Category Archives: Rock Festivals

Horror Show

(Pictured: the Stones on stage at Altamont; L to R: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and tour manager Sam Cutler.)

This blog has written extensively about the rock festival era, the period approximately between the Summer of Love and the summer of 1971, in which young people gathered on farms, at racetracks, at ballparks, and in other large venues for concerts featuring multiple headliners. Some shows lasted a single day, some for a weekend, and some even longer. Some were successful, and some were not. Pre-Woodstock gatherings at Golden Gate Park and other venues in northern California (including the Monterey Pop Festival) were largely peaceable and well-run. Woodstock itself seemed to have worked, although the historical record shows that it was repeatedly blessed by guardian angels or simply lucky. Other festivals became disastrous debacles, like the Iola People’s Fair in Wisconsin. From our vantage point over 45 years later, the average festival looks like a crapshoot: maybe you’d pull it off, but maybe you wouldn’t.

In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. An outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.

The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.

Well before December 6th, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.

Ten years ago this month, this blog spun a theory that the last months of 1969 were haunted by a darkness you could hear on the radio. I developed it by cherry-picking the nation’s record charts, but Selvin’s book provides some halfway decent support for it—and I recommend it highly.

The Non-Festival Festival

One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.

The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.

Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)

At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.

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Come and Love: Pictures of Iola

(The photo above is a crowd shot from Woodstock. The success of that festival inspired many smaller-scale imitations, including a couple in Wisconsin. I would like you to be looking at a photo from the collection that is the subject of this post, but we do not always get what we want.)

Two of my favorite posts out of the more than 1,700 that have appeared at this blog are the ones from 2010 about the Iola People’s Fair, a Wisconsin rock festival held in June 1970. (part 1 here, part 2 here). I dug up newspaper articles about the fest and collected memories from a few attendees, all in an attempt to flesh out the details about an event that was remembered mostly in hazy fragments sprinkled across the Internet, many of them distorted or flat wrong.

Recently, a friend of the blog pointed me to a collection of photos from Iola that have turned up on Facebook, posted by Sanderson Photography of Green Bay.

Before you get to the pics, though, look at this publicity poster for the event, which is the distilled essence of 1970, promising “Fresh Air! Nature! Music! Love! Fun! Water! Ponds and Streams!” and exhorting, “Street People, Come and Love.” The poster promised an eclectic lineup from Buddy Rich, Ravi Shankar, and Chuck Berry to Buffy Ste. Marie, the Amboy Dukes, and Sugarloaf. Neither the advance publicity nor the news stories following the event (which were notoriously terrible nationwide about mentioning artists, probably figuring that their adult readers wouldn’t care) say anything about Iggy and the Stooges, although their 3AM Sunday morning set has come down as the single most well-remembered performance of the festival. Advance tickets: $10.

Iola is most famous for the Sunday morning incident in which bikers mounted up and charged angry concertgoers who had been chucking rocks and bottles at them in response to thefts and violence committed by the bikers. (“Chicks were on the handlebars shooting,” one witness told me.) One of the photos shows a large number of motorcycles parked on the grounds, although no bikers are in sight. Another concertgoer reported an incident involving a tanker truck full of water. It was supposedly the only source of drinking water on the grounds, until some of the bikers took it over, opened the top hatch, and went swimming in it. (I am a little skeptical about that story, given that there was a lily pond on the grounds that could have been used for swimming, but it could have happened.) Madison-area musician Tony Menzer also remembers the bikers and the water. “I camped up on the hill above the path to the lake and water supply . . . Not where you wanted to be when the bikers tried to take over the water. A buddy of mine jumped on some biker’s bike and drove it into the lake . . . during all hell breaking loose down there. This is the day I realized that some bikers are mere posers . . . once again the hippies ruled!!” (There are more concert memories in a separate post here, although I am not sure if Facebook will permit you to see it.)

There’s an excellent shot of the stage here, a good look at the array of tents pitched by attendees here, and a terrific crowd shot here. I especially like the couple with their arms wrapped around each other’s waists, listening to the music in the distance, and the girl wearing an American flag as a sundress. There were giant bongs and hippie art. There were guys who looked like Jesus and girls with their tops off.

