Crashers, Cops, Producers Spoil Newport '69

Inside the rioting and violence at what was probably the world's largest pop festival

Jimi Hendrix performs onstage with his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar at the Newport Pop Festival on June 20th, 1969 in Devonshire Downs, California. Credit: Vince Melamed/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Northridge, Calif. – Once again violence has severely mauled the face of rock, with several hundred persons injured in rioting outside Newport '69, what probably was, in attendance, the world's largest pop festival.

Because of this violence, and perhaps as much as $50,000 in damage done to neighborhood homes and businesses, the Los Angeles police commission has launched a full investigation. It could result in new city policies on the granting of concert permits and certainly means there will never be another rock festival held here.

Over 150,000 attended the three-day series of concerts – featuring Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter and the Rascals among the 33 acts – and for most of those visiting this suburban Los Angeles community, the only bummer was the festival itself. They were not aware of the bloody violence erupting outside the gates. For them there was only the last logjam of humanity that made the festival like attending a high school reunion in a closet.

The producers of Newport '69 – no relation to the folk or jazz festivals in Rhode Island – spent $11,000 on hurricane fencing and it was this fence that hundreds of youngsters stormed, rather than pay the $7 admission cost. Gatecrashers the first two days caused only minor incidents, but early Sunday afternoon all hell broke loose.

As was true in another southern California festival, in Palm Springs Easter week, a small minority of youngsters can be blamed for initiating the trouble, and police can be faulted for reacting too brutally.

The kids threw bottles and rocks and the police randomly slashed out with batons, causing blood to stream freely. (Those injured were as young as 14.) Teenagers swarmed across a nearby shopping center, causing nearly $10,000 in damage to two gas stations, an equal amount of damage to apartment houses, another $1,500 worth of vandalism at a grocery store. While police demonstrated a sure-fire way of halting a kid – approach him at a dead run, grabbing him by the back of the neck, slamming him head first into a parked car; then club him when he's down.

(This technique was shown in terrifying clarity in newsfilm on two networks that night.)

As all this was happening, thousands of youngsters continued approaching the festival fairgrounds and this, coupled with a roving band of several hundred members of the Street Racers – a bike club hired by the festival as an internal security force – only complicated matters even farther. By mid-evening, about 9 PM Sunday, the gates were opened and those remaining in the area were admitted free. By then, however, an estimated 300 had been injured – 15 cops among them – and another 75 had been placed under arrest, about half of them on charges of assault with a deadly weapon against a police officer. Other charges ranged from drinking in public to possession of drugs.

Next day, the city began to bellow and grunt.

Michael Kohn, police commission president, said this group undoubtedly would present the city council with recommendations for a new ordinance to enforce more rigid controls over concerts and similar events.

City Councilman Robert Wilkinson said extra police and overtime cost to the city was $35,000 "and we haven't even begun to figure the damage to city property." Wilkinson represents the Devonshire Downs area, where the festival was held.

And local residents were shouting about the number of young people using their pools and camping overnight in their flower beds.

While the entire area – several blocks in all directions – looked as if ten garbage and trash trucks had collided in the middle of a windstorm.

Even disregarding the violence and vandalism (as impossible as that is), the festival was anything but festive. The producers, Mark Robinson and Paul Schibe of Mark Productions, tried hard, spending thousands of dollars on ground cover and other facilities, but it just wasn't enough. For a few thousand who were positioned close to the huge stage it might have been the musical trip of the decade, but for the vast majority it was a nightmare.

Traffic to and from the fairgrounds was nearly impenetrable and parking severely limited, forcing thousands to park on distant residential streets. Hundred-foot lines formed outside an insufficient number of stinking, overflowing portable toilets. The sound system was totally inadequate, however good it might have been, with nearly all the 50,000 or so present each day beyond the reach of the speakers. There was also a droning public address system echoing through a nearby strip of temporary psychedelic shops ... while overhead there was a constantly circling police helicopter (dubbed "the Blue Fist" from Yellow Submarine by master of ceremonies John Carpenter). Sometimes there were two helicopters, drowning out the likes of Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Visibility was similarly limited. Even those near the 10-foot high stage couldn't see well because of crowding and the height of the stage itself. For most of those present, the stage was so far away you knew where the acts were only because that's where most people were facing. Lighting and camera towers obstructed vision more.

Even for those who were close enough to hear and see, some of the acts were bad – including Jimi Hendrix, who provided a listless set, told the audience it was a "teenybopper crowd," and left to a smattering of applause. (It might be added that Hendrix was paid $100,000 for the gig – a sum he did not ask but was offered by the promoters, and which put some other performers uptight.)

