Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Rock Festivals Back Then (Part 1)
I didn't make it to Woodstock. I was a laid-back West Coaster not interested enough to travel cross-country for some big rock festival weekend--shows what I knew back then!
But I was lucky enough to hit three other historically significant ones: Monterey Pop, Seattle Pop, and Altamont. My memories of each may be worth recording here...
My first wife and I had planned to go to San Francisco for our long-delayed honeymoon about the time of the Summer of Love ("if you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" indeed). We weren't hippies by any stretch of the imagination, but SF was beckoning us nonetheless. When I heard about the proposed Monterey Pop Festival, I decided we'd try to get tickets, to one day's concerts at least.
No luck on the major rock evenings, but we did manage tickets for Ravi Shankar's matinee performance. (Ragas in the afternoon rather than at sunrise or sunset, but what the hey.) And that would at least give us the chance to look around. On that Sunday we drove down to Monterey, and got to wander for a while before and after Shankar--who was terrific, I should note, him and Alla Rakha and some mysterious woman playing tamboura.
The grounds were sort of hippie heaven, I guess, looking like what would become known as Renaissance Fairs later--craft booths, jewelry, scarves, tie-dye everything, furry hats, fine and freaky people in amazing costumes. I remember we saw both Art Garfunkel and Brian Jones among the funseekers that afternoon, and the rumor circulating was that George Harrison would show up as well, but so far as I know he didn't.
But what did magically occur was some poor soul offered me two tickets for that evening's show, which I scooped up on the spot! My later-to-be-ex- (not really a rock fan) and I hung around, had dinner, and took our seats to see... wow! Janis Joplin and Big Brother, an at-that-time-unknown chick belting out the blues in a convincingly brassy voice, her nipples straining to burst her gold-colored top (I admit I had binoculars), then The Who, not much recognized yet in the U.S., with Roger Daltrey strutting and shouting and Keith Moon grinning maniacally, pounding the hell out of his drums, and Pete Townsend leaping and flailing and windmilling his guitar, and then finally smashing it and the mics to smithereens. Holy bejesus, Batman!
Who could follow that? Well, a flashily dressed black man named Jimi Hendrix sauntered out on stage, his backing guys maybe Experienced but unknown that night, and proceeded to burn down the house. Okay, I exaggerate. But he did play "Red House" and "Hey Joe" and the other tunes that made him famous, making his guitar squawk and scream--and he did finally act to out-do Townsend by kneeling down, squirting lighter fluid on his guitar, and setting it on fire!
To say that the audience went crazy is to be way too subtle. But after we all calmed down again, the rest of the evening was definitely an anticlimax--The Mamas and the Papas, Scott Hamilton, whoever else, if anyone, all basically forgotten in the rush to critical judgment. (Coverage back in those distant days was mostly by major newspapers and Esquire--the rock mag circuit hadn't been invented yet!) Several stars were born that night, and they blazed across the heavens for a few years, and then some of them burnt out way too early. Janis, Jimi, and Keith at least, all victims of their success.
I drove back north to our SF hotel pretty much on auto-pilot, totally blown away, as that relevant cliche goes. I can't remember anything else about our poor honeymoon stay, except that out on the streets I bought the second issue of a new tabloid magazine called Rolling Stone--which convinced me then and there that I had to write about rock.
And I proceeded to do just that, getting published slowly at first and then actually providing record reviews to Rolling Stone--which is how I came to cover the Seattle Pop Festival a year or so later. Seattle's version of the Fillmore was called Eagles Auditorium, run by a hustler entrepreneur named Boyd Grafmyre, who took his club success to the limit by arranging to produce a major outdoor festival weekend, to be held out in the rural countryside in a big cowpie field near Woodinville.
Rolling Stone said okay, so I got press accreditation, enabling me to wander the backstage area all weekend, tapedeck in hand. I had brief and sometimes longer interviews with Jim Morrison of The Doors (one of my first blog posts talks about that peculiar event), Gram Parsons and other Flying Burrito Brothers, Jesse Colin Young of The Youngbloods, Bo Diddley and Albert Collins and others. An amazing stretch was listening to Bo and Collins and a couple of other blues guys shoot the shit for an hour, playing the dozens on each other, and me the fly on the wall! (Man, I'd give a few months of my dwindling life to get back the long-lost, likely recorded-over-later tapes I made that weekend.)
Performing as well though not approached by me were Led Zeppelin, who came and went by helicopter, and Ike and Tina Turner. (Could Ike have been one of the other cats during that talk-fest? Could be; maybe I just didn't recognize him at the time.) The Turner show was outstanding, which is where i was--out standing in the press pit, just below stage front, gawking like a fool at the lonnng legs, and more, of Tina and the Ikettes! Whew! The view was inspirational. Tina and her gals were definitely the hottest act of the weekend...
The Doors played well but Morrison seemed less involved that I'd seen him at Eagles some months earlier. The other acts were fine and worked the stage and the crowd to their advantage, but now, 40 years later, not much of their performances have stayed in my mind. A successful weekend for all us fans anyway, even though Grafmyre later claimed that he lost money on the event.
I did write things up for Rolling Stone, and my review ran alongside some other concert coverage in one long-ago issue--and then I moved on, to generating more and more longer pieces for East Coast rival Fusion. And it was for Fusion that I covered the Altamont Festival a year later... more next time.