Chip Monck may be the second-best known behind-the-scenes person from the original 1969 Woodstock festival, thanks to his having been drafted as a master of ceremonies for the daytime parts of the event on top of his night job as its lighting designer.
The festival is most associated, of course, with co-founder Michael Lang, with whom Monck worked closely to prepare the logistics and look of the performances. Lang, who died last Saturday at age 77, was an unusually soft-spoken rock impresario, as Monck noted when we asked for his memories of Lang and the event.
“Michael was a delightful person,” says Monck. “And he was a charismatic leader of the tangled web of folks jostling and jousting for position within Woodstock 1 — most of whom simply gave more than expected of themselves. Others gathered chevrons (and) simply were not team players. It was a bittersweet experience” because of that competition within the team, Monck added. But “other than that, Michael gathered a stunning array of talent, with a bit of help, and managed to present an exceptional event.” In his sometimes poetic fashion, Monck says that Lang was successful in “developing a collection of pastry bag nozzles to place rosettes exactly where needed.”
Before Woodstock, Monck had worked on the Newport Folk and Monterey Pop festivals, and he went on to be known for his lighting innovations on the ’72 Rolling Stones tour and earned a Tony nomination for lighting “The Rocky Horror Show” on Broadway, among other plaudits. At 82, he’s still active in the business, albeit transplanted to a home base in Australia, where we reached him this week. (The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
VARIETY: You had been invited by Michael to come back as a guest emcee for the 50th anniversary Woodstock, when it was scheduled to happen, right? Had you been involved in plans for it?
MONCK: Oh, to a degree. Never got up there and never bothered to go to the site and all that sort of thing. Michael just sent me an email and said, “The 50th is coming. We need the voice.”
Did you participate in any way in the ’94 or ’99 anniversary festivals?
Not at all… Music is not an easily controllable subject. He found out in his later presentations of Woodstock, that a band with a very rough edge looking for disaster can cause you one. It just shouldn’t have been done, I think, for what it appeared to me to be, as a cash grab. … I felt that the way music was changing and, with the way that the aggression was a part of it, that it was going to take a lot more than the peace, love and happiness that we ended up in ‘69. So I really wasn’t interested in being involved with them, and I had my own stuff to concern myself with.
It’s ironic that, to the public, you became famous as the emcee for Woodstock in 1969, when that obviously was not your job there. People learned later that was not your career — lighting was.
Michael said at about 6 o’clock in the morning, “Well, we forgot to get an emcee and you’re it, so you better move those people back about a hundred yards. Because when the rest of the crowd comes, they’ll be pressed up against the plywood, and all they’ll see is a sheet of plywood for three days.” So, my knees knocking together, I started and I asked them to take 10 big steps backwards: “Don’t turn around, because then it’ll look like in advance against the people behind you. Just walk backwards and take 10 big steps” — and they did it. All of a sudden I realized that with a reasonable request, and a reason why, it was possible to lead these folk, to a degree. It worked. It was just luck.
Surely you’ve read about the Astroworld disaster with the crowd surge. Woodstock was a different time. There wasn’t any huge barrier there, right? Just the plywood?
There wasn’t any barrier, no. Travis Scott, I haven’t met him, but I’m working with his management now (on possible tour plans). I’ve got a whole new design for him in arenas with very careful production. We have to have a video presentation I have to give to them, probably in February, when some of this starts to calm down a bit … They threw him to the lions (when he spoke to the media). … He isn’t being schooled and being taught how to logically place himself in this peril…
Why did Michael draft you as emcee?
With him saying “Oh, we neglected to hire an emcee,” I think with all best respect and caring to him, that he was just looking around and didn’t want to spend money on the emcee … or have a Tommy Smothers or someone like that, which would have been too flippant and too much fun. I think he was just looking around to find out who might be able to handle it. And I guess he thought maybe I could. He may very well have thought of that long before I was invited. But I don’t fault him at all. I have the time. I’m not lighting anything during the day, and everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing, so put me to good use. I’m grateful.
But the idea that you were able to ask people to step back at Woodstock, and they just did it… You call it partly luck. But maybe you had a mesmerizing voice.
Luckily so, yeah. It doesn’t get shrill too often. I just get quiet when I get pissed off. [Laughs.]
It’s often misquoted, but your legendary little speech about not taking the brown acid — do people ask you to recite it?
I’ve forgotten it. The only thing that’s important is the tag, which is: “It’s your trip. So be my guest.” And I tried to figure out how to soften it, because if you had taken it, and it was less than perfect or less than good, it would have been a pity to freak somebody out. So that was the only very difficult thing that I had to do at Woodstock [laughs], to figure out how to handle that.
[Monck’s full verbatim admonition: “The warning that I received, you may take with however many grains of salt you wish, that the brown acid that is circulating around us, is specifically not too good. It’s suggested that you do stay away from that; of course, it’s your own trip, so, be my guest.”]
In your actual job of lighting Woodstock, what were the challenges?
