No use trying to ignore the 40th anniversary of Woodstock this August: the nostalgia machine is already in high gear. Newly arrived or en route are books, CDs, DVDs, even an Ang Lee film—Taking Woodstock, to be released August 14—based on the memoirs of an amusing bit player in the Woodstock saga. And more than a year has passed since The Woodstock Museum opened its doors on the hallowed concert site.
For once, though, the media deluge seems justified. Woodstock really was a seminal event for an entire generation—even for those who were nowhere near the festival itself (among them Joni Mitchell, who still managed to write a haunting song about it). In The Road to Woodstock, written with Holly George-Warren, festival mastermind Michael Lang describes the phenomenon: "Over that August weekend, during a very tumultuous time in our country, we showed the best of ourselves, and in the process created the kind of society we all aspired to, even if only for a brief moment."
Yet The Road to Woodstock is not so much about the big picture. It's the story behind the story, the nitty-gritty of how Lang and his three partners, all young and relatively inexperienced, pulled off a historic event—the "Three Days of Peace and Music" (the festival's official slogan) that attracted a crowd estimated at half a million strong. It's a story peopled by venture capitalists, talent managers, lawyers, county supervisors, town-board members, dairy farmers, security cops, construction crews, concert promoters, hippies, Yippies, and, yes, extraordinary musicians. It's about porta-potties and pesticides, good drugs and bad drugs, traffic jams and mud—lots and lots of the latter.
Lang's personal journey to Woodstock began as a Brooklyn teen drawn to the folk scene in Greenwich Village. After intermittently attending NYU, he moved to Miami and opened a head shop in Coconut Grove that attracted underground luminaries such as Timothy Leary and Jerry Garcia. Inspired by the Monterey Pop Festival, Lang and a friend staged the Miami Pop Festival (featuring Jimi Hendrix, among others), a kind of dry run for what was to come. Moving back to New York, Lang gravitated upstate to Woodstock, long known as a bohemian enclave and mecca for musicians. There he and Artie Kornfeld, a Capitol Records executive who would become one of his partners, hatched the idea of a festival, inspired in part by the Soundouts—open-air summer concerts in the area featuring three or four artists on a makeshift stage.
Michael Lang is an amiable companion on these pages, if not a particularly compelling one. But his story gains momentum as the problems that beset the Woodstock festival threaten to rage out of control. In the end, his account is an enjoyable read and a useful addition to the history of the counterculture.
In fact, Lang's mild manner would prove an invaluable asset in the harrowing run-up to the big concert. As one member of his Woodstock team says in the book, "Michael's demeanor remained unflappable through just about everything. You could rant and rave at Michael…and he absorbed it like a sponge and stayed cool." Perhaps the greatest crisis he faced came just weeks before the festival was slated to begin, when the good people of Wallkill, New York—fearing a hippie bacchanal—belatedly declined to host the event on their land. That necessitated a desperate last-minute search for a new venue, which ended when a sympathetic dairy farmer named Max Yasgur (immortalized in Mitchell's lyrics) was persuaded to hold the festival on his property in Bethel.
There were many other moments: plans to sell tickets at the concert fell by the wayside—in the end there were no fences, no gates, no ticket booths—and Woodstock became a mostly free concert. (Some tickets had been sold in advance.) Then there was the revolt of the Yippie underground, led by the legendary Abbie Hoffman (whom Lang deftly co-opted), and a last-minute extortion ploy by New York City cops hired to provide security. And let's not forget nature itself: the festival was plagued by brutal rainstorms, which created mud-soaked campsites and made mass electrocution a real threat.
The artists were as mercurial as the weather. The Who's Pete Townshend, Lang tells us, had to be badgered all night by two Lang associates before he would allow his band to perform: "By 4 or 5 a.m. [Townshend] was dozing off. They kept waking him up until finally, at 8 a.m., Townshend couldn't take it anymore: 'Okay we'll do it!' he said. 'Just let me go to f------ bed!' "
Some biggies got away: "Bob Dylan was the most important artist of our generation," Lang writes, "and because of my respect for his artistry, I underestimated the side of him that is about business. Maybe if I'd offered his booking agent a large enough fee, he'd have played…."
Of course, for many who did play, the festival was a career-maker: foremost among this group were Richie Havens; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (who had played only one gig together before Woodstock); Santana; Country Joe and the Fish; Joe Cocker; and, yes, even The Who.
Leavening Lang's narrative are quotes from various participants and festival-goers. Some of this material comes from interviews conducted by co-author Holly George-Warren, but many of the liveliest quotes are from other, previously published sources. To some extent, this was unavoidable, given the number of Woodstock principals who are no longer with us. It's particularly sobering to remember that Jimi Hendrix, whose dazzling re-imagining of "The Star-Spangled Banner" highlighted the concert's closing set, was gone just a year after Woodstock.
The good news is that many of the performers are still at it today, including some who seemed prime candidates for early flame-out. Lang, for his part, has continued to produce events in the United States and abroad, including a couple of Woodstock reunion concerts (there's talk of yet another this summer).
In a rare introspective moment toward the end of the book, he acknowledges that Woodstock "has been the elephant in the room in my life." Ever the optimist, he closes on a sunny note, pointing out that President Barack Obama's inauguration was described as "Washington's Woodstock" and that the festival's spirit reverberates even now.
So it does—partly because the festival, in addition to everything else, celebrated the giddy pleasure of being young and free and filled with a sense of infinite possibility, as so many of us were in those days.
Evelyn Renold is an editor and writer who lives in New York City. Read her review of Wishful Drinking.