“Whether you know it or not, if you’re part of this world, you were affected by what happened in Monterey 50 years ago,” Gary Clark Jr. told Rolling Stone this past Sunday, just moments after stepping off the stage at the Monterey International Pop Festival’s 50th anniversary. “So I’m very grateful to be here.”
The 33-year-old Texas blues virtuoso wasn’t around for that first psychedelic party, but from the first time he picked up a guitar at age 12, it’s been clear that the summer of ‘67 had made its musical mark. Clark’s set at the anniversary fest saw past and present colliding, including a blistering cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun,” and soul legend Booker T. Jones joining Clark for the latter’s hit “Bright Lights.”
“I think music is so powerful, and I just want to know where it comes from, be respectful to the source,” said Clark. “But also, I’m here now. It’s my turn, so I’m gonna go.”
What was your knowledge of this festival before you were asked to play the anniversary?
I grew up in Austin, and when I was around 15 or 16, [producer] Bill Bentley gave me this videotape of performances at Monterey, and it changed my life. At that age anything can change your DNA, but that was it for me. I was in high school, and I didn’t know what my place was. I was this tall, skinny, weird kid who played basketball but wasn’t good enough to go pro, I didn’t care about school, and I was just kind of a loner. So to find something that was so powerful and grabbed my soul like that – those images and songs of young people pouring their hearts out. I was like, I need that in my life. So [this festival] has been in my consciousness since that first touched my eyeballs.
You’ve drawn comparisons to Jimi Hendrix for pretty much your entire career, and I’d imagine your feelings about that are especially complicated at an event he actually played.
It did kind of stress me out today, because artists are paying tribute [to the festival’s original artists] and I didn’t really know what to do. I’ve had those comparisons, but as any guitar player will tell you, look, I’m not him. I’m not that guy. Go listen to his records. They’re amazing. They’re the best. But I’m not trying to be that guy.
But then the flip side is: to be in a conversation alongside him, what more could you ask for, really? It’s what you always want, is to have your name alongside people you really respect and look up to. So I’m learning more to appreciate it, because at any moment that could go away. Right now there’s some kid in his room coming for me, going ‘That guy ain’t shit.’ So I’m gonna soak it up.
Another connecting element between 1967 and 2017, obviously, is social turmoil and political divisions in this country. Do you feel moved to respond to that with your music?
I’ve been writing, and that’s definitely more on my mind than anything else. For me, it’s about finding the right words, the right balance. Do you go in? Or do you want people to have some sort of faith and hope, maybe go the other way and give people some sort of break from it all? I’m just trying to be present and forward-thinking and open, because it can be intense. I see people trying to work it out the best way they can, and everyone’s just getting their bearings still. Every day there’s a new thing that’s like – what the hell, man. You are dealing with human beings, people’s lives. This is not a game. And people can only take so much before they start to push back.
Having my kid, too, it’s like, what am I gonna tell him? How am I gonna teach him how to act when the people in charge – the most powerful people in the world – don’t know how to treat people? I’m just a guitar player from Texas.
That’s right – it’s Father’s Day. How’s fatherhood treating you in general?
It’s crazy. Beautiful and strange. My son is two and a half, and I’m learning a lot about how I behave through his behavior. I have to check myself. I also don’t get to spend as much time with him as I’d like to because I’m out here going, but hopefully he’ll understand when he gets older. I miss that guy. He likes to play drums, too, so my drummer Johnny Radelat better watch out.