Goose Lake memories

Jul 2, 2008 at 12:00 am

After a few decades of dormancy, the phenomenon of the multi-day rock festival has returned to life in recent years, with Bonnaroo and Coachella becoming annual media events. Michigan is getting into the act with the jam-band friendly Rothbury Festival, which kicks off this Thursday, July 3, at the Double JJ Ranch, not far from Muskegon.

Rothbury promoters are expecting as many as 40,000 people to show up, an impressive figure…at least until you consider the last grand-scale rock festival that took place in Michigan. In the summer of 1970, the Goose Lake International Music Festival was held in Jackson, Michigan, and attracted over 200,000 fans. Unlike Woodstock, it didn't rain and most of those folks actually paid to get in. Despite this, Goose Lake remains an obscure footnote in Midwestern rock history, the big show that hardly anyone outside Michigan has heard about.

The Goose Lake festival was the brainchild of Richard Songer, a Southfield native who'd made a fortune in construction, building many of Michigan's highways, ramps and bridges. He purchased 350 acres near Goose Lake, just outside Jackson, and in 1970, Songer, then 35 years old, decided to transform the property into a park. He told the press: "It's a dream of mine to put together some place for the young people to go." With that in mind, Songer planned to build a performance venue on his property and stage a series of concerts, starting with a three-day rock festival to take place August 7 through 9.

A novice in concert promotion, Songer sought the help of two men with practical experience, Russ Gibb and Tom Wright. "Uncle Russ" was a DJ on WKNR-FM and owned and booked the Grande Ballroom, Detroit's premiere rock venue in the late '60s and early '70s, while Wright was a photographer and sometime roadie who managed the Grande. In May 1969, three months before Woodstock, Gibb and Wright staged the Detroit Rock and Roll Revival, a huge outdoor concert at the Michigan State Fairgrounds, and with Songer footing the bills, they set out to go the Revival one better at Goose Lake.

"We began by taking the rough outline that they had," remembers Wright, "which was a rectangle on a blackboard where the stage was going to go, and then fine tuning it to handle a high-energy music scenario." Wright's design for Goose Lake was meant to be permanent, and Songer spared no expense to see the job was done right, with his construction crew at Gibb and Wright's beck and call. "He brought in his crew of highway guys and they built roads; they paved the parking; they built the restroom setup; the kitchen facilities — it was like a state park for millionaires. It was beautiful."

Gibb assembled a bill of top-shelf artists for the three-day festival, including Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart & the Faces, the James Gang, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Chicago, Ten Years After and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Most of the major acts on the Michigan scene were on hand as well, among them the MC5, the Stooges, Mitch Ryder & Detroit, Savage Grace, the Up, the Third Power, SRC and Brownsville Station. The event was heavily promoted throughout the Midwest and Ron Asheton of the Stooges recalls it being billed as "Michigan's Woodstock. It was a big deal and people were excited," the guitarist recalls. "It was that great 'Us Getting Together' thing because it was very much 'Us Against the Establishment.' It was a real dividing line between the freak and the straight."

That dividing line threatened to shut down Goose Lake before it even began. Many Leoni Township residents living near the lake were already wary of Songer's plans to build a park — and when he announced the upcoming music festival, some formed the Goose Lake Area Property Owners Association. They filed suit to keep the festival from happening, claiming the event violated local zoning regulations. However, Songer's legal team kept them at bay, and on Thursday, August 6, thousands of fans began drifting onto the festival grounds, while work crews put the final touches on the facilities.

Dick Rosemont, who today runs one of East Lansing's best record stores, Flat Black and Circular, was part of the team working the festival, doing a little bit of everything. "The first day, we helped people put up tents — people who had borrowed them and had no idea of what to do with them!" Rosemont says. "The clearest thing I remember is being up on the lighting tower on Sunday." According to press reports, a teenager named Tom Neumaier climbed up onto one of the towers, and while they were sturdy enough to hold his weight ("Those towers were made of bridge steel," Wright recalls), he either jumped or fell off. Rosemont then sat atop the tower to discourage others from following Neumaier's lead. Remarkably, Neumaier was unhurt outside of some cracked ribs; as Mike Lutz of Brownsville Station jokes today: "Someone fell off a light tower and walked away, scot free! More power to marijuana!"

By Friday night, Goose Lake was in full swing, and it soon became obvious that initial attendance estimates of 100,000 fans were wildly inadequate. Dave Bernath, Rosemont's business partner at FBC, attended the festival as a fan, setting up a tent at the back of the performance amphitheater. "You woke up in the morning and there was hundreds of thousands of people there," Bernath says. "At one point you knew where everything was. Then everything changed. You saw 40 or 50,000 cars parked all up and down the road. It was chaos — you could never leave and get back. You were trapped, but it was a good kind of trapped. It wasn't like hell; it was like paradise."

