Celebration of Life: The Seventies Rock Fest That Became a ‘Festival of Death’
In the middle of the summer of 1971, The New York Times predicted the imminent death of the rock festival. It wasn’t quite two full years after Woodstock, just over four since Monterey Pop, and about 31 years, give or take a few days, before gates opened at the inaugural Bonnaroo.
The impetus for that dramatic declaration wasn’t the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, which had devolved into tragedy about 18 months earlier after the stabbing death of 18-year-old fan Meredith Hunter at the hands of Hells Angels hired as concert security, but whose name was not yet the ubiquitous shorthand it would become for the loss of Sixties innocence. The “rock festival cult,” the Times reported, “showed signs … of succumbing to discord and disillusionment on a sunbaked soybean field in Louisiana.” The event the story described bore a hopeful name — the Celebration of Life Festival — that would come to seem deeply ironic by the time it was over.
The 700-acre plantation in the rural unincorporated community of McCrea, about 60 miles north of Baton Rouge, was confirmed as the site of the ill-fated fest at a press conference on Thursday, June 17th, 1971 — just four days before the event, which promised eight full days of performances from acts like Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis and B.B. King, among others, was supposed to start. None of those acts would actually play — instead, there would be a near-biblical catalogue of plagues, including mosquitoes, lack of food and water, crippling violence at the hands of police and hired security as well as between festivalgoers, and due to the dystopian drug culture and the raging, muddy South Louisiana river, at least three confirmed fatalities.
Steve Kapelow, the Celebration of Life’s 29-year-old New Orleans–based promoter, said that the delay in announcing the site was deliberate, in part to ward off gate-crashers like the ones that had swarmed the Atlanta Pop Festival the year before, which he’d worked on with legendary Georgia rock impresario Alex Cooley. At that event, the ticketless had shown up in such numbers and force that the promoters had — as at Woodstock — just wound up letting everyone in for free. But there was also resistance from local government at potential sites, including a farm near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, that Kapelow and Co. had tentatively leased. A report in the June 3rd edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted a Mississippi sheriff saying that the festival would need to get a court order forcing him to give it a permit. The same article reported that Kapelow was also thinking about throwing his party “on an island in the Mississippi River.”
The fest didn’t seem to be well promoted locally. In an issue that came out the week after the festival, the publisher of New Orleans–based underground paper NOLA Express noted that she had only heard of the Celebration of Life from a full-page ad in Rolling Stone. Still, plenty of folks had bought the $28 advance tickets (about $175 in 2018 dollars) through the mail, and did their best to make their way to where they thought it might be. About 300 fans were ejected from beachfront land in Slidell, on the north side of Lake Pontchartrain, the day before the press conference declaring the McCrea site; police officers told the Times-Picayune that they were advising the displaced group to head to Gretna, a small city directly across the Mississippi River from uptown New Orleans where Kapelow and company were headquartered.
An Associated Press report that also ran on June 17th quoted Louisiana Public Safety Director William Dent, a onetime FBI agent, as “pledging full state police aid in preventing the festival.” Dent read from a prepared anti-fest statement declaring that he was “sure all parents in the state would object to this kind of festival being held at which their sons and daughters may become exposed, perhaps for the first time, to marijuana and its accompanying permissiveness.”
The nascent “rock festival cult” had been around just long enough for suspicious establishment types like Dent to know they didn’t want one in their backyards. But the successful roadblocks thrown up by local government and the consequent delay in securing a site turned out to be just one in a confluence of conditions that turned the Celebration of Life into, by most accounts, one of the truly epic debacles in American live music history. Stephen Fromholz, the late Texan singer-songwriter was there as part of Stephen Stills’ band, and in 2013, he remembered the event to a pair of Southeastern Louisiana University graduate students, Nick Brilleaux and Scott Caro, filming a documentary called McCrea 1971:
“Folks died in that swamp,” Fromholz told them. “It was nasty-nasty. Festival of death, seemed like to me.”
