Woodstock remains the most important rock festival in history, for one simple reason: It sold the counterculture to the mainstream, and for one weekend in mid-August 1969, it breached a generation gap that at that point had never been wider. Max Yasgur, whose farm in Bethel, New York, hosted the audience of roughly half a million people, spoke for many when he said “The kids were polite, shared everything with everyone, and they forced me to open my eyes. I think America has to take notice.”
The man who made the sale happen was Michael Lang, who’d promoted only one rock festival (a 1968 fête in Miami) before embarking on Woodstock. Lang came from a good family in New York City and was a precocious teenager—at one point during high school, he matter-of-factly recounts in The Road To Woodstock, he was dating an older, African-American prostitute. He made his way to Florida to open a head shop in Coconut Grove, where he learned to negotiate with the local police and up-in-arms citizens—good training for the biggest gig of his career.
Especially toward the end, during the big show itself, Lang’s prose is mixed with block-quotes from other witnesses and participants, which gives the book some air (and, with the testimonials’ frequent assertions of Lang’s cunning ways, throws some doubt on the reliability of the book’s narrator). As its title promises, most of The Road To Woodstock concerns the preparation for the event, which were even more unwieldy than these things usually are. Lang had scouted a site in Wallkill (the town of Woodstock itself was never under serious consideration for the festival), and fought city hall for a month before Yasgur, a 59-year-old dairy farmer in nearby Bethel, took $50,000 to cover his land and crops for the weekend.
The day-to-day details of the setup prompt a certain amount of suspense, even though we know how everything turns out. Most touching are the stories of local folks who came through with food and supplies for the badly underprepared site, as when one festivalgoer mentions an older couple whose son had been killed in Vietnam: “When they heard about all these kids with nothing to eat, they said, ‘There are kids who are hungry, and we’re going to feed them.’” That kind of humanity helps make Lang’s book more than just nuts and bolts.