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Woodstock Impresario Michael Lang Dead at 77

Concert promoter behind 1969’s massively influential music festival succumbs to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Michael Lang, the concert impresario who helped conceive the landmark, generation-defining 1969 music festival Woodstock, died Saturday night at Sloan Kettering hospital in New York. He was 77.

Michael Pagnotta, a rep for Lang and longtime family friend, confirmed the promoter’s death to Rolling Stone, adding that the cause was a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Alongside businessmen John Roberts and Joel Rosenman and music industry promoter Artie Kornfeld, Lang, who had previously promoted the 1968 Miami Pop festival, co-created the Woodstock Music and Art Fair the following year. Famously billed as “Three Days of Peace and Music,” the upstate New York festival drew up to 400,000 people to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, NY from August 15-18, 1969 and featured dozens of rock’s biggest names, including Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

“There’s a moment when Michael Lang changed the world,” the Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian tells Rolling Stone. “At Woodstock I was standing next to him when one of his minions way in the distance came running toward the stage and we thought, “This can’t be good.’ He gets to Michael and says, ‘The fence is down. Folks are coming over the top.’ And Mike takes this long look over the whole scenario and almost to himself he says, ‘Well, I guess we now have a free festival.’ It was the original, ‘What could possibly go wrong,’  but he could pivot and see the light.”

Carlos Santana said in a statement to Rolling Stone Sunday, “Michael Lang was a divine architect of unity  & harmony. He gave birth to Woodstock, the festival that manifested 3 glorious days of peace & freedom. He will no doubt be orchestrating another celestial event in Heaven. Thank you Maestro. You and Bill Graham are now united in the light of our divinity and are supreme love.”

Lang was only 24 when he helped conceive the festival, which would go on to become a massively influential counterculture touchstone, thanks in part to a documentary on the event released the following year. Over the years, Lang’s name became synonymous with the Woodstock brand, as the promoter helped helm subsequent iterations of the festival in 1994 and 1999. (When Pollstar asked Lang in 2019 what it’s like to be the “Woodstock poster child for eternity,” he replied, “Life is full of experiences, and not everything works out. But you keep trying or nothing works out … That’s always been my attitude.”) A 50th anniversary concert in 2019 was mired in controversy and legal issues and was canceled before it could go on.

Lang, a native New Yorker, moved to Coconut Grove, FL in the late 1960s and opened a head shop. “The climate is perfect, people are into a stimulating variety of artistic things and there was no place for them to get together,” Lang said in author Ellen Sanders’ 1973 book Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties. He applied that same ethos to music festivals, starting with the Miami Pop fest in May 1968. The festival, attended by 25,000 people, featured sets by Jimi Hendrix, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and the Mothers of Invention, among others.

After moving back to New York, Lang met Kornfeld, then a vice president of Capitol Records, and started Woodstock Ventures with Roberts and Rosenman. After a series of planned locations fell through, the quartet was famously able to organize the festival at the 600-acre farm of Max Yasgur, a dairy farmer in Bethel, NY immortalized in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s 1970 hit “Woodstock.” In 2004, the event earned a spot on Rolling Stone‘s “50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll.”

“Woodstock came at a really dark moment in America,” Lang told Rolling Stone in 2009. “An unpopular war, a government that was unresponsive, lots of human rights issues — things were starting to edge toward violence for people to make their points. And along came Woodstock, which was this moment of hope.”

“We thought we were all individual, scattered hippies,” David Crosby told Rolling Stone in 2004. “When we got there, we said, ‘Wait a minute, this is a lot bigger than we thought.’ We flew in there by helicopter and saw the New York State Thruway at a dead stop for 20 miles and a gigantic crowd of at least half a million people. You couldn’t really wrap your mind around how many people were there. It had never happened before, and it was sort of like having aliens land.”

“Everybody was crazy,” Joan Baez, who played the festival, told Rolling Stone in 2009. “I guess the collective memories that people have, I have in a sense. It’s the mud and the cops roasting hot dogs and people wandering around in the nude. And the fact that, looking back, it was in fact a huge deal. It was like a perfect storm and I realized that Woodstock was like the eye of the hurricane because it was different. It was this weekend of love and intimacy and attempts at beauty and at caring and at being political.”

