I had lunch with a celebrity. This happened completely by accident. I’ve met very few celebrities. I did shake hands with Vijay Amritraj and sat next to Kevin Wright once. ( ** see footnotes below ) Now, Michael Lang may not be your idea of a celebrity and lunch with him isn’t strictly accurate either. 🙂 Still, I’m chalking one up on my slate here. Considering the paucity of celebrity encounters I’ve had, I have to take what I can get, sort of like what Janis Joplin sort of meant when she sang “Get it while you can..”.
Around the time I was settling into Calcutta, over in the US things were unsettled. JFK and the Summer of Love had come and gone, the Vietnam war was causing the draft revolution and anti-war protests. A curly-haired young man called Michael Lang decided he wanted to open a studio in New York. He had organized some rock concerts already in the Miami area with one attracting some 25,000 people and some big acts. In early 1969 he was persuaded to drop his proposal for creating a studio and organize a rock concert instead.
Lang and his BFF Artie Kornfeld set out to organize what eventually became the granddaddy of all rock concerts. It was slated for a town in upstate New York that was frequented by many folk and rock musicians. Among it’s residents was a poet and singer known as Bob Dylan. The authorities in Woodstock, NY however, turned the proposal down.
Finally, the event was moved to a farm in Bethel, NY, 70 KM away from Woodstock. So the first thing we have to know is that the Woodstock Festival wasn’t held in Woodstock, NY but in Bethel, NY. Next, it was covered by a documentary shot during the 3-days of Peace and Music. “Three days!”, Arlo Guthrie can be seen exulting in the movie. 54 hours of music! The movie was directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by editors like Martin Scorcese and Thelma Schoonmaker.
I saw the movie in Calcutta in about 1973/74. It was rated for adults only, but I darkened my moustache with eyebrow pencil borrowed from my sisters and sneaked past a disbelieving but indulgent usher.
It was a defining moment in my life.
It changed the way I saw things, it changed the way I heard things, it changed the music I heard, it awoke sensibilities I hadn’t known I had. It had everything in it. Raw emotion, raw energy, a look at a ‘counter-culture’ that the Americans themselves were struggling to comprehend. It brought forth the idea that music could be used as a force, as poetry, as persuasion, as protest. Above all it brought out music that displayed passion. Music that went beyond the 2.5 minute radio length and let itself be free. Music that freed the performer and the listener.
I discarded the pop/country world of Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck and Lynn Andrews and moved beyond the early “She loves you, yeah, yeah yeah” Beatles to explore their albums. The Beatles had already moved on with the album Revolver. “Eleanor Rigby”, “For No One” were strange enough, but “Love You To” had tabla and sitar… on a rock album recorded in 1966. It woke up in me a world of possibilities.
I think you get the idea. I was quite impressed!
A highly impressionable 14-year old, I lived in solitude among 8 other kids in the household. I’ll have to explain that some other time. Suffice it to say I steeped in it, wallowed in it and at just the right time I heard Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album. I was never to return to the sugar-pop. The heartbeats on the album underlined the repressed music on the album, a simmering discontent and anger unable to escape and provide relief. It matched my mood perfectly.
A neighbour had the 3-album set of Woodstock and I transferred it to tape and listened to it. A lot of it still didn’t make sense to me. Joan Baez and Jerry Shurtleff singing “Drugstore Truck Driving Man”, for instance, had no special significance to me. Instead I found myself being drawn to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.
I bought the movie on DVD and played it over and over at home. Watched it, heard it, saw the mud, the rain dance, Mike Shrieve’s manic drum solo and Alvin Lee’s epic performance of “I’m going home”and the skinny dipping. Freedom! Bathing, splashing, having fun and this girl standing waist deep in the lake, casually shaving her underarm. Freedom. “Freedom, Freedom”, cried Richie Havens to open the show. Freedom! Moments of abandon I would never know myself.
Such then is the background to the story.
A Pilgrimage of sorts
In April 2012, I took the summer off. I persuaded My Beloved Bangalan to head off with me on a driving trip to DC to see my niece and visit one of my long standing requests to visit the Smithsonian.
“The drive through the Catskills is really quite nice”, I said, “very scenic. I’ve driven through there once, years ago and it was quite beautiful.”
“Uh, ok, but we’re going to DC, right?”
“Yeah, I thought, you know, it’s just the two of us, we should take a break and stay a couple of nights in the Catskills. I found a Bed and Breakfast overlooking the river. Looks very nice.”
“And how far is it from the Woodstock site?”
Rats! She knows me well….
“About 20 miles”, I grinned sheepishly.
43 years, to the day, after the great concert, I had her take my picture standing where the stage had been. Check one off my bucket list! The museum has some interesting exhibits as well. And yes, I bought the t-shirt…
We left the site and just a few yards down the street stopped for lunch. We sat on the patio overlooking the entrance to the Bethel Woods Centre for the Arts ( the site of the festival ). As I sat there, beer in front of me waiting for my sandwich, a silver Mercedes ML 350 drove past and parked further up the parking area. A man with whitening curly-hair walked past me, nodded an acknowledging smile at me and sat down at the table next to mine, which already had an older lady, a younger lady and a boy of about 8-10 years old. We had our respective meals and then he got up and walked past me with a definite nod and smile, got into the Mercedes and drove off.
Then it hit me.
“Hey, that’s Michael Lang!!”, I cried out.
The ladies at the next table looked up and over at me, smiled and nodded. I got up and walked over to chat with them.
“Yes, it is Michael. He’s over at the Centre signing books, if you want to go talk to him.”
I made some rambling comments about my love for everything Woodstock and all that it had given me. She looked at me with, maybe, some pity, some wonder? I don’t know.
All I know is I had lunch with a celebrity, Michael Lang.
Well, almost. He was right next to me. He smiled at me! He nodded as he left! I spoke to his wife! I saw his kid playing around!
I did, I did taw a telebrity!
- Vijay Amritraj is a tennis player from India, once ranked 16th in the world. Lost in the QF to Jan Kodes, the eventual Wimbledon winner in 1973. Was James Bond’s Indian sidekick, Agent Vijay, in Octopussy. Aha, you say, I now understand all those weird tennis references in the movie!!!!
- Kevin Wright was a little known Australian cricket player. At the height of the Packer rebellion he played as first choice wicketkeeper in Kim Hughes’s side that toured India in 1979.