Q’s With: Co-Author Of ‘The Road To Woodstock’ Holly George-Warren On The Late Michael Lang And His Enduring Legacy
Photo by Bob Gruen / Courtesy Holly George-Warren – Fruits Of Their Labor
Michael Lang, the co-creator of Woodstock, with Holly George-Warren, co-writer of Lang’s autobiography.
The passing of Michael Lang, the great Woodstock impresario, on Jan. 8 came as something of a shock, having recently been in the spotlight in 2019 surrounding his unsuccessful efforts to put together a Woodstock 50th anniversary festival. Pollstar reached out to Holly George-Warren, who co-authored Lang’s autobiography “The Road To Woodstock,” to find out more about the promoter who put on one of this industry’s most important and culturally defining events of all time. As Lang’s Upstate New York neighbor as well as an academic who teaches at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and the State University of New York at New Paltz, George-Warren discusses Lang’s accomplishments beyond Woodstock, his opening a head shop in Miami, keeping cool under inordinate amounts of pressure and his enduring legacy.
Pollstar: Sorry for your and everybody’s loss. A lot of people were very, very fond of Michael Lang. He is a person who is a writ large, isn’t he?
Holly George-Warren: Yes, he really is. He’s a very intriguing person because a lot of people with the kind of things that he’s done under their belt, they’re these larger-than-life, big personalities. Michael was the opposite of that. He was very Zen and not a talkative person. He was someone who sat back and listened and took it all in and observed and absorbed. He had this vast curiosity about culture and music and love and passion for it, which was what drove him. Also, because he lived through the experience at such a young age – he was 23 when he started planning Woodstock, 24 when it happened – he had a really great instinct for putting a team together to help bring to life his vision. He was a dreamer. He thought big and didn’t let the impossible stop him from trying to achieve these huge undertakings. When someone does that, of course, not everything is going to work and be successful, but at least the guy tried. Over the years, he was always trying to do these amazing experiences that would bring people together.
Photo by Mark Loete – Scholar & Scribe
Holly George-Warren, who co-wrote “The Road To Woodstock,” is also a professor at the NYU’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music and a professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz.
Can you give some examples?
For years, he was trying to put together big concerts in the Middle East with Israeli and Palestinian musicians performing together at a festival. When you look back after Woodstock, his early career in the ’70s, he was working with artists that he saw beauty and power in their work, perhaps at a time in their career when nobody else saw it. He got a deal with Gulf & Western and started his own label, Just Sunshine Records. He signed Karen Dalton, Betty Davis, gospel artists, Blues artists, etc. Before Billy Joel became Billy Joel, he was his interim manager for a while and they remained friends for decades. He went to his Madison Square Garden concerts every year. He was blown away by Joe Cocker in ’69. The festival, of course, changed the paradigm for the music business and for the promotion business and all that and it also introduced certain artists to the world, of course, like Joe Cocker and Santana, etc. So, years later when Joe was at a very low ebb in his career and also personally, Michael became his manager and helped bring him back and put a band together. There’s a lot to the guy that should be remembered.
He had a lot of layers.
He did a lot of stuff under the radar. That’s the weird thing about it. He was so famous and so recognizable because of the movie. I would be with him in New Orleans at a street festival or something and people would come up to him like, “Oh, my God, you’re Michael Lang.” A lot of the things he was doing were really under the radar.
How did the book “The Road to Woodstock” come about?
Well, the book came out in 2009, in time for the 40th anniversary. We started working together around 2007. The book was a memoir, and it was about what led him to do that festival. He put on the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 with Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry and Frank Zappa, etc. So there’s more of the back story.
Did he really open a head shop in Miami?
