The Nation at Peace
Four Champions Fierce
From the beginning, the script reads like an MGM musical comedy of the 1940s . . .
Ashrill alert penetrated the apartment’s unruffled silence, startling the two young men inside. John Roberts, who had been dialing a long-distance call, vaulted toward the wall intercom and slapped the Talk button.
“Yes?” He automatically switched fingers to Listen. The doorman’s heavily accented response crackled: “Meester Mike and Meester Arth.”
Roberts peered over his shoulder to the velours couch where his friend and partner, Joel Rosenman, was probing the circuitry of a disabled transistor radio.
“Don’t look at me.” Rosenman shrugged, looking up from his surgery.
Roberts depressed the Talk button again. “Just a moment,” he said, and walked over to his desk. He flipped open a tan leather binder and ran his finger over a dog-eared page. The cryptic entry in his appointment book read simply: Lang/Kornfeld, 3:00. It was scrawled across the bottom of a page dated “Thursday, February 6, 1969,” a day that Roberts and Rosenman would forever inscribe as the moment of maculate conception, the birth of the Woodstock Generation.
“These are the two guys Miles sent over,” Roberts remembered. “I forgot all about it.”
“Me too,” Rosenman said. “They’re looking for money, right?”
Roberts said they were and instructed the doorman to allow their guests into the building. He and Rosenman had halfheartedly agreed to see Lang/Kornfeld on the recommendation of Miles Lourie, a prominent music-business attorney, who represented an impressive roster of contemporary recording artists that included Ray Charles and Paul Simon. Lourie had heard through a mutual acquaintance that Roberts and Rosenman were rolling in investment capital and had called them a week earlier with a proposition.
“My clients have a unique approach to a recording studio,” Lourie had said, holding back on the details. An old legal hoofer at heart, he played his cards slowly and with a dealer’s reserve. Lourie, in fact, considered his clients’ concept to be both economically sound and enticing, so much so that he was willing to represent it on a contingency basis. With the proper pairing of individuals, he envisioned everyone—including himself—profiting quite handsomely.
“All I’m asking is that you spend a few minutes with them, listen to what they have to say. And by the way, John, don’t be put off by their appearance. They look a little different than the type of people you and Joel are accustomed to dealing with, but I think you’ll find what they have to say refreshing.”
The last thing John Roberts and Joel Rosenman wanted to do was to waste time listening to would-be tycoons with a penchant for sound systems and superstars. A few months before, after several false starts in private enterprise, they had been referred to a similar cartel intent on building a recording studio; that liaison had resulted in their involvement in a project called Media Sound (in which Roberts and Rosenman had become partners), that was now underway to their utmost satisfaction. Why should they waste their time mulling over an identical proposal?
Still and all, Miles Lourie was considered a moving force in an industry they were entering. It wouldn’t do them any harm to be in his favor in return for a few minutes of their time. So John Roberts had consented to see Lang/Kornfeld at their convenience.
“You know anything about these guys?” Rosenman asked his partner, straightening up the pile of electrical scrap on the coffee table.
“Only that their first names sound like Meester Mike and Meester Arth—whatever the hell that means,” he said, shaking his head discontentedly. “And . . .” And, by the way, John, don’t be put off by their appearances. The lawyer’s words came back to him as he straightened a few things on his desk. It was a peculiar statement for a lawyer to make about his clients.
“And?” Joel waited for Roberts to continue.
“Uh, nothing,” Roberts said evasively as the door bell rang. “It wasn’t important.” And he moved in front of Rosenman to answer the door.
It wouldn’t be Roberts’s last appointment with this mysterious duo, although many of their subsequent encounters would not be arranged so easily—so exasperatingly easily! For years to come, there would be moments when he would wonder in how many ways the course of his life might have been altered had he politely refused Miles Lourie’s request. How indescribably empty it might have been—the colossal dream, the creativity, the excitement, the gamble, the recognition, the fame. Each memory invaded his senses the way a tilt-a-whirl whips a screaming child in and out of environmental focus. And after the legendary ride was over—when all contrasting recollections of enchantment and chaos had been sifted by perspective, by time—the inconceivable conclusion he always reached never failed to astound him: that given the chance, he would pull the magic lever and take the ride all over again.
• • •
Oliver Goldsmith once wrote that “friendship is a disinterested commerce between equals.” If, in reality, there was ever an invisible line of demarcation drawn to define their worth to one another, neither John Roberts nor Joel Rosenman paid it any mind. Their friendship from the start was a genuine marriage of trust and admiration, neither lopsided nor doubted. If one of them needed advice, the other became father confessor; if there was a difference of opinion, a compromise was eventually reached. It was that sort of give-and-take relationship, with impregnable bonds.
Roberts, a solid, bullish young man with pink dimpled cheeks, twinkling brown eyes that were dead giveaways in a poker game, and tousled, chestnut hair parted to the side, was three years younger than his friend. He had been born in New York City in 1945, four days before the German armies surrendered to the Allied forces, and grew up in a small New Jersey army town. John’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Block, was one of the early East Coast pharmaceutical empire builders. When he died in 1953, Block Drugs was divided among his children. Elizabeth Roberts, his only daughter, inherited one third of a company grossing upwards of twenty million dollars a year behind such nationally renowned products as Polydent Toothpaste, Tegrin Medicated Shampoo, and the Pycopay line of accessories. But Elizabeth herself had been sickly, and it was not long after her father died that she, too, passed away at the age of thirty-nine. She was survived by three sons: William, born in 1937; Keith in 1943; and John, her third and last child. John, who was eight years old at the time of his mother’s death, with his two brothers, became a beneficiary of the Block Drug wealth.
Alfred Roberts, John’s father, was left somewhat unprepared for the task of raising three sons, and he attempted it with diffidence. He was forty-six when Elizabeth died and never felt comfortable around Keith and John. “You’re going to wind up a bum,” he’d constantly berate John, who regarded school as primarily another social event.
In 1961, John preserved the Roberts family’s Ivy League tradition without fanfare, and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. His going to college was merely intended as “doing the right thing” and, thus, he exhausted four years away from home, “having a great time and sliding by.” Anyone evaluating his years at college would have summed them up in two words—fraternity and friends.
While an undergraduate at Penn, Roberts befriended a senior predental student named Douglas Rosenman, whose academic bravura complemented Roberts’s open contempt for discipline. It wasn’t long, however, before John came to realize that beneath the academically polished, all-American exterior, his new friend was tortured by a streak of insecurity. He was obsessed with the versatility of an older brother named Joel who seemed to have the aggravating habit of excelling in everything he attempted—and, to hear Douglas tell it, Joel had attempted everything at least once. It was not spite that Douglas nurtured, but jealousy, born together with love and admiration, the most painful kind of all.
Roberts soon tired of hearing about Joel’s exploits and was determined that if he ever got hold of this living legend, he’d seek revenge for the number he had done on his friend Douglas.
All things considered, facing graduation, John Roberts was already a man of means in search of ways. He had inherited a cache of four hundred thousand dollars on his twenty-first birthday, and he was entitled to three separate payments of one million dollars on his twenty-fifth, thirtieth, and thirty-fifth birthdays. Accordingly, money, in the ordinary sense, was not a concern. However, he didn’t care merely to live off his inheritance. But the question of what to do with his future remained. Oh, he was a talented horseman, could shoot eighteen holes in the low seventies on a good day, read about as many books as any member of his family, had an easy time acquiring and holding friends and, if one were to base an estimation of his coeducational finesse on the number of dates he had, an expert with women. But, while most of his friends (and women) devoted their full time to preparing for responsible careers, John Roberts was tensely biding his time. In the end, he was just another college kid burdened by millions of dollars.
