RIP, Michael Lang

In the satirical Netflix production titled “Death to 2021,” we meet a young and wildly enthusiastic participant in the January 6, assault on the US Capitol.  Some months later (and after her arrest), this now much-subdued woman is interviewed in her home where she must remain while awaiting trial.  Pointing, with some embarrassment, to her ankle monitor, she observes whimsically: “This was my Woodstock.”  She then admits quietly: “Of course, I don’t really know what a ‘Woodstock’ is.”

No argument here… she is clueless about Woodstock.

This snippet of televised dialogue came to mind when I learned that Michael Lang passed away on January 8, 2022.  The most visible face of the team responsible for mounting the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair held August 15-17, 1969, in Bethel, New York, Lang expressed his vision for this remarkable cultural event in an interview with Chronogram, on August 1, 2019:

“I just thought about how nice it was for someone to be sitting out under the stars in the summer, smoking a joint, and listening to music. I thought, ‘I wonder if something like this but bigger could work here.’”  

And the rest, as they say, is history.

This is not to suggest that Woodstock was devoid of controversy.  As a matter of fact, with protests against the Viet Nam war rocking the country, many of the musicians who performed espoused distinctly anti-government points of view … Jimmy Hendrix … Jefferson Airplane … Joan Baez … Richie Havens.  And, of course, Country Joe McDonald’s performance of his classic “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” rag left no doubt about his position on the war.

But despite the uproar elsewhere, there was something almost magical about Woodstock that distinguished it from similar gatherings during that era and since.  As an aside, could it possibly have had something to do with the whole “smoking a joint” thing mentioned by Michael?  Thinking back to the thick marijuana haze enveloping Yasgur’s Farm over those three days in August, 1969, there may be something to that theory.

Reading Michael’s obituary reminded me of something else: he and I were the same age … we were both 24 years old during the Woodstock event.  And though (as far as I know) we never crossed paths, we both had “boots on the ground” at the same time during that affair.

Clearly, our roles were different: he was one of the impresarios running the whole enterprise, while I was a mere Dutchess County Deputy Sheriff sent to assist with managing the crowd and all that went along with that.  And while I cannot speak to Michael’s views after everything was over, I know that the time I spent at Woodstock – and the lessons I learned there – served me well over the course of what became a forty year career in law enforcement.

The fact that I was assigned to work at Woodstock as a police officer was pure serendipity, but it was an experience that I cherish. And, yes, nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges, so I am not surprised that those incredibly long hours, sodden fields, gridlocked roads and throngs of people seem less overwhelming today than they did in 1969.  Instead, my mind is drawn to more pleasant memories and, most especially, of the youngsters in attendance … smiling faces …  acts of kindness … expressions of appreciation … and the sense that we were involved in something bigger than all of us. 

You left us with vivid and important memories, Michael, for as Irving Berlin wrote: 

 The song is ended but the melody lingers on.

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