Yeah, he opened the first head shop in the South. So, again, he was pretty audacious. In fact, there’s a really great Barbara Kopple documentary I highly recommend, called “Woodstock Now & Then.” There’s actual footage, because the local Miami Police were always constantly surveilling the head shop. They would shut it down, and then he opened one in Coconut Grove and was constantly under surveillance, and people were constantly getting busted. So the local news station did an expose on this head shop. It’s incredible footage. Michael looks like he’s like 16 years old, and he’s explaining the different paraphernalia and what it does. It’s pretty funny. I highly recommend it.
Courtesy of Holly George-Warren – The Road to Woodstock
The Road To Woodstock From The Man Behind The Legendary Festival
It’s interesting Michael was into weed culture at such a young age.
Oh, he was super young. He was smoking weed in the ’50s. He tripped on LSD for the first time in 1961. He was ahead of the curve. He was a head before a “head,” the slang, was created. He was obsessed with music. He started sneaking into the Five Spot when he was 14 or 15 years old to see John Coltrane. He was super into music. He listened to this famous jazz DJ, Symphony Sid, every night on the radio. And growing up in Brooklyn, he was really, really into that. And of course, he was the right age to glom onto the scene that developed in The Village, The Beats, and then segue into that Village folk scene in the early ’60s.
So the drugs and music nexus that was part of Woodstock helped unlock this counter-culture that has come into its own in many ways now, 50 years later, as we see drugs legalized and accepted. And the live festival business is booming.
He was always an advocate of weed and mind-expansion drugs. Those are the ones that I know he was an adherent of way back in the day.
The first Woodstock was supposed to be in Woodstock, then Saugerties and Wallkill, and a month out, the town backed out. I talked to him around the time of the 50th, and it was the same thing all over again: the media was going crazy, they couldn’t find a venue but he was calm, cool, collected, charismatic, kind and easy-going when we spoke.
He was always like that, I’m telling you, I never saw the guy’s feathers get ruffled, ever, ever. I don’t know if you’ve ever written a book before, but the deadline time can be a little stressful. We had many late nights, and I’m kind of high energy, so I get a little like, “Aahhhh.“ He was always cool, calm, and collected, believe me. He was the personification of that. I saw him in July of 2019, when we were all bummed out about the festivals, the writing was on the wall, but he was just very circumspect, like, “Well, I guess maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.“
He was the right person for the right time and the first Woodstock set the tone. Half a million turn up to your festival and you’ve got to have toilets and food and a million other things, and the police and God knows what else show up and somehow he was able to navigate all that.
It wasn’t just the conservatives and older people that kicked him out. He was having dissension from the beginning with the countercultural people. He had people like Abbie Hoffman threatening him, like, “If you don’t give me $20,000 for the Yippies, we are going to cause a riot at your festival.” Then the Hells Angels were like, “If you don’t duh, duh, duh, duh, duh…” He was getting threatened by Bill Graham. “What do you mean you’re putting on this festival? You’re trying to get my acts from the Fillmore? I’m going to shut you down.” He was constantly dealing with antagonism, even from within the ranks. Even from within the people that you would think would’ve been like, “Oh man, this is going to be so cool.”
There’s a French saying, sang-froid, having cold blood in the heat of battle. He seem to epitomize that, which is a valuable trait.
Totally. And also realizing that there are forces that can bring disparate people together. For him it was music but also other forms of cultural expression. I remember he was trying to pull together this really cool thing that happened in Paris in the late aughts with these ginormous puppets, it was street theatre. They were made by these artists in Europe and they were doing street theatre experiences in cities in Europe. He was really busting his ass to try to bring it to New York and having meetings with the City and trying to get permits. He just loved artistic expression as a way of bringing people together. That’s what really drove him.
Closing thoughts on Michael’s legacy?
Well, I think we nailed it when we were talking about his ability to bring people together, and his ability to keep it together under all that duress. He really did prove to the world – and how many times do you have to prove to the world – that you can overcome so many obstacles and get something like Woodstock to take place. And, again, compared to the world we’re living in today, and we’ve been continuing to live in for decades sadly, there were little rays of hope that came out of that, many of which were dashed, but every once in a while, we see them again.