The summer of 1966, what Newsweek billed as “the longest, hottest summer . . . the roughest in years,” was the watershed for rebellion against the status quo. From then on, America’s youth emerged as a group to be reckoned with. Suddenly, complaisance was designated as a treasonable offense by the young vocal masses: you were either for the draft or you evaded it; you supported the black power movement or you were a racist; you advocated the legalization of marijuana or you were a redneck. You took a stand and defended it. Everything had the potential for erupting into a passionately fought cause, and “right on!” provided the perfect wash. Within weeks, the lines were drawn across all traditions. It was child against parent, youth against the Establishment. No one knew what to expect.
By early June, for example, just before the University of Pennsylvania staged its graduation exercises at the wonderfully prehistoric Civic Center, the United States publicly admitted that it had conducted the first tactical bombing missions over Hanoi. Responding to Senator Fulbright’s charge that the country was “succumbing to the arrogance of power,” President Lyndon Johnson countered by advocating that “we must continue to raise the price of aggression at it’s source.” Students, who saw that price as being fixed relatively high in Washington, answered him by raising a phalanx of middle fingers. They saw themselves as apostles destined to change the course of history. And they were fired with determination.
Roberts watched this awakening skeptically, but he was a worried skeptic. He was cautiously amused by the movement’s electricity but wondered where and how he would fit into it. He walked through commencement exercises shell-shocked, as one who had been abandoned in a crowd of strangers. Wherever he looked, his fellow Penn classmates filed past him, swelling with the pride of decision—an emotion he sorely lacked.
To others, John acted confidently. It was time, long past time, in fact, to make a few decisions about his future. He acknowledged to himself that if he made a clean break from the past, he’d be well on his way to standing on his own. At age twenty-one, it was something less than a prophetic revelation.
• • •
Graduation left John Roberts a displaced person on uncharted seas. He had no ambition, not even a glimmering of a concrete objective he could genuinely pursue. That was his singular punishment for inherited wealth. And he’d overcome it, he was convinced of that. His family harbored the hope that he might elect law as being as likely an alternative as any, but John put an immediate end to that; law placed too much emphasis on personal discipline.
Instead, he applied to the Annenberg School of Communications in Philadelphia on a part-time basis to study writing and literary criticism. He would have preferred entering Annenberg as a full-time student, but to escape being drafted and shipped to Vietnam, he had joined an army reserve unit at Fort Monmouth and had no idea when he would be called up to fulfill basic training. To keep him busy the other three days of the week, he accepted a position at a Wall Street brokerage firm as a research assistant.
Roberts tried to be a conventional businessman. He dabbled in the stock market, but his trading of securities was purely amateur (“speculative” being a term reserved for professionals who take educated risks) and took on a frightening, albeit recurring, characteristic: John handed Wall Street his money, and they handed him even less in return. Still, there didn’t seem to be anything else looming in the future with which to occupy his time.
One afternoon John picked up the phone and was surprised to find an old friend on the other end of the line. Douglas Rosenman invited John to spend the weekend at the Rosenman family home in Long Island. “We could play a little golf, take in a few movies—you know, just take it easy, like old times. My brother, Joel, is out here. He’s taking his bar exam, but will be finished in time to play golf with us. He’s dying to meet you.”
The name caught John completely off guard.
He was tempted to tell Douglas to make it another weekend; however, his curiosity got the better of him.
“You’ve got a deal, Douglas. Let me finish up here, and I’ll see you Friday evening.”
Joel joined them at a nearby golf course on Saturday morning. Much to his surprise, it was a thoroughly enjoyable interlude for Roberts. His apprehension was abated somewhat when he discovered that Douglas had come to terms with their previous rivalry. John, in fact, found himself enchanted by Joel. On the basis of previous descriptions of the older brother, he had expected an egotistical snob who would swagger across the course with them while playing his own unblemished game of par golf. Instead, he was charmed by Joel’s friendliness and good-natured self-mockery; a young man of ordinary appearance and modest self-respect.
Joel Rosenman was of average height with active moonbutton eyes that seemed to balloon with excitement; Joel’s aquiline face resembled a Shakespearean actor’s chisled, expressive features: cheekbones set high above gaunt cheeks, a jaw jutting forth from a thin, tight mouth. His black curly hair flopped along the sides of his temples and, from afar, he gave the impression of a shaggy dog playfully loping across a field. John was overwhelmed by Joel’s carefree spirit, and they immediately struck up a relationship. By the end of the weekend, they had agreed to share an apartment in New York, where Joel was going to work at his uncle’s law firm.
A month later, John Roberts and Joel Rosenman scoured the city in search of a place of their own. It took them two days to find an apartment within Joel’s relatively conservative budget. But, more important, they spent most of that time locked in conversation. They opened up to each other in ways they had never thought existed. And at the end of those two days, John was convinced he knew Joel better than anyone else who had ever touched his life.
As a youngster, Joel Rosenman had developed a reputation for being a wise guy, rollicking in devilishness. He was a highly intelligent child, perky and aggressive, whose drive was shifted into high gear when it came to calling attention to himself in any manner possible. In school, at community functions, in a group of friends, Joel was constantly “on”—entertaining the way a comic creates his own applause, mostly at the expense of those around him. He had great energy, though; it billowed like contagious laughter and he drew others into this wonderful, fantastic child world with indefatigable verve.
There was hardly a time in his life when Joel Rosenman had not attempted to buck authority in one way or another. As a child in Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, he was coddled by parents who indulged him the way one overlooks a genius’s eccentricities. His father was an orthodontist, constantly on the move between his three suburban practices, and had precious little spare time to devote to a hyperactive son. As a result, Joel became a serious behavior problem, and he was bumped around from school to school in order to keep him slightly off balance.
When it came time to consider college, Joel’s first reaction had been to put an abrupt, premature end to his formal education. But, like John Roberts, he succumbed to social pressure and enrolled at Princeton in the fall of 1959. Four years later, though, he was faced with still another leg of this now familiar dilemma: what to do after school was finished. The idea of continuing on to graduate school was not an appealing one and, yet, there was nothing more tangible on the horizon. He had no desire to teach, no attraction to commerce; though he was an artist of considerable merit, he foresaw the limitations of art as a profession. Law attracted the majority of his classmates, and Joel, totally oblivious of his stake in the future, decided to go with the flow.
In 1962, Joel Rosenman entered Yale Law School for many of the same reasons he had entered Princeton four years earlier. It had a good reputation, he could “bullshit his way through” with a minimum of effort (although while at Princeton he had to buckle down), and it would delay his having to make a decision that, he thought, would handcuff any future independence. Before long, he formed a college singing group that entertained at local clubs and hotel bars and was good enough to be booked as a lounge act at the Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas during summer breaks.
His current situation was not much better than John’s. After law school was finished, he had been stranded on the podium, diploma in hand, waiting for inspiration to strike him.
It was common practice for recently graduated lawyers to comb New York’s gray-flanneled firms and to grovel for the chance of filling some deserted cubbyhole where they could apprentice their trade. Joel, however, had exhibited nothing but disdain for the tradition—and he could afford to. While his classmates knocked on doors, opportunity beat its own path to Joel Rosenman; his uncle’s practice was well respected and well connected, and he was welcomed there with open arms. But, like Roberts, he did not enjoy having success handed to him.
