Michael Lange, co-founder and organizer of the 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Fair, and its follow-ups Woodstock 94 and the ill-fated Woodstock 99, died Saturday at the age of 77 in Sloan Kettering in New York City. The cause of death was a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to family spokesperson Michael Bagnotta.
It last appeared publicly before the COVID pandemic on the festival’s 50th anniversary, which was marked by controversial or no attempts to stage the Woodstock 50th Festival featured in the press.
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Lang grew up in Brooklyn and attended college in New York City before jumping to a prom in the late 1960s. His first multi-artist event 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 Woodstock, New York, sowed the seeds for a more ambitious three-day festival. Together with co-founders John Rosenman, Artie Kornfield and John B. Roberts, they envisioned Woodstock, one of the most influential events in music history, drawing about 400,000 people to a farm (owned by Max Yasgur) in Bethel, New York and New York State Thruway closed Dozens left their cars stuck and found other ways to get to the festival grounds.
Woodstock itself arrived at a time of great social upheaval in the United States, which was mired in an unpopular war in Vietnam that saw thousands of young men recruited and later killed in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile back home, the hippie movement has been influencing art, fashion, film and music, as the festival’s motto demonstrates – “Acuyari Fair: 3 Days of Peace and Music”.
The festival exceeded all expectations – and everyone’s worst case scenario – when a small town spontaneously set up to hear melodies and a plethora of mind-altering material, throughout the three-day run. Over 30 bands on the bill include: The Grateful Dead, The Who, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Joan Baez, Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane. A 1970s audio album and documentary, Lang’s widely featured, detailed the schedule, weather issues and a general lack of preparation for what would be a key cultural moment in the 1960s.
There was a lot of medication being taken during those three days. Lang remembered one incident of diverse, When Jerry Garcia passed some acid on to Carlos Santana, who thought he had several hours before he had to perform, he sped up on stage, high like a kite, only to deliver one of the weekend’s sexiest performances.
“He wrestled with that guitar because he thought it was a snake,” Lang said.
Woodstock as a pop culture phenomenon, a birth rite of passage, would extend for many years after 1969. Look no further than the perpetual punch, uttered by comedian Robin Williams and countless others in the decades to come: “If you can remember Woodstock, you probably didn’t You weren’t there.”
It has also been immortalized in song, notably “Woodstock” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young from the 1970’s “Deja Vu” album, and even more recently in 2017, when singer Lana Del Rey released “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind”.
Woodstock was as strong as the name Lang was able to make two anniversaries in the coming decades. In 1994, to celebrate her 25th birthday, Lang co-produced Woodstock ’94 in Saugerties, New York, about 70 miles from the original Bethel location. The festival became known as Mudstock after the second and third days of the festival were marked by rainstorms that turned a large part of the field into a giant mud pit, further memorialized by members of Nine Inch Nails, Green Day and Primus either immersing themselves in the mud or having it hang over them by the crowd. The lineup included a mix of old artists from the original festival, such as Santana, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joe Cocker, John Sebastian and Country Joe McDonald, and contemporary alternative rock bands such as Cranberries and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Another festival celebration, Woodstock ’99, was held at a third exact location, in Rome, New York, and drew about 400,000 people and many other pay-per-view spectators. While shy of the gate crash and the collective mud of the 1994 festival, the festival broke news of audience violence and vandalism, with Limp Bizkit’s “Break Stuff” becoming the unofficial lead single for a festival that is set to not be remembered as a symbol of peace and love. None of the original performers from 1969 Woodstock were given full groups this time, although some solo musicians returned as part of other bands. With a clear focus on hip-hop and modern rock, performers included Rage Against the Machine, DMX, Kid Rock, Dave Matthews Band, Metallica as well as a handful of veterans. Constant bad taste involving commercial activity and reports of sexual assault caused difficulties for Lang as he looked to hold a fourth Woodstock Festival in 2019.
In response to the media’s skepticism and criticism of the ’90s festivals, Lang distinguished between the two’s legacy. “I can understand (criticize) the 99 version of what happened at the end, but the 94 was great,” he told Polestar, citing 1994 performances by Nine Inch Nails, Green Day and Sheryl Crow.
In 2019, Lang’s ultimately failed attempts to produce Woodstock’s 50th anniversary suffered a series of insurmountable setbacks after the announcement of bill-heavy hitters that were set to include Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Dade & Co. performing August, 16-18 In Watkins Glen, New York. Backers of Woodstock 50 – financial partner Dentsu and its investment division Amplifi – withdrew their support in April after an initial investment of more than $32 million, leading to lawsuits. But the biggest problem Lang faced was getting permits from local authorities, which fell short even after a change of location and carrying capacity was finally set at 75,000 before Lang finally gave in and pulled the plug.
Lang said of his demise when talking to him diverse August 2019: “It’s been one awkward thing after another, but I definitely feel lighter.”
Lang still believes that Woodstock and the counterculture that it represents have been the incubators of the social changes that lead to the present day. “It wasn’t just entertainment; it was more about social issues. They were part of our generation,” he told Polestar. “Woodstock provided an environment for people to express themselves better, if desired. Give them that, and it seems to work. It was probably the most peaceful event of its kind in history.” He allowed that, originally, “it was a business venture aimed at making money for our partners.” But he eventually added, “The first Earth Day came right after Woodstock. Women’s rights…And then came the inauguration of Barack Obama, Woodstock, Washington. Those are the things that grew out of those times and evolved. Two steps forward, one step back, sometimes three steps back.”
Lang is survived by his wife Tamara, their sons Harry and Laszlo, and daughters Larian, Shala and Molly.
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