Michael Lang, co-producer of Woodstock, Dies at 77
Updated: Jan 13
Co-Producer Rosenman Says Lang had 'infectious optimism and an unshakable self-confidence'
Michael Lang, one of the four co-producers who made international music and cultural history with the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on a farm owned by Max Yasgur in Bethel, NY during August 1969, died Saturday in New York City. He was 77.
Michael Lang, at left, with fellow Woodstock co-producer Joel Rosenman at Bethel Woods in 2017.
A statement issued by a spokesperson for the family said that he died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He is survived by his wife Tamara, their sons Harry and Laszlo and his daughters LariAnn, Shala and Molly.
Woodstock '69 Co-producerJoel Rosenman told The SullivanTimes on Sunday:
"He (Lang) was quick to laugh. He had an infectious optimism and an unshakable self-confidence. No matter what challenges we faced, he could solve them with an intelligence and creativity that inspired an entire generation, and their children, and their children's children. This is a huge loss for all of us. After 50 years of partnership, Michael and I were family. I will miss him."
Video from appearance by Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, Santana percussionist Michael Carabello and others from 2017 at Bethel Woods panel discussion on Woodstock. (video by Rich Klein)
Bethel's Jeryl Abramson, of Yasgur Road Productions, who with late husband Roy Howard purchased the Yasgur homestead property on 17B, wrote on Lang's Facebook page:
"Yasgur's is in mourning for you. On behalf of a Nation, thank you. Your legacy lives on. May you rest in peace." (Lang made an appearance at Yasgur Road Reunion's festival in August 2019 tied to the 50th anniversary of Woodstock).
Michael Lang signing Tom Kamont's shirt in August 2019 at Yasgur Road Productions weekend concert commemorating 50th anniversary. Jeryl Abramson and late husband Roy Howard purchased the Yasgur's Bethel home/farm on Route 17B in the 1990s and have been putting on Woodstock commemorative concerts there since 1996. (photo courtesy of Tom Kamont)
Duke Devlin, who traveled from Texas to Bethel in 1969 and never left, said:
"We lost a great man today…. Michael Lang. My heart and prayers go out to his wife and family. My heart is broken, for he truly was the music man." Devlin was the long-time site interpreter and guide for the Woodstock site and monument, a position that began even before Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened in July 2006 and continued until a few years ago when Devlin retired.
Bobbi and Nick Ercoline - the Orange County NY couple who were photographed in a warm embrace from the festival that became the focus of the Woodstock soundtrack album cover, said:
"We are very saddened to learn of Michael's passing. A visionary producer, organizer and influencer with the unique ability to bring people together. Michael will always be remembered as the face of Woodstock 1969. Our sincerest condolences to his wife and children."
Woodstock photographer Elliott Landy said: "It's so, so sad, especially in this time of darkness, that a person who brought so much light, and recognition of the Power of peace and love to change the world, has passed."
On Stage at Woodstock: Michael Lang, center, at Woodstock Festival, 1969.
Photo by Elliott Landy
(Used with permission from photographer)
Elliott Landy, Mike Lang and Robyn Gerry, 1998, at A Day In The Garden, the inaugural concert at what is now known as Bethel Woods. Robyn’s family, at her urging, purchased the site of the ’69 Woodstock Festival to be sure that it was preserved. (photo courtesy of Elliott Landy)
Lang, who had a memorable smile and dreamed big, was a Brooklyn native who most recently lived in Mount Tremper near Woodstock in Ulster County.
It was Lang, along with co-producers Artie Kornfeld, Rosenman and John Roberts who were denied a permit in Wallkill, NY (Orange County) before being rescued by Yasgur at the 11th hour in July 1969 - and just in time to produce the largest music festival in history.
It was "Three Days of Peace & Music" that likely can never be duplicated.
Roberts died in 2001 at the age of 56. His two children, Jennifer Roberts and Doug Roberts, are part of Woodstock Ventures, which issued a statement sent to The SullivanTimes early Sunday:
"We are deeply saddened by the death of our partner Michael Lang. He was a producer, father, environmentalist, friend, husband and most of all, one-of-a-kind dreamer whose mark on the world is undeniable. He will be missed."
Lang, who had organized the Miami Pop Festival in 1968 while living in the area, became friends with Kornfeld, who was the vice president of rock music at Capitol Records and who was well known as a songwriter and producer for The Cowsills.
The pair wanted to do some event to pay for the construction of a recording studio in Woodstock, NY.
