Aug 24 2009 By Polly Weeks
The name Michael Lang may not sound all that familiar but his festival Woodstock will. To celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the legendary festival this month, the man who started it all recalls the hedonistic days of 1969.
In the summer of 1969, half a million people descended on a farm in upstate New York for four days of performances by the world's most famous musicians.
With legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin on the bill, Woodstock went down in history as the most celebrated rock music festival the world has ever seen.
The brainchild of Michael Lang, the festival has come to epitomise the Swinging Sixties as much as Beatlemania, pot smoking hippies and student peace protests.
"What happened that weekend was that it became this community of people who were like minded and part of a cultural movement," says Lang, 65.
"We were all very much against the Vietnam War and were all involved in human rights struggles. Because we were in charge, we were able to do it very much the way we wanted to."
Although the hedonistic, 'flower child' days belong to the past, the memory of Woodstock still lives on and Lang has more reason than most to toast its legacy.
He was just 25 when he left Coconut Grove, Florida and returned to his native New York to make his music festival dreams a reality.
"I'd just had it with Florida. I'd lost a lot of money and while I'd had an amazing experience there, the Grove went from being this idyllic little arts community where dogs could sleep in the middle of the road all day without being disturbed, to high rises and condominiums," Lang explains.
"It just seemed like a good time to move back to the New York area. I knew Woodstock from when I was a kid as we used to go there with my folks and it had developed into a nice music community. For example Bob Dylan and his band were living there. I was very much into music and the music scene and I thought, 'Well that sounds like a great place to be'. It was near to New York and it was like what the Grove had been before the developments."
So packing his bags and waving goodbye to the Sunshine State, Lang headed North to New York, where it wasn't long before he had fully immersed himself in the city's burgeoning music scene, and made some good friends along the way.
"When I moved to the town of Woodstock that summer I attended a series of concerts on a farm just outside of town, they were very low key, maybe 500 - 1000 people would come. It occurred to me it was just a beautiful way to see music. Just without having to deal with any authority figures and sharing that experience with friends under the stars. It was amazing."
"I became friends with Artie Kornfeld and we talked about music incessantly and we kept on coming back to the idea of putting on a bigger version of the festivals we had been to at the farm - just putting it all together on one big weekend."
It was at this time that fate struck. Two local businessmen, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, had money to spare and were looking for a worthwhile business venture. Lang and Kornfeld soon convinced the pair to invest in their festival.
For Lang though it was more than a business idea, in fact he was keen to make the festival not-for-profit in line with his political ethos. Something thousands of others agreed with.
"Segregation still was a big issue at the time. There were also issues against women and gays. We just felt everyone should be on the same plane," Lang explains.
"When we introduced Woodstock we wanted it to be all-inclusive. Throughout the USA, there had been lots of violent events that year. At concert events people were crashing the gates and thought that music should be free. We wanted Woodstock to be very inclusive so when people arrived, if they didn't have tickets they could still come in."
It was for this reason that instead of an anticipated 200,000 people turning up to the event, 500,000 decided to make the trip - with thousands more stuck in traffic, clamoring to get into the festival.
Woodstock set a bench mark to which many future events still aspire. From Glastonbury to the Big Chill (Lang even opened the Herefordshire event this year) festival organisers around the world have attempted to emulate the success that Woodstock had in 1969. The rise of these events and the ever-growing diversity of the format is something close to Lang's heart.
"It's nice to see they still continue with more than just music. They have other arts and cultural pursuits still going."
Can any other festival compare to Woodstock though? "I think Coachella in California is a great event and Glastonbury - ever since the early days it has been wonderful. There are many festivals around Europe that seem to work on the Woodstock Model and that's very gratifying to see."
While many festivals may have taken on board Woodstock's cultural attributes, some things had to stay in the Sixties. While people at modern day festivals are likely to let their hair down, at Woodstock they took it a step further and whether it was the warmer climate or the well-reported drug use, thousands decided to strip off and go skinny dipping in the grounds.
Given Lang's prominent role in the festival, he was unable to join the action but that doesn't mean he didn't witness it.
"I was running around organising everything but I was also going all over the site so I saw what was going on. I'd say it was expressions of freedom right? That's really what the overall message was of the festival, it was about freedom."
With such a mammoth task behind him, Lang wouldn't let Woodstock take over his life.
"I knew there was a danger that having done something so big and dramatic when I was young that it could have made a terrible impact on my future. I just made sure I got away from it and I just put it behind me and moved on so I wouldn't be trapped by the fame of it."
During those few August days in '69, Lang had experienced more than most 25-year-old Americans could ever dream of, and now 40 years on he can safely say that he helped make history.
Extra time - Michael Lang
Before Woodstock, Michael Lang was responsible for putting on the 1968 Miami Pop Festival.
Lang is still just as political. He's now got his attention firmly focused on addressing climate change.
Sly & The Family Stone was Lang's favourite act at Woodstock.
At the festival, Lang was always calm. He says: "When things get weird I just get calmer, I've never panicked."
Michael Lang lives in Upstate New York.