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[whitespace] Don MacSorley Pop Chronicler: Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker captured a unique moment in musical and social history at Monterey.

Photograph by Don MacSorley

Pop Perfect

The Monterey Pop Festival of 1967 was the first and still is the greatest of rock concerts

By Gina Arnold

THIRTY-FOUR years ago this weekend, the Monterey Pop Festival was held at the Monterey Fairgrounds--the harbinger of an entire era of rock music yet to come. It was the first real music festival, lasting three days and showcasing 36 incredibly diverse acts, ranging from bland pop types like the Association and Lou Rawls to blues legend Otis Redding. It also featured the national debuts and seminal performances by then-unknowns like the Who, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

More importantly, the festival drew together a like-minded audience of rock fans--"The Love Crowd," they were dubbed by the Village Voice--who would soon join forces to become the American counterculture, and all that implies.

Tim Thomas was in the sixth grade at the time, and he was dying to attend in order to see his favorite band, Country Joe McDonald and the Fish. Not surprisingly, his parents forbade him the pleasure, and Thomas, now a curator at the Monterey History and Art Association, has been looking for a way to make up for the disappointment ever since.

That's why, this weekend, Thomas is helping to present Monterey Pop Revisited, a two-day symposium on the site of the original festival. The event will includes panel discussions with some of the festival's musicians and attendees, performances, an exhibit of photos and memorabilia, and a showing of Monterey Pop hosted by its director, D.A. Pennebaker.

Of course, it won't be the same as seeing Redding, Joplin, Hendrix, the Who, the Byrds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Jefferson Airplane and many other acts at the height of their powers, but Thomas is still hoping that the weekend's events will do a little bit to assuage his disappointment.

THE IDEA of having some sort of Monterey Pop reunion event came to him, he said, in 1992, on the 25th anniversary of the original event. "I thought for sure someone would do something about it, but that weekend I tried to track down the film, and I couldn't even find a copy of it at the video stores. It's always surprised me that the city of Monterey has never done anything about it, since it was such an important event here. So when the museum started talking about how they wanted to do more contemporary exhibits, I threw the idea out and they [the museum] bought into it immediately."

Thomas normally works with the Maritime Museum on exhibits about the fishing industry, so an event to do with rock & roll was a little out of his line. His task was made easier by the Internet. "I plugged in all the names of the performers, and they all had webpages of their own," he says. "The first person I emailed that way was Country Joe McDonald, and he answered me back in 10 minutes."

Most of his work was done by email, but he wrote Lou Adler, the event's original promoter (with the late John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas) a real letter--"old style." Adler, who in addition to promoting the Monterey Pop Festival is known for producing The Rocky Horror Picture Show and various groups like Jan and Dean, and Carole King, is in charge of administering the charitable funds that the Monterey Pop Festival video, album and music still generate, and he was eager to get involved.

"It's a blueprint for all subsequent music festivals," Adler says. "And it did establish rock as a force to be reckoned with."

Speaking from his office in L.A., Adler recalls the conversation that spurred on the idea of the festival in the first place. "It was a conversation we had at Mama Cass' house a few months before the event," he says.

"It was me, John Phillips, Cass Elliot and Paul McCartney, and we were all talking about the fact that rock & roll--or what we called rock & roll then--was not considered an art form, like jazz and the blues. When it was first invented, in the '50s, it was supposed to be this dumb thing that would be gone by the end of the summer, and here it was still thriving. So we were talking about ways to legitimize it, and one idea we had was to have a charitable event with all these different acts."

Soon after, Adler and Phillips were approached by some promoters who had wanted to do a one-day pop concert on the Monterey Fairgrounds, the site of the Monterey Jazz Festival. Adler and Phillips immediately saw that as an opportunity. "John and I had both heard that in the late '30s, the series Jazz at the Philharmonic had validated jazz to people. so we thought putting rock music at the site of the already established Monterey Jazz Festival would validate rock."

And validate it did. Somehow, the three-day concert, June 16-18, 1967, seemed to take place under a lucky star. Everything that could go right, did--from the weather (gorgeous) to the music (incandescent) to the positive publicity.

"To this day," Adler boasts, "artists say it was one of the best events of its kind they were ever at. It really elevated promoters' outlooks on how to treat artists, and it made record companies conscious that the artist had power. After Monterey, they really gave them more freedom to choose their album cover art, their producers, their songs. ... It had a lot of ancillary effects on the industry."

One of its main effects was on concert promoting. "Artists were used to performing with a microphone and two small speakers," Adler recalls. "We wanted them to have the best sound, the best facility, the best food backstage. ... We wanted it to be a utopia."