With eight days of performances advertised, the Celebration of Life was ambitious by any standard. The attractions listed in advance ads made it sound more like one of today’s mega-fests: Besides performers including Ike and Tina Turner, John Lee Hooker, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, and more, there would also be Ferris wheels, tightrope walkers and trapeze artists, circus animals (apparently there was at least one elephant), yoga, workshops and seminars on astrology, macrobiotics, voodoo and geodesic domes, a lecture on graphic art from Peter Max and “a large spiritual center” with meditation, chants, exercises and “sitar jams” led by “teachers from all over the world.”
But even considering that “glamping” was not yet a word in 1971 — no festivalgoer would have expected anything near 21st-century fest infrastructure — it would have taken weeks to build out a site that could accommodate the 50,000 fans promoters estimated were on their way for more than a week. Once they finally got the go-ahead to get started in McCrea, they had about three days.
“I had this poster promising the world,” Joanne Riccobono tells Rolling Stone. She and her husband were on their way to Colorado, but the lineup looked so great — and she’d had a blast two years earlier at the New Orleans Pop Festival in Prairieville, another Kapelow co-production where Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had played — that they decided to make a pit stop at the fest. If they got there early and volunteered with preparations, she’d heard, they could get in for free. But when the couple drove their van onto the isolated off-season soybean plantation called Cypress Pointe, “it was so unorganized,” she recalls. “It looked like a refugee camp instead of a festival. We skedaddled after a couple of days. I just remember being so disappointed, bands kept dropping out.”
Just because there was a leased site and permits didn’t mean local authorities were ready to let the Celebration of Life begin on schedule — particularly the health department, which doubted that sanitary facilities could handle the throngs already jamming the tiny, winding roads to Cypress Pointe. Undercover police made drug arrests easily as trapped hippies passed the time getting stoned in the Woodstock-style traffic jam — which also served to block supplies getting to the site. Fans quickly cleaned out the few small stores serving the little rural community.
“Luckily, we were prepared,” Riccobono says. Her van was provisioned for the planned road trip to Colorado. “But I’m sure a bunch of the people there were in dire straits in terms of food and water.”
Finally, health department officials found that the site had, at least, toilets for a little less than half the expected numbers, and decided to let the fest commence. But as the start was pushed back again and again — with the fest scheduled to begin on Monday, the first act took the stage Thursday — as Joanne Riccobono remembers, many of the promised big-name acts, who had other summer tour dates to move on to, had dropped out. (Once it was all over, a festival talent buyer told Rolling Stone‘s Chet Flippo that Cat Stevens had waited nearby for three days, but finally had to move on without getting onstage.) Fans had made it onto Cypress Pointe, but that turned out to be a dubious accomplishment.
To boot, South Louisiana in June is painfully hot, compounded by tropical humidity, lots of mosquitoes and, as Flippo reported from the scene, “damn few cypresses” providing even a little shade to the 50,000-odd hippies and music fans who’d converged expecting an all-star lineup. Once shows finally got started, they took place between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. to avoid the heat of the day, which made for long, hot stretches of sweaty boredom for thirsty fans who were all, at least according to footage from Brilleaux and Caro’s half-hour documentary, slowly turning bright pink. Potable water was scarce; a nearby cattle farmer donated tanks of water he stored for his animals to help out. Ads had suggested that fans would “frolic in fields of clover,” but according to Flippo, “each morning renewed a personal battle for survival. First came the search for a water truck that still had water in it. That usually took an hour or two. … Next you had to scrounge enough food for the day, since anything you had brought had probably been stolen, and unless you had a security badge you couldn’t leave the site to get groceries.” Food vendors onsite, he wrote, were inflating prices to exploit the demand. At one point, a group of guests staged a revolutionary takeover of a vendor, redistributing snacks to the people.
“It was very uncomfortable-feeling,” Riccobono says. “The crowd was not feeling great. At first, we were scared of the cops, but then we were scared of the people there. … When we left, we were thinking something weird could happen here.”
Things did start to get very weird — and very dark. One night, as a gusty thunderstorm started to offer a little respite to the sunburnt crowds, part of the hastily built stage toppled, bringing a stagehand down with it. “It was the most horrific accident I’ve ever seen,” photographer Steven Smith told the student filmmakers. “He was laying there conscious on the ground with his eyes open, with a thick, huge scaffolding pole all the way through his body. Miraculously, he made it to the hospital.”
