Four decades of nostalgia, hallucinogens, and box sets make us forget that the Woodstock Music & Art Fair didn't descend from a sky of positive vibes and land softly atop a field of dancing hippies. It took planning, improvising, drugs, good luck, bad luck, drugs again, and vision. Michael Lang was a boy genius when it came to all that, producing and overseeing the event when he was just 24. Now, he's written The Road to Woodstock (Ecco), a breezy yet minutely detailed account of the events around those three days in August 1969, with recollections new and old from members of the Who, the Grateful Dead, the Band, and others. Lang and co-author Holly George-Warren will discuss the book this Friday at Brookline Booksmith. Over the phone from Woodstock, where he still lives, he talked about the book, the festival, and Sly Stone's awesomeness.
In writing the book, were you surprised at how much you remembered? Did you keep a diary while the festival was coming together?
I didn't, and frankly, when this whole thing started, I had never really written a book like this before. The physical act of writing, I think, opened it up. It was just a trigger that represented my willingness to actually go back, because for so many years I've tried to stay away from reliving that. When you do such a big event at such a young age, if you're not careful, it can take over your life. So I spent a lot of time pushing it away. It was amazing, the whole thing really came back to me. I was sort of along for the ride.
Is it strange to see how your memory comes together but also clashes with the experience of other participants? You write about how fantastic the Who were, for example, and later Pete Townshend said it was the worst performance they'd ever given.
I know, and he's also said it was their most important show ever. At the end, he talks about how wonderful it was, but throughout the entire day, he was like the Grinch that stole Christmas. He was uptight, miserable, hated being there, and wanted to go home.
What effect do you think Michael Wadleigh's filmWoodstock has had on the Woodstock legacy? It seems to perpetuate the myth as well as puncture it.
Well, in a way, it does both, but it's also responsible for spreading it around the planet. I've traveled extensively all my life, and I've almost never met any person who didn't know of Woodstock and didn't think fondly of it, and I think that's because of the film. It came to places where people were still struggling for freedom in those days, and it was inspirational to them, as was the festival. So that's a gratifying piece of it. But I think the film is responsible for the force it's taken on.
But how accurate is it? The way we see Sly Stone in the movie, it looks like the best performance anyone has given — ever.
In fact, I must say, it was. That's the one performance that for me — there were some great moments, Joe Cocker, Santana — but that moment with Sly was the best performance, the most amazing experience with an audience, that I've ever seen. And I've seen thousands. It was just a magic moment for him.
Conversely, did you wish you could get your money back from the Grateful Dead?
Ah, no. Actually, I've seen their performance, in bootleg, and it wasn't as bad as they thought it was. It was far from their best, but it wasn't that bad.
You've said that Woodstock has become overexposed in some ways. What do you mean?
It's sort of come to dominate that whole generation, that whole decade. And there were a lot of things going on in the '60s that were very important to the world we live in today. A lot of the roots of the issues that we deal with today. Woodstock is sort of a convenient word to wrap all that up in. The green movement that started in the '60s, the civil-rights marches. The first movements for change that started in the '60s that culminated in the election of Barack Obama, I think. There are direct roots in that generation. It's important that those things get remembered as well.
There seems to be a lot of Woodstock spirit in the music festivals around today. Have you been to Bonnaroo?
I haven't been to Bonnaroo. The most interesting festival I've been to is Burning Man. Have you been?
No — something about all of the nakedness.
It's something you must experience once before it gets too over the top. It's like living on Pluto for a week.
That's not over the top?
Oh, I just mean in terms of the crowd size. It's totally over the top in every other way.