Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Remembering the Monterey Pop Festival

“Your mother is high and she doesn’t even know it!”

--David Crosby, Monterey Pop Festival

“I’m going to sacrifice something I really love…for all you beautiful people”

--Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pop Festival

“This is where it all ends.”

--Pete Townshend, Monterey Pop Festival

Forty years ago the Monterey Pop Festival took place outside San Francisco. It was a three day music festival featuring an unprecedented eclectic congregation of musical performers representing much of the musical spectrum at the time. Never before had any promoter put together such a widely diverse collection of musicians playing such deeply contrasting styles of music. The Monterey Pop festival combined acts like Lou Rawls with the Jimi Hendrix Experience; Laura Nyro with Janis Joplin; Simon and Garfunkel with Country Joe and the Fish; the Who with Ravi Shankar. The list goes on and on.

When it comes to commemorating the great rock festivals of the past, Monterey tends to be ignored in favor of Woodstock, Altamont, Live Aid, or, just recently, Live8, but without Monterey the latter named festivals would not have been possible. Monterey set the precedent for all the festivals that followed in its wake. Indeed, Monterey was, in many ways, a superior production to Woodstock or Altamont. Unlike Woodstock, Monterey was not declared a disaster area. Unlike Woodstock, the organizers of the festival did not lose control of the 50,000 people who attended the three-day festival. (One of the reasons why Woodstock became a free concert was because the organizers did not provide proper crowd control and tens of thousands of gate-crashers overwhelmed the area thus forcing the organizers to declare the show a free show—lest they risk a major riot).

Monterey was different. The audiences were well behaved (if you turned a blind eye towards the drugs that circulated freely around—LSD, STP, and Mexican marijuana were the drugs of choice at the festival for performers and fans alike).

And there was, of course, the music itself. Monterey was the breakout show for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who. It was also one of the few times that the Mamas and the Papas (the late John Phillips was one of the key organizers of the festival) performed live in public. Decades later Michelle Phillips later told an interviewer that during their glory years they only performed roughly forty-some shows in a three year period; adding that if you saw the Mamas and the Papas live in concert then you were in for a rare treat. Indeed the Mamas and the Papas were the very last show of the festival. Monterey also marked the end of an era for certain bands. David Crosby performed his last gig with the Byrds at Monterey (indeed when you listen to the Byrds set on the CD box set of the Monterey Festival you can sense the tension in the band because Crosby is the only person doing any talking on the stage and you can sense his disenchantment in having to maintain the Byrds folk-rock image. Furthermore you also can catch a bizarre glimpse of what David Crosby was like when he was stoned out of his mind—which he was all throughout the festival. After each song, Crosby would regale the audience with some stoned dementia. As he later writes in his memoir Long Time Gone, “I did it all stoned.”

Neil Young, a member of Buffalo Springfield, would refuse to perform onstage at Monterey because he wanted to leave the band. Interestingly, David Crosby filled in for Neil Young, performing alongside Stephen Stills in a wicked prelude to the eventual formation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash.

Even more interesting is the presence of musicians performing what we now call world music. Hugh Masekela from South Africa and Ravi Shankar of India both performed sterling sets—especially the latter. Shankar was given the whole afternoon of the first day of the Festival to perform his music—which he did with wonderful verve and spirituality—his set is the last performance featured in D.A. Pennebaker’s magnificent documentary film of the Monterey Pop Festival.

And then there are the iconic moments, permanently etched in the consciousness of our kaleidoscopic memories of the Summer of Love: the Who annihilating the laid-back California crowd with My Generation while smashing their instruments with desperate abandon. (Pete Townshend smashed his guitar so violently he wrenched his back in the process); and the most famous snapshot memory of them all: Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire after he had humped his amplifiers during a raucous version of Wild Thing. How many different versions and from how many different camera angles have we seen that moment of Jimi ushering forth a strange fire from his guitar as the instrument issues anguished fuzz tones while it burns helplessly and then Hendrix smashing it to bits while the young ladies of the audience gasp and gape in horror at the spectacle?

