NONSTOP MUSIC: The poster for the Aquarian Family Festival could barely contain the names of all the bands appearing over Memorial Day weekend, 1969.
Forty years ago, on Memorial Day Weekend, two seminal festivals filled San Jose with counterculture sounds
By Gina Arnold
NINETEEN sixty-nine was the year of Woodstock and Altamont: two of history's best-remembered—and most notorious—rock concerts. The impact of these events is obvious now, but in fact, neither concert was unprecedented. Three months before "Woodstock" became a household word (and a character in Peanuts) and nine months before Altamont, two very similar concerts were held in San Jose.
The Northern California Folk Rock Festival 2, at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, and the Aquarian Family Festival, at the Spartan Stadium practice field, both held on Memorial Day weekend, had all the elements of the better-known shows: 80,000 people were said to have attended either one or the other. As at Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix headlined the Folk Festival. Just as at Altamont, the Aquarian Festival hired Hells Angels for security with disastrous results.
Both festivals were infused with 1960s countercultural values—peace, love, drugs, sex—but lacking famous films to commemorate them, they have been all but lost to memory. This weekend marks their 40th anniversaries. It's worth peering back into the past to see how these unique events in San Jose prefigured the two most important rock concerts in history.
The Aquarian Festival was an almost spontaneous response—a protest, if you will—against a promoter named Bob Blodgett, who was putting on the Northern California Folk Rock Festival 2 at the fairgrounds the same weekend. The year before, the first Northern California Folk Rock Festival had been marred by a huge influx of PCP, which sent 1,000 people to the emergency room. It also had advertised numerous famous acts who failed to show up, since they hadn't, in fact, been booked.
In response to those abuses, one Dennis Jay contacted Blodgett and asked if his organization, called Drug Crisis Intervention, could provide free medical help at the second festival. Blodgett reportedly said, "If you pay me."
At the same time, radio station KSJO was warning listeners that the acts advertised on the poster for 1969 festival—particularly Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix—were not going to appear, as they were booked elsewhere at the time. (This situation resulted in a lawsuit—paid for by Zeppelin—against the promoter, who retaliated by paying Hendrix $30,000, an unheard of amount at the time, to fly in by Lear Jet and play for half an hour.)
Meanwhile, an outraged Jay and members of San Jose's Free University, the Institute for Research and Understanding, and the Druid Corporation (a musicians collective), organized the Aquarian Family Festival, a free concert, to occur about a half-mile from the site of the Northern California Festival 2. In addition to pissing off Blodgett, the point of this festival seems to have been to provide a place for hippies and travelers to camp and sleep between sets. (Many of the attendees were expected to arrive from Berkeley, where they had been protesting at Berkeley's People's Park.)
The conditions of the license granted said that music at this festival had to be continuous, so essentially every band in the Bay Area rushed down with their equipment to play. Ron Cook, who as a member of the Druid Corporation helped build the festival's stage and who is now a luthier in Santa Cruz, recalls a list of band names taped to the sound board determining the order of play—similar to the way people now sign up for tennis courts. As well, more famous bands like the Jefferson Airplane rushed over from finishing their (paid) sets at the Northern California Folk Rock Festival, to show solidarity with the hippies.
By all reports, the free festival drew approximately 20,000 people and was both a madhouse and a rousing success. On the plus side, both festivals were reviewed positively in the pages of the San Jose Mercury, Rolling Stone and the Spartan Daily; Mercury reporter Rick Carroll wrote that local businesses boomed and that—despite hippies wandering around "making love" in people's yards—the atmosphere was peaceful.
Carroll also recalls all kinds of '60s high jinks, including the Chambers Brothers promoting a riot, meeting Chuck Berry (and a very young girl) in the art deco De Anza Hotel, Jimi Hendrix's agent landing in a helicopter at the county fairgrounds to collect his cash payment, and the plug being pulled on the Jefferson Airplane to get them to leave the stage.
On the minus side, there were assaults, four stabbings, 15 attempted rapes and one gang rape of a festival employee at the Aquarian Festival (by Hells Angels). Three days later, at a San Jose City Council meeting, the Northern California Music Festival was chastised for the decibel level of the amps, in a hearing that has been reprised countless times since the opening of Shoreline Amphitheatre in nearby Mountain View.
Today, rock festivals are a part of American life. Some, like the Oyster Fest in San Francisco or the Vans Warped Tour, overtly promote a product or a lifestyle. Others like Coachella and Bonnaroo (the two largest festivals in the United States) simply try to gather together enormous crowds of music fans, ostensibly in the spirit of Woodstock (but possibly in the spirit of MacWorld).
Millions will attend a rock festival of some kind this summer, with the assumption that it will be safe, hygienic and fun. And for the most part they will be—thanks to 40 years of trial and error. Although little known to the general public, early festivals like the Aquarian Family Festival and the Northern California Folk Rock Festival 2 played an important role in shaping the culture of our region.
Gina Arnold is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. She is writing her dissertation on rock crowds and power.
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