The Princeton Trio, as Rosenman’s college group was called, was in demand on the coffee house circuit. They performed at a few celebrated New York clubs and were even scouted by Columbia Records’ talent acquisition genius John Hammond, Sr. Hammond quietly took Joel aside one day and told him that Columbia would be interested in having him sign a record contract—but without the rest of the trio. Rosenman pondered the offer but eventually turned Hammond down, not wanting or willing to put in the necessary time or face the frustrations of a career in professional entertainment. Instead, he decided to slug it out as an associate in his uncle’s prestigious law firm. He could still sing on his own time, and with a little luck, he might be able to settle down for a while.
Joel found that this pleasant picture of life was overturned by this reality: practicing law was even more dull than studying it. It was mundane, it was disciplinary—burdens he had so carefully avoided in the past. The thought of sharing an apartment with someone possessing the “sporting vitality” John Roberts exhibited was galvanizing to him. Here at last was the answer to some of his problems.
It wasn’t long before John Roberts, too, realized the scope of their relationship, their interdependence, and upward mobility. He was certain that Rosenman was the one person on whom he could rely for friendship and motivation; Joel was assertive, a bit too cocksure of his own potential, skeptical of the counterculture—all qualities John was convinced were essential to his own growth.
The decision of Roberts to leave the Annenberg School of Communications in March 1967 and to pursue a business relationship with Joel Rosenman was anticlimactic. Joel, in turn, resigned his position at his uncle’s firm with the hope of never returning to law. In all, he had been there less than six months.
• • •
Roberts was determined to continue his writing in one aspect or another. He had received rejection slips from all of his magazine submissions to date, but he got personal gratification from his work and was willing to wait patiently until some astute editor stumbled onto his talent. Joel also thought that writing would suit him, and they ascribed to the theory that two heads collaborating on manuscripts were better than one unpublished writer banging his brains against the wall. Furthermore, they reached the decision to write for television. That medium, they agreed, had the greatest potential for easy riches and instant fame, and it was a respectable career choice—one that their parents would be able to understand.
Joel had recently seen the movie The Landlord starring Beau Bridges and had identified with it from beginning to end. Its story line went something like this: A young man from a wealthy Westchester family inherits a tenement in Harlem and decides, against his parents’ vehement protests, to become the resident slumlord. The young man’s cunning soon wins over his angry tenants. And, of course, the predicaments he finds himself involved in from one extreme to the other are hilarious. Joel surmised that this was a universal concept, and they could adapt a similar story line for a series format. Their show would be about two men in their early twenties who pursue nutty business ventures and always manage to get themselves in over their heads; as the hour reached its end, the pair would be extricated by the miracle that somehow is television. (A year later, this farcical scenario would come back to haunt them in living Technicolor.)
It took Roberts and Rosenman about a week to write a proposal, which they rushed off to a television series packager who loved the idea. All he needed to cement a deal was a half-dozen episodic themes.
The only problem that stood between the amateur screenwriters and their creating a television dynasty was that, when it came to business, they were so inexperienced that they couldn’t come up with a single insane business venture for the show. Everything they tried looked flat on paper.
At one point, however, John remembered that his brother, Billy, had at one time or another placed an advertisement in the newspaper looking for business capital.
“You’d never believe the assholes who responded,” he told Joel, barely able to contain his laughter. “Every wacko in the county—no, excuse me, in theworld—wrote in with their get-rich-quick schemes. It was a fiasco for Billy, but it kept us hysterical for weeks.
“Look, who says lightning doesn’t strike twice! We compose an ad to lure these guys back out of the woodwork, and we’re bound to wind up with the same type of idiotic schemes Billy got.”
Joel finished the thought. “Instant zany business ventures for the series.”
Three days later, on March 22, 1967, the following ad ran in the “Capital Available” classified section of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal:
Young Men with Unlimited Capital looking for interesting, legitimate investment opportunities and business propositions.
The box at the respective papers to which reply was to be made was held in the name of Challenge International, Ltd., and, although the inquiries were to be “treated in the strictest of confidence” as protocol required, no disclaimer was made concerning the irreverent manner in which they were going to be used. The entire affair, as far as John and Joel were concerned, was to be played strictly for laughs.
The result was as expected: a prized collection of featherbrained offers. Sexual apparatus outdistanced the other inventions by nearly two to one. A man in Des Moines tendered an electric gadget guaranteed to bring about an orgasm with “shocking results.” There were edible golf balls with subpar aftertastes, flying telephones that would land in one’s lap upon ringing, a refrigerator that was programmed to inform its owner when it was out of certain staples, and an account of a proposed instrument designed to induce woodchucks to sing. John found one claiming that, for a mere $150,000, its author could tap the power from the eighth dimension. It was a carnival of absurdities. On the basis of the amount of preposterous mail they were receiving, they’d have enough material to get them through six years’ worth of shows.
But not all of the ideas were laughable, and John and Joel found themselves intrigued enough by the feasability of some of them to investigate further. Eventually they realized they had stumbled onto a career. They had thoroughly enjoyed researching the plausibility of an investment and recognized that there had to be thousands of similar undeveloped opportunities waiting to be spawned. They were already endowed with perhaps the most scarce natural resource: John’s money. And with a little help from their friends, Roberts and Rosenman let it be known around the New York business community that they would entertain any idea exhibiting commercial promise.
By early 1968, they had looked into a variety of business propositions, but nothing had come of it. Just when it seemed that they’d have to abandon Challenge International for something more concrete, a singing coach told Joel about a friend of his who was involved in an interesting project that needed completion capital. He sent Rosenman and Roberts to a man who, with a partner, had raised $66,000 for a planned recording studio. They explained that there was a severe lack of studio space in midtown Manhattan compared to the amount of contractual work offered by the recording companies.
Joel and John researched the material that was presented to them, greatly expanded on the concept to insure its financial soundness, and decided to see it through. It was something they would, indeed, be able to finance and finish;and it was both reasonable and secure. Their ensuing investigation substantiated that it was a long-term business, one that would regenerate itself in terms of profit. After checking further with John’s investment counselors, they decided to accept an equal partnership in Media Sound Studios and, by the fall of 1968, construction was underway in a renovated church that they had purchased on West Fifty-seventh Street.
It was during this time, while supervising Media Sound’s design, that they began to consider what their next project would be. Appointments had been made and kept regarding an assortment of ventures, but so far, nothing had turned up that interested them. The old anticipation began to creep up on them again, the way firemen get jumpy when it’s been quiet for too long between fires. And just when it looked as though they needed a vacation away from the financial war zone, Miles Lourie called.
What wretched—what miserable monster have I created?
On February 6, 1969, already a few minutes late for their three o’clock appointment, Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld got out of a Checker cab on Lexington Avenue and walked the short distance along Eighty-fifth Street to the new apartment building where Challenge International Limited had its headquarters. It was a crisp winter’s afternoon, one of those days when people moved briskly from the pavement to warmer enclosures.
Once past the doorman, Lang and Kornfeld took the elevator to the thirty-second floor where they spent another minute or two picking out 32-C from a maze of numerical sequences over the apartment doors. John Roberts answered the door and invited them inside. As Michael and Artie stepped into the narrow foyer and removed their coats, the four boys exchanged an embarrassing rush of introductions to circumvent the culture shock they simultaneously experienced. Roberts wore a tailored, navy blue Brooks Brothers suit; Joel, dressed more comfortably, had on a yellow V-neck sweater over a white shirt and tie and gray slacks. Michael and Artie were hippies! Artie was “head shop mod,” a suburban hippy, the diehards would call him, polished and practiced. His leather vest was expensive and covered a tasteful multicolored shirt with a pointed collar open at the neck. His bronze hair was long but sculptured, resting delicately on the back of his collar. As East Coast director of contemporary music for Capitol Records, he dressed so that he could attend conferences with artists as diverse as the Beatles and Nat King Cole without going through a costume change.