The biggest bummer of all was the enormity of the thing. Even though the fairgrounds was the size of a small airfield, the mammoth number of bodies jammed together over much of it and scattered along the perimeter made it look look (and feel) like the railroad station scene during the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind.

Local high schools and colleges had just closed for the summer and as one observer put it, "Have you noticed the number of babies and small children here? You know why? Because every babysitter in Los Angeles County is here."

All there was to do, unless you were immobilized in the center of the crush of humanity, was to mill around – which is what tens of thousands did, looking for amusement and booze and drugs. "Got any dope?" was a frequently heard plaint. So was, "How about sharing your wine?"

And when it was all over, those on the inside merely added to the destruction accomplished outside.

Giant bonfires were built on the astroturf and burlap ground covering, virtually destroying it. The tassled canopies scattered across the fairgrounds were torn down and set aflame. The grandstand at one side of the field was partially dismantled, along with the slatted wood walls of a nearby exhibition building. And everywhere there was a sea of broken Ripple and Gallo bottles. (The first aid tent, manned by the Free Clinic, treaated hundreds for cut feet.)

Of course there were good moments – as when Janis Joplin was introduced to thunderous applause the first night and when, on Sunday, Hendrix redeemed himself and returned to jam with Tracy Nelson of Mother Earth, Buddy Miles and the bassist from Janis's band. Also as when two bands not scheduled to appear (Smoke and Navaho Honey) set up and began to play in an open building adjacent to the psychedelic runway, giving several hundred a place to get it on. The light show, by Glenn McKay's Head Lights, was dwarfed by the size of things but excellent. The standard hot dog and Pepsi fare offered at such gatherings was happily augmented by Hansen juices and health cookies. And the Ike and Tina Turner Revue knocked 'em dead, as did Joe Cocker, Three Dog Night, and a number of others.

Before the festival was held, Mark Robinson (who had been involved in two other bummers in the summers in 1967 and 1968 in Los Angeles) distributed to the press a "final pre-budget" breakdown, showing he had committed himself to spending $282,000 for the acts.

In name value, it was a quarter-million seemingly well-spent (however exorbitant). Besides those already mentioned, the festival presented Spirit, Steppenwolf, the Chambers Brothers, the Don Ellis Orchestra, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Southwind, Taj Mahal, Albert Collins, Brenton Wood, Cat Mother, Charity, Eric Burdon, Friends of Distinction, Jethro Tull, Love, Sweetwater, Jerry Lauderdale, the Womb, Booker T. and the MGs, Flock, the Grassroots, Marvin Gaye (who missed his plane – and his gig), the Byrds, and Poco. It was, like the attendance, one of the biggest turnouts yet.

Unfortunately, it probably was this high cost of talent that drove the ticket cost up (to $6 a day in advance, $7 at the gate, $15 in advance for the three days) and beyond the reach of hundreds. Others came to the festival specifically to crash the gates.

I interviewed one of the gate-crashers once he was inside. In fact, he claimed in a peculiarly proud way to be one of the "ring-leaders."

"I never pay to go to these things, man," he said. "Why should I? I don't support these guys. I only support the people who need the money. I've been to every festival there is and I've never paid to get into one of them."

He did not seem willing to accept – or even consider – the possibility that his actions might cause the festival to be cancelled or make it impossible ever to hold another in this area. He told me to go fuck myself and walked off.

The violence started on another front the same day (Friday), when teenagers outside the fence surrounding the backstage area threw rocks at the Don Ellis Orchestra as it was preparing to go on. Ellis began his set saying three of the guys in the band had been injured, one of them hospitalized (Sam Falzone, lead sax), another suffering a broken foot, the third bruises and cuts on his face.

From that point it was downhill, with occasional high points which may have seemed high because the rest was so miserable.

Mark Robinson claimed his costs amounted to more than half a million dollars, closer, in fact to $600,000. He could not be reached for a final gate count, but the festival's publicist quoted him as saying the gross had passed $750,000 by two o'clock Sunday – seven hours before the gates were opened to everyone. Because of the violence, however, he claims to have lost, not made, $150,000.

A few days before Newport '69 began, George Wein of the Newport R.I., jazz and folk festival got a court injunction against the producers of the California fete while co-producers of the esthetically disastrous but financially rewarding Newport '68 festival also laid claim to the name.

Today the producers of Newport '69 probably would sell the name for a buck. A buck-fifty tops.

Even then they might be getting too much.