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.

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