John and Joel were startled by Michael Lang’s very presence. He was . . . well, in his own words: “real groovy,” like Saint Exupéry’s Little Prince. He seemed to glide when he crossed the room, in a shuffle that allowed him to slink unnoticed into the nearest corner but, in fact, drew attention by its very peculiarity. John, leaning against the piano, stared open-mouthed as Michael crossed in front of him and took a seat on the couch. He had seen kids like Lang hanging out on street corners asking for change and in newsreels about the hippie movement, but never before had he come into such close contact with anyone of Michael’s ilk in a business dealing.
Lang, like Kornfeld, was dressed casually, although Michael’s eclectic appearance was heavily accented by the coarseness of his street clothes: worn, faded jeans ripped and patched at the knee, scuffed sneakers, and a frayed leather vest draped over a T-shirt. His small, round face looked twice its size framed by a garland of long brown curls—like an Elizabethan actor’s wig, Joel thought—and he carried a leather bag in place of a briefcase. John sized him up as an urchin. It would be a topic of amusement for the cocktail party he was going to later that evening.
“Uh, Miles told us that you gentlemen have an interesting proposition,” John said, following them into the living room.
“You got it!” Artie said, cocking his thumb and forefinger like a loaded pistol. He settled into the couch along the far wall next to Michael. “We’re onto somethin’ so dynamite it can’t miss. Man, it’s so involved, so fuckin’ outta sight.”
John and Joel chose armchairs on either side of the couch. What could these people possibly want from us? Roberts wondered.
“You guys oughta know what we mean right away, your doin’ a studio and all,” Artie continued. “We have this far-out brainstorm for the same type o’ scene but with an altogether different concept; different vibes, y’know: soft and groovy. A retreat.”
Joel’s eyes asked his partner what two hippies could possibly want with a monastery.
“Michael’s like really into this already, man. Really. He’s got his eye on this piece o’ land up in Woodstock, a place upstate where this whole load of musicians hang out. It’s pretty groovy—real rustic and laid back, y’know, and guys like Dylan, Tim Hardin, the Band, and the Spoonful live up there. The thing is, man, they’ve got no place to put down their tracks, no place where it’s cool to act natural, do a few j’s, y’know. They’ve gotta travel two hours into the city to make a new album and that’s no good for their heads. We figure we can open a place up there where they can record and where other artists can sleep and eat and just groove on the magic.”
Michael smiled in agreement. “And with Artie’s situation bein’ what it is at Capitol, he can send a lotta other dudes our way.”
John and Joel exchanged an impassive glance.
“Michael’s livin’ up there doesn’t hurt, either. He can hang out with all the music cats and make sure they work with us, y’know, bring their friends around for a little sweetening. Pretty soon, word’ll get around that Woodstock’s the scene to make. Like, wow, man, what a great place for musicians, bein’ there and not havin’ to leave and doin’ whatever they want wheneverthey want. They can bop into the studio any time they get the urge and don’t hafta leave until they come up with somethin’ dynamite. As a producer, man, I know it’s a group’s dream.”
“How did you and Michael come up with this idea?” Joel asked.
Artie waved the question off as though it was a well-known fact. “Simple, man. We have this thing goin’ down together at Capitol. Michael laid a group on me and I was knocked out by them—a group called Train that he’s managing—and we got to know each other super-well. We’re like brothers, man. It took me a while to realize that, when it comes to the rock business and groovy music and all, well, Michael’s a genius at gettin’ things together. He’s one of the real moving forces around rock today.”
Michael smiled again, although this time he was faintly embarrassed. “Artie comes on a little heavy. He’s the guy, though. He’s been around and knows the score. Just havin’ him along on this thing’ll attract the biggest names in the business. We’ve gotta score big on this one. Can’t miss.”
“How long have you been in the music business?” Joel asked Lang.
“Not long. I did some shows in Florida, a festival too. But other than that, I’ve only been here a few months.”
“But he’s got it all down, man. He knows everything there is to know,” Artie interrupted. “Everything.”
“How would you handle something like this with your other job, Artie?” John asked.
“I don’t intend to carry ’em both for long,” Artie said more soberly. “I’ve been tryin’ to unload my gig at Capitol for a while now. And this looks like the thing I need to tell ’em goodbye.”
“Don’t you think a studio such as this in a place like Woodstock is shutting yourself in?” asked Joel. “You’re asking every recording artist to travel and bring their business to you. And that’s a risky proposition in any book.”
“No way, man. Once word circulates, artists’ll make it their business to get up there and we’ll be booked solid for years to come. It’s outta sight, man. Just what they want.”
Roberts and Rosenman looked skeptical, but Michael assured them that he was “in touch” with what was “going down in Woodstock” and how perfect a community it was. He knew what he was talking about and wanted to make his point. “A good top-of-the-line studio and a private lodge is novel. You don’t have to be a Wall Street dude to understand that. It’s innovative, and I don’t think it can lose.”
“Look,” John interjected, “we really don’t make it a habit of getting involved with something unless we can see it on paper.”
Kornfeld assured him they would have something for his inspection in a few days’ time.
“Just out of curiosity,” Rosenman asked, “what do you think something like this retreat of yours would cost?”
Michael seemed to have all the answers. “About a half million bucks. Not a lotta bread for a gig that’ll pay itself off in a year or two and’ll then be pure gravy.”
“And we can expand this sorta thing,” Artie suggested. “I have a place in Eleuthra that’s right on the water and real peaceful. It’d be a natural for a second retreat.”
“Uh, yes. Well, thank you for coming, fellas,” John said, standing up to signal an end to the meeting. The others followed his lead. “Joel and I would like to have a look at the entire dimensions of your studio idea when you get it down on paper. Why don’t you give us a call, and we’ll get together again?”
“No need,” Michael stopped him. “We’ll have it for you in two days.”
“A complete proposal? With cash flows and equity splits?” Joel asked. His business acumen told him this was impossible.
“Sure thing, man,” Artie agreed, slipping into his jacket. “How ’bout if we set something up now? Say, maybe, on the tenth—that’s Monday—at the same time?”
John and Joel looked at each other with some degree of trepidation. “All right,” they agreed, unable to give them a definite no. It was the only way they knew of getting rid of these characters.
Without another word, the meeting disbanded.
• • •
If John and Joel were the least bit intrigued by Michael and Artie’s proposition, they kept it well hidden. The notion of tackling another recording studio after getting Media Sound off the ground bored them. It wasn’t at all challenging. John thought it wondrously strange that Joel didn’t just dismiss the proposition out of hand. And, yet, Joel seemed to be of a mind to keep the second appointment with Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld rather than begging off and moving on to something with more inspired muscle. Joel, on the other hand, was equally surprised that John hadn’t immediately pronounced Michael and Artie “crooks” because of the way they were dressed and their colorful, if somewhat incoherent, vernacular. In his estimation, the deal was uninteresting. But Roberts, though he lived conservatively, was envious of the cultural revolution and secretly wished to be a part of it. Nonetheless, they both agreed that the proposal lacked any new direction for Challenge International. Their problem was they had never learned to say no to anybody. Now they were committed to sitting through another meeting with the hippies.
