By Paul Smart
It’s the month of the Woodstock Festival’s much heralded 50th anniversary. You could say the entire thing, including its long heralded memory, ended up seeping back into its chaotic Aquarian Generation roots.
At the time we were writing this, in the latter half of July, the festival was set to land at a nonprofit concert center in Maryland, under an hour’s drive from both Baltimore and Washington, D.C. The crowd was being predicted as being in the 30,000 range, with any expansion to come from paid live streaming. And top acts from the festival’s roster, including Jay-Z and John Fogerty, were starting to drop for a variety of reasons.
Then, on July 31, the whole thing got called off with a downpour of self-pity. Just days earlier, a town board in the rural township of Vernon in Central New York had once and for all denied the legacy festival’s original promoter Michael Lang and his various producing and financing cohorts, including potential host site Vernon Downs Casino and Racetrack, any and all permits.
Lang, of Woodstock, Woodstock 50 partner Greg Peck of California, and last-minute producing partner Virgin Produced and its CEO Jason Felts had appealed a string of previous denials in a last minute attempt to hold a series of single day concerts featuring its paid for talent, and bussing attendees in from nearby parking lots. Felts and Virgin Produced announced that it had “officially concluded its consulting role with respect to the company and the proposed festival” within two hours of the town officials’ decision on July 16, stating that, “despite our formidable effort to assist Michael Lang and the Woodstock 50 ownership in resurrecting their NY festival, it has become apparent that time has expired.”
Lang and Peck also put out a statement noting that, “Woodstock 50 is disappointed that the Town of Vernon has passed up the opportunity to hold the historic 50th Anniversary Festival by denying our robust and thoughtful proposal. We regret that those in Vernon who supported Woodstock have been deprived of the once in a lifetime chance to be part of the rebirth of a cultural peace movement that changed the world in 1969 and is what the world needs now. We want to thank the artists who stood by us. We are grateful for the support of Vernon Downs and its generous owner Jeffrey Gural.”
A torrent of stories started appearing everywhere summing up how the big generation defining festival got to this point in the first place, wherein Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente Jr. had noted that the “ill-conceived last minute cash grab will only cause harm and damage because they are not prepared or ready to hold this event. It is haphazardly being thrown together at the last minute with no regard to property owners, residents, concertgoers, artists, or law enforcement…It’s time for this application to be unequivocally denied and for Michael Lang and his group to move on.”
News accounts of the Woodstock’s commemorative year trials and tribulations stretched back to a January announcement about something happening, not at the original site; then news of its going to land at Watkins Glen, the speedway where a Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, and The Band concert broke the original fest’s 450,000 crowd figure record; and then a huge list of signed acts’ names and other planned activities in March. Tickets will be on sale soon, kept coming the refrain.
Until the end of April, that is, when Lang et al. hired former Donald Trump personal attorney Marc Kasowitz after the original financial partner, international PR behemoth Dentsu Aegis, pulled out and things went to court, where judges decided that Dentsu did not have the right to unilaterally cancel Woodstock 50, but could keep $18 million in funding it had promised the festival.
In the ten following months, Woodstock 50 rarely went more than a couple of days without hitting the headlines. They lost their original producing partner, Superfly; Watkins Glen International Speedway pulled out. Things looked up when Lang et al. announced that Wall Street’s Oppenheimer & Co. would be its new financial consultants, Virgin Produced its new production consultants, and Vernon Downs as a new venue; even if the anticipated attendance kept dropping in halves until the latest figures being bandied about were in the 35,000 range, with some insisting that things might yet work out with 5,000 attendees. Tickets never did go on sale, which many considered a strange blessing, given how the failed 2017 Fyre Festival had put its promoters in jail because of its presales.
As for all the acts that were reportedly paid upfront, ranging from Jay-Z and Fogerty, to Miley Cyrus and Dead & Co., Santana and other “legacy acts” from the original festival, trade publications started describing things as being in “a holding pattern” that could change in the coming weeks “as agents consider their options as they relate to their already booked acts.”
Then David Crosby of CSNY, Byrds, and Laurel Canyon fame told everyone the whole thing was never going to happen, and even worse, that the entire Woodstock franchise had always been a scam because its lead person, who he didn’t name but all knew was Lang, was a notoriously bad-vibe-spreading scamster. Ouch.
At which point everyone started looking back over the entire half century of Woodstock history. What was the legacy at play?
Dentsu, Superfly, Watkins Glen, and the small Town of Vernon all charged the festival with offering up too little too late, basically, for its permits, its massive funding packages, its attention to detail in an age of numerous legacy festivals from Bonnaroo and Coachella, to Glastonbury and Lollapalooza. All inferred that Lang et al. had shown a lack of concern for where festival goers drawn by their array of somehow-paid-for acts might stay between sets and day concerts. And never kept those acts, or their own website, updated on all the changes they were facing.
Disorganization, in other words. Chaos. A mess in the making.
Which many started to point out, and Lang himself admitted in several interviews, were all part of what had become legendary about Woodstock’s first festival incarnation, and less directly its 25th and 30th anniversary events. You set things up…trouble ensues but somehow magic happens (or maybe a riot, as in 1999).
Meanwhile, little stories have started to appear alongside all the prepared releases on still programmed 50th year commemorative exhibitions, screenings, concerts, $800 box sets, and books (including several with buy-in by Lang). And Woodstock Ventures, one of Lang’s legal entities, has kept showing its legal muscle.
A would-be Woodstock 50th anniversary in North Carolina was asked to not use the hallowed name. Woodstock Ventures, simultaneously, pushed to settle a copyright infringement case with Pennsylvania-based Woodstock Roots over Lang et al.’s plan to release a Woodstock 50 brand of cannabis products by next month’s commemorative week through a purported licensing deal with the burgeoning California-based cannabis company, MedMen. There was even a chance to purchase pieces of the original Woodstock stage, or at least some of the plywood used on it. “Own a piece of music history. Every Peace of Stage collectible includes letters of authenticity. Get 15% off today! Buy your piece now! When it’s gone. It’s gone,” read the shill.
And yet the words that started to linger by the time memories of watching out for the brown acid came around, and rains everywhere led to new opportunities for caking oneself in mud, were less Joni Mitchell’s paean to stardust and a generation yearning to learn, than Green Day’s “American Idiot,” shaped by the Woodstock ’94 and ’99 debacles.
Was it the music industry’s devolution into yet another form of mega business at fault? The capitalism-on-steroids coming of the information age and its uber corporations?
Maybe we shouldn’t have been looking to recreate lightning, let alone a rained out few days fifty years ago, in the first place. Afterall, for those geared to anniversaries, remember that Lang showed up not just in the filmed version of Woodstock a half century back, but also the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. Remember that one? That’s where he was the guy who told everyone not to worry when there was nowhere to move a planned festival in its final days. After all, he said, there is this place called Altamont.
Back to some garden, indeed.