Incense and liniment: Monterey Pop (****) turns 50

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 1, 2017)

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Back in my stand-up comedy days, I once had the pleasure of opening for Eric Burdon and Brian Auger in Fairbanks, Alaska (1991…I think). The promoter was kind enough to take me backstage for a brief meet and greet with Mr. Burdon before the gig. Eric immediately struck me as a warm and sincere individual (only rock star I ever met who gave me the sustained two-handed “bro” handshake with full eye contact combo platter).

This makes me sound like a fucking loon, but it felt like I was shaking hands with The Sixties. I remember thinking that sharing a bill with him placed me only one degree of separation from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and the other artists he shared the bill with at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Okay, I may have been high. But it was enough to make my ganglia twitch. I mean, it blew my mind, man!

The Byrds and the Airplane did fly
Oh, Ravi Shankar’s music made me cry
The Who exploded into fire and light
Hugh Masekela’s music was black as night
The Grateful Dead blew everybody’s mind
Jimi Hendrix, baby, believe me,
set the world on fire, yeah

–from “Monterey”, by Eric Burdon & The Animals

The three day music festival was the brainchild of longtime Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, record producer Lou Adler, and entrepreneur/Delaney and Bonnie manager Alan Pariser (who figured prominently during early planning stages but ceded control to his higher-profile partners Phillips and Adler). With a stage banner that read “love, flowers, and music”, it was (and remains) the embodiment of the counterculture’s ephemeral yet impactful “Summer of Love” in 1967.

That said, while the festival itself generally went as well or perhaps even better than its organizers could have ever hoped, it wasn’t necessarily all peace, love, and good vibrations during the organizational process. As rock journalist Michael Lydon (who covered music for Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe from the 60s to the 70s) writes in a contemporaneous piece included in his 2003 anthology, Flashbacks:

The Festival was incorporated with a board of governors that included Donovan, Mick Jagger, Andrew Oldham, Paul Simon, Phillips, Smokey Robinson, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney. “The Festival hopes to create an atmosphere wherein persons in the popular music field from all parts of the world will congregate, perform, and exchange ideas concerning popular music with each other and with the public at large,” said a release. After paying the entertainers’ expenses, the profits from ticket sales (seats ranged from $3.50 to $6.50; admission to the grounds without a seat was $1) were to go to charities and to fund fellowships in the pop field. […]

This vagueness and the high prices engendered charges of commercialism—“Does anybody really know where these L.A. types are at?” asked one San Francisco rock musician. And when the list of performers was released there was more confusion. Where were the Negro stars, the people who began it all, asked some. Where were The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stones, the Motown groups; does a pop festival mean anything without Dylan, the Stones, and The Beatles? […]

Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were enthusiastic about the Festival at first, John Phillips said, “then they never answered the phone. Smokey was completely inactive as a director. I think it might be a Jim Crow thing. A lot of people put Lou Rawls down for appearing. ‘You’re going to a Whitey festival, man,’ was the line. There is tension between the white groups who are getting their own ideas and the Negroes who are just repeating theirs. The tension is lessening all the time, but it did crop up here, I am sure.”

As we now know, any “tension” behind the scenes lessened considerably by the time the gates opened to let the crowds (and the sunshine) in, and the rest, as they say, is History.

Luckily, for those of us who were too young and/or blissfully unaware to attend (or not even born yet), the zeitgeist of the event was captured for posterity by music documentary maestro D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back). His film, simply entitled Monterey Pop, originally opened in 1968; and now, to commemorate the festival’s 50th anniversary this month, it is in limited re-release in theaters (featuring a 4K restoration).

Shot in his signature cinema verite style, Pennebaker’s film distills the 3 days of “love, flowers and music” into a concise 78-minute document of the event. Granted, by its very nature such brevity comes with great sacrifice; not all the artists on the festival’s roster are onscreen. In the director’s statement that prefaces the booklet included with Criterion’s 2002 DVD box set The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, Pennebaker writes:

There is never enough time to just put in everything you want. In fact, that’s what film making is about, making the best stuff count for what you leave out.

 And so it is that The Association, Lou Rawls, The Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Byrds, The Steve Miller Band, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, Moby Grape, Al Kooper, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers and the Grateful Dead are nowhere to be seen. But the performances that made the final cut are, in a word, amazing.

Introduce yourself to Pennebaker’s film. It will feel like shaking hands with The Sixties.

[“Monterey Pop: the Re-release” is now playing in Seattle and other select cities.]

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