Michael Lang and Small-Town Fame

So far in my employment history I have had four salaried jobs. Three were the best-paying ones, and at least one of these is the reason my current income, monthly SSD, is as not-horrifyingly tiny as it could be.

My first high-salaried job was in 1997-’98 with a publisher based in Woodstock, NY. Now, for someone like me, a high salary at the time meant more than $30,000 a year. (Sad to say, this amount would still be a high salary for me.) Thus, when I received my first paycheck at this publisher, I “felt wealthy” for perhaps the first and only time in my life.

I lived nowhere near Woodstock, though, so it seemed to me that I needed to open a bank account near where I thought most of my weekday life would be spent. Off I marched at lunchtime to a local bank with a paycheck that felt like it made my wallet bulge. At this point in my life, I think my one previous experience with a new bank account was in elementary school, and in that “bank,” quarters were the largest denomination accepted for deposits.

I explained my plight to a teller and I was directed to a seat, which was another novelty: I’d never sat in bank before. Please understand, in 1997 I was 29, so my naïveté was bizarre and somewhat hard-won.

I was one customer behind someone else who needed to open a bank account that day, so we were seated very close to one another at the desk of the accounts manager who could help us. That someone else was Michael Lang.

Now, as a history fan and a music fan and an individual who has lived his entire life in the Hudson Valley/Catskills region, Michael Lang’s face and Muppet-mop of hair were instantly recognizable.

Michael Lang, one of the co-creators and producers of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, died this week at the age of 77. He was a producer of other concerts, other events, but that festival, which took place when he was but 24, leads every obituary, of course. In the film of the concert, Lang is the shirtless figure in a leather vest on a BSA motorcycle on and off the stage.

Back to the encounter in the bank. The previous two summers, I had covered the mostly impromptu “Woodstock reunions” that took place each August at what is now Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, but was still then merely the open field where the 1969 concert took place. Lang was not a presence at either non-reunion reunion, but his name was one of the ones that everyone knew would grant any event an instant imprimatur of “Official Woodstock Concert-ness.” I had interviewed Elliot Tiber, whose role in the history of the 1969 Woodstock concert was central and well-established, especially when you interviewed Elliot Tiber. (He liked my article about him.) Tiber had been, according to Tiber, the person who brought Michael Lang and Max Yasgur (who owned the land) and Tiber’s festival event permit together.

So Michael Lang had been a part of the inner people-scape of my mind for a couple of years when suddenly he and I were each seated at a desk in a bank in Woodstock, NY. If I had a newspaper badge, it would have felt proper to pick up where Elliot Tiber left off with me the previous year and ask him to verify the lively Tiber anecdotes. I had the perfect opener, of course: “I interviewed Elliot Tiber last year, and he told me …,” but I was not a newspaper employee in that moment.

No, instead, Michael Lang chatted with ME: “Opening a new account?” I told him where I worked and he looked blankly at the name and said something like, “I’m glad Woodstock has businesses like that developing. It’s good.” And then he finished his account business and it was my turn.

We nodded at one another, two burghers of Woodstock, nay, of Ulster County, NY, and parted company. I think I assumed I would see him again and I resolved to ask him for his side of my exclusive Woodstock concert anecdotes.

I never saw him again, of course. I held that job for only two or three months. I have friends in local media who interviewed Michael Lang through the years, and others who met him socially, and each of them told me he was deeply pleasant to talk with and very understanding of their media needs.

But for a moment in 1998, Michael Lang was connected with one young naïve writer’s emotional experience of “feeling wealthy” when he was not, and his feeling that he was finally somebody in the community, which he already was. Michael Lang built communities, sometimes 400,000 at a time, and sometimes one by one.

Small towns can make the big world feel like a small town. When I was 29, I didn’t know how much I needed that feeling. I need it even more now.

Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, publisher/editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com, writer/performer on the Mark Aldrich & Panda show:

and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-first season:

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