After a tangled saga that included an investor who backed out, rejection by a small town government, and finally departing music stars, the organizers of the 50th anniversary Woodstock concert finally conceded two weeks ago that the event would not take place. Fifty years to the day after the original concert, it's worth recalling that the iconic 1969 concert almost didn't happen either.
If you live in Woodstock, New York, as I did for more than 20 years, Michael Lang is sort of a presence in town. Not everyone knows him--I, for one, was never formally introduced--but everyone knows of him. In a village that's been home to countless celebrities, including Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Gail Godwin, and Uma Thurman, a place the Dalai Lama regularly visits, Lang is not the most famous resident as he might be elsewhere. But he's known because, by naming the 1969 Woodstock Festival after the town even though it ended up someplace else, he put what had been a quiet little artists' colony on the map and in the history books.
Lang is described by his friends as a dreamer, and in 1969, having produced some large and successful concerts in Miami, he dreamed up an "Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music," planned to take place in Woodstock which was a center for the folk music scene. (Even today, it feels like an outpost of Greenwich Village.) But he announced the concert before he had secured the necessary permits and the town, knowing it couldn't handle anything near the expected size of the event, turned him down.
He next tried moving the concert to Wallkill, New York about 40 miles south and west of Woodstock. My husband, then a 17-year-old living in nearby Middletown, read the papers avidly every day as Lang and his partners sought to convince Wallkill officials that hosting the concert would be a good idea. Once again, they were turned away.
That could have been the end of the story and Lang might have been left with nowhere to put his concert, but for a strange confluence of factors chronicled in the book and film Taking Woodstock. A young man named Elliot Tiber happened to be running his parents' struggling motel in a nearby hamlet named White Lake. He happened to have a great need to find customers for the motel, and he also happened to have a permit to hold a music festival that summer (it was supposed to be chamber music).
Through Tiber, Lang met Max Yasgur, a neighbor with a large dairy farm, and the concert famously took place on Yasgur's farm. Lang had sold about 186,000 advance tickets and was estimating an audience of 200,000, but more than twice that many arrived, temporarily bringing the New York State Thruway to a standstill. For those three days, the Woodstock Festival was the third most populous city in the state, after New York City and Buffalo. My future husband hitchhiked partway there and then rode his bicycle the rest of the way. He came home without the bicycle or his sleeping bag, wearing shoes that weren't his. He had a lot of new knowledge about mind-altering substances but few recollections of the concert itself. Like most who attended, he never bothered with a ticket.
You might think the lack of things like permits came about because Lang was 24 in 1969, but the Woodstock anniversary concerts he and his partners organized since then followed a somewhat similar pattern, also devolving into either terrible or wonderful chaos. In 1994, I was a volunteer at the 25th anniversary concert in Saugerties, New York, about 10 miles from Woodstock which is as close as any "Woodstock" concert has ever gotten. As in '69 there was rain, mud, and great music, and a lovely vibe, but there were also some very unhappy vendors whose stalls were simply overrun by hungry crowds. In 1999, a 30th anniversary concert was held on a tarmac at a former Air Force base and Superfund site in Rome, New York. This time, rain would have been welcome, but instead there was 100-degree heat, $4 bottles of water and very long lines for water fountains. At the end, the event turned into a riot.
Now the 50th anniversary concert is over before it began. One of the reasons it was canceled might seem familiar. Then, as in 1969, Lang and his partners announced the event before getting permits from the town of Watkins Glen, which turned them down as Woodstock and Wallkill did 50 years earlier. Fortunately, back then Tiber and Yasgur were there to provide what was needed. So was the hippie commune the Hog Farm, which distributed free food to the ginormous crowd. We should all be grateful. Without them, there might not have been anything to commemorate.
Although there's no Woodstock 50th Anniversary concert, Radio Woodstock, the beloved local station in Woodstock, New York, will be airing 36 hours of the 1969 concert beginning at 5:07 pm Eastern Time today. You can listen online here.