mud. But this was nothing like the hippie mud slides of ’69.
These were large mud pits that stemmed from frustrated hooligans who thought that destroying free water fountains was a good idea. The truth is there’s another common denominator among all the Woodstocks (and Altamont) – and that’s lack of proper planning and foresight to what can possibly – or easily – go wrong.
Kid Rock Fueled the Fire
Kid Rock, during his early afternoon set, chose to tap into the crowd’s frustration. “Now when we kick this beat in for the last time, I want to see every possible thing flying through the f***ing air, but nothing that can hurt each other. Plastic bottles let’s have some f***ing fun,” he shouted.
It may look cool from a distance, but in the crowd or on the stage, chances are you were getting water bottles to the head. The plastic eventually piled up into a mound, which is when Kid Rock and his band left the stage.
Fred Durst “Tried” to “Mellow” Them Out
Limp Bizkit was another band that lit up the stage at Woodstock ‘99. Whether they intended to have sh*it hit the fans or not, their set saw fans tearing sheets of plywood off of the production towers. Sheets of plywood were being passed over the crowd and fans were climbing up, surfing, and jumping into the masses.
Frontman Fred Durst tried to calm the audience down at one point, saying, “Mellow out, you insane crazy mother***ers.” But then, of course, their song Break Stuff only made things worse. People were using tarps as makeshift trampolines. Fans were literally flying through the air.
Limp Bizkit’s Set Was a Dark Chapter
By the time the flying water bottles were being filled with liquids (fans learned the bottles flew further with more liquid in them), staff and reporters were being called backstage to safety. Unsurprisingly, there were also numerous injured fans seeking medical attention.
After Bizkit walked off the stage (and Durst surfed the crowd on a piece of plywood) there was an announcement that things were getting “a little scary” and there are “hurt people here amongst you, we have to chill a little bit.” The worst part about it was the later discovery of reports of sexual assault and rapes during Bizkit’s performance.
The Candles Were a Bad Idea
Ironically, Rage Against the Machine played a focused set and the crowd was much calmer. By the time Metallica took the stage, the set occurred without much incident. That was the end of day three. The fourth and final day saw Jewel, Creed and the Red-Hot Chili Peppers play for a more sluggish crowd.
Things, however, went downhill (again) when an anti-violence group called PAX handed out thousands of candles to fans. They (maybe naively) didn’t expect people to outline their territories and even start small fires with them.
Utter Destruction Took Over
By the time the festival drew to a close, bonfires were scattered across the landscape. One of the production towers went up in flames, which happened to be around the time RHCP launched played a cover of – no kidding – Jimi Hendrix’s song Fire.
As people were leaving the festival, New York State Police were marching inside in full riot gear to control the crowd. The crowd turned into a bona fide riot with fans destroying 12 trailers, several vendor tents, delay towers, ATMs, and more.
Arrests, Rapes, and Millions in Damage
In the end, 44 people were arrested, four cases of rape were reported, 1,200 people were treated on-site by medical staff, and millions of dollars worth of damage was done. After all was said and done, the only thing that resembled the original Woodstock, other than the mud, some art, and the topless women, were two performers.
John Entwistle (of The Who) played a solo set, and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, who performed at the same time that Limp Bizkit was on. Many will say that Woodstock ‘99 was a failure. But Lang wasn’t deterred…
The Lawsuits That Followed
Some of you may have seen Netflix’s Trainwreck: Woodstock ’99, a docuseries about the chaos of the festival. For those who haven’t, it still won’t come as a surprise that Lang and his team faced lawsuits in the aftermath.
One of the first issues that needed to be dealt with was how hundreds of people were treated for heat exhaustion. One man, 24-year-old David DeRosia, collapsed at the concert and later died of heat stroke. In 2001, Lang was named as a co-defendant.
Were They Negligent?
According to the prosecution, the promoters and doctors were negligent; they didn’t provide enough fresh water and adequate medical care to the over 200,000 attendees. Lang has maintained that they provided plenty of water and Gatorade to the medical tents placed at the venue, and that they had opened additional cool-down facilities.
10 years later, prosecutors were still pursuing the lawsuit at the Supreme Court level. There were other lawsuits, too, that Lang and his co-promoters faced. One was a personal injury suit from 2000, filed by a 20-year-old.
Did They Provide Enough Security?
A young Virginia woman claimed that she was sexually assaulted at the festival and raped by three men. Lawyers claimed that Lang and his team didn’t provide adequate security for the sheer size of the crowd. Lang argued that the organizers did their best to maintain public safety.
By the time the mid-2010s came around, and once the aftermath of Woodstock ’99 mostly dissolved, Lang started envisioning a 50th anniversary. Was he failing to see the decline of his festivals? Or was he trying to fix the messes he made?
Was He Delusional?
“It just seems like it’s a perfect time for a Woodstock kind of reminder,” Lang told the New York Times. Whatever it was that was motivating Lang to keep making Woodstocks, the show never came to fruition.
The festival that was supposed to be held in Watkins Glen, New York on August 16 to 18, 2019 – exactly 50 years after the original — never materialized. And you can probably guess why. The project just hit one dead end after another. And apparently, Lang was the only one who truly believed in it.