When it got dark, I had to go to work. I was running classes underneath the deck underneath the stage, running followspot classes, having picked people out of the audience that said they had some sort of knowledge of followspot operations. The followspots were difficult in those days, because they burned carbon rods about the size of a pencil, and they were copper-clad, and those two rods would burn together towards each other, motorized. And you only had 41 minutes of light, and then that lamp had to go out and it had to be retrimmed. And so during the acts in the daytime, we had made the area under the stage dark enough, and really what it was all about was how to trim that lamp. And then we got into the finite details of focus. The size of the spot was supposed to be the bottom of the guitar to the top of the head, and only did you go head to foot when there was a reason to see the whole person. And it was just classes, you know.
But we managed to get a feature film lit with 12 followspots, with about 650,000 watts of light, and 650 instruments rested under the desk. So that’s the stumbling blocks that we worked with. It would’ve been more fun to have had all the bells and whistles. But it was OK. It looked OK.
You described working on Woodstock as “bittersweet”… that there was some contention or at least competition among the team working on it.
It may be that some of our working folk that were out more for themselves than they were for that unit. … The working units continuously fell apart. Everybody was trying to get a leg up on the folks with which they were working.
Luckily, most of my crew was taken from the Fillmore, which we built for Bill Graham. And then he kindly enough decided (to loan them out), because he wasn’t going to book any acts, or couldn’t book any acts because they were all at Woodstock. They closed about two weeks before, and I took all the guys up to Bethel. So luckily I already had my hands around extremely crafted people who knew what I wanted, and then would understand as we started how difficult or how easy that would be.
You said the rain was key in bringing together the team spirit.
The Rain was an important contribution, as we all looked the same — a bunch of drowned rats. No more saluting your leadership; a smile would be sufficient. You know, all those that dressed up a little more in the office — everybody tried to make a statement one way or the other — once everybody got wet and we all were just the same, then the audience then knew that we were not hiding under a tarp or anything — that we were also in misery. So it was a great unifying feature; thank you, Lord. It was a good thing to have happen, because it kind of took everybody down to a common denominator.
What was Michael’s personality like in directing much of this?
He’s not excessively meticulous and specific. He takes time to look at the situation and to try and see how he can help move it in the direction that suits the unit or the grouping. He works differently than the usual promoter or organizer of music. He’s very quiet and never raises his voice. And then it’s interesting to see how he can always be calm. You can only tell his command of the situation by the way that he smiles or the way that he approaches someone. So in other words, his tools are different from mine.
With the Jaggers of the world, you come in and state your business and get out, and you make sure that it is very well covered. Because there’s seven personalities there and you have to figure out which person you are speaking to quickly; otherwise you don’t get an audience and there’s no reason for you to be summoned. Michael has a softer way of dealing with people. And it works, but those people have to be in step with him, or easily directed. Because he’s not a Bill Graham, who’d prefer to punch you rather than speak to you. [Laughs.]
You had done lighting at a lot of festivals before this, including Monterey Pop, but was Woodstock really a springboard for the career you’ve had for the last 50-plus years?
I had my own sort of point of aim, and I wanted to get to the majors. And immediately after Woodstock we went to do Crosby, Stills and Nash with Joni Mitchell at the Greek. And lo and behold, Jo Bergen was there, who was a mix PA for Michael Philip Jagger. And she got on the phone to Mount Ferry, where he was doing “Ned Kelly,” and said, “I found your light man,” and thank you very much. It’s one concert after another after another, and if they’re not getting better and better and better, you get swept under the carpet.
You can say that Woodstock was fucked and it didn’t work and this, that and the other thing. It was a major thing to be able to walk into and to live through, to get most of the things done that you had to. Lit a feature film with only 12 lamps. Yeah, I’m very pleased to have been involved. And had I not, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the Stones, either, because I wouldn’t know CSN as well as I did. Even though the (“Crosby, Stills and Nash”) record had been out for six months or so, all the lyrics were in my head (at Woodstock), so I knew exactly who was going to do what. No, it was very important to have done that. I’m sure I wouldn’t have had the Stones without having done Woodstock. It was an important stepping stone – so thank you, Michael.
What was the biggest difference between lighting then and lighting now?
I use followspots as my paintbrushes. In the present world of lighting, everything is totally programmed, but you can’t program an act who’s going to do what they want to do. So why do you think you can program a show, totally on disc, and expect the act to follow it? I just have a rub against what I see now. It isn’t as fluid and it isn’t as articulate as I think it should be. But anyway, that’s because five years with Jagger and five years with Bette Midler, there is a precision that is required. And then once you get to that level, you’re continually making it better. It’s the same in almost all businesses. You have to excel.
What do you feel like the ultimate legacy is of a guy like Michael? There are a lot of different takes on him, some informed by the subsequent festivals, or 2019’s non-festival.
I think he will be known or remembered for an exceptional achievement in ‘69. And I think that all the thoughts of the subsequent Woodstock efforts will just fade away. In ’69, it doesn’t make any difference if the fences weren’t up or weren’t stable enough to hold people back. Who knew how many people were coming? It was a surprise. And I he did well with the tools that he had. There’s no way of tarnishing Woodstock.