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The Road to Woodstock
Sitting in the dark, smoky Five Spot club on the Bowery, in lower Manhattan, I watch John Coltrane travel out to the edge with his music. There is no net. He's trying to see where it all goes—letting it happen to him, his sax following what's inside him. He doesn't worry about where the music takes him or what's ahead. Knowing there's danger there, yet somehow it's going to be okay, that there's something incredibly exciting about being out there on that edge: It's the place to be. For me, as a sixteen-year-old kid from Brooklyn, this is a totally new concept. The idea of not having to stay within a form or follow the rules, but to improvise, work from internal inspiration, will serve as my own noninstruction instruction book.
Growing up in Bensonhurst in the late forties and fifties, I was surrounded by Jewish and Italian families. My parents, Harry and Sylvia Lang, were of Eastern European descent, and we lived modestly, like other middle-class families in the neighborhood. My father ran his own business, Lang Engineering, installing heating systems, and my mother kept the books. He was an inventor, and in his youth, my father designed a ballast system for navy submarines and a system to remove pollutants from smoke generated by coal-burning power plants. I always felt he would have led a really adventurous life if my older sister, Iris, and I hadn't come along.
My father always taught me to be self-reliant. That was his thing—just take care of it, no matter what. Early on, he gave me a strategy for getting out of tough situations: Take charge and keep moving; step back just enoughto think clearly; and trust your instincts. That's how he dealt with things, and this would serve me well.
From the very beginning, my parents took on side ventures, with varying degrees of success, the coolest of which was a Latin nightclub on the Upper West Side called the Spotlight Club. In the 1950s, the mambo was king and musicians from Puerto Rico and Cuba drew big crowds. The Spotlight Club was a long, dark room with a bar spanning one wall, a large dance floor in the back, and a bandstand at the end of the bar. During the day, the interior looked pretty sad, but at night it was all sparkle and glamour. Downstairs, a huge basement ran the length of the place, and there the great bandleader Tito Puente stored some of his drums. Known as El Rey, he pop-u-lar-ized the Latin music that would become known as salsa. I was only eleven or twelve and had just started playing drums myself when I met El Rey at the Spotlight Club. Handsome, with jet black hair, he encouraged me to play and even let me pound out a few rhythms on his set. In those years, one of his most pop-u-lar numbers was "Oye Como Va"—which, a decade later, would become a hit for Santana after they performed at Woodstock.
The early rock and roll that emerged when I was a kid—Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock Around the Clock"—made a big impression on me, as did the movie Blackboard Jungle, which introduced the song. Street-corner harmonizing was pop-u-lar around my neighborhood, and I played stickball with a fantastic doo-wop singer who lived down the block.The only one in my family to play an instrument, I was twelve when I joined a rock and roll band. It meant lugging my drum kit up endless flights of steps to perform at glamorous hot spots like the Jewish Community -House on Bay Parkway. But it gave me a glimpse of the thrill that comes from connecting through music. I also played drums in the school band at Sethlow Ju-nior High. Marching and uniforms -were not for me, though. The first time I paraded with the school band on St. Patrick's Day, down Fifth Avenue, I took a quick left turn on Sixtieth Street and never looked back. That was my first and last parade.
Every summer, I'd go to camp in Sullivan County, ninety miles north of New York City, in the Catskill Mountains. I liked being out in nature, especially on horse-back. My last year of camp, when I was eleven, I convinced a lazy stable hand to let me tend the -horses and take campers on trail rides for him. He gave me a gorgeous paint named Bobby for the summer. Riding him bareback at a full gallop was the epitome of freedom. That summer, I also had my first-ever sexual encounter, in the barn with one of the counselors-in-training.
In the winter, our family would road-trip to Miami and in the fall head north to Canada, catching the changing of the leaves along the way. My parents loved taking Iris and me on these long drives. I shared my father's love of driving and he started showing me the ropes when I was ten or eleven. The day I got my learner's permit, he took me to Midtown Manhattan and made me drive home to Brooklyn through insane traffic. Soon after passing the driver's test, I bought a motorcycle. I was a little nuts. I'd lie down on the seat, which cuts the wind resistance, then open it up on the Belt Parkway. After a couple of years, I stopped riding on the street because I knew I'd kill myself, but the rush I got from racing was like an out-of-body experience, and it was a feeling I was always trying to recapture.
Not long after I turned fourteen, my friend Irwin Schloss and I tried pot for the first time. His older brother, Marty, who's now a radical rabbi in Israel (Marty bar-mitzvahed one of Bob Dylan's sons in the eighties), ran the Cauldron, a funky macrobiotic restaurant in the East Village that was way ahead of its time. Marty influenced us quite a bit. He was into Eastern philosophy, leading a very bohemian life, and one day he gave Irwin some pot. At that point, marijuana had already become associated with jazz musicians and the Beats but was not in the public eye. Irwin and I first lit up on a fall afternoon at Sethlow Park, just outside our ju-nior high school. I actually remember my very first joint: It was rolled on yellow papers, and after the joint was lit, the marijuana seeds inside kept popping. This was long before hydroponics and the elimination of seeds.
At first I didn't get high. Marty had explained to Irwin how to inhale and hold it in. I don't recall how many tries before I finally did get high, but when it happened, I laughed for what seemed like hours. It was sort of "Ah, now I get it!" Irwin and I would get high and listen to music. We'd laugh and then we'd want to eat. Experimenting with pot, and later LSD, would take me further than any motorcycle or car I ever owned.
On weekends, I started buying nickel bags of marijuana, sold in little brown envelopes. I would hang out in my room, tune in to radio station WJZ on Friday nights, and listen to Symphony Sid, who turned me on to Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Celia Cruz. Sitting next to my open window, I'd light up a joint and exhale into the alley. I loved listening to jazz while stoned. Some nights, Symphony Sid would put out the word that he was getting sleepy and issue an invitation for listeners to stop by the station if they had something to keep him awake. He was eventually fired from WJZ after a marijuana bust.
I soon discovered that my friend Kenny, who had dropped out of school, was into pot. We'd go over to his -house and get high. His parents were never around. One day I came home from Kenny's and my mother confronted me: While cleaning my closet, she'd discovered my stash, a couple of ounces. I didn't want to lose the pot, so I had to make my case quickly: I whipped out the Encyclopaedia Britannica, looked up Cannabis sativa, and stuck the scholarly article under her nose. I knew the description was pretty benign—I'd checked it out soon after I started smoking. In a matter-of-fact description, the encyclopedia stated very clearly that marijuana was nonaddictive. "I know what I'm doing," I told my mother. "It's a myth that pot leads to hard drugs. Smoking is fun and it helps me see things in a new way. And you know I don't drink any alcohol."The Road to Woodstock
. Copyright © by Michael Lang. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.