Not everyone was so lucky. During the scorching, boring days before the night sets began, fans were drawn to the wide, brown, swift-moving Atchafalaya River, which, although it was the only obvious place to cool off, was also a very bad idea. Neighbors in their fishing boats, who cruised by with binoculars to gape at the nude bathers, weren’t the problem. Anyone venturing too far from the shore was at the mercy of raging currents. Two bodies — those of 19-year-old Wayne Edward Green and 20-year-old Edwin Thomas Hardy Jr. — were pulled from the water and identified. Footage of one recovery was caught on film, likely by one of the amateur shooters whose efforts resulted in quite a lot of footage of skinny-dippers. A Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries boat chugs along, a human arm lashed to its stern and poking up out of the wake.
Steve Kapelow, the face of the event and its apparent primary funder, was the son of a wealthy real estate developer named Paul Kapelow, who named whole streets and neighborhoods — Carol Sue Avenue, Terrytown — in the New Orleans metro area after his daughters. The younger Kapelow had reportedly invested half a million in the Atlanta Pop Festival, and co-produced the 1969 New Orleans International Pop Festival that Joanne Riccobono and her friends enjoyed so much. He’d also worked on the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival the same year.
“He considered New Orleans Pop his apprenticeship,” says Scott Caro, one of the McCrea 1971 filmmakers. “This was going to prove his mastery.”
Elizabeth Shannon, a visual artist and curator who grew up close to the Atchafalaya River (“Hell no,” she replies, when Rolling Stone asks if she would have gone in during the Celebration of Life) met him during her college years in New Orleans. She remembers him as always ready to check out concerts, and in big style — they’d take small planes to Houston or Jackson, Mississippi, to see a show, and come back the same night.
“He was wonderfully enthusiastic about things. He did have this larger-than-life sort of personality, and it was infectious,” she says. “I never saw him down.” Trying to pull of the wildly ambitious Celebration of Life seemed like exactly the kind of challenge he would try to take on.
“A festival that lasts eight days sounds totally wacko,” she says. “But it’s like he wanted to top something off, to make it the biggest thing in the U.S.”
Weirdly, he had a counterpart of sorts in Quint Davis, the nascent face of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which had that spring wrapped its second iteration (and in 2019, will kick off its 50th.) Davis was also a young music fan from a prominent family — his dad was a celebrated architect — with big dreams, but better luck; he had Newport impresario George Wein as a mentor. Davis heard about the big show in McCrea and loaded up a bus with traditional New Orleans performers. But when they got there, as gospel singer Sherman Washington told the Times-Picayune in 2002, “Women were coming out of the river nude. People started fighting, and they were smoking those pipes. Quint said, ‘Everybody get on the bus. Let’s get out of here.’”
Indeed, Public Safety Director Dent’s dire warnings about marijuana paled in comparison to Flippo’s exhaustive report, which chronicled a tense, strung-out scene among the soybeans. Hard drugs reigned; makeshift signs identified locations like “Smack Street” and “Cocaine Row” where syringes sold for a dollar apiece. The dope took another life: 19-year-old Randy Runkle died of a methadone overdose on the festival grounds. And even with the memory of Altamont still fresh, Kapelow had decided to hire a biker gang, the Galloping Gooses from New Orleans, as a security team. According to multiple reports, what they did instead was intimidate fans into handing over cash, assault women and beat up men.
“They had real sketchy security,” says Jimmy Robinson, a New Orleans guitarist who played the festival with his band, Ejaculation — named for the short prayers he and his bandmates had to say at the Catholic high school they’d all graduated from a couple of months before the Celebration of Life. Ejaculation arrived a few days early with their manager, Sam Hopkins, a University of New Orleans art student in his early twenties. Hopkins was staying in the Gretna apartment complex owned by Kapelow’s family that doubled as festival headquarters, painting four-by-eight sheets of plywood “with mushrooms and butterflies and psychedelic scenes,” he says. He brought the teen band out to Cypress Pointe in his Ford Econoline van a few days early, to set up the colorful flats in the fields as a sort of acid-friendly art installation.
“The plan was to have them up so you could walk through them,” Hopkins says. “But they all got dumped in the dirt. People were using them as lean-tos to get out of the sun and rain and weather.”
Still, Ejaculation played on a small side stage and helped the recording engineers.