Meanwhile, Rosenman (himself a musician) and Roberts were looking to make an investment and placed in an ad in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal that read:
"Young Men with Unlimited Capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.”
Artie Kornfeld at Bethel Woods in 2014
In a 2019 interview with The SullivanTimes, Kornfeld said that he and Lang first met in Manhattan during 1968 when Lang sort of forced his way up to Kornfeld’s plush offices at Capitol Records without an appointment. His secretary said ‘there’s a guy from your (Bensonhurst, Brooklyn) neighborhood here to see you.’ Kornfeld didn’t remember him but let him in anyway. The pair immediately connected.
Lang began telling Kornfeld that he needed to get out more and discover this new rock music scene that was developing at clubs, like The Bitter End and the Fillmore East in Manhattan.
Kornfeld said he was impressed with Lang's approach -- and charisma -- and they started hanging out. Kornfeld said that he even budgeted $5,000 to bring a band managed by Lang (“The Train”) into the recording studio, but "they were a disaster."
Lang later moved in with Kornfeld and his wife, Linda, on Sutton Place in New York City, overlooking the East River. Kornfeld said the three began talking about creating some kind of concert to raise money for their upstate recording studio where many artists like Bob Dylan, Richie Havens and The Band were already living. The studio was to be a place in the country for these pioneers of new music.
Meanwhile, Rosenman and Roberts had also become close friends about two years earlier. They met because Rosenman’s brother, Douglas, knew Roberts from the University of Pennsylvania. Joel Rosenman and Roberts then met on a Long Island golf course and hit it off.
Coincidentally, Rosenman and Roberts were about to launch their own music studio on West 57th Street in Manhattan called Mediasound. but did meet with Lang and Kornfeld after receiving their proposal.
"It was that little addendum to their project proposal that caught our eye,” Rosenman said in Joel Makower’s 1989 book, Woodstock: The Oral History. He said he told Roberts: “Why don’t we just skip the studio idea and just do a big concert? We could make a fortune.” Roberts cautioned that Kornfeld and Lang were not proposing a giant concert but Rosenman responded that “these guys (Lang/Kornfeld) will go for anything.”
In a few weeks, the foursome agreed to do a large concert with the idea that the proceeds from ticket sales would go towards that Woodstock recording studio.
Michael Lang, at right, with co-producer Joel Rosenman on July 8, 2017 at a ceremony unveiling the National Register of Historic Places marker at Bethel Woods (photo by Rich Klein)
The concert catapulted the careers of many artists, including Richie Havens, Santana, Crosby Stills, The Band, Nash & Young and had a lineup of all-star performers like Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, Creedance Clearwater Revival, Country Joe and The Fish, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin.
And if "half a million strong" was not enough to bring worldwide attention to Sullivan County in August 1969, the documentary of the film that was released in 1970 forever linked Sullivan to the most iconic music festival in history.
In fact, since Woodstock Ventures had "taken a bit of a bath" once the concert became free, Kornfeld negotiated the sale of the film rights to Warner Brothers , which helped settle a small part of what was a financial disaster for Rosenman and Roberts. The documentary included footage from around Sullivan County included Bethel, Liberty and Monticello.
Another film, Taking Woodstock, centered much attention on Lang, who was played by actor Jonathan Groff. That 2009 film was an adaptation of a book by Elliot Tiber, whose parents owned the El Monaco Motel on Route 17B in White Lake that became the festival headquarters. It was Tiber, as president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, who somehow had the power to grant a permit to the four producers: for $1.
In 2019, a documentary was released called Woodstock: Three Days that defined a generation that focused more on the Rosenman/Roberts contributions to the event as well as extensive interviews and footage of Sullivan residents and festival attendees. Barak Goodman produced the film for PBS/American Experience. Here, there's audio from Roberts about the moment it became a free concert.
"As a business venture, it was dead. And I don’t know why, but sort of a curious calm overcame us and it seemed like the gates just weren’t really what was important here anymore."
Lang joined with Roberts and Rosenman to produce Woodstock 94 near Saugerties but joined with two separate partners for Woodstock 99 (the Rome NY event that ended in violence and fires).
“In ‘99 I knew there was a disaster coming because you can’t copy a miracle and Woodstock (69) was a miracle,” Kornfeld told The SullivanTimes in 2019.
Kornfeld said that he and Lang didn't speak for almost a decade following the 1994 event over business differences. But in 2019, Kornfeld said:
“I love Michael ..When he’s Michael and it’s Michael ...just me and him, we are best friends."
