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Why Monterey Pop Was a Turning Point for Sixties Rock

Inside rock’s first big festival, which made stars of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and proved that hippie culture could be big business

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Read the inside story of Monterey Pop, the historic rock fest that helped launch the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and other Sixties icons.

Bruce Fleming/AP

Its organizers promised “three days of music, love and flowers,” but the Monterey International Pop Festival turned out to be much more. Over one weekend in June 1967, Jimi Hendrix and the Who broke through to American audiences, Janis Joplin went from underground sensation to superstar, and Otis Redding won over what he called “the love crowd.” The event set the template for all rock festivals to follow, from Woodstock to Bonnaroo. “Monterey was one of the gestation points, where it all started to creep together and become itself,” says David Crosby, who played the festival with the Byrds and as a guest with Buffalo Springfield. Adds his Byrds bandmate Chris Hillman, “I don’t care what people say about Woodstock – Woodstock was a nightmare. Monterey was the best rock festival ever put on.”

It almost didn’t happen. The plan for a new kind of festival was spearheaded by John Phillips, the leader of the Mamas and the Papas, and Lou Adler, an influential producer and the band’s manager. Both came from the well-established music scene in Los Angeles, where rock artists were accustomed to hanging with showbiz royalty, living in mansions and cutting platinum records. To make the festival work, they knew they needed the street cred and hippie cool of the underground psychedelic acts from San Francisco, who were gobbling LSD, living in communal squalor and facing police harassment. “Compared to the L.A. scene, it was the new music,” Adler says. “It was what was