“It was a little dangerous,” says Robinson. “I remember being a little scared — we kept hearing stories about bikers at the front gate attacking people.”
According to the Times-Picayune, the Galloping Gooses also shot into the river as fans waded and swam — making the Atchafalaya even more dangerous — and attacked one of the parish sheriff’s deputies, who finally managed to escort about 30 bikers off the grounds that Friday afternoon. The next day an undercover narcotics agent, pelted by flung bottles while he made what would be one of more than a hundred drug arrests at the festival, fired into the crowd, wounding a fan in the leg. The gunshot victim was arrested for attempted murder and inciting a riot.
Dr. William Abruzzi, the famous “Woodstock doc,” had been hired for onsite health services, treating bad trips, heat exhaustion and biker-induced contusions with a small staff. He was supposed to give a seminar on drugs as part of the festival programming, but instead, frustrated by promoters’ inability to keep him in medical supplies or even clean water, he closed down his tent and left. That was Sunday, the day that Steven Fromholz showed up to play and saw a “festival of death.” On Monday morning, promoters — who had already quit trying to charge at the gate — gave up and shut it down.
“There kept being rumors, it’s not going to happen, it is going to happen, it’s not going to happen,” up until the very last minute, Robinson says. “This was the tail end of those festivals, when things really started to go south.”
The beginning of the story — the traffic jams, the anti-fun authorities — sounds like the kind of thing that might end in an against-the-odds triumph of love and good vibes, a Sixties fairy tale. But there was no Woodstock mellowness in McCrea — at least, not enough to counter the increasing municipal opposition to “the rock festival cult” that had put the Celebration of Life behind the eight ball from the beginning. Multiple accounts, including a blog post from Fromholz, report attendees yelling “fuck you” at the artists onstage — once, at Yogi Bhajan. Abruzzi told Flippo he had never seen such a daunting situation: “Not enough water, not enough food, not enough supplies, filth, heat, bad communications, and hostility.”
“If it wasn’t downright despair, it was concern, it was fatigue, it was being overheated,” Dr. Samuel Hyde Jr., a history professor at Southeastern Louisiana University said in McCrea 1971, which went on to win a student Emmy. “There just wasn’t a lot of happiness.” One of the last frames of the film shows a van in the middle of the soybean field, inexplicably being consumed by flames.
“KAPELOW SAYS FETE IS FAILURE,” blared the AP headline that ran that Wednesday. Primary to the report was the fact that the IRS had placed liens on the gate receipts, totaling more than $700,000. They had been stationed outside the festival grounds in McCrea as early as the Friday of the event, when the health department had also sent Kapelow and his co-promoters an official notice warning that they would be closed due to unsafe sanitary conditions.
The alternative local press weighed in, too — and its version of events was interestingly, less bleak. The cover of the next issue of the biweekly NOLA Express showed a happy hippie festival couple, with flowers traced in the mud that caked their naked bodies, implying that at least some Celebration of Lifers had had an OK time. Eric Bookhardt, a New Orleans art critic and photographer who day-tripped to McCrea with some friends and thought things seemed fine, suggested it wasn’t too outside the norm of Sixties festivals. “Some of my University of New Orleans friends who were all into peace and love and LSD had been at Woodstock, and they didn’t have anything good to say about it until they read that they were supposed to have liked it,” he told Rolling Stone.
“My memory may be a little more positive than some things you’ve heard or read, because just having our first hit record, everything was exciting,” says Jerry Amoroso, the guitarist for a rising Baton Rouge-based Southern rock group called Potliquor. At the time of the Celebration of Life, they’d just released their first LP on the Janus label, to favorable reviews, but didn’t actually break into the charts until early ’72 — still, they had played New Orleans Pop in ’69 (“Carlos Santana was there, and we kinda looked alike,” Amoroso says. “I signed a lot of autographs for him”) and were excited that the South seemed to be getting on the map.
“There was an excitement to having Louisiana in the nation’s eye,” he says. “It was a backwards kind of place where music was coming on strong, Southern rock was coming on strong. So we were an up-and-coming Southern band playing festivals, and people seemed to like us, so my opinion is a little skewed.”
