August 6, 2009 / 4:26 PM / 10 years ago

By the time we got to Woodstock: 40 years later

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Woodstock lives — on stage, on film, in books and TV news clips, and forever in the memory of anyone who came of age in the ‘60s.

The cover of Martin Lang's "The Road to Woodstock". REUTERS/HarperCollins/Handout

Forty years after the three-day music festival that celebrated peace and love during a time of protest and anger at the Vietnam War, Woodstock nostalgia is in full commercial flow.

A little ironic, considering that the festival famously became a “free concert” after it drew hundreds of thousands more people than the 200,000 that organizers had planned at $18 per ticket.

Survivors from some of the acts that played Aug 15-17, 1969 will again take the stage on what was Yasgur’s Farm, but is now the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in upstate New York.

The “Heroes of Woodstock” show on Aug 15 features the Levon Helm Band, Jefferson Starship, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Big Brother and the Holding Company and Country Joe McDonald.

Meanwhile the movie “Woodstock” has been re-released in a 40th anniversary director’s cut, along with the 2-CD soundtrack, while Rhino Records has put out a 6-disc box set featuring every performance at Woodstock.

And later this month, director Ang Lee will debut “Taking Woodstock,” a movie about a man working at his parents’ motel who inadvertently sets in motion the concert.

But for many, the definitive story of that Summer of Love is “The Road to Woodstock,” a book by Michael Lang, one of the organizers of the festival.


“There was this impression that there was a beautiful field and a bunch of people turned up and some bands were in the area and they put up a stage and played,” Lang told Reuters. “It actually took 10 months of planning!”

He and his partners had planned on 200,000 people attending the event, and they actually sought the help of the Army Corps of Engineers for some of the logistics.

“But they must have got wind of what was happening. They canceled a meeting at the Pentagon the day before, so we were left on our own,” Lang said.

Coming at the height of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement that divided America mostly along generational lines, it is perhaps hardly surprising the military did not want to get involved with what was viewed as a hippie festival.

So Lang and his partners were left to stage a show that featured 32 of the top musical acts of the time and an audience Joni Mitchell referred to as “half a million strong.”

“Woodstock was the realization of the dream,” Lang said of an event known as much for its mud, bad acid and miles-long traffic jams on the New York Thruway, as for its music.

“But it was not frustrating, I enjoy solving problems. It was exciting at the time, there was no blueprint and we made it up as we went along,” said Lang.

“There were a lot of similarities with what is going on now in the world,” he said. “It was a time of the first Earth movement, the ecology movement, which was very important for our generation.”

That summer 40 years ago was notable also because man walked on the moon for the first time and America was horrified by Chappaquiddick, when a car driven by Senator Edward Kennedy ran off a bridge resulting in the death of his young woman passenger, and the Charles Manson murders.

There was also the issue of war - Vietnam then, Iraq now. “After eight years of the Bush administration, I could see we were in a very dark moment again,” said Lang.

Slideshow (2 Images)

“And then the inauguration of Obama was portrayed in the New York Times and other papers as ‘a Woodstock moment.’”

Lang, a music producer and promoter, also organized concerts on the 25th and 30th anniversaries of Woodstock, featuring more contemporary artists. But from Richie Havens, who opened the original Woodstock, to Jimi Hendrix, who closed it, it is the musicians he remembers most.

“There were three surprises — Joe Cocker, who was unknown at the time; Carlos Santana stood out - you knew a superstar was being born. And Sly Stone. His energy was beyond anything I had ever experienced. I was camped out on the corner of the stage and I saw them all,” said Lang.

Reporting by Steve James; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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