The original Woodstock was, in Kornfield’s words, “a financial disaster.” However, in Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary that captured the fest, Kornfield and Lang are shown smiling when discussing the festival with a news reporter. “Look at what you got there. You couldn’t buy that for anything,” Lang said.

Graham Nash said in a statement to Rolling Stone Sunday, “This man played an important role in the development of the ‘Musical Festival.’ His part in bringing the Woodstock nation to the forefront of American music is well known and he will be missed by his family and friends.”

After Woodstock, Lang was recruited at the last minute to help assist with what became the infamous Altamont Free Concert in California in December 1969, where audience member Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death during the Rolling Stones’ set. “My opinion of Altamont is that it was a missed opportunity and the result of a lack of planning,” Lang said in a Reddit Q&A in 2014. “It was thrown together at the last minute, it had to move at the last minute, and really wasn’t thought throughout. There really wasn’t any security, and the Hells Angels were pressed into a role they weren’t suited for. And so what could have been a great day of music degenerated into a horror show.”

Lang later became the manager for Rickie Lee Jones and Joe Cocker — the latter delivering one of Woodstock’s legendary performances — and founded Just Sunshine Records, which released albums by Karen Dalton and Betty Davis, among others.

Twenty-five years after the iconic festival, Lang returned to Woodstock — albeit in Saugerties, New York, and not Yasgur’s farm — to produce Woodstock ’94, billed as “2 More Days of Peace and Music.” The 1994 lineup was a “bridge” between the original fest and more contemporary music, Lang said, with original Woodstock acts like Cocker, Santana, Crosby, Stills & Nash, members of the Grateful Dead and the Band, Country Joe McDonald and more joining Red Hot Chili Peppers, Green Day, Aerosmith, Metallica, Nine Inch Nails and Bob Dylan.

While not as historic as its predecessor, the success of the 1994 fest — coupled with its MTV broadcast and the rise of music festivals in general — led Lang and his fellow producers to host another fest five years later. That was Woodstock ’99, which ultimately hewed closer to the chaos of Altamont than the peace and love of the previous two installments.

“My takeaways from Woodstock ’99 are a bit complicated,” Lang said in the Reddit Q&A. “A lot of people had an amazing time. There was lots of amazing music. It was unfortunately an incredibly hot weekend, and being on that air force base where the heat was reflected from that tarmac was really problematic. Without the rain in all that heat was a problem. And frankly, as I said earlier, a lot of the music was kind of angry, and the audience was young and of the same headspace, so I’m a little bit conflicted about Woodstock ’99.”

In the mid-2010s, after the aftermath of the maligned Woodstock ’99 had largely dissipated, Lang began envisioning a 50th anniversary festival, with Watkins Glen, New York — site of festivals like 1973’s Summer Jam and Phish’s Magnaball in 2015 — the intended site. The fest’s cross-generational lineup was announced in March 2019, bringing together Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus and the Killers with Woodstock vets like Santana, Dead & Company, David Crosby and John Fogerty, whose Creedence Clearwater Revival was the first band booked for the original Woodstock.

“I was looking forward to seeing how it would get reworked 50 years later,” John Fogerty, who had played Woodstock with Creedence Clearwater Revival, told Rolling Stone. “What the young people would think about it and what the younger artists would think. It’s not every day you get to go back to a 50-year reunion.”

However, soon after the fest was revealed and tickets sales were postponed, one of Woodstock 50’s chief investors — international media company Dentsu Aegis — announced the fest had been canceled, sparking a legal battle with Lang and other producers that ultimately allowed the fest to proceed. However, the fest’s venue in Watkins Glen, New York next nullified its contract with organizers, causing Woodstock 50 to try unsuccessfully to move the festival to Vernon Downs, New York and Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. One by one, the booked acts dropped off the bill, and Woodstock 50 was finally canceled just two weeks before it was scheduled to begin.

“I thought he bore that burden remarkably well,” Sebastian says of Lang carrying the Woodstock name. “We would do these various Woodstock events, telling stories, and he had that smile – not tension, but a kind of sadness that’s part of knowing about life. I would see that now and then.”

Following the cancelation of Woodstock 50, Lang was asked whether he was worried that the failed fest had tarnished the legacy of the brand. “It’s not something I consider,” Lang told Rolling Stone in 2019. “What we did in 1969 was in 1969 and that’s what has endured and will continue to endure. We’re not going away.”

Additional reporting by David Browne

From Rolling Stone US