Monday afternoon, when Challenge International resumed its discussions with Lang/Kornfeld, the definition of the project was steered slightly off course because of an item in the prospectus. Near the bottom of the typewritten sheet itemizing the costs of the retreat, there was a random notation, an additional expense of a few hundred dollars curtained by the heading: “Concert/Press Party.”
By this time, John Roberts had succumbed to impatience and fidgeted in his seat. He was totally opposed to becoming involved with this venture. He felt the entire presentation—the motives, the concept, the physiognomy of these so-called confederates—lacked a professional complexion; he and Joel had already agreed not to undertake a duplicate project. He could not fathom why Joel continued to pump them for additional information.
“What’s this entry here about a press party?” Joel asked, dipping curiously over their papers.
Artie explained that in order to provide the opening of the retreat with a festive atmosphere and an equally generous helping of publicity, he and Michael thought that a party for the media and other members of the rock music community was in order. They would make an event of it, in true rock tradition. They’d convince the local celebrities to attend and, if they were extremely lucky, to perform. They had also toyed with the idea of putting together some kind of concert with these artists, which would have the potential of financing the entire studio operation.
“This has real possibilities,” Joel said, completely taken by the subject. “If everyone could be persuaded to be there—Dylan, the Band, everybody—Jesus, it could very well turn into a spectacular!”
Joel, unwittingly, had succumbed to Michael’s devious talent for seizing an opportunity. Now Lang was off and running with Joel’s enthusiasm for a concert of some kind. Along with Artie, he had tailored the press party to Roberts and Rosenman’s measurements. From the very beginning, Michael Lang had envisioned a full-scale music festival to rival the likes of anything ever put on in the world. The largest facilities available, the most awesome gathering of rock talent on any stage, a massive turnout of people (his people) as thick as a blanket of autumn leaves covering the earth; his own personal party, the likes of which would never be forgotten. Now the opportunity presented itself. Michael’s planning and outlining of a blueprint for promoting such a show had already taken up several months of his life; Artie’s participation, the retreat, and his maintaining a low profile during these preliminary meetings were merely devices for achieving specific results—any results. The elements essential to his master plan, especially complete financial indemnification by a third party, were starting to fall neatly into place.
John Roberts was slowly (but very carefully) drawn into the fold. At first, he was merely an observer who graduated to being an inquirer. As the afternoon progressed, Roberts began actively participating in the formation of the game plan, often interrupting to make a clear point regarding the financing of the operation. He performed mentally a series of multiplications and arrived at some extremely tantalizing conclusions. Assuming a well-publicized event, with a super-talent drawing card, then according to the information Michael had fed them about previous festivals, they could expect upwards of fifty thousand people to attend their show. In 1967, Monterey Pop had attracted a crowd of forty-five thousand, and Newport, limited by a relatively small jazz audience, still managed to draw twenty thousand people a day. At five dollars per head, they could take in a quarter of a million dollars a day; if they were bold enough to put on a two-day show, he reasoned, they could double or triple their take, depending on the turnover.
“We can make a goddamn fortune!” John exclaimed in amazement.
Michael continuously fed the fire, dropping off bits of information like hot sealing wax to cement the even tenor of their conversation. He estimated that the cost of talent—if they went after every top group available—would be somewhere in the area of one hundred thousand dollars with a corresponding amount to cover the rest of their expenses. That would leave them a net profit of over three hundred thousand dollars, not including what they could gross on concessions, parking, and any number of ancillary businesses that they could put together along the way. Why, there might even be a film and a record sale from the concert (like at Monterey Pop) whose profits could exceed their wildest expectations.
The apartment had come alive with excitement over the prospects of putting on a Woodstock music festival to finance the retreat. Ties and jackets came off, shirt sleeves were rolled up, legal pads were brought out on which the four boys furiously scribbled their notes. As evening shadows crept across the living room, Joel got up to turn on some lights and casually put a record on the stereo as background music. “Inna godda da vida, honey/don’t you know that I love you . . .” Michael’s voice was an intoxicant in contrast to the droning of Iron Butterfly. With a master’s sense of storytelling, he divulged to them his organizational resources as if they were facts, and not self-aggrandizement. He assured John, Joel, and Artie that he could handle the production. His experience promoting concerts in Miami had acquainted him with an expert staff of technicians and, with a little persuasion, they could be rounded up and brought on board to assist him. Artie’s inherent sense of promotion, coupled with his industry connections, was more than sufficient to handle publicity and open record company doors; his experience in negotiating record contracts would also come in handy when and if the time came in which they had to consider a festival record deal. John and Joel would control the flow of money and arrange for ticketing. Their symbiotic relationship was, as Michael put it, “a natural.”
The first order of business, they decided, would be to form a corporation for the mutual purposes of promoting a festival.
“Isn’t that losing sight of our original concept?” asked Artie. “I really wanted to do the retreat we talked about. This festival stuff is a super idea, but the retreat, man, well—it’s a full-time gig.”
“Look,” John said, “we’ll get things moving for the festival, and the studio’ll be a piece of cake.”
Michael quickly came to Roberts’s defense. “The festival’ll help us to make a reputation for the retreat, man. These music cats’ll get to know us at the show, and we’ll hit ’em with the studio on the way out. Trust me, man. One follows the other.”
Reasonably satisfied, Artie suggested they take an option on the land in Woodstock just to insure that it would still be available to them when the festival was over. Everyone agreed.
“Aren’t we getting slightly ahead of ourselves?” Joel cautioned. “We’re talking about money, land, festival, talent, studios. It’s a little much to bite off in one afternoon’s time. How about if we think things over for a while, jot down ideas and improve on our suggestions, and get together again in a couple of days to hash things out.”
“Good idea,” Michael agreed softly. “Where?”
Joel suggested Miles Lourie’s office, but depending on everyone’s mood, it could just as well be at their apartment or at Artie’s place. “Let’s keep it loose. But, by that time, everyone should have given some additional thought to how we should proceed.”
Again, Michael edged to Joel’s side. “Yeah. It’s important we get rollin’ as soon as possible. This thing’ll sneak up on us before we know it, and timing’s gonna be real crucial to pullin’ it off before anyone else moves in on our action. Every fucker in creation’s gonna want a piece for himself and we gotta be prepared to steamroll over ’em.”
Everyone’s head turned to Lang, half-stunned by this Napoleonic pronouncement of strategy. He had been casually restrained to a point of shyness, a timid prince seeking refuge in the shadows of outspoken kings. There were moments during the discussions when he withdrew completely, following the repartee with his silent eyes. Now, Michael revealed himself to the others as a seasoned guide, and Roberts and Rosenman reacted with astonishment. Michael caught their surprise and, with what was to become a familiar and recurring symbol of their consternation in the months ahead, held them at bay with a tight-jawed, childlike smile of defiance.
Somewhat uneasily, the four men stood up and shook hands on their future polity. This time, their physical differences were palled by unified aims and ultimatums. The Age of Aquarius was closer than even they thought.
• • •
Artie was ecstatic over the meeting’s resolution. He blithely pranced out of the apartment building and into the street like a child who’s just been told he is being taken on his first visit to the circus.
“This is it, man! These cats are goin’ all the way down the line with us. Jesus, Michael! Didja see the way that guy Joel’s eyes lit up?”
Michael smiled, more broadly this time, and held out his hand, palm upwards. Artie smacked it with all his might and returned the gesture.
“Yeah, they got it bad, man,” Michael agreed. “Roberts is a goner.”
