Wednesday, March 26, 2014

From Monterey to Altamont as the Crow Flies

But that was in another country;
And besides, the wench is dead.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the Age of Aquarius, it was the decade of assassinations; it was the era of peaceful resistance, it was the epoch of patriotic fervor; it was the season of possibilities, it was the years of Vietnam; it was the Summer of Love, it was the Winter of Our Discontent: we had the Great Society and Democratic Revolution before us, we had the Entrenched Establishment and Republican Power against us, we had only a stoner's hope of succeeding...

There was a time when I would glibly say, "I went to Monterey Pop by accident, and
to Altamont by mistake." But of course I purchased the tickets and willingly attended both--Monterey as a happy music lover, and Altamont as a member of the working press.

First wife and I had driven down to the Bay Area; the 1967 Summer of Love seemed the right time to celebrate our years-delayed honeymoon by spending a long weekend in San Francisco--no flowers in our hair then, but discovering that something called "The Monterey Pop Festival" was that same weekend convinced me that we should try to attend. Only the last-day matinee concert by sitar master Ravi Shankar had tickets left, but that suited me fine: it got
us in the gate and, besides, I loved his Classical Indian ragas I'd first heard via the soundtrack to Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali trio of films. So Sunday morning we drove on down the Coast.

The picturesque town was chockablock with cops and flower children, townsfolk and festive fans, oldtimers and curiosity seekers, costumers and craftsmen, amateur musicians and business professionals--tens of thousands of hippies and straights alike, and all coexisting in peaceful harmony. That Monterey looked like a mix of early Newport Jazz and later Renaissance Fair, and probably was. Rock Music was still coming into its own, not yet dominating all, and exhibiting no sign
of the fracturing that lay ahead. Pop success still meant the Top 40, and that included the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Stones; and Stereo recording was only slowly replacing sturdy Monaural.

Monterey Pop, thanks to the energy and persuasive blandishments of (record producer) Lou Adler and (Mamas and Papas leader) John Phillips, became a charities money-raising event, with the performers collecting no fees. It functioned instead as a display venue for groups from the East Coast, West Coast, and England to present themselves to their fans, to the press, and to one another. Just consider the acts then unknown or little-known that appeared: Jimi Hendrix, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Who, Canned Heat, the Butterfield Blues Band, Otis Redding with Booker T. and the MGs, Jefferson
Airplane, the Blues Project, Hugh Masakela, Laura Nyro, the Electric Flag, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe and the Fish. (Also the Grateful Dead, who played but apparently weren't filmed or recorded.)

The "headlining" acts--though not singled out as such--were those with actual hits: Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and Papas, Lou Rawls, the Byrds, the Association, Buffalo Springfield, Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Dionne Warwick (who canceled). There was a separate musicians' area, but no one was hassled when celebrities mingled with us common folk; I saw Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Art Garfunkel, Mike Bloomfield, and probably failed to
recognize other wanderers. (George Harrison and/or other Beatles were rumored to be coming but never showed.)

Anyway, the afternoon Shankar concert was an amazing set of three ragas, each one alternating between peacefully spiritual passages and manically high-energy sitar-and-tabla astonishments that left the crowd roaring with delight. (No wonder director D.A. Pennebaker made that out-of-chronology performance the visual and musical climax of his Monterey Pop documentary film.) We walked out feeling elated and exhausted--truly high on life.

And almost immediately met a young man trying to sell his evening concert tickets--not at some scalper price but for maybe $5 apiece. Wife and I looked at each other and said, "Hell yes!" ...which is how we were present for the three defining, star-making sets of Sunday night: (1) Big Brother and
the Holding Company's raucous Rock, driven to distraction (and, soon, dissolution) by spun-gold, tits-at-attention, little-sister Blues-belter Janis Joplin; (2) the Rock-crunching, stage-destroying, balls-to-the-wall gigAntics of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon, and John Entwistle (er, who? yes, that's right, the Who); and (3) the unforgettable Experience (per lefty-Jimi anything-goes-Hendrix) of watching a man as colorful as a peacock hump and smash an electric guitar after picking it behind his back and with his teeth, and follow that apparent climax with yet another by masturbating lighter fluid onto the pieces and setting them on fire--pretty much an apt definition of "a hard act to follow."

The Mamas and Papas tried, but the temporary weekend world of Monterey Pop was all a-buzz, satiated and dispersing by then. Pennebaker's eventual edit rearranged the three days for maximum effect, omitting some bands and shuffling the ones shown. (Two sequel
follow-ups scoured the remaining footage to document the artists and lesser performances left out of that first official film.) Otis, Janis, Jimi, the Who, and Ravi... by the reviews, popular acclamation, and histories of Rock written since, those five were the highlights of Monterey, and by luck and pluck we'd been there to witness four of them.

I recently watched all three parts of Pennebaker's blanket coverage, and was pleased to be reminded of on-stage moments not seen at the time and off-stage good vibrations enjoyed and remembered. The weekend seemed as placid and lazily happy as it's been painted--the festive, grass-shared, "stoned soul picnic" atmosphere that the subsequent Woodstock and
Altamont gatherings were too mammoth and muddy or drugged and deadly to achieve, really did obtain at Monterey. The brave new world of peace and love, of music and youth, seemed within our reach...

But soon Woodstock ballooned and loomed over us, and ended beached in flotsam and jetsam, like some gigantic White Whale with no Ahab--or too many petty ones--to re-launch and steer the o'erladen ship on its intended (r)evolutionary course. (Instead the nation's youth soon settled for Starbucks and the pursuit of personal wealth--Ronald Reaganomics in place of Gregory Peck.) Meanwhile, near the end of 1969, the terrible events at Altamont
Speedway pretty much nailed the lid on hippiedom's fragile handmade coffin, just barely still afloat.

But there's one thing left to point out regarding Monterey Pop... the dark shadow lurking at the edges of all that "good day sunshine" euphoria. Careers were kicked into gear, yes, but within months Otis Redding and Brian Jones (the one Stone who came) were both dead, and then over the next several years, so too were Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Papa John Phillips and Mama Cass Elliot, Keith Moon of the Who, "Pigpen" from the Grateful Dead, Al Wilson and Bob Hite (both from Canned Heat), Mike Bloomfield (Electric Flag) Mike Clarke (the Byrds), and probably others who attended, plus Jim Morrison (the Doors), Gram Parsons (the Flying Burrito Brothers), John Lennon, and even Elvis... who didn't.

I had not thought Rock had undone so many.

* * * *
In Part 2, coming in a week or three, we journey cross-state from this Alpha fest of music to Altamont's Omega of murder. So much peace and love might have been an illusion, but Hell's Angels as security? Are you kidding me? Whose bright idea was that?


Steve Provizer said...

Thank you for this return to those days of mixed blessings. There was much wonderment about, but also the undercurrent you noted. And, I wonder if people remember how apocalyptically we viewed the ecology of the planet?

Ed Leimbacher said...

Thanks. Apocalypse Then, Altamont Eclipsed... soon.

Alan Kurtz said...

Thanks for the reminiscence, but I don't think Papa John Phillips belongs in your list of musicians who died "over the next several years" following Monterey Pop. He passed in 2001 at age 65, hardly a youthful casualty like the others you named.

Ed Leimbacher said...

don't know why I misremembered Philips death as a Seventies event; maybe I conflated him with some other early casualty. or maybe I just shouldn't count on the Parkinson's-kissed brain without fact-checking these days. OK, AK, I'm counting on you now to address any mistakes in part 2 and the soon-come part 3.