Reflections on working with Woodstock creator Michael Lang, who passed away last month
Michael Lang was a hero of mine.
In 1969, the creator of Woodstock made a vital decision just days before the festival. His production crew informed him of their dilemma: They had the time and resources to build the stage or ticket booths, but not both.
Michael chose to build the stage.
Without the ticket booths, the first Woodstock became a free-for-all, overwhelmed with hundreds of thousands of revelers from all over. The enterprise lost millions of dollars, and struggled for more than a decade to recoup its losses through merchandising.
But, then, Woodstock also changed the world.
Woodstock happened two years before I was born; however, like many of my generation, I grew up on its music and its myth. Never in my life did I think I would be working with the creator of Woodstock
But, in the summer of 1999, that’s exactly what happened.
Yes. Michael F*cking Lang.”
That’s what I told my musician friend, Kenny Vanella. It was mid-July.
“Cool,” Kenny replied. “Who’s Michael Lang?”
“Michael Lang’s the guy who started Woodstock,” I replied. “I’m supposed to talk to him later this week.”
I told Kenny what I’d been careful not to let too many people know: The staff at Out & About would be producing the official program guide for Woodstock 99.
Kenny was incredulous. Like most people, he knew Woodstock like he knew Mount Rushmore, but the name Michael Lang was a reach.
Kenny was the lead singer of The Vibe, a popular area band that mixed many musical genres into every packed performance they played. He was enthused about the upcoming version of Woodstock, so we made a pact: We’d go. Why not? I had tickets and backstage passes — a few tokens of my recent good fortune.
Three years earlier, the Out & About staff launched a music magazine called Roadtrips, which we produced for a Chicago record label called Aware Records. Will Healy, a former Rainbow Records employee, had been recruited by the label. A Delaware native, Will knew Out & About well and helped pulled the partnership together.
The first issue of Roadtrips featured a cover story with newcomer Rob Thomas, whose Matchbox Twenty was just months away from their first hit. On the second cover was a little known band called Train, who had just played an acoustic show at Rainbow Records to about two dozen people.
Roadtrips gained momentum quickly. In 1998, it was chosen to be the official tour program for the H.O.R.D.E. Festival, which touched down in more than 40 venues across the country. Then, in 1999, as a seemingly ultimate stroke of good fortune, it was chosen to be the official program of Woodstock 99.
Now, nearly 23 years later, I still don’t believe it.
My boss, Jerry duPhily, deserves credit. When we started Roadtrips, I was only 25 and, for the most part, a fool on a fool’s journey. But Jerry was supportive of my ideas, and, without that, we never would have ended up working with the guy who gets credit for throwing one of the greatest parties in rock history.
A CALL FROM THE HEAD HONCHO
It was about a week before Woodstock 99 when I first spoke to Michael Lang about the program guide. The three weeks previous, we corresponded through his team, working long days at a breakneck pace, adjusting to line-ups and schedule changes almost daily. Michael had just received our overnight package of the first proof of the program.
At 32 pages, it was a substantial program featuring write-ups of nearly 50 performers along with interviews of the well-known, like Sheryl Crow and George Clinton, as well as the left-of-center, like Guster and The Tragically Hip.
The lead for the write-ups summed up the whole endeavor: “Never in history of rock music has there been a concert that showcased such a wide range of big-name talent… Where else could you see Insane Clown Posse playing the same show as Willie Nelson?”
Before Michael called, I thought about starting the conversation with how it was an honor to be working with him. But what to say? How to say it?
I never had the chance.
“Yes, yes. I have the proofs for the program. You got a pen and some paper? We have some changes for you.”
“Some” was a vast understatement. As the call continued, the switch flipped from idol worship to a Code-Red sense of anxiety. When I hung up the phone, the program proof on my desk virtually gasped for breath, bleeding from all the scribbled edits and mark-ups.
We had only a few days to make all the requested revisions – some of them major changes and additions. I felt like Wille E. Coyote from the Road Runner cartoons, having just realized I’d sped off a cliff, touching my toes to find no ground beneath me.
However, after burning a few tanks of midnight oil over the next two days, we somehow made it happen. The next conversation was a drastic improvement.
“We love it!” was how Michael responded to the final proof. He particularly liked the new cover designed by my high-school friend, Holly Wolfe, using the classic “Woodstock van” art of Kil Arens.