Another fan attending the show was Robert Matheu, who would later become a top rock photographer and publisher of the current online incarnation of CREEM magazine. Matheu, who was 15 years old at the time, hitchhiked to Goose Lake with a friend. "We had read about Woodstock in Rolling Stone and Life magazine, and to a 14- or 15-year-old kid, that looked like the ultimate event," Matheu says. "Look at all these bands and all the freedom while you're out there in the woods! We found some other people who were camping there and we just crashed their campsite and made friends with them."

Matheu's new friends were kind enough to share some of their drugs with him as well. Drugs, after all, were not hard to find. Open drug sales were the order of the day, and Rosemont recalls a mobile head shop set up in a trailer truck, selling every conceivable sort of smoking paraphernalia. Mitch Ryder — who began his interview by confessing, "I remember very little [about Goose Lake]; I was tripping [on acid] for the entire time" — recalls, "Nobody was straight. It wasn't cool to be straight. There were straight people there, obviously, or it couldn't have been pulled off. But not many."

With an audience that swelled to between 200,000 and 300,000 (depending on who was counting), it was up to Wright and his stage crew to keep the audience occupied, and he was determined to keep the show on schedule. Sets were limited to a lean-and-mean 45 minutes, and Wright designed an unusual revolving stage set up on a massive turntable. While a band was playing on one side of the stage, the next act would set up on the other side. Once one set ended, stagehands would spin the massive turntable, and moments later the next band would be ready to go. "The phenomenal spinning stage, which I've never seen anywhere before or since!" enthuses Bernath. "The band would literally hit their last note, say 'thank you' and 'goodbye,' they spun around and the next band started within a minute — in seconds! The first band was still fading out when the other band came on! That's the way it should be!"

Many of the Michigan acts playing Goose Lake found themselves facing an audience that numbered in the six figures for the first time, and some took to it more easily than others.

"Once we saw the stage at Goose Lake, we were giddy," Brownsville Station's Lutz says. "The liberation of having a big stage and being able to move around, that was rock 'n' roll incarnate for us. Instead of intimidation, it was liberation." However, it was a different story for Dave Alexander, bassist with the Stooges. According to Ron Asheton, the band was on a macrobiotic diet at the time and Alexander had sworn off drugs and alcohol.

"He showed up with his girlfriend and he was so overwhelmed by all of it, he ended up drinking whiskey and smoking hash after abstaining for months. He was just so stoned and freaked out that when the stage turned around and there were those hundreds of thousands of people, he kinda froze like a deer in headlights. Right off the bat, he forgot the songs. He was so out of it he couldn't even play."

Iggy Pop fired him immediately after the show, and a bittersweet evening then got even worse: While Asheton and his bandmates were smoking pot in the trailer they used as a dressing room, the police suddenly opened the door and threatened to arrest the band for inciting a riot. The police interpreted the lyric "No walls! No walls!" from "Down In The Street" as a command to tear down the barrier in front of the stage.

Barriers were on a lot of people's minds that weekend. Unlike Woodstock, Songer and Gibb were determined that their festival would have a paying audience, and along with using specially stamped poker chips as entrance tokens instead of easily forged paper tickets (priced at $15 for the full three days), the festival grounds were ringed with miles of 12-foot-high chain link fence to keep gate crashers out. While some media at the time reported that the fences were topped with barbed wire and electrified, Wright says such stories were false. "There was no barbed wire — it was chain link fence, and it was put up as nice as you could make a chain link fence," he says. "We had to do this, assuring the farmers who bordered the property that our people wouldn't spill over and mess up their property." Matheu recalls: "I know other people have told me they felt caged in, but to me, at 15, this was like the whole world opened up for me. If the fences were there, it felt more like they were keeping other elements out."

Along with tales of the barbed wire fences, David A. Carson's book on the Michigan rock scene, Grit, Noise & Revolution, also included tales of widespread use of heroin, speed and other hard drugs at Goose Lake, and a dark mood hovering over the event. However, most of the people interviewed for this story didn't share such memories, although no one argues that marijuana and psychedelics were all but unavoidable.

"You kinda started wondering, it's so permissive and open, and if people are being careful enough about what they're doing," recalls Frank Bach, lead singer of the Up. "It seems like it was encouraging so much use that you hoped people weren't having bad trips or whatever. People talked about how there was a whole row of tents — here you could buy your speed; here you could buy this; here you could by that. Here you could buy your marijuana, and you could compare prices with the next tent. And in a situation like that, you wondered: Which one are the cops? Where are they photographing us?"

