NEW YORK – A half-century later, Michael Lang was still calling for change.
On the 50th anniversary of his landmark 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Lang spoke about the need for sensible gun control laws, and signed a petition on a piece of the original festival stage floor.
“Fifty years ago, we were protesting Vietnam,” he said in 2019. “No one wanted to go out and get killed in an unpopular war. Now, we’re seeing kids get killed here at home.”
For decades, Lang, the event’s co-creator, advocated for the ideals presented at the festival.
He died Saturday at age 77 at New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, his family confirmed. Lang had been battling non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
“He was absolutely an historic figure, and also a great guy,” family spokesperson Michael Pagnotta told The Associated Press. Pagnotta said he had known Lang for about 30 years. “Both of those thing go hand in hand.”
He leaves a legacy as an icon for multiple generations of music fans, helping to popularize the modern music festival. It’s a legacy that also includes high-profile failures, such as a 1999 Woodstock festival marked by violence and a 2019 event that ended in cancellations and legal action when Lang’s organizing group repeatedly failed to obtain the proper permits and satisfy the necessary safety requirements for a modern music festival.
Lang and his three partners in 1969 “changed the world, even though everything was against them,” Lori Majewski, a host on Sirius XM’s Volume channel and former “Entertainment Weekly” executive editor, told the USA TODAY Network in the wake of Woodstock 50’s cancellation. “They faced adversity at every turn. But people came away feeling like, ‘Yes we can, we can change the world.’ I think that’s why Michael Lang fought so hard for Woodstock 50.”
Still, his original festival’s anniversary prompted tens of thousands to visit Sullivan County’s Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on Aug. 15-18 for a four-day celebration. Lang chose not to attend; the organizer and the organization that operates a concert venue on the original festival land had a longstanding rift, and Lang had insisted only Woodstock 50 would be the official anniversary event.
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‘Three days of peace and music’
Along with partners Artie Kornfeld, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, Lang put together the festival billed as “three days of peace and music” in the summer of 1969 as the Vietnam War raged and led increasing numbers of disaffected young Americans to turn away from traditional mores and embraced a lifestyle that celebrated freedom of expression.
Roughly 450,000 people descended on the hamlet of Bethel and endured miles-long traffic jams, torrential rains, food shortages and overwhelmed sanitary facilities. More than 30 acts performed on the concert’s main stage at the base of a hill on land owned by farmer Max Yasgur, and concertgoers were treated to iconic performances from artists including Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, The Who and Jefferson Airplane.
Lang, sporting a head of bushy brown hair, is seen throughout Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary movie that chronicled the festival.
“From the beginning, I believed that if we did our job right and from the heart, prepared the ground and set the right tone, people would reveal their higher selves and create something amazing,” Lang wrote in his memoir, “The Road to Woodstock.”
Although Woodstock often is viewed as creating the template for large-scale music festivals, it wasn’t the first to take place in the U.S. Two years earlier, the Monterey Pop festival drew about 200,000 people to California, and in 1968 the Miami Pop Festival followed, which Lang also organized. But Woodstock nonetheless holds an indelible place in history.
The 1969 festival created “this hope for a better life – a better world, a more compassionate world, and it came at a time when things were very dark,” Lang said.
He described Woodstock as “Sort of a miracle in a way.”
“A half-million people got together, nobody followed anybody, everyone came together as a community and a family,” he said. “It was so remarkably different than what the human experience, the day-to-day experience, is like. It was a moment of hope, something that was proof that this was possible – and that resonated.
“They came together from a counterculture that was very involved with trying to make the world a better place. This was a chance for all of us to see if that could happen when we were in charge – and it did.”
Recapturing the magic of Woodstock
In the months leading up to the 2019 anniversary, Lang spoke of how the country’s political climate was reminiscent of 1969, and the value another Woodstock could have on society. Famously, Lang and his partners found Yasgur’s farm after the planned site for the original festival in Saugerties fell through in March 1969, adding to Woodstock’s mystique as an entity that could overcome obstacles.
But repeated attempts to recapture that magic proved impossible, in part because of how the modern music industry had changed.
Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties hosted 350,000 people, with 100,000 getting in for free, and was perhaps the first indication of Woodstock’s struggles to find its footing beyond 1969.
Woodstock ’99 was held five years later at Griffiss Air Force Base near Rome, New York. But, the event was marked by violence, fires and reports of molestation.
In 2009, Lang had hoped to stage a Woodstock 40th anniversary concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But the cost of staging a free concert and failure to find sponsors to cover the $8 million to $10 million cost forced him to drop the show.
Woodstock 50’s plans changed multiple times: After failing to obtain the proper permits needed to hold the event at Watkins Glen International racetrack in Schuyler County, the town of Vernon rejected a hasty plan for the event to be held at Vernon Downs. It was ultimately cancelled after a last-ditch attempt at an event in at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland.
Still, the memory of Woodstock and its ideals continue to resonate.
Contributing: The Poughkeepsie(New York) Journal and The Associated Press