And a utopia they got. At the time, recalls former Jefferson Airplane bassist and Monterey Pop Festival participant Jack Casady, there were really very few festivals. "It wasn't like we went there with expectations," he says. "We weren't on tour all the time; we'd only been together a year and a half. Any gig was a good gig for us."

The Monterey Pop Festival was a breakthrough event for the Jefferson Airplane, which became nationally known thanks to its performance there, but what Casady recalls best is the music itself, especially sets by Redding and Ravi Shankar.

"It was just a great opportunity to see all these great artists we'd never seen," Casady says. "It wasn't really a freeform event, everyone had really short sets, but as a musical event it was just great. It provided everyone with a new environment to see all these different, eclectic acts that you might not listen to at home."

Adler agrees. "The music was on such a high level--the diversity of the artists, their excellence. ... and I don't really think that's ever been repeated on quite the same scale."

The Monterey Pop Festival also had a huge impact on the public's perception of the rock scene and its fans. "The media coverage was worldwide," Adler says, "and that had never happened before. You can send out all the press releases you want, and if it's not in the media's psyche, then forget it. We had Derek Taylor, the Beatles' publicist, doing press, and we knew we had a lot of requests for media credentials, but it was still a shock, on the morning of the festival, to wake up and see all these TV crews from all over the world."

OF COURSE, one reason the festival was such a big success was its fortuitous timing. "Everyone was flocking to San Francisco at that time," Adler recalls. "The Haight Ashbury was all over the news. It wasn't like people drove down from San Francisco to Monterey for the festival; they drove there from Cleveland and New York and wherever."

Filmmaker Pennebaker, who was hired to film the festival, concurs. "I had just seen the movie Endless Summer," he says, "and it was totally apparent to me it wasn't about surfing, but about California. At that time, everyone wanted to go to California, so I thought about [the offer to make the film] for about two minutes and then said 'Yes.' "

"It was," Pennebaker continues, "an extraordinary moment in American culture. There was a new sense of freedom in the air and that was reflected in the music, in the drugs, in everything. You could feel it coming like a hurricane."

Pennebaker pauses to reflect. "What happened at Monterey," he says, "was, I found myself in the middle of this cyclonic thing, filming people of great magnitude and talent. I just couldn't miss. We just had to turn on the cameras."

It turned out to be a good thing the cameras were there, since money from the film is the only thing that made the festival economically viable. After the concert, Adler suddenly found the someone had run off with all of the profits, leaving Pennebaker and the others $75,000 in the hole. They had already offered ABC television the right to first refusal for a TV special, but according to Adler, "We showed the head of ABC footage of Jimi Hendrix assaulting his guitar sexually, and he said, 'Take the footage!' "

Pennebaker doesn't remember trying to shock them deliberately, however. "I suppose we could have fabricated a festival they could have lived with, but no one said I had to do that. The minute I sat down to edit it, I was editing a feature film."

PENNEBAKER'S FILM--which will be shown at the symposium and which became yet another blueprint for concert films--was the first rock-concert film, in part, he says now, "because before then, it technically wasn't possible to record the music correctly."

He overcame that problem by borrowing two eight-track tape players belonging to Brian Wilson. Pennebaker remembers his shock, upon flying to Monterey, to find out that the venue was essentially a livestock pen. "I'd never seen a concert with a lot of people at it even," he adds, "but when I walked around on what was going to be the stage area, and tried to visualize the number of people who would be there and the staging and how to shoot it--well it all came together in my head."

Monterey Pop is a classic of the genre, mainly because the performances were so spectacular. And the film was very spectacular, grossing $2 million and spurring interest in the film of Woodstock. (Pennebaker was offered the directorship of that one, as well, but he turned it down.)

Around the same time, Adler recalls, he and Phillips considered doing another pop festival, but the times had already changed. "The citizens of Monterey weren't real happy about bringing it back; and prices had changed. The cost of the police, of liability insurance and everything--the whole atmosphere was different."

And the atmosphere is still different. In 1979, Chet Helms attempted to do a similar festival called Tribal Stomp 2 at the fairgrounds, which was a dismal failure (despite a very good lineup, including the Clash). Giant rock festivals are quite common in Europe, while in the United States, groups of acts that represent certain lifestyles or communities tend to tour together under titles like Ozzfest, Lilith Fair, FURTHER and Lollapalooza.

Some of these tours are extremely enjoyable, but Monterey Pop Festival remains the seminal pop festival, the single moment in time when the zeitgeist of America changed, and the change was captured on film.

Monterey Pop Revisited will be held at the Monterey Country Fairgrounds June 16-17. Opening-night party, concert and art exhibit at the Monterey History Center on June 15. For information, call 866.POPFEST or 831.375.5740, ext. 11.

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From the June 14-20, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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