Though not everything was happy, most fans and musicians recall a sunny attitude surrounding the weekend. Wright recalls that Rod Stewart & the Faces enjoyed their Friday night appearance so much that they cancelled a show the next night in New York to stay at Goose Lake and hang out. But Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan cheerfully declares, "That's probably a lie … We didn't have anywhere to go the next day, as far as I understand it," but adds, "It was such fun that first night. Tom Wright was involved, and Alvin Lee was going to play the next night, so we hung around to see him. Unfortunately, the Hell's Angels took over (the backstage area) the second day." Ron Asheton also recalls a group of bikers stripping and raping a woman within his view from the stage while the Stooges were performing. But for most fans, beyond dealing with the summer heat and sun (and the odd person falling from a lighting tower), the weekend was safe and peaceful. "I didn't witness any violence," says Rosemont, who worked in the first aid tent one evening. "Inevitably, there's going to be cuts, bruises, that sort of thing. But there was nothing major that I recall."

Convincing the locals who lived near Goose Lake that all was benign was no easy task. Many Leoni county residents interviewed by reporters prior to the festival spoke as if a marauding army was on its way, and Jackson's daily newspaper, the Citizen-Patriot, printed a "Rumor and Fact" column during the festival in which reporters tried to establish the veracity of gossip phoned into their newsroom by worried citizens. The tales ranged from hippies looting a supermarket to drug-addled rock fans stealing a cow, then killing and eating it on the spot. All the negative stories were determined to be false.

In the aftermath of the festival, most residents of the community who spoke to the press said that the young people who attended the festival were polite and well mannered, but that didn't ease their suspicions. Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Bowers told a Citizen-Patriot reporter, "They were nice to us and we were nice to them," but Mr. Bowers also insisted, "I don't think it could be any worse. Dope, sex and nudity are offensive. It was a nerve-wracking deal." His wife chimed in: "We had guns for protection if they were needed. We're going to fight [future festivals] to the last ditch."

As it happened, the Bowers and their neighbors soon had plenty of help preventing Goose Lake II from taking place. Police officers — convinced arresting drug dealers in the park would cause a riot — waited outside the gates on Sunday afternoon, and hundreds of fans leaving the festival were arrested for possession. Many patrons, taking the advice of master of ceremonies Teagarden & Van Winkle, either burned or threw away their stashes rather than risk seizure on the way home. Governor William Milliken, who was running for re-election at the time, seized the opportunity to show he was tough on drugs. Returning to Michigan after spending the eventful weekend at a governor's conference in Missouri, Milliken declared he was "outraged" at the sale of drugs at Goose Lake and proposed legislation that would prevent similar events, adding "I do not oppose rock festivals, but I do oppose and will fight drug abuse such as took place at Goose Lake."

In quick succession, Jackson County legislators proposed laws that would outlaw gatherings as large as the Goose Lake festival; Michigan Representative Charles E. Chamberlain sought to launch a federal congressional inquiry into the event; Songer was indicted on charges related to illegal activity on his property; and state attorney general Frank Kelley threw his support behind proposals that would hold promoters legally liable for illegal activity at events they staged. While Songer had planned to hold another music festival at Goose Lake on Labor Day Weekend 1970, the controversy put an end to any future concerts at the park. He renamed the facility Wonderland Park and promoted it as a family-friendly destination, but even an attempt to stage a snowmobile race there was stopped by local officials. While Songer was eventually exonerated, Goose Lake was destined to be a one-off.

Goose Lake was in the headlines in Michigan through much of July 1970, but it received little coverage elsewhere. "The biggest mistake made at Goose Lake was my fault," Wright confesses. "And that was when the press showed up backstage, we were not hospitable. 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 band's friends. We couldn't clog up the gears with 15 people who claimed to be from Rolling Stone. So we gave them free passes to the whole event, and they could get everywhere except backstage, which was the only place they wanted to be. Consequently, we did not get any coverage in the music press."

Despite it all, Goose Lake remains the biggest festival of its kind ever held in the Midwest, and gave Michigan's counterculture a chance to come together and raise their voices on a grand scale, while having some fun at the same time. As Mitch Ryder says, with no small pride: "It was a clash of cultures, for sure. But that's how change comes about. And I was involved in it.

The author would like to thank Robert Matheu, Tom Wright and Russ Gibb for their help with this story, as well as everyone who was interviewed. Mark Deming would like to hear from anyone who has photos or memories of Goose Lake; contact him at [email protected].

The Rothbury Festival, Thursday through Sunday, July 3-6, at the Double JJ Ranch, outside of Muskegon. Go to for more info.

Mark Deming is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]