How We Saved Woodstock
Forty years after the legendary music festival, Michael Lang, the co-creator, remembers the crazy night that threatened to short-circuit all that peace and love. Plus, VIEW OUR GALLERY of festival fashion.
It’s four thirty on Sunday, and the first act of the day—Joe Cocker and the Grease Band—have just finished their set. There’s a storm coming and it’s going to be a lollapalooza. I haven’t seen the wind kick up like this since a tropical storm blew through Coconut Grove in 1966. The stage crew is racing around to cover all the equipment with the last of the plastic and tarps before the rains come. After three days of this, we’ve run through miles of plastic sheeting. Booming thunder and jagged streaks of lightning seem to be Nature’s way of saying it can produce fireworks far beyond the sonics blasting from our stage.
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Some of the stagehands point to previously buried cables, becoming noticeably more visible as the earth has turned to mud over the past day. These cables carry electrical wire from under the stage to the towers. One of the stage electricians is convinced the cables’ outer shell is wearing away, exposing hot wire. Chip says he’ll check them out but that these “horse dong” cables are impenetrable, that stomping feet can’t break through the shell. They are mining cables and have a solid copper casing under the outer rubber. But while we are powwowing, someone panics and calls over to the telephone building and gets Wes’ security ally John Fabbri all freaked out. He says we should shut down, and he and Joel argue over which would be worse: a violent riot or mass electrocution. I ask someone to call back and tell them we’ll make sure neither happens. The cables are safe, but the stage power can’t be used during the thunderstorm—we’ll have to shut down for a while anyway.
I’m used to the rain. More troubling are the sixty-foot towers. On top of those towers are the massive Super Trouper lights weighing hundreds of pounds apiece. If one shakes loose, it could be disastrous. The forty-mile-an-hour winds are making the towers sway, which is a frightening sight, especially since kids are perched on the scaffolding—thousands more packed around the towers’ bases. Chip sends some of the riggers to the top of the towers to lay the lights on their sides and tie them down. The towers are engineered to withstand high winds, but this storm is pushing their limits, especially with the kids’ added weight. We’ve got to get people off them and away without causing panic. The wind is fierce—gusts are blowing rain like wet bullets, drenching everything.
Which would be worse: a violent riot or mass electrocution? I tell them we’ll make sure neither happens.
John Morris reacts quickly: He grabs the mic to let the audience know what we’re going to do and what they should do. “Please, get down from those towers! Move back away from the towers! Clear away before someone gets hurt! Keep your eyes on those towers.” He stands alone onstage as the crew, musicians, and bystanders seek cover. Though the mic is hot, he has to get the message out before power is cut.
After two days of onstage announcing and not much sleep, John’s voice is shot. I watch him give his all to help keep people safe. He’s holding what could be a lightning rod in his hand, but he doesn’t flinch. “Wrap yourself up, gang—looks like we’ve got to ride this out!” John tells the crowd we have to shut down until the storm passes, but we are here with them and they are with each other and together we will get through this. It is a heroic moment for John.
Excerpted from The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang with Holly George-Warren. ©2009. With permission from the publisher, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Michael Lang is a concert promoter, producer, and artist manager who is best knows as the co-creator of the Woodstock Music & Art Festival in 1969. He also co- produced the concert at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Woodstock 1994, and Woodstock 1999, among many other events worldwide. He is a partner in Woodstock Ventures and is the head of the Michael Lang Organization, which encompasses event production, theatrical and film production, and artist management. He lives in Woodstock.