At that moment Jimi Hendrix was launched as a superstar in America….

And three years later he would be dead, along with Janis Joplin, and the late Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones who crossed eight time zones by plane solely to introduce Jimi Hendrix to America. If you look at the Pennebaker film of Monterey, you will see a roll call of the dead: Jimi, Janis, Keith Moon, John Phillips, Michael Bloomfield of the Electric Flag, Bob Hite of Canned Heat, Brian Jones, Mama Cass Elliott, Nico of the Velvet Underground (Brian Jones’ date at the Festival), Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, and the list goes on….

If I had a time machine, I would have loved to have been there because when you look at the film of the event you see a lot of people having a very wonderful time. After all it was the Summer of Love but all too soon it was going to get ugly and death would claim a lot of beautiful people.

Rest in Peace.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

And I'm never going back to my old school

We like to look at our K-12 years with nostalgia but how do those who suffered through their K-12 years cope with their memories? Twenty five years ago this week I graduated from Delran High School. I remember suffocating inside an un-air-conditioned gymnasium while a vicious thunderstorm rumbled outside. I remember the anger, emptiness, and sadness I felt while listening to the insincere blessings for the future being offered by my peers and school faculty members.

Looking back at my years in the Delran school system, I’ve come to the conclusion that it resembled an abattoir where the students were treated like beef cattle; herded indiscriminately from room to room; zapped in the head periodically until we were dismembered into digestible pieces to be processed, sold, and consumed by the giant machine called Society. During those years I saw Social Darwinism at its worst: a philosophy of poison the weak and pity the strong; of bullying run rampant while most teachers deliberately turned a blind eye towards it and, a few evil ones, who would deliberately set up situations where weak students were terrorized.

There were only a handful of excellent teachers during my school years: Mrs. Scanlon, my third grade teacher; in middle school: Mr. Dodd, who taught science, and Mr. MacKiernan, who taught math; in high school: Mr. Reiss who taught cosmology, Miss May who taught Spanish, and Miss Weiss who taught me how to type. They were very, very good and to them I offer a heartfelt ‘thank you’.

Most of the teachers I had were either: harmless, anonymous, or (on certain occasions) clueless.

And then were the amoral charlatans masquerading as educators. I remember them especially because they did a lot of damage not only to me but to a lot of other innocent students as well.

I remember a fourth grade teacher who brutally spanked a male student in front of the entire class on the last day of school all the while proudly proclaiming, “I’ve wanted to do this to you for a long time!” (After the spanking, the kid fled in terror). I remember a middle school teacher who thought it funny to open the door to the bathroom in the back of the classroom while a student was relieving himself. (I wonder if the student in question thought it was funny).

I remember another middle school teacher who spent more time verbally browbeating his students instead of teaching English. One time he gave a seventh-grade female student such a vicious, savage tongue-lashing that she was shaking and sobbing hysterically. What was her heinous crime? She was chewing gum in class.

I remember a high school math teacher who had a student’s personal diary stolen just for the fun of it. I remember when he “returned” the diary to the student in question he had this enormous grin on his face because he had obviously read what was written inside the diary. And then there was the gym teacher (and coach of one of the athletic teams) who ordered a larger student to physically abuse a small, weaker student in front of a class because the smaller kid had quit one of the athletic teams. This same teacher also liked to wrestle his female students in front of the class too.

That is why I felt so angry, empty, and sad when it came time for me to graduate. I wonder if others have felt the same anger, the same despair, and the same emptiness when they were cast into the outside world under similar circumstances? How did they cope with the horrors of their scholastic experience? Did it make them stronger or wiser? Or did it leave them to wander forlornly as survivors, as swimmers searching for a lifeline in an ocean of despair?

Sometimes schools can destroy as well as build.