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Review: 'The Road to Woodstock' is a tale of mirth and frustration

The gates of pop culture have been bursting in the runup to this weekend's 40th anniversary of Woodstock.

Everyone who was there — or thinks he was — will tell of dropping acid for a ride with the Jefferson Airplane, skinny-dipping in communal baths with 400,000 nubile neighbors and waking up to Jimi Hendrix strangling The Star-Spangled Banner out of his electric guitar for the finale of the three-day (and then some) festival of music, mud and bad brown acid.

New Yorker Michael Lang, who in the 1960s owned a head shop in Coconut Grove, and who created the Woodstock warmup Miami Pop Festival in May 1968, helped shape the Woodstock Music and Art Fair through persistence, charisma and Herculean organizational savvy. He proves to be a brilliant, amusing raconteur in The Road to Woodstock, in which he recounts how the festival came together.

The book's detail-laden flashbacks from organizers and performers such as hippie goddess Melanie, a newcomer who had no idea what she was getting into; a cranky Pete Townshend, who blasts "the people at Woodstock" as "a bunch of hypocrites"; and a bemused Grace Slick, who recalls singing "sort of half asleep," are potent enough to give readers a contact high.

Reading Lang's book can be a heady experience. He recounts vivid tales of the early days in the Grove, which he describes as having "an artsy laid-back vibe, the kind of place where dogs lie down and sleep in the middle of the road."

Lang and his pals spent a lot of time outwitting cops (some corrupt, others of the Keystone variety). One planned bust of a pot party went hilariously awry as a tipster alerted Lang and his cronies to the coming arrests, and word spread along the Grove grapevine: "As a line of police cars raced through the Grove in one direction, an equal number of long-haired cyclists would whiz past them, going the opposite way."

As the leader of a ragtag group who had never staged anything of the magnitude of Woodstock, Lang steadfastly believed in his vision even as fate conspired against him. Woodstock wasn't even in Woodstock, N.Y. The location fell through at the last minute, and as Lang recounts, producers had to go to nearby Sullivan County. They found a large field owned by amiable dairy farmer Max Yasgur, who apparently was someone over 30 whom hippies could trust.

Lang also proves a brisk storyteller in the later chapters, which describe such career-making performances as those by newcomer Santana and Sly & the Family Stone.

"I got to witness the peak of the festival, which was Sly Stone. I don't think he ever played that good again — steam was literally coming out of his Afro," guitarist Carlos Santana recalls. However, not every act rose out of the muck. The Grateful Dead had problems. "A combination of the weather and hallucinogenics proved their undoing," Lang writes.

But chunks in the middle of Road feel like an interminable slog — like the traffic jams that led to the field at Yasgur's farm — to anyone uninterested in spread sheets and the headaches with which concert promoters deal. Perhaps this was Lang's unintended way of making the reader feel as he did 40 years ago: For every one giddy step forward, there's a corresponding and frustrating step back.

The Road to Woodstock

By Michael Lang with
Holly George-Warren

Ecco/Harper Collins, 304 pages, $29.99

Review: 'The Road to Woodstock' is a tale of mirth and frustration 08/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 14, 2009 5:49pm]
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