And there’s this photo: the flags, the tents, the people, and the fading light at sunset. Nobody knew, neither the people in the photograph nor the photographer, how evocative that moment would become, an incalculable 44 years in the future. We look at it and we wish, for just a moment, that we could have been there, to see it and hear it, to enjoy the Renaissance Fair atmosphere the newspapers wrote about (before the bikers ran amok), to gather with the tribe during America’s rock festival summer, in a world we dream as more innocent. To come and love, as so many did, before the 60s were completely over and the 70s truly begun.

(An entirely different collection of Iola photos is here. Thanks to Richard Menning for putting my original Iola post on Facebook and tagging me so I could see this stuff.)

A Midwest Fest

The rock festivals of 40 years ago, Woodstock and Watkins Glen, as well as lesser-known regional festivals in places like Poynette, Wisconsin, and Wadena, Iowa, were born when a unique moment in cultural history coincided with the timeless desire to cash in. Promoters would find a field, book some bands, gather the tribes, and hope that the Aquarian spirit (or pure dumb luck) would result in good vibrations—and a big fat bankroll.

Three weeks before Woodstock, on the last weekend of July 1969, a festival in Milwaukee brought together an impressive list of legends-to-be. The first night of the three-day Midwest Rock Festival was headlined by Led Zeppelin. The newly formed Blind Faith was the star of Saturday, a day that was interrupted by rain. Christopher Hjort’s Strange Brew, a chronology of the British blues-rock boom of the 1960s, quotes a report from an underground newspaper published in Minneapolis the next week:

Dark clouds rolled in about 3PM. Rain was responsible for the cancellation of seven local groups. However, the show went on. Shag and SRC repeated their Friday night show. MC5 came on loud and strong, Ireland’s Taste trio proved very refreshing, and the rain gushed as John Mayall took the stage. Thousands sat receptively in the cool summer rain. Mystically, the clouds parted at 9:00PM, [and] everything fell into place like an act of Providence as Blind Faith played. Eric Clapton’s guitar mastery and Ginger Baker’s superb drumming pressed the crowd into frenzied enthusiasm. After the performance, Ginger Baker admitted that his 20-minute drum solo had been the very best he had ever done. Both Blind Faith and the dazed audience agreed: it was a classic. The night was capped with Faith’s “Presence of the Lord” and a “Sunshine of Your Love” curtain call.

(The Zeppelin and Blind Faith sets from Milwaukee have been bootlegged, and you can probably find ’em online if you want ’em. There’s no video of the show, but you can watch Blind Faith at Hyde Park the month before doing “Presence of the Lord” right here.)

Other sources indicate that rain continued Sunday, causing the curtailing or cancellation of sets by acts including Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, the Bob Seger System, and Johnny Winter. Delaney and Bonnie were also scheduled to appear at some point during the weekend, along with the usual glut of local bands.

As with future festivals in many places, controversy erupted afterward. The festival had been held at State Fair Park in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. The state assemblyman representing the area, Robert Huber, complained that Fair Park officials had not notified West Allis officials of the festival in advance, and he decried the way that Greenfield Avenue, a street adjacent to the Fair Park, had turned into “a Haight-Ashbury district.” Assemblyman Huber said he did not “intend to sit idly by and allow the same street to be the show window of semi-sex orgies.” Yet while Huber, who had not been in the area during the festival, was criticizing the kids who had attended, local merchants praised the kids’ behavior.

Despite the assemblyman’s high dudgeon, controversy over the Milwaukee festival died down quickly. July turned to August, and the focus of the rock world turned to upstate New York. All these years later, the Midwest Rock Festival is nearly forgotten.

A question remains, however: Precisely what constitutes a “semi-sex orgy”?

(Revised from a post originally written for WNEW.com, a now-defunct website to which I contributed from 2008 to 2012.)

Taking Texas to the People

So much of what happened in the 70s, what we did, what we bought, what we loved, what seemed like a good idea, now looks like stuff rational people would have kept themselves from doing/buying/loving. It’s as though we were compelled, by the positions of the planets in the zodiac or by radiation creeping though the ozone layer that we were depleting with hair spray and deodorant, to do weird things. One of the weirdest was ZZ Top’s Worldwide Texas Tour.

The tour’s official name was “The Worldwide Texas Tour: Taking Texas to the People.” It was in support of the album Fandango, which had produced the hit single “Tush” in 1975. It traveled with 75 tons of equipment—the stage alone weighed 35 tons. The backdrop was shaped like Texas and could change in appearance depending on how it was lit. But what those who were there remember the most about the Worldwide Texas Tour was the live animals. The show traveled with a menagerie of indigenous Texas wildlife, including a longhorn steer, a buffalo, rattlesnakes, vultures, and even tarantulas, all of which were displayed onstage. The show employed a veterinarian and animal expert to look after the critters. Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, an occasional opening act on the tour, is said to have complained about stepping in manure backstage.

