The much-anticipated Woodstock 50, commemorating the iconic counter-culture event in 1969 where 400,000 young people came together in the name of music, peace, and love, did not happen this past August, despite all the behind-the-scenes efforts to pull it off.
A number of articles since the end of 2018 have focussed on these efforts as well as the staggering number of problems and setbacks that have occurred. Many writers, such as Larry Fitzmaurice and Dee Lockett in their July 31st article in Vulture, have observed that these setbacks were “painfully reminiscent of the issues faced in the lead-up to Woodstock 1969, issues that included the following. Pre-concert: There were logistical disagreements between the creators/producers of the event and the moneypeople backing it concerning the concert’s location, how many attendees to allow, and the security needed. At the concert: There was an inadequate number of facilities providing portable toilets, food, and first aid stations to handle accidents, births,and drug overdoses. And then there was, of course, the weather, the torrential rains that occurred, compounding the unforeseen problems, leaving a mass of young people covered in mud and filth, looking somewhat like Col. Kurtz’s rogue military “gone native” in the Cambodian jungle in 1969 in the film Apocalypse Now.
The failure of Woodstock 50 to materialize is still being discussed in the media as people continue to grapple, I think, with their disappointment that the reunion celebration did not take place. Although it may be unfair to say this, if I were to boil down that failure to one factor underlying all of the complex, myriad issues, I would say it is due to the creator of the concert, Michael Lang. While an event that size, of necessity, requires many people having a say in its planning and execution, I believe Lang had an indelible hand in guiding the twists and turns of events. I base this on my reading of his account of Woodstock 1969 in his book The Road to Woodstock, where he presents a candid, detailed, behind-the-scenes look not only at what took place before, during, and after the coming together of the tribes, but, even more importantly, at the genesis of his role as a concert producer. The following are some highlights.
Before there may have been even a glimmer in Lang’s eye of the seminal event that would become known as Woodstock, Lang operated a head shop in Coconut Grove, the small, laid-back, artsy community nestled amid lush tropical hardwood hammocks, where the air hung heavy with the scent of jasmine. It is an area in South Miami just to the east of the University of Miami that I know well because I grew up just a few miles away. In those days, Coconut Grove boasted rents low enough for artists and hippies to afford, rents that have since skyrocketed due to the influx of the literati and glitterati, making this, Miami’s oldest continuously inhabited neighborhood, now one of its trendiest. Lang, in his book, says that he set up shop in the “Grove,” as the locals fondly call it, because he knew the area from his childhood winter trips with his parents to escape the New York cold. Later, in the '60s, hippies began flocking there looking for a warm spot to hang out, which they found on the lawn at Coconut Grove’s Dinner Key on Biscayne Bay. Sixties musicians also began arriving to be part of the scene.
After dropping out of New York University in 1965, Lang headed to Miami, where he opened a head shop, although he had not majored in business and did not have firsthand experience running such a concern. As he describes it, “Having seen my parents take on new businesses, whether they knew that particular line or not, I thought, why not? I could learn on my feet, like they had.” And therein, I think, encapsulates Lang’s whole mantra for his life and for his idea to create the biggest outdoor concert ever held a few short years later. Lang spent the spring “developing ideas, making contacts, and figuring out just what the head shop was going to be,” another indicator of Lang’s can-do spirit. He used a few thousand dollars of his own money and called on his contacts in the burgeoning counterculture community, including other head shop owners, to learn about the business.
In 1966, Lang and his then-girlfriend tried to obtain but were denied a business permit to open a head shop in South Miami near the U of M. Undeterred, they looked for another location and found it in Coconut Grove, which was less conservative than South Miami. They eventually opened their shop containing glass cases filled with all kinds of smoking paraphernalia, including a variety of rolling papers, Turkish hookahs, and exotic pipes. Peter Max posters plastered the walls, beaded curtains hung in doorways, strobe lights suffused the store, and music by groups like the Beatles, the Stones, the Mothers of Invention, Dylan, and the Byrds played nonstop in the background.
In 1967, Lang met his future Woodstock partner Artie Kornfeld. Expanding on the scope of a poster company they started, they began promoting music groups because as Lang said, “everyone wanted to see the bands whose albums we were listening to.” This decision to make forays into music promotion could very well have been the embryonic stage of the development of the future Woodstock. Lang organized a local concert in the park, and later “started promoting a few shows at an outdoor amphitheater on Key Biscayne (which would later become the Winter White House for President Nixon). The acts included Ravi Shankar, who’d been a sensation at the Monterey Pop Festival in June.” Soon, Lang pointed out, “the shop became the gathering place for a growing counterculture in Miami …. anyone involved in the underground — from Timothy Leary to Jerry Garcia — would stop by my shop when in Miami.” Other counterculture visitors included Abbie Hoffman, who Lang quoted in his book as saying, “He (Lang) told me that he had this idea — a floating, free idea — for a festival.” Musicians like Joni Mitchell, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Fred Neil, and David Crosby also began hanging around. Before too long, Lang found the means to orchestrate Florida’s first-ever music festival, even though by this point the Summer of Love and the Monterey Music Festival had already happened. Lang went to see a William Morris booking agent and told him he would be able to sign six or seven big-name artists (performing on three different stages), including John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, the Mothers of Invention (led by Frank Zappa), Blue Cheer, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The concert, Lang claimed, would draw 25,000 people. The agent found Lang’s proposal to produce the festival in three short weeks improbable. Nevertheless, Lang pulled it off.
From there, it was but a hop, skip and a jump, as we used to say when I was young, to envision another out-door concert, this one even bigger, held over three days, that would attract nearly half-a-million young people. All that was needed was the financial backing, and Lang got that, even though riffs soon developed between the dreamers and the money people, riffs that would result in irreconcilable differences over the management of the festival and an eventual parting of the ways.
While Lang managed to pull off both festivals, the first-ever Florida Music Festival, and the first-ever mega-music festival at Woodstock in 1969, both against what appeared to most to be overwhelming odds, he wasn’t successful in producing the 50th anniversary concert. His “can-do” spirit had worked in 1969, and it would appear that that same spirit propelled him once again to believe he could make Woodstock 50 happen as well. But things were not the same; the times had changed. One could say that 2019 is a much more sophisticated and complicated era, and that the hippie strategy of getting things done purely on a dream, a desire, and who one knows can no longer succeed in the present world of sophisticated mega-music festivals with their sophisticated business models. Added to that, the present mega-music festival world has also learned from the gross mistakes and near-disastrous conditions that existed at Woodstock 1969, and have had no desire to repeat them. So, judging from the many articles I have read since the beginning of the year, when Lang knocked on their doors and said he wanted to put on Woodstock 50, another mega-event, they rallied around their fears of another potential disaster and said, “No.”