For the record, the first rock festival in history was the little-remembered Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival in Marin County, CA, June 10-11, 1967. Most of the acts came out of the San Francisco scene and represented bands that had played at Avalon and Bill Graham’s Fillmore West ballrooms.
This was followed less than a week later by the far more famous Monterey International Pop Music Festival, where Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin became overnight sensations. (And The Who didn’t do so badly either.) There were about a half-dozen more rock festivals between 1967 and 1969, one of which was (the first) May 1968 Miami Pop.
I initially intended the Woodstock series to be three posts. But I found the backstory just to *get* to having the festival so damned fascinating, I knew I’d need five posts, the first two just to relate some of the backstory. Because the very fact that the festival came off at all is nothing less than a small miracle. Or, if you will, karma. And if you don’t know something about Michael Lang, you are missing a big part of how Woodstock came to be.
Michael Lang is – for want of a better expression – somewhat of a hippie entrepreneur. Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1944, like a lot of his peers, he got into early rock n’ roll and then he very easily gravitated into the Beat scene of Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s. Unlike a lot of people who just hung out there or drifted in and out, Lang always had somewhat of an entrepreneurial sense and a “you-can-do-it” attitude.
In 1962, he got a job at a Village boutique selling items such as “oddball earrings, leather goods, crafts, and all kinds of other trappings.” Often customers were “early freaks,” many of them part of the great post-WWII baby boom. Unlike their Great Depression-raised, WWII parents, the boomers chafed under the tight roles they were supposed to conform to and by sheer numbers, started to develop their own credo. (Sex, drugs, rock and roll. Not to mention spirituality minus the judgmental attitude. Religion, but not so organized. )
Deciding he needed to go where the weather suited his clothes, Lang gravitated down to Florida. He at first tried to open a head shop in Miami but found that the conservative legislature and culture tended to thwart him. So he moved a few miles south to a neighborhood of Miami called Coconut Grove. There he found a much more receptive environment. (His escaping a negative environment to find a more conducive one nearby was to repeat itself a few years later.)
Lang was able to not only establish a head shop in Coconut Grove but also find a like-minded group of, shall we say, free spirits. After working, they’d head to the beach, fire up a few joints and listen to good music. Hearing about this establishment, bands like The Grateful Dead and future counterculture icon/activist Abbie Hoffman would stop in while in town. (Both would show up again at Woodstock.)
Lang wound up promoting a few small concerts. And even though he’d never done it before, he decided he wanted to put on a large festival. (Lang, to his credit, never seems to have let “I’ve never done this before” stop him.) And so in May of 1968, he and a partner produced the first Miami Pop Festival at a race track in Hallandale, Fl, about 20 mi. north of Miami.
By some magic, he was able to attract acts such as Jimi Hendrix, (who wrote “Rainy Day, Dream Away” because of massive rain in Miami), Frank Zappa, and John Lee Hooker. At 25,000 people, this was clearly on a much smaller scale than he would deal with little more than one year later. (The Fort Lauderdale News ran an article entitled, “Flower Children Strangely Mannerly: Reporter Rubs Elbows With Weirdos.”) But now he knew the nuts and bolts of putting on a concert. In three weeks.
When the tides (so to speak) eventually turned in Florida and the cops started cracking down, Lang took his act back to New York City. But it wasn’t long till he found his way to Woodstock, NY where he used to summer with his parents.
Woodstock has for many years been an artists colony, with musicians, writers and artists congregating there. (Bob Dylan and The Band were here around this time.) Lang, ever looking for the next big idea, thought it would be great to do two things – have a recording studio in Woodstock and hold another music festival, only on a much bigger scale.
In addition to being an entrepreneur, Lang was invested in the idea that the boomers were a community. As much as he liked to sell T-shirts and other paraphernalia, he also liked to hang out with his friends, get high and just enjoy the vibe. So he envisioned the planned Woodstock concert as not just another rock show, but almost as a gathering of a tribe, a community of like-minded souls.
The festival would be an outgrowth not only of this community but of loosely organized outdoor concerts in Woodstock called Soundouts. These mostly featured local artists performing while people lazed around on blankets, some smoking pot, some camping out. And Lang began to wonder why these Soundouts – which had a “joyous, healing feel” – couldn’t grow into something bigger, with this larger community coming together for an entire weekend.
His goal – his single-minded goal – was “Three Days of Peace and Music.” But it was this determination – this unshakable quest by Lang to have this gathering – that more than anything else made Woodstock happen. He had the personality and charisma to attract people who bought into his vision and the leadership skills to make it happen.
“For me,” Lang said, “Woodstock was a test of whether people of our generation really believed in one another and the world we were struggling to create. … Could we live in the peaceful community we envisioned? From the beginning I believed 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.
Woodstock came to symbolize our solidarity. … During a very tumultuous time in our country, we showed the best of ourselves, and in the process created the kind of society we all aspired to, even if only for a brief moment.”
And it was on a trip back to New York City in late 1968 that Lang met Artie Kornfeld, vice president of A&R at Capitol. “Michael was my first hippie,” he said. And so over several discussions, a few tokes and midnight ramblings, Michael Lang told Artie Kornfeld about Woodstock and about the Soundouts. And an idea that germinated in Lang’s mind started to become a possibility, a shared dream if you will.
And had either of them known what they would go through over the next ten months, it is just as well that like Han Solo, they didn’t consider the odds. Asked later what the toughest part of putting the festival together was, Lang thought about it and said, “Politics.”
Sources: The Road to Woodstock: From the Man Behind the Legendary Festival. Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren; Woodstock: The Director’s Cut. The Documentary. Directed by Michael Wadleigh.