“I saw him starin’ at you with those big, wanting eyes of his. He was flippin’ out. Shit, man—he wants to be hip in such a bad way, I thought for a moment he was gonna come over and sit on your lap.” They laughed and slapped each other’s palms again.
Slouched down securely in the back seat of a taxi, Michael lit up a joint, took a long, hard toke on the pulpy stump, and passed it over to Artie. He let his head fall gently against the torn leather seat cushion and closed his eyes. The rush of adrenaline Lang experienced bouncing on the back seat was fast and fluent. He let his mind wander, but his words were programmed with cold accuracy to summarize the matters at hand.
“They’re only part o’ the trip. We got it all this time, man. Music, movies, finance, recording studios, hotels, land. Man, the fuckin’ world’s at our feet. We’re locked. Know what I mean?”
Kornfeld’s giddiness signified his absolute elation, an intoxicated delight, and he was reconciled to facing a future of predominant well-being with the full tide of grace. This Woodstock venture—the retreat, the festival and who knew what else would come out of it—would just about insure his future independence.
Artie Kornfeld’s autonomy, in point of fact, unfolded from a time when he was very young and growing up in an assortment of cities along the eastern seaboard. His father, the eldest of eight children born to Russian immigrants, had become a policeman during the Depression as a means of supporting the family. Artie’s mother was a self-educated woman unsparingly dedicated to blind-alley liberal causes. Together, they moved from precinct to precinct, from crusade to crusade, faithfully climbing each rung of the social ladder and “bettering their American dream.” When Artie was born in Coney Island in 1942, they were caught in midstream of fulfilling their ambitions but continued to move forward with intransigent fascination for what life would bring them. By the time he graduated from high school, Artie had attended fourteen schools, and as a result, he found himself able to assume any cultural attitude for which the situation called.
During the middle-1950s, the Kornfelds moved their home base to Charleston, North Carolina, where Artie got his first taste of grass-roots rock and roll—not the kind that was bleached of its energy and recycled for white audiences up north, but the Negro rhythm and blues culled from gospel music and field chants. He was overwhelmed by its wildness, the screaming, unintelligible choruses that rang over and over in his head. It affected him perhaps more than anything else he had ever experienced. The Chords, Ivory Joe Hunter, the Gladiolas, Stick McGhee—magic voices that pumped out 45 rpm records audibly defining what another favorite of his, Little Richard, called “the healing music—the music that makes the blind see, the lame, the deaf and the dumb hear, walk and talk.” For Kornfeld, it was all so evilly irresistible. Before long, he had wheedled his way into a job carrying buckets of ice and soda at the Charleston Coliseum where he was exposed to artists such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Fats Domino. It was a far cry from his other part-time work, organizing the mailing lists for Harry Golden’s Carolina Israelite, which his mother had arranged for him. The two, however, managed to coexist until it was time, again, for his family to pull up stakes for the move back north.
Once back in New York, he became totally immersed in city blues variations on the southern rock phenomenon. Electric blues had crept into the predominantly white ethnic neighborhoods in such a way that it was becoming popular for teen-age quartets to gather on playgrounds and in front of luncheonettes in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens where they improvised four-chord melodies. By the time he was sixteen, Artie was writing music and playing with the top local bands.
Artie continued making demos of his songs while in school. By 1963, it was monopolizing so much of his time that he transferred to night sessions at Queens College and worked on his music during the day. It was there that he met Charlie Koppelman, a songwriter who, along with two friends, had just recorded a tune as The Ivy 3, called “Yogi.” Koppelman suggested Artie meet a friend of his—a young music publisher named Don Kirshner.
A week later, Kornfeld took the subway into New York City, met with Kirshner and signed a contract with Aldon Music to write songs for $125 a week advanced against future royalties. He would have accepted payment in glass beads, but he didn’t tell Kirshner that. It was the music business; he had dreamed of this happening to him for ten years. Now he had become part of it.
Kirshner’s office at 1650 Broadway was considered the nucleus of New York’s burgeoning rock empire. The building housed the archives of the Tin Pan Alley era—the publishers, the indignant cigar-smoking managers, roving songwriters, and independent record companies—and was in the process of making the much-resisted transition from swing to rock. When Artie began work there, writing teams such as Neil Sedaka and Howie Greenfield, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and Carole King and Gerry Goffin were churning out hits faster than Kirshner could locate singing groups for them. Five music rooms constituted the creative wing of the publisher’s suite, and each morning, the young resident writers would fight over who got what rooms. Space was scarce and everyone wanted to work. By ten-thirty, Kirshner would frantically pop into each room pleading for material.
“We need a song for the Shirelles in two days, a song for Dion in three! Let’s hear those pianos going!”
Before long, Artie had several hits on the charts. For the Shirelles, he wrote “Tonight You’re Gonna Fall In Love With Me” with Toni Wine, and “I Adore Him” for the Angels, which he penned with a handsome, blond-haired boy from California named Jan Berry who later formed one half of the singing group Jan and Dean. Jan subsequently introduced Kornfeld to a surfing buddy named Brian Wilson, and the three collaborated on the classic hit “Dead Man’s Curve” and an additional four songs for Jan and Dean’s Drag City album.
Artie married a girl from Forest Hills several years younger than he, with whom he had been going steady, and decided to look for security. He accepted a job as director of Artists and Repertoire for Mercury Records, and stumbled across a family act named the Cowsills whom he thought had immeasurable potential as superstars. He contacted his current writing collaborator, told him about the group, and together they sat down to write a hit for the Cowsills.
They wanted to write a “flower song” to commemorate what was happening on the West Coast. That spring of 1967, a youth crusade for peace and love was emerging from San Francisco’s rock underground and was spreading eastward. Everyone, young and old, was seduced by its ingenuous rallying cry: “Flower Power!” “It can’t miss,” they agreed.
The lyric that emerged from their collaboration entitled “Rain, the Park, and Other Things,” was about falling in love with a young hippie girl and was originally planned as a ballad:
I love the flower girl,
Oh I don’t know just why,
She simply caught my eye,
I love the flower girl,
She seemed to have the way
To find a sunny day.
The song was an immediate hit and Artie left Mercury to enter into an independent production deal with the Cowsills, for which he also received a percentage of the management and control of their music-publishing interests. He stayed with them through 1968, producing and writing the group’s material. When he left, he emerged from his Cowsill Connection independently wealthy; he had produced two triumphant albums on the heels of successive gold singles for them and would continue to earn royalties from the existing product on the market. Therefore, earning a livelihood didn’t appear to be a problem; a spate of related projects would see him handily through the next few years. Soon thereafter, however, his old friend Charlie Koppelman, who had also been making a name for himself producing teen-oriented acts for various labels, insisted upon introducing Artie to Alan Livingston, who, at the time, was the president of Capitol Records.
Livingston and Kornfeld hit it off so well that Artie was offered a job at Capitol on the spot. They created a special position for him and a title to suit his luminous ego: Director of East Coast Contemporary Product. His chief function, concealed somewhere beneath the grandeur of that label, was to seek out and sign new hard-rock groups—a specialty they sorely lacked. To protect himself and to guarantee some job security, Artie asked to be placed under a two-year contract with the company, and Livingston agreed.
