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Four days of peace and music that became legendary


Text by Gaëlle LE ROUX

Latest update : 2009-08-15

Forty years ago, the flower-power, psychedelic rock and "peace and love" of the 1960s crystallised around four days (one more than originally planned) at a gathering of 450,000 hippies in a muddy field that became the legendary Woodstock festival.

Michael Lang, the man behind the venue

The legend of Woodstock is intimately linked with Michael Lang. And vice versa.

Lang, a young hippie resembling Jim Morrison, had the idea of a musical celebration of peace, love and the power of flowers in the tradition of California’s 1967 Summer of Love.

In the summer of 1969, Michael Lang was just 24 years old. He already had a flourishing coffee shop in Miami to his credit, one of the first of its kind in the United States. The late 1960s was the time to explore consciousness-expansion, with drugs circulating freely – and legally. 

Taking his first steps into the music business, Lang organised the 1968 Miami Pop Festival. On its poster he touted as-yet little-known names such as Jimi Hendrix. First try, first triumph: the festival attracted over 100,000 people.

Bolstered by this success, Lang dreamed of more, and looked to open a recording studio in Woodstock, a village in upstate New York where many music stars of the time were seeking refuge, notably Lang’s idol, Bob Dylan. Woodstock was a crossroads for three other music giants of the era: John Roberts and Joel Rosenman, who were both seeking a new and promising financial project, and Artie Kornfeld, vice president of Capitol Records. In the absence of a studio, the four launched the Woodstock Ventures with the idea of organising an immense festival. 

What they at first thought would be a good investment turned into a financial drain. The hundreds of thousands of dishevelled young people, lured to the site for the August 15-17 event (which extended to August 18), begin pulling down the fairground gates, prompting Lang to make the famous announcement: “It’s a free concert from now on!”. The legend of Woodstock was born, though its organisers could not have imagined that their modest initiative would in a few short years become a key symbol – and a main event – of the 1960s counter-culture years.

In the years since, the young, carefree man who traipsed through the Bethel mud 40 years ago has become a wizened businessman who specialises in organising cultural events. In 1994, and again in 1999, Lang tried to revive the legend by organising festivals celebrating the 25th and 30th anniversaries of Woodstock. This year's 40th anniversary may well have been marked in the same way but for the financial crisis; the sexagenarians all had to cancel. The spirit of 1969 now seems very far away.


The legends

Jimi Hendrix, emblematic star of Woodstock

On the morning of the fourth day, sporting a red bandana and a heavily fringed jacket, Jimi Hendrix played a slow, psychedelic version of the US national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner”, with his electric guitar. It was a sequence of vibratos and saturations, a metaphor for the American bombs battering Vietnam. To this day, Hendrix’s squealing, tortured version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” lives on in music history.


Jimi Hendrix Woodstock '69-Full Version Hymne Américain
envoyé par 91Zuzu91.

Janis Joplin falters

On August 17, 1969, the gravelly-voiced singer went to take the microphone, supported by three people. She had waited to come on stage for ten hours - time devoted to emptying bottles and shooting heroine. In the end, she and her new Kozmic Blues Band delivered one of their worst performances ever. Joplin refused to appear in a 1970 film immortalising the festival directed by Michael Wadleigh but the director did in the end decide to include her legendary clip of “Work Me, Lord” for Woodstock's 25th anniversary.


Joe Cocker covers the Beatles and becomes a star

Joe Cocker was already considered a rising star in the music business, but it was Woodstock that made him an international name. Just 25 at the time, Cocker only sang five songs but his version of the Beatles’ “A Little Help From My Friends” captured all the many fans of love and peace in the mud at his feet.


Missing from the line-up


Lang had sought to reconcile Bob Dylan with the hippie movement, an endeavour that was doomed to failure. Not only did Dylan ignore Lang’s invitation to perform, he dismissed the event in a local paper by saying he thought the festival would be no different from any other and instead decided to play at an event on the Isle of Wight. The ’60s folk legend somewhat made up for his lack of foresight by taking part in Woodstock’s 25th anniversary in 1994.


The Doors, whose anti-war song “The Unknown Soldier” topped the charts in 1968, were another no-show. Their third album had been a success but relations within the group were headed for trouble. Lead singer Jim Morrison was embroiled in a lawsuit for public indecency for having stripped off during a concert in Miami. The Doors were forced to cancel all their shows that year - including Woodstock and a planned European tour.


The Rolling Stones, judged a bit too violent for a festival celebrating peace and love, and Led Zeppelin, who wanted to be the headlining act, were also notably absent from a music event that defined their era.


Some years after the festival, Lang said that his greatest regret was not succeeding in getting John Lennon to play. Lennon was invited to perform, but agreed only on the condition that he could play with the Plastic Ono Band, a project he had launched with his partner, Yoko Ono. But the organisers said it was out of the question, the matter was closed, and Lennon didn't attend.


Date created : 2009-08-15