Woodstock Gets Announced Only to Get Canceled
Not long after Woodstock 50 was revealed, one of the festival’s chief investors (international media company Dentsu Aegis) announced that it had been canceled. That’s when a whole legal battle began with Lang and other producers who ultimately let the project proceed.
Despite, or because of, their (illegal) effort in continuing with the fest, they kept hitting roadblocks. First, the venue nullified its contract. Then, one by one, the booked acts started dropping off the bill. A mere two weeks before it was scheduled to begin, Woodstock 50 was finally canceled.
The Burden of Being the Face of Woodstock
“I thought he bore that burden remarkably well,” Sebastian said of Lang being the face and name of Woodstock. “We would do these various Woodstock events, telling stories, and he had that smile – not tension, but a kind of sadness that’s part of knowing about life. I would see that now and then.”
After Woodstock 50 got canceled, Lang was asked if he was worried that the failure of the last fest had tainted the legacy of the brand. Lang replied, “It’s not something I consider… What we did in 1969 was in 1969 and that’s what has endured and will continue to endure. We’re not going away.”
RIP, Michael Lang
Well, Lang did go away. He died in January 2022 after battling a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 77. Lang, who was also a sculptor, is survived by his wife, Tamara Pajic, and his five children. His first wife, by the way, was a vocalist named Ann Lang, who toured as a backup singer with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell from 1978 to 1982.
It was before the pandemic hit that Lang was last seen publicly, which was around the time the 50th anniversary was marked by controversial “will they-or-won’t they” attempts.
What Went Wrong?
It looks like Lang spent his final years dealing with the aftermath of a failed venture. Like almost every other concert he promoted, Woodstock 50 took an unexpected turn. The truth is they had nearly every resource a music festival could ask for – the brand name, the finances, and the goodwill of the music industry.
So, where did it all go wrong? Lang began negotiations with Dentsu Aegis to finance the event, telling them that he was assuming there would be a crowd of 150,000. Dentsu, however, thought government permits would limit attendance to 60,000.
A Slow-Moving Trainwreck
Woodstock 50 was a “slow-moving trainwreck” as Rolling Stone put it. “You can’t ‘magic’ one of these [Woodstocks] into happening, and that’s what they tried to do with this,” David Crosby said. As opposed to the original, Woodstock 50 “had nothing to do with anybody feeling good about each other,” Crosby explained.
“It had to do with certain people making a huge amount of money. That’s a grubby way to start in the first place. It’s not a motivation that brings out the very best in people.”
The “Dreamer” Wanted a Racing Speedway
Photographer Baron Wolman, who’s known Lang since shooting the original festival, said that the problem is that Lang is a “dreamer” but he “doesn’t know how to activate or realize the dream.” After mentioning his dream of an anniversary in 2014, he started making serious moves in 2017.
He had his eyes on Watkins Glen International, the racing speedway in New York’s Finger Lakes region. It was the music venue back in 1973 for a concert named Summer Jam, which brought in 600,000 people to see the Allman Brothers, the Band, and the Grateful Dead.
No Experience, Only Cash
In November 2018, Dentsu joined forces with Woodstock 50 LLC, which was technically operated by Greg Peck and Susan Cronin. They had hired Lang as a producer to avoid any conflict of interest with his company, Woodstock Ventures (which owns rights to the name).
But Lang was basically the only one who had any experience in putting together a major music festival. All they had to rely on, in the beginning at least, was money. The contract with Dentsu Aegis showed that the financier would contribute up to $49.14 million to the festival.
The Dream Team Lineup
One month into the joint venture, communication problems began. But they did their best to brush that stuff aside. What was more important was getting artists on the lineup. From the get-go, Lang wanted an all-star lineup for headlining acts.
A 2018 document (released in court filings) showed a dream team list of target artists, which was broken into four tiers. At the top were Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen, along with “Drake (or Kendrick Lamar),” Bruno Mars, “Lady Gaga (or Pink or Katy Perry),” and “Stevie Wonder + Friends.” They also hoped for Green Day, My Morning Jacket, and a collaboration between Miley Cyrus and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.
Cracks in the Grand Plan
In the beginning, artists expressed excitement over the festival, but the ones who didn’t seem fully onboard were the ones putting up all the millions of dollars. Dentsu was starting to think that they were spending too much money – that producers were forcing Dentsu’s hand to pay artists they never agreed to book.
Slowly but surely, the cracks in the grand plan started to grow deeper. The first public cracks appeared in April, when the Black Keys dropped out, citing “scheduling conflicts.” But the truth is they were worried…
Artists Were Worried
The Black Keys’ Drummer Patrick Carney later told The New York Times, “We realized that we didn’t want our first show back to be in front of 150,000 people in a field without any control.… We only want to do stuff that actually is going to be enjoyable.”
Skepticism about the whole event was in the air, and the music industry was questioning if Lang was even up for the job of competing in the competitive 21st Century world of festivals (think Coachella). “Yeah, I heard all that,” Lang said, adding that he basically brushes those kinds of comments off. After all was said and done – and a lot was said and done – the festival never came to fruition. It’s safe to say that everyone involved was bummed out.