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.