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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 a spokesperson.
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 raised in Brooklyn and attended college in New York City before jumping into concert promotion in the late 1960s. The first multi-artist event he organized was the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, which featured Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and John Lee Hooker, among other acts of the era.
His move to the Woodstock, New York area sewed the seeds of a more ambitious three-day festival. Along with co-founders John Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and John P Roberts, they conceived of Woodstock, one of the most impactful events in music history, drawing some 400,000 people to a farm (owned by Max Yasgur) in Bethel, New York and shutting down the New York State Thruway as scores left their cars stranded and found other means to arrive to the festival grounds.
Woodstock itself arrived at a time of great social upheaval in the United States, which was engulfed in an unpopular war in Vietnam that saw many thousands of young adults drafted and subsequently 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 drugs, throughout the three day showcase. Among the bands on the bill were: The Grateful Dead, The Who, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez and Jefferson Airplane, among others. A 1970 soundtrack album and documentary film, in which Lang was featured extensively, detailed the scheduling snafus, weather issues and generally lack of preparedness for what would turn out to be the seminal cultural moment of the 1960s.
There were plenty of drugs being consumed over those three days, as Lang recalled to Variety in 2019. There was one incident 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,” said Lang.
Woodstock was so impactful as a name that Lang was able to stage two anniversary shows in the coming decades. In 1994, to mark its 25th birthday, Lang co-produced Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, NY, about 70 miles from the original Bethel site. The festival came to be known as Mudstock after the second and third days of the festival were marked by rainstorms that turned much of the field into a giant mud pit, further memorialized by members of Nine Inch Nails, Green Day and Primus either drenching themselves in mud or having it slung at them by the crowd. The lineup included a mixture of legacy performers from the original festival, like Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joe Cocker, John Sebastian and Country Joe McDonald, and contemporary alt-rock bands like the Cranberries and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Another commemoration of the festival 1999, 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” becoming the unofficial theme song of a festival destined not to be remembered as emblematic of peace and love. None of the original artists from the 1969 Woodstock were given entire sets this time, although some individual musicians returned as part of others bands. With a distinct emphasis on hip-hop and modern rock, performers included Rage Against the Machine, DMX, Kid Rock, Dave Matthews Band and Metallica as well as a handful of veterans. The lingering bad taste the commercialism and reports of sexual assault left with the public created difficulties for Lang when he looked toward mounting yet a fourth Woodstock festival in 2019.
In 2019, Lang’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to produce a fourth 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 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.
Said Lang of its demise when speaking to Variety in Aug. 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.