This Day in Music Spotlight: The Forgotten Goose Lake Festival
August 7, 1970
Special thanks to ThisDayinMusic.com.
Billed as “Michigan’s Woodstock,” The Goose Lake International Music Festival was one of the largest music events of its era. Despite more than 200,000 attendees and a lineup that included Rod Stewart and the Faces, Bob Seger, Jethro Tull, The Stooges, MC5, Mountain, Ten Years After and more, the three-day gathering is barely a footnote in rock history.
But it wasn’t for lack of ambition. Festival founder Richard Songer had plans to make the festival a recurring event when he bought up 350 acres of land near Jackson, Michigan, in 1970. The 35-year-old Songer had made a bundle in construction and had decided he wanted to build a park that would be a refuge for young people. He planned to open the park with a three-day music festival.
Drawing on the experience of “Uncle” Russ Gibb and Tom Wright (fixtures on the Detroit music scene, who had staged a small festival in 1969), Songer had his crew start building long-lasting facilities on the grounds. Unlike Woodstock, the stage was permanent, bathrooms were built to be cement structures and there was a paved parking lot. A sturdy chain-link fence and stamped poker chip tickets (instead of easily reproduced paper slips) would ensure that most of those gathered actually paid to get in. The cost of a three-day ticket was $15.
In spite of angry local landowners – who formed a committee to try and stop the festival from happening – and no-shows from Joe Cocker, Savoy Brown and Alice Cooper, the festival began on Friday, August 7, with few documented problems.
People who played and attended Goose Lake have wildly different recollections of the festival’s atmosphere. David A. Carson’s book Grit, Noise and Revolution, claims that darkness permeated the festival, which featured the rampant use of heroin, acid and hard drugs, in addition to marijuana. Others agree that drug use was unrestricted (police waited until the fest ended on Sunday to bust attendees on their way out), but that the mood was positive and peaceful.
Festival organizer Tom Wright remembers that Rod Stewart and his pals had such a good time performing on Friday night, they canceled their next show just to hang out another day at Goose Lake. Mike Lutz of Brownsville Station and Mitch Ryder both claim that it was a great festival, from what they can remember.
But late Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton told a very different story to the Detroit Metro Times in 2008. He remembered seeing a group of bikers strip and rape a woman while he was playing on stage.
He had other bad memories from Goose Lake, too. Asheton said that bassist Dave Alexander got high for the first time in months, right before The Stooges’ took the stage. “There were those hundreds of thousands of people [and] he kinda froze like a deer in headlights,” Asheton said. “Right off the bat, he forgot the songs. He was so out of it he couldn’t even play.” Iggy Pop fired Alexander after the performance.
So with its mix of rock glory and controversy, why isn’t Goose Lake better remembered? Perhaps it’s because there was no major film attached to the festival (as with Woodstock, Altamont, etc.). Or maybe it’s due to the three-day event’s Michigan location, as opposed to the East or West Coast.
Wright blamed his own mistakes for the fest’s lack of notoriety. “The biggest mistake made at Goose Lake was my fault. And that was when the press showed up backstage, we were not hospitable,” he told the Detroit Metro Times. “We weren’t rude or anything, but we explained that the backstage area was for the roadies, the guys with the bands, the bands and the bands’ friends. Consequently, we did not get any coverage in the music press.”
There would not be a Goose Lake II, largely because county legislators introduced a ban on large gatherings and the state of Michigan sought to hold festival organizers responsible for any illegal activity that occurred on the grounds. The next large-scale Michigan music festival wouldn’t take place for decades.