The tour began on May 29, 1976, in Winston-Salem North Carolina, on an all-day bill with Point Blank, Elvin Bishop, and Lynryd Skynyrd. ZZ Top played several big all-day bills that summer, in Atlanta in June, Memphis on the Fourth of July, and in California that August. Blue Öyster Cult was a frequent opening act, although Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon were on a handful of shows also.

Aerosmith was on the bill at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh on June 12, 1976, a show that became an epic debacle and nearly a disaster. The show wasn’t scheduled to start until 4:30, but people arrived early, many carrying kegs of beer on their shoulders. In addition to alcohol, drugs, nudity, public sex, and gate-crashing were part of the pre-show entertainment. Paid attendance was 54,000, but estimates placed the total number of fans on hand at around 70,000. The stadium was vandalized, and restrooms were quickly declared unisex. Media reports said that a bottle-throwing melee during the show resulted in 250 injuries; a couple hundred fans rushed the cops after they arrested a man for drug possession. A fan swimming in a river near the stadium drowned.

At the time, Aerosmith was not necessarily a good fit for the ZZ Top crowd, who came to hear Southern boogie. And during Aerosmith’s set, a ZZ Top fan somehow got into a restricted area and cut the power to the stage, resulting in a silence that was quickly filled by cheering ZZ Top fans who wanted to see their heroes.

Ticket price for the Pittsburgh show, which also featured Point Blank and ran about eight hours: $8.75.

The Worldwide Texas Tour was on the road through the end of November, except for a three-week break in early September. In February 1977, the band went out again. By this time, they had released the album Tejas. The itinerary for the second leg was less intense and broken up by long stretches of downtime, finally ending in December. The band, exhausted by it all, wouldn’t release another album until 1979.

Here’s a clip of “Chevrolet” from a show in Maryland during November 1976. The quality is poor, but it’s nevertheless a look at the legendary Worldwide Texas Tour.

(Expanded from my WNEW.com archives.)

California Jammin’

(Here’s another from my WNEW.com archives, edited a bit.)

If you had picked up a newspaper on the morning of Monday, April 8, 1974, you would have read about the latest developments in the ever-growing web of scandals around President Richard Nixon that would lead to his resignation in August. Government officials were urging energy conservation measures in the face of the first oil shock. The minimum wage was about to be raised to $2.30 an hour. On the sports page, Hank Aaron’s chase of the all-time home run record was the big story. (He would hit #715 that night.) But if you opened the paper to an inside page, you would probably have seen an article about a major rock festival that had taken place in California the preceding Saturday: California Jam.

California Jam had attracted approximately 200,000 fans to the Ontario Motor Speedway. Tickets had cost $10 in advance and were $15 at the gate for a lineup featuring the Eagles, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Black Oak Arkansas, Rare Earth, Seals & Crofts, and Earth Wind & Fire. Authorities marveled at the small number of arrests—between 15 and 25 on drug or weapons possession, public intoxication, and public nudity. A bigger problem was the monumental traffic jam along Interstate 10 before the show, and the confusion afterward, when thousands of concertgoers found that the cars they had illegally parked along the interstate had been towed.

The show was promoted by ABC Entertainment and recorded for broadcast on its late-night In Concert series. Four weekly episodes aired beginning in May 1974, and were simulcast on ABC’s FM radio network. (They were repeated on four straight nights during Thanksgiving week.) There was plenty of TV-friendly stuff included in the event: skydivers, fireworks, skywriters, hot air balloons, and a blimp that hovered over the race track throughout the event. The shows featured concertgoer interviews by DJ Don Imus and promoter Don Branker. There are dozens of clips from the shows at YouTube here.

California Jam was successful enough that it had a sequel: California Jam II was held in March 1978. Its stars included Aerosmith, Foreigner, Ted Nugent (whose request to make his entrance by climbing down a rope from a helicopter was denied), Santana, Heart, and others. Like the original, it was taped for broadcast on ABC-TV and radio.

The California Jam shows of 1974 and 1978 represented a new paradigm for rock festivals. The improvisational days of Woodstock and Watkins Glen were over; the modern era of the hyper-organized festival had begun.

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