The rock & roll life of Woodstock’s brainchild

Michael Lang, dead at 77, remembered by Jerusalem-based friend of 25 years.

 Woodstock producer Michael Lang poses during a photo exhibit that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Woodstock in New York, August 9, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/ALICIA POWELL)
Woodstock producer Michael Lang poses during a photo exhibit that celebrates the 50th anniversary of Woodstock in New York, August 9, 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ALICIA POWELL)

Michael Lang, whose name and face will forever be associated with 1969’s Woodstock music festival, passed away on Saturday night in New York City at the age of 77 from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Lang grew up in Brooklyn and started out at New York University. In 1967 he dropped out and decided to move to Coconut Grove, Florida, where he opened a successful head shop. After promoting a number of local concerts in the Miami area, he decided to co-produce 1968’s Miami Pop Festival starring Jimi Hendrix.

The following year he moved back up north to Woodstock, New York, where he met Artie Kornfeld. Together they conceived the Woodstock Music and Art Fair billed as “An Aquarian Exposition, 3 Days of Peace and Music.” Along with partners Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts, they produced the festival, which would attract close to half a million people to Max Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York.

Artists who appeared on the bill included Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Who, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker and The Band. In 1970, the documentary film was released, which featured numerous shots of the 24-year-old, curly-locked Lang, often riding across the festival grounds on his motorcycle or horse, wearing his leather fringed vest without a shirt.

With the Woodstock brand in hand along with the now famous guitar and dove logo, Lang went on to produce a 25th anniversary version in Saugerties, New York (home of The Band’s Big Pink) where long-time Woodstock resident Bob Dylan finally put in an appearance.

A 1960S-STYLE bus in San Francisco. (credit: ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)A 1960S-STYLE bus in San Francisco. (credit: ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS)

This successful festival also attracted half a million fans. Five years later he produced Woodstock ’99, which this time was held in Rome, New York, attracting 400,000 people. This event proved to be both chaotic and violent with bonfires out of control and also a small number of sexual assaults. Because of this bad publicity, it became hard to organize the Woodstock 50 event scheduled for the summer of 2019 in Watkins Glen, New York. After the loss of building permits, the festival was eventually canceled following additional venue changes and the eventual loss of financial backing.

Outside of Woodstock, over the years Lang was involved in multiple musical activities. He helped sign singer-songwriter-piano player Billy Joel to his first record contract. After Joe Cocker’s mind-boggling appearance at the original Woodstock festival, Lang ended up managing the singer for almost 20 years.

Lang brought Cocker to Israel – where the singer was always popular – a couple times. In 2007 Michael brought singer Lauryn Hill to the country for a show in Ra’anana. That same year he became involved with the One Voice movement, which is a global initiative that supports activists working toward a just and negotiated resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They were planning two shows, one in Tel Aviv and the other in Bethlehem, featuring many international music personalities including Bryan Adams. Unfortunately both concerts never took place.

Lang for many years had a close relationship with the Jewish state. Besides having an aunt (his mother’s sister) who moved from the US to a kibbutz decades ago, he had a teenage daughter, Molly, who studied in a special education program based here in Jerusalem.

This is where our family connection with the world-famous music producer began. Molly lived with us for three years where we acted as her foster parents while she was living so far away from home. Over the years we became close like a family. This included a visit by their family to our home in Baka for our son’s bar mitzvah as well as a reciprocal visit by our family to their home in Woodstock.

When Michael joined us in the synagogue for the bar mitzvah, he told me how it brought back fond memories from his childhood going to shul with his grandfather.  I remember another visit when Michael flew from Israel to the US on Lag Ba’omer night. He called the next day to tell me how scary it was to look outside the plane window and see the country totally in flames.

The last time we saw Michael was when we visited him in the US just a few months before COVID hit. We sat together in a local restaurant just “schmoozing” about our kids (his five and our six) and only talking about the demise of Woodstock 50 at the very end of our conversation.

There are two personal stories I wish to share from the more than 25 years that we were friends. I was flying to New York to see my parents and other relatives. While there, I wanted to catch one of 12 concerts that Billy Joel was giving at Madison Square Garden. I called Michael to ask if he had any connections with management at the Garden. He said he didn’t know anyone there but that he did know Billy Joel. So there I was, just a few weeks later sitting in a floor seat of the famous New York venue just 10 rows back opposite Billy’s grand piano.

The second story is when I was in Brooklyn sitting shiva for my father who died three years ago. Michael showed up with a box of danishes in hand. I wasn’t surprised that the fresh pastries were from Moishe’s Bake Shop, the only kosher bakery remaining in the East Village. It was located on Second Avenue just one block north of where the Fillmore East, the famous rock venue of the 1970s, once stood.

In “Rock and Roll Heaven” there are lots of rock stars who died at age 27 such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, who both appeared at the original Woodstock Festival in 1969. Michael Lang lived 50 years more than that number. In that half a century he gave much to the world as well as to his family, his wife, Tamara, their sons Harry and Laszlo and his daughters LariAnn, Shala and Molly.

Let’s hope he now has the opportunity to produce a festival in heaven featuring some of the greatest names in rock. Michael, I wish you peace and love.

The writer is a musician and music therapist living with his family in Jerusalem.