During 2017 and midway through 2019, Lang tried to create a huge 50th anniversary concert (with friends/partners Greg Peck and Susan Cronin) that was not directly connected to Woodstock Ventures or Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the performance venue built in 2006 (and a subsequent museum) on the site of the 1969 event.
Woodstock Ventures did license the Woodstock name to allow Lang to organize a 50th anniversary event.
In a 2019 interview with the SullivanTimes, Jennifer Roberts, told The SullivanTimes:
"We said we’re not doing it (50th anniversary concert) as Woodstock Ventures..we're
not producers, And also there’s a lot of liabilities and risk involved. We own the licenses and there’s a lot of projects that we like to do. But I don’t think any one of us was willing to do it (the festival) . We wanted a larger production company to do it. I have my own job, my brother has his own responsibilities and no one in the Rosenman camp was going to do it either. Michael was the only one who thought he could do it. When he came through with viable partners to assume the risk..and after we had a reasonable agreement from Michael and production partners (Dentsu), we licensed it.”
Jennifer Roberts with her father, John Roberts.
(photo courtesy of Jennifer Roberts)
But Lang's deal with Live Nation and Dentsu, a Japanese investment firm, fell through when Schuyler County reduced the number of people it would allow before permitting the event
at the Watkins Glen International Speedway. (That was after Vernon Downs said no to a 50th and before a site in Maryland also rejected Lang's proposal, ending any further attempts to put up a festival).
When Dentsu pulled out, Lang and the investment firm ended up in a court battle in New York State Supreme Court over their contract and financial arrangements. The case settled after arbitration in 2020, with Lang and his partners receiving undisclosed damages.
According to one of Lang's legal filings in the case: "Dentsu and DAN planned, coordinated, and carried out an elaborate plan to destroy W50’s lucrative opportunity to stage a festival commemorating the 50th anniversary of the iconic 1969 music festival Woodstock (the “Festival”) in upstate New York. Defendants directed their subsidiary wrongfully to cancel the Festival and steal over $18 million from the Festival’s bank account, and published false and malicious statements about W50 to vendors, sponsors, concertgoers, and venues located in New York."
What triggered the beginning of the end for the 2019 concert - and the lawsuit - was a decision by the promotional company Superfly to limit the Watkins Glen concert to 67,000 fans. That reportedly led to Dentsu pulling the plug.
Before connecting with his original Woodstock co-creators, Lang owned a head shop in Miami and had organized the Miami Pop Festival in 1968.
Kornfeld, the fellow Brooklyn native, posted a Facebook birthday greeting to Lang on December 11 that said:
"We have certainly gone a zillion miles in friendship. Only you and I know the Magic of why it happened in 69."
During a Q&A with Reddit about Woodstock '69, Lang said: :
"We had no idea it would become the most famous concert of all time while we were planning it. While it was going on, we started to feel it was certainly special. But it's been just wonderful to have been a part of it, and to have experienced it. All of us who were responsible for producing it felt that way."
Bethel Woods Center for the Arts founder Alan Gerry - who became a billionaire when he sold his Liberty-based cable television company to Time Warner and who purchased the land around the original concert site in 1997 - told Bloomberg during a 1999 interview:
"Woodstock is the only thing we have going for us in this part of the state in terms of national recognition," Gerry says. "The idea is to extract what was good about Woodstock, repackage it, and present it to Middle America."
Late Sunday, Bethel Woods Center for the Arts issued a statement about Lang:
"We are greatly saddened at the news of the passing of Michael Lang, one of the original organizers of Woodstock. Michael’s role as a visionary behind the festival has left an indelible mark on history. In an interview given to the Museum in 2006, Michael said: “What’s important about [Woodstock] is, I think, that it proves that it’s possible. It proves that there is another way for the world to function and for people to relate to each other; it’s proof. And that’s something to aspire to.”
Left to right: Joel Rosenman (Woodstock Ventures), Michael Carabello of Santana, Michael Lang (Woodstock Ventures) and Wade Lawrence of the Museum at Bethel Woods in 2017 when the historic marker putting Yasgur's Farm on the National Register of Historic Places was unveiled. Standing is Barry Lewis, former editor of the Times Herald-Record. (Photo by Rich Klein)
Part of the exhibit at Museum at Bethel Woods
Fans arrive August 15, 2019 on the original Woodstock site at Bethel Woods to see Arlo Guthrie open a weekend celebration of the 50th anniversary. (photo by Rich Klein)
Some background about the concert and the site as shown on August 15, 1969 at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. (photo by Rich Klein)