Finally. I was on Cloud Nine. The job was sent to the printer the next day.
That Thursday after work, I loaded my truck with concert and camping gear, then picked up my traveling companions, Kenny, and our trumpet-playing pal, AnDré Mali.
A guy who often said little, AnDré was standing in the driveway, oddly dressed in a black suit and white shirt. It was 90-some degrees out and, for some reason, he looked like he was auditioning for the role of “Jules’ Son” in a sequel to Pulp Fiction. In one hand he had a small suitcase and the other a trumpet case.
“What’s with AnDré,” I whispered to Kenny as we loaded their gear.
“He wants to jam with some of the musicians,” Kenny shrugged, wordlessly admitting to the impossibility.
I figured that along the way to Woodstock 99, I had to be the one to gently break it to AnDré that he wasn’t going to get the opportunity to rock out with Rage Against the Machine — or anyone else outside of our campground. The last thing I wanted was to come home to a scolding phone call from Michael Lang or one of his acolytes about how one of the backstage passes ended up in the hands of a naïve horn player who snuck his way onstage during what was then the largest Pay-Per-View music production ever.
We were able to get in early that Thursday night and set up camp. The Woodstock 99 team had converted an old airfield into modern festival grounds with two main stages serving as bookends to the mile-long runway. The next morning, we woke up to find folks pouring in — with tents set up all around ours.
After a promising performance by Jamiroquai shortly after noon, the three of us agreed to split up, as I had a few business details to sort out, and Kenny and AnDré wanted to catch the sights.
The heat bore down as the day went on and, after The Roots’ late-afternoon act, I took shelter back at the tent. I woke up about an hour later to Kenny’s elated voice.
“Jim!” he hollered through the outside of my tent. “Get up! AnDré is going to be playing with P-Funk!”
At first, I thought it was a joke. But as I stumbled out of both my tent and my sense of delirium, I realized Kenny was serious.
The sun had already set, and under the stars we rushed to West Stage while Kenny recounted the story of how they had gone backstage and bumped into Shock G of Digital Underground and some of the members of Parliament/Funkadelic. Shock G and AnDré hit it off, and after an on-the-spot audition, our trumpet-playing companion was inducted.
We got there early to get close to the stage. The show kicked off and, sure enough, about 49 minutes in — during an epic rendition of “Flashlight” — AnDré waltzed on stage with his trumpet to join the horn section. He even got the chance to add a jazzy horn solo. It was incredible!
Somehow AnDré’s wildest of bets had paid off.
Because we all had to work Monday, we opted to leave halfway through Sunday’s schedule. We saw Al Green, Willie Nelson, and Elvis Costello, then split. The ride home was filled with opinions about what shows stood out and which ones fizzled. And, of course, another first-hand account of AnDré’s magic moment.
The next morning as I was walked into the Out & About office, a co-worker asked how I was doing.
“You didn’t hear? There were major fires at the concert last night. Massive destruction!”
My heart sank. Hope felt lost.
Why did it have to end that way?
I’m not going to pretend to have known Michael Lang. Other than what I’ve read and seen in documentaries, I know very little about who he really was.
What I do know is that somehow the same guy who helped birth one of the greatest concerts of all time — if not the greatest — also had a large hand in such a disaster that it became the subject of a 2021 HBO documentary called Woodstock 99: Love, Peace, and Rage.
In retrospect, it’s painfully apparent that the Woodstock 99 promoters made some poor decisions. It would be easy to suggest that the Michael Lang who opted to build a stage over ticket booths in 1969 did the exact opposite in 1999. Although I don’t believe that perspective, I don’t have the answers to what exactly went wrong.
Maybe they reached too far. Maybe they aimed too high. Maybe they should have foreseen the difference between six-month pregnant Joan Baez opening her 1969 Woodstock set with “Oh! Happy Day!” and Korn performing the heavy-metal rocker “Freak on a Leash” 30 years later.
Sure, Michael Lang isn’t responsible for creating the angry musical mood of the late ‘90s. But he did choose to amplify it. And, in my own way, so did I.
But the world needs fools and dreamers. We need the Michael Langs who, when faced with the choice, decide to build stages over ticket booths. And, of course, we need the AnDrés who feel pulled to the world’s stage, to play their many parts.
We all need music. We all want to feel connected and heard. Deep down we all want to go back to the garden and rage against the dying of the light.
Maybe next time, we’ll get it right.