Friday, February 26, 2010

The Legend of The Monterey Pop Festival: A small step for the Civil Rights movement


It is a distinct honor and pleasure, to not only introduce my good friend Jeff Cairney, but to post a fantastic piece of scholarly insight. It is of quintessential importance to tell the tale of this meteoric day in Monterey,  as we continue to explore the powers of what music can do, both to and for people. Jeff, you're the man, hope to hear from you again soon.

The Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 was perhaps the most iconic event of the hippie movement of 1960s America. It began the “summer of love” on three sunny days in California. It also became a template for future musical festivals such as the less successful (but ironically more well known) Woodstock festival of 1969.1 Monterey represented the innocence of the counterculture: the peace, love, unity and tolerance channeled through Bob Dylan and their assumed physical accompaniments of sunshine, long hair and recreational drugs. Even the policemen were seen with flowers in their helmets.

Monterey was the first major appearance of The Who and Jimi Hendrix outside of the UK. In fact, the two acts, scheduled to perform back-to-back, flipped a coin to see who would go on first because neither wanted to follow the other (The Who was already a very popular act but guitarist Pete Townsend, having seen the up-and-coming Hendrix live, considered him a God and impossible to follow). The Who won the toss, went on first and completely destroyed their instruments to end their set. Though such a spectacle is now known as a bit of a trademark for the band, it wasn’t then in the US. It shocked and scared much of the happy-go-lucky audience. What’s worse (but better in retrospect), Hendrix soon followed inspired by the energy left on stage by The Who and, with an acid soaked bandana on his head and mind, showed America that his guitar is not an instrument but an extension of himself…then he set it on fire, smashed it, and threw its remains into the crowd.

At that time in California, the Mamas & the Papas (from Southern California) and Jefferson Airplane (from Northern California) were the big acts. (They even organized the show with help from The Beach Boys and members of the Beatles). For Californians and perhaps all Americans of the hippie movement, these two bands best embodied the themes they related to. But after Monterey these bands would never again draw such veneration. Not that they performed badly; their acts—and acts they were—simply could not hold up to the raw talent of the up-and-coming. It was a moment when music was loved as music, not as image. And live music was a conduit for self expression rather than a recorded product reenacted on stage.

Other than Hendrix, two such up-and-coming raw talents at Monterey who were making their first major public appearances were Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. Between swigs of SoCo Janis Joplin belted soulful cries that would immediately get her signed to Columbia records by the label’s president, Clive Davis. (Joplin signed the contract on the condition that Davis sleep with her—and he did right there in his office). In Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain”, Mama Cass of the Mamas & the Papas can be seen watching in utter awe and amazement—acknowledgement that her band’s reign was fleeting. This is the event that started Joplin’s career, only to be cut short 3 years later with a heroin overdose.

But of all that happened at Monterey, for all it represented, perhaps the most amazing performance was from Otis Redding. Redding and his band were an all black act performing “black” (soul) music to an essentially all white audience a year before MLK was assassinated. They went on last after the big act, Jefferson Airplane, had finished the set everyone came to hear. The crowd began to thin out and it was clear that they did not come to hear soul music. So 26 year old Redding quickly hit the stage and told his band to play the first song “Shake” twice as fast as usual. The percussion and horns hit, Redding wailed, and the crowd returned astonished. Music as human expression transcended personal preference and familiarity. And it’s clear why the crowd was so captivated: Redding’s voice is perhaps the most soulful that ever existed in popular music. The way he hits notes epitomizes and evokes emotion and is backed by sheer power. And his song “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” performed at Monterey is an excellent example of this voice we lost in a plane crash just 6 months later. Before beginning the ballad, Otis, an unexpected spokesman of the hippie movement, engaged the audience: “This is the love crowd, right? We all love each other, don’t we?” The crowd enthusiastically agreed, affirming the need and desire to reciprocate love to all members of the human race regardless of color or culture. Thus, with this unexpected win for tolerance, for love, for Civil Rights no less, Redding’s performance marked a significant moment in not one but two complementary movements in American history.


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