And actually, if you had your own supplies and no expectation of luxury, it was possible to get through the festival fairly unscathed. Without easy mass communication — there are no reports of anyone getting on a microphone to stir up fear about the unrestrained bikers, for example, as with the infamous brown acid at Woodstock — thousands of the fans scattered across hundreds of acres likely were uncomfortable, but not miserable. Rosie Rosato, a new Army recruit stationed at Fort Polk about two hours away was in that number, though for more dramatic reasons. His lieutenant, a former college classmate, knew that the company was on its way to fight in Southeast Asia. He told four soldiers, including Rosato, that he needed them for a special detail — then he told them to put on street clothes and hitchhike to the rock festival for 48 hours.
“It was pretty muddy and pretty rank, but who gave a shit?” Rosato says, nearly 50 years later. “Early in the morning on the last day, each of us ate like three hits of acid and went interplanetary. I saw blue lightning flashes coming off of this guitarist’s hands.”
“As hippie as we were, we were in the military already, so we walked in like Boy Scouts,” he says. “We had ponchos and supplies and gallons of water each. For us, it was way better than bivouac, because there was music and girls and pot. And we knew we were going to be in Vietnam pretty soon.”
In a special section of the Express given over to op-eds about the Celebration of Life, there were a surprising number of Celebration of Life defenders. A contributor named Mike Jolley wrote, “Can you imagine people from all over the country, strangers, coming together in a mud hole, laughing, rubbing mud on each other, speaking with honesty and having a good time? It doesn’t happen often. … The general atmosphere was very pleasant.”
Publisher Darlene Fife, in her full-page piece, reminded readers that Kapelow came from a wealthy family (“and at 29, owns his own Sizzleboard restaurant”) and had started the whole thing with an eye toward the bottom line. Jolley also bemoaned the intrusion of money: “Hip Capitalism has been with us here in New Orleans for a while,” he wrote. “The Celebration of Life was just another example of how we will never be free. As long as we have to pay to be free.” And another writer, bylined as simply Stephanie, was willing to let that slide, too. “The large majority of you were too busy bitching about conditions to realize the fun you could have had. … So don’t blame it on Kapelow, he did all he could. Blame it on yourself for letting the government get the best of you again!”
One anonymous NOLA Express contributor’s defense of the fest doubles as the only actual music review of the festival — written, albeit, with not a small amount of directed hostility at those who were trashing it.
“People, what happened to us?” wrote the aggro hippie. “I just got back from the festival and all I hear is complaining … everybody is so busy complaining they forgot what good times they had.”
“The fireworks show was one of the longest if not the best ever,” he wrote. “Oh YEAH and if you thought the music didn’t start Wed night you missed FIRE AND WIND at the RAINBOW PEOPLE’S stage. … the new two nights had FIRE AND WIND on the main stage, followed by BLOOD ROCK COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD AND THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS. … Boy was that good.” So at least, unlike at 2017’s doomed Fyre Festival, fans got to hear some music and see some fireworks.
The New York Times had not, of course, accurately predicted the death of the rock festival. But they weren’t the only one to sense the Celebration of Life mess as a turning point of a trend for which, the Times wrote, Altamont had been “the first blow” — like Robinson said, things were definitely starting to go south. On July 17th, 1971, a month after the Steve Kapelow had finally confirmed his venue, the celebrated critic Lillian Roxon wrote, in a Sydney Morning Herald piece titled “Is This the End of the Festival?” that “last week was not a very nice week for rock music.” The Fillmore East had closed. Newport Jazz attendees had chucked bottles at police. She referred to the Celebration of Life as “the Louisiana disaster.”
“We are tired of being told that it’s the end of an era,” she wrote. “Everyone understands that. This is obviously a period of change, and uncomfortable change at that.” The post facto coverage of the festival feels at times like nothing so much as an argument that the Sixties lasted for one proper summer that everyone agreed on, and then several more years of arguing about when they stopped.
In 2005, living with his family in Wyoming and struggling to manage bipolar disorder, Kapelow committed suicide after several attempts. Though he’d stayed interested in live music — Shannon said they kept traveling to shows together well into the 1970s — except for a brief foray into making therapeutic sex videos in the Nineties with his fourth wife, Loren, he stayed with the family industry of real estate. He never threw another rock festival.