Capitol was a Mormon-owned company that, most industry insiders agreed, had been relatively lucky in putting out records by the Beach Boys and the Beatles in the years between 1961 and 1968. But once he was firmly installed into their corporate machinery, Artie found Capitol’s problem to be far deeper than anything money or appearance could correct. He discovered they already had the types of groups they were looking for under contract; the Band, Bob Seger, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Joe South—all were artists who appealed to the flower generation’s electric tastes. The company’s antiquated focus, however, was more sharply directed at maintaining the supremacy of their stalwart sellers, the Lettermen and Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadian Orchestra.
It was a more difficult task than even he had imagined. Whenever he registered a complaint with the company’s board of directors about all the promotion given the Lettermen, he was punctually shown the accounting department’s balance sheet on them. “These young men have been making a lot of money for us over the years, Mr. Kornfeld. You can’t argue with success.” For Kornfeld, it was a rude awakening about the realities of the business of rock and roll.
One afternoon, in late November 1968, Kornfeld’s secretary buzzed him over the intercom and announced, “There’s some kid out here who wants to see you. He says his name’s Lang. Michael Lang.”
Because of his earlier experience at 1650 Broadway with hordes of incredibly talented songwriters roaming the corridors trying to get their material heard, Artie’s policy was to interview everybody who approached him with a tape. He also felt that since Capitol Records was the beneficiary of millions of dollars yearly from young people he would like to spend some of it on New York kids to give them a start.
Artie was amused by Lang’s cherubic appearance—“like some kind of magic pixie,” he later told his secretary. Artie was growing used to having hippies with long, stringy hair down their back ushered into his office, but although he was a product of the same culture, Michael Lang was noticeably different in his approach. He was not overly confident or demanding like his counterparts. If anything, “he was very shy and timid” and approached Artie as if he had been granted an audience with the king.
Lang had been around—that Artie was sure of. He carried himself in the manner of a vulnerable kid who possessed the mystical ability to beat others at their own game by the power of suggestion. Artie warmed to him immediately. There was something about Lang’s presence he found totally disarming. He was a phantasm, both real and deceptive, and Artie wanted to learn more about him.
Lang told Artie that for the past couple of years he had been hanging out wherever the scene was fast and then moving on, trying to elbow in on the local action and make a few bucks. Like Kornfeld, Lang was originally from Brooklyn. He had scraped around there for most of his twenty-three years, but when he experienced the new, free spirit taking hold in Greenwich Village, he moved to Florida and opened the first head shop there in Coconut Grove. His idea was to carry the spirit with him and spread it across the land as if it were a religion. He held Artie transfixed with stories about the characters he met there—smugglers, dope dealers, two-bit gangsters, bikers musicians—and about his dabbling in the local rock and roll scene. He had sweet-talked his way into the Miami concert circuit and had put on a few minor shows there, including a small festival. But he decided to “bag it” for management because “that’s where the real bread” was Lang had found a hard-rock group called Train, which he had signed to a management and production deal, and he was now working on getting their act together. He lived in upstate New York in a small arts and crafts village called Woodstock. Artie had never heard of it.
“This band’s outta sight, man,” Michael opined in a manner that seduced his listener into agreeing with him even before hearing the band. Artie found himself nodding in agreement. Lang projected an image of being in touch with what was happening and with what was vital. “They’re gonna blow you away!”
Artie wound the tape onto a recorder behind him. When he turned back to inquire at what speed the material had been recorded, he found Michael holding out a lighted joint to him. The gesture of friendship caught Artie off-guard and he was visibly shaken.
“It’s cool, man,” Michael advised, smiling warmly. “It’s nothing to get uptight about.”
“I’m not uptight,” Artie protested, accepting the joint and dragging on it as though it were an everyday occurrence. He choked mildly on the smoke as he tried to hold it down. According to Artie, not only had he not done any grass before, he had never experienced anyone smoking dope in the Capitol offices. It just hadn’t been a part of the record scene as he knew it; the groups smoked, sure, but never while they were in the building. The whole thought of getting high in his office was exhilarating to him. Wouldn’t it only serve to heighten his perception of the music? Wasn’t that his job—to be totally “turned on” to what was going down in the music scene? If those Mormons could only see him now, Artie thought. They’d head back to Salt Lake City faster than they could count their Lettermen profits.
Lang’s grass was far superior to his band. Kornfeld thought Train was “awful, very untogether.” They tried to combine too many strains of music on top of one another: jazz, blues, acid rock, free-form synthetics. It just didn’t work.
“Uh . . . nice,” Artie said when the tape had run out. “They’re, uh, innovative, really different, man. Let me think about it, listen to it a few more times, and we’ll see what we can do. In the meantime, whaddya say you come over to my place for dinner tonight. I’d like you to meet my wife, and we can hang out awhile.”
That night, the two boys, along with Linda Kornfeld, stayed up until long after midnight trading stories about music, drugs, the war, the impending revolution, the music business—Michael devoured tales about the music business like a child with an ice cream cone—and cemented a relationship they all pledged to continue. Artie “saw a very sharp mind, someone who has the power to see beneath the surface of everything and who was also fun to be with.” He saw their friendship as a vehicle for making some of his own dreams come true.
Before the evening ended, Kornfeld had committed Capitol Records to enter into a business arrangement with Michael Lang for Train. Artie considered it to be a fair trade; he would teach Michael about the music business, and in return, Lang would teach him about the street. Kornfeld informed him that he could arrange an immediate ten-thousand-dollar advance for Lang so he’d have some money to live on, and they could probably swing the whole deal for something in the vicinity of one hundred fifty thousand dollars. Artie, of course, would produce Train’s albums.
Michael offered his hand, which Artie shook vigorously and without hesitation. He looked directly into Michael’s eyes and knew he was on the brink of an important step in his life.
“It’s only the beginning,” Michael said, and he disappeared into the night.
Michael Lang was convinced that Kornfeld would come through with the proposed contract for Train. He considered himself a good judge of character and had an intuitive line on Artie which he believed was invincible. The day after their introductory meeting at the Capitol offices, Lang called the group’s drummer, Don Keiter, and casually dropped their good news in his lap.
Kieter listened to Lang’s otherwise convincing hyperbole with reticence. More times than he cared to remember, he had been enticed by Lang’s “sleight of hand” into taking part in some sort of flamboyant moneymaking scheme. The only person who ever profited from these schemes seemed to be Michael. Their last commercial adventure, a psychedelic poster business in Miami, was a depressing memory. According to Keiter, Michael had “conned” him and a woman artist into designing a series of Day-Glo posters that the three of them would subsequently distribute to gift shops as equal partners. After a few months’ inactivity, Keiter began seeing their posters displayed for sale in store windows around the area, but neither he nor the woman ever realized a cent from the project. Nor did he find out who made money from the deal. But he had his suspicions.
Michael continued to promote his relationship with Artie Kornfeld, spending each available evening at the record executive’s Manhattan apartment playing bumper pool and getting high until there was just enough time for him to catch the last bus back to Woodstock.
One of their few bones of contention was the fact that Artie refused to attend rock concerts. Michael found this wildly sacrilegious coming from a guy who was supposed to be on top of the music scene. Artie attemped to defend himself by explaining that he had more creative matters at heart, especially an idea for a Broadway show.
“It’s called The Concert, and I’m gonna write it with Anthony Newley,” he boasted. “It has to do with this composer, see, who is a truck driver and leads a Walter Mitty–type existence. He drives during the day but is really composing this fantastic rock symphony in his head all the while.”
“Outta sight,” Michael said, infatuated by the concept.
“It gets better. Y’see, no one really pays much attention to him. They think he’s pretty flipped out, but he never gives up. Then, one day, outta nowhere, this record cat gives him a break. The whole thing goes down beautifully. Like, he cuts the rock symphony—right?—and it blows everybody’s fuckin’ mind. It’s sensational. And that’s the whole second act of the play.”
