Thoughts on The Road to Woodstock
I just finished listening to The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang. Lang was one of the four people at the top putting the festival on.
I started it initially, thinking it’d be fun. I recently enjoyed a book about the Grateful Dead written by their drummer, and this fell in the same vein.
It ended up being more than just a fun read, though.
Woodstock was a game changer of the times.
I still don’t have the entirety of the historical picture, but 1969 was a pretty charged and important year in the US (coincidentally also 50 years ago from now).
It was the middle of the Vietnam War, and 250K marched on Washington in protest. The US announced troop withdrawals for the first time. We also landed on the moon.
There was a strong distinction of sorts between the counterculture/hippies and the majority of the ruling elite. I mention that because it made the feat of Woodstock that much more impressive. There were anecdotes of people attending saying that they had no idea there were so many like themselves out there.
Roughly five hundred thousand people (some estimate more) showed up on a farm to listen to music and celebrate life. Amazingly, only 3 (internet says 2, but pretty sure Michael Lang said 3 in the book) died during the entire weekend. (There were also two babies born!)
For one, Woodstock was a new concept. Music festivals were not a commonly known/done thing. In assembling the festival, they had to figure out how to even go about taking care of so many people staying in the same space for such a long time. That meant food, water, waste, hygiene, people going to the bathroom, health, they had a tent for people on bad trips, and so on.
Michael Lang was a smart, logical guy and he did his best to put together an all star team to run the operations. There were lots of complexities and challenges, though, throughout that make its eventual success that much more special. Throughout the book, he dove into many of the decisions he made that were impactful.
One particularly noteworthy one was the emphasis against violence. At many similar events pre and post dating Woodstock, massive riots took place where tons of people got hurt.
Instead, they didn’t bring on police with the intention of keeping the peace violently. No policeman wore his gear, but rather clothing that was nice and friendly. They ended up making the festival free for people after the initial rush turned crazy. The planners could have forcefully pushed people out, but that would have destroyed the festival.
It was also a wild event and story.
There are countless anecdotes about the absurdity of Woodstock that took place throughout the weekend and leading up.
To name a few:
- They got kicked off the land they were going to use a month before the festival and had to find a new spot for so many people. Fittingly, it moved from Wallkill to Bethel (a biblical name).
- The first day of the festival, it’s said a million people tried to get there. The highway was shut down far back, and people walked over 8 miles, leaving their cars parked literally wherever in order to make it to the bowl for the festival
- They flew most artists in on helicopter
- When people hold out lighters (or phones these days) at concerts — that came from Woodstock when someone told the audience if they lit candles it would make the rain go away
- People were going nude swimming throughout the weekend in the lake
- Some stayed in their spot for 3 days straight without eating to maintain the good spot
- During one of the sets, a random guy got up on stage and was just throwing LSD off of it to anyone that wanted it (but the organizers were also telling the crowd to ‘avoid the brown acid’ so people freaked out a bit)
- They hired ‘the hog farm’ to help make things go smoothly and one thing the hog farm did was drive through the crowd on a little truck handing granola out to people
- On the first day, someone showed up at Woodstock with the intention of inspecting whether the festival needed to be shut down halfway through. He showed up with his teenage (or maybe 20s) daughter. His daughter wandered off immediately and he spent the entire weekend looking for her instead.
- Santana, who was not very well known at the time, had just taken Mescaline because he was supposed to go on in like 5 hours. He was told he either had to go up immediately or he wouldn’t play at all. So, while he was peaking, he played a set that helped make his career.
- The punch for artists, family and friends got spiked with LSD.
- Hendrix ended Woodstock at 10:30 am Monday morning
It goes on and on.
Michael Lang and the other creators made a movement.
Woodstock was a movement. With all of the peace and love through the weekend that was taking place during a very challenging time in the US, it seemed like the festival was an amazing event in American history.
Even back then, the media supported their own agendas, inaccurately
During the festival, many media outlets reported that the festival was a disaster and things were chaotic. Even the day after, the NYT published a scathing story about Woodstock.
In a time when those outlets had even more control, and people couldn’t share their experiences on Snapchat, these stories likely dictated initial perceptions about Woodstock significantly more than they would have today. Eventually, perceptions changed as everyone shared their experiences, though, and the truth came out.
It was fun, inspiring and a story of community.
I’m thrilled I got to hear this story because it’s one that has a huge place in American cultural (and maybe even political) history.
500,000 people coexisting in a singular place for three days while listening to music and having the experience of a lifetime. It came about because of the hard work of tons and tons of people and because of the vision pushed hard by Michael Lang.
Would recommend 10/10.