L.A.’s fabled Sunset Marquis proved the perfect place for Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang to get over his ill-fated attempt to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the fabled 1969 event with another festival — which finally went down in flames last week after several wobbly months of planning.
“Be careful who you go into business with,” the curly-haired 74-year-old Lang laughed, shifting the blame for the festival’s unspectacular demise to his former financial partner Dentsu and its investment division Amplifi, which abruptly pulled their support after an initial investment of more than $32 million. “It was just one bizarre thing after another, but I definitely feel lighter.”
Shifting from mourning the 2019 festival to celebrating the 1969 one, Lang was joined by singer/songwriter and one-time Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian and legendary photographer Henry Diltz to host a walk-through of photos taken from the first festival, on display at the Morrison Hotel Gallery inside the lobby of the Marquis.
With a giant mural of Jimi Hendrix looming over the swimming pool, the event featured classic photos from Diltz, Baron Wollman, Elliot Landy and Jim Marshall, many of them indelible images that have entered cultural lore, including concertgoers dangerously balancing on scaffolds, David Crosby smoking a joint onstage with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, and the famed Diltz shot from behind a tie-dyed Sebastian looking out at the massive crowd.
“Someone kept offering me something they called THC or MDA,” Sebastian recalled. “I finally agreed to take it, and I was high as a kite during that performance.”
Sebastian was famously enlisted to hit the stage while wandering the streets of Woodstock when promoters scrambled to get musicians to the stage from the traffic-jammed roads around Max Yasgur’s field of dreams.
There were plenty of drugs being consumed over those three days, as Lang recalled an incident where Jerry Garcia passed some acid to Carlos Santana, who thought he had several hours before he had to perform, and then was rushed onstage, high as a kite, only to deliver one of the weekend’s most compelling performances.
“He battled that guitar because he thought it was a serpent,” said Lang.
When asked what the key to the first Woodstock’s success was, the pony-tailed Diltz, who began as a musician in the Modern Folk Quartet and playing on Monkees sessions to become one of rock’s earliest photographers, credited “God’s herb… I know that every musician that I’ve ever known smoked God’s herb, or pot, or grass, and so did that whole crowd. It’s a positive drug. Not only does it heal, it allows you to relax and get in the flow of things. Why did all that music come out of Laurel Canyon? Simple. It was God’s herb.”
The venerable 82-year-old Baron Wollman, who was 32 at the time, is merely glad he’s “still vertical,” having survived covering the original Woodstock as Rolling Stone’s first chief photographer.
“I was there from day one,” he says. “But I didn’t stay long — I knew when it was time to leave. I’m still in touch with [founder Jann Wenner] — he kept that magazine alive for more than 50 years.”
At the time of Woodstock, Wollman was working on a photo book about music festivals with fellow snapper Jim Marshall, and both covered the ’69 event at Bethel that was immortalized on the walls surrounding the Sunset Marquis swimming pool.
“I had already shot most of the musicians, so I concentrated on the crowd,” he explains. “That was the significant thing for me. I just wandered around the audience and took the shots which formed my book ‘Woodstock.’ It was meant to give you a sense of what it was like to be there.”
And with the demise of Woodstock 50, that’s just about the closest we’ll get to the festival’s original spirit.