“The concert, man. Dig it! This cat just stands center stage and lays down the whole rock symphony in sequence. Y’know, two hours of solid music. And the audience spaces out. I mean, they walk outta that theatre hummin’ the whole fuckin’ score, man. And the next thing you know . . .”
“They head for the closest record store and pick up the sound track.”
“Right fuckin’ on!”
“What a trip!”
“And I’ll give you one guess who writes the rock symphony, owns all the publishing to it, and produces the original score.”
Michael shook his head and laughed. “You got it all together, huh?”
“Bet your ass. I been runnin’ this thing through my head for at least a year. A rock concert and a Broadway show squeezed into one and tossed out there onto the street—man, it’s gotta be the hottest thing goin’. We’ll do the place up in strobes and lasers and send ’em into orbit.”
“Shit, man—it’s got incredible possibilities,” Michael stroked his smooth chin and looked up at Artie. “Who you gonna get to be the truckin’ dude?”
“Dunno. I been playin’ with a few angles. Hell, could you dig gettin’ someone like the Beatles or Dylan—or even Sly, man—to do it? It’d be the fuckin’ Who’s Who of hard rock. It could run forever!”
Lang pondered the concept. “Y’know, I worked on this thing in Florida where a buncha us got together, rented out this race track, and had something like twelve or fifteen groups show up for a two-day gig. A rock festival, sorta. It was a pretty heavy trip. I was just thinkin’ . . .”
“Now, this is just an idea. Like, we use what you just told me—the show thing—but we do it outdoors and have twenty fuckin’ groups do different parts of the symphony. At a stadium, or someplace that can hold a lotta people. And we do it over a whole weekend. Whaddya think?”
“You kiddin’? I think it’d be the biggest fuckin’ bash anyone’s ever seen before. A monster. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t wanna be there.”
“And kids could crash there and do whatever the hell they wanted to do without gettin’ uptight that some ol’ fucker next to ’em’s gonna blow the whistle on them.”
“You’re fuckin’ amazing, Lang. But y’know, the thing to do is to buy the land and keep the show runnin’ in cycles. Have the symphony goin’ on for a few days, give the crowd a day or two to clear out, and then do it all over again. Hell, we could even put a recording studio on the property for during the week to keep the groups busy. We’d be booked forever. What an in-fuckin’-credible idea!”
“It’s not so incredible,” Michael said with a straight face. “Think about it. We get a couple o’ dudes to go for the bread and we’re halfway there. It won’t be any problem gettin’ the groups to go along with it. All you gotta do is pay ’em enough and they’ll materialize outta nowhere.”
“I know so. You start spreadin’ around big bucks, the kinda bread that stuns even these fat cat musicians, well—you’ll wind up holdin’ most o’ the cards. You oughta know, man. Offer someone like Richie Havens a bundle and see if he doesn’t start singin’ round your door.”
“You got the music business down better’n I thought.”
“It’s just smart business, man. It’s how you play the game.”
“We’ve gotta pull something like this off, Michael.” Artie grew intensely serious. “We could record every top name in the business and they could live right there until they got bored with it.”
“Like a retreat.”
“Right—a rock retreat. It even makes good sense. These acts could make money comin’ from both ends without movin’ so much as two feet. It’d be a dream come true for them. But it’s gonna take a fuckin’ money machine to float a thing like that.”
“Not really, man. Truth is, you’ve probably got the bread right at your fingertips.”
“I couldn’t swing it, man. Linda’d kill me.”
“No,” Michael said. “Not your own money. Record company money. You got all the connections.”
Kornfeld clapped his hands together and jumped in the air. “It’s so logical, it’s silly!”
“How ’bout Capitol? Think they’d go for it?”
“Not a chance. They’re too fuckin’ straight for something like that, man. We’d be forced to bring the Lettermen up there and that’d blow our deal, for sure. No. But there’s a couple music heavies who’d go for it. At least, I know ’em well enough to ask ’em what they think of it. I’ve only gotta know the answer to one question before I lay it on ’em.”
“Where we’re gonna have this retreat.”
Michael only smiled.
Nobody is quite sure about how Michael Lang came to settling in the village of Woodstock in 1968. Some say he simply appeared out of thin air, like Merlyn, and proceeded to cast a spell over those whose lives he chose to touch. Mothers wanted to mother him, lovers fought to make love to him, pigeons flipped coins over who would take a dive for him. And all the while, Michael Lang kept his mouth shut and smiled warmly; by the grace of guile, he glided through introductions to Woodstock’s charmed circles with unassuming restraint. He had not, however, been there more than a week before he began soliciting money to promote rock shows. Rock was the coming messiah, he proselytized, and five’d-get-you-ten that backing outdoor shows featuring the hottest groups in the country was the quickest route to cornering a substantial piece of the rockpile.
Lang was the sideshow barker, the charming virtuoso whose every angle had a sterling silver hook attached to it. No one willingly put their full trust in him, yet everyone was eager to take a flier that his friendship would produce excitement for their success-starved existences. And, yet, Lang had nothing tangible to offer these ready-cash customers. What he effortlessly dispensed was a commodity ten times more potent than psychedelic music or marijuana. It was an aromatic blend of personality and dreams, a Utopian illusion for which the common herd sold their souls. It was pure and simple Michael Lang, and, in the words of his father, “Nobody sells Michael better than Michael.”
Michael was well aware of his gift for creative inveigling. From the time he was ten when the patent for an invention called the electric toothbrush was pulled out from under him, Lang’s ethic (a childhood friend claims) was catch-as-catch-can with a dash of smile and a flash of the eyes. He had what it took, and he took what he could.
High school was a thorn in his side. Michael’s IQ was exceedingly high, but he rejected any subject that did not come easily for him. He had an inventor’s mind and a mule’s disposition. If it didn’t come to him, he wasn’t interested.
When he was seventeen, Michael began fantasizing about running away to Florida. He had relatives there, including a cousin, Al, whom he idolized. His mother was pushing him to go to college, but Michael quashed that argument when he failed to graduate from high school with his class. New York University still agreed to accept him, pending his taking a makeup course during the summer, because his aptitude tested so well, but Florida had become something of an obsession. And now his dream entertained a new twist: He wanted to open up a head shop there.
His ambitions were intensified by two related influences: the cultural revolution that was unfolding in the Village and a twenty-year-old girl named Ellen.
Revue de presse
"[Takes] the lid off that mammoth rock concert and reveal[s] the astonishing antics the promoters performed, commercially and personally, to get the Thing off the ground...Mr. Spitz feeds us every riveting detail."
–New York Times Book Review
“An important, impressive work.” —Timothy White, former associate editor, Rolling Stone
“Reveals the gritty and sometimes greedy realities.” —Tim O’Brien
"Goes further toward explaining the counterculture, in all its contradictions and ironies, than many another valiant attempt at social commentary...A novelistic structure and a tough, spicy style... Evident too are the beauty, the magic, the gentle spirit and selfless devotion that Woodstock has come to symbolize for many people."
–Baltimore News American
"It happens that behind the legendary concert was a string of events no less amazing... An important, impressive work...Reads like an adventure."
–Timothy White, former associate editor, Rolling Stone
"Tough, well-documented... Reveals the gritty and sometimes greedy realities behind the Woodstock Music Festival...Provoking, exciting, and full of the kind of truth that is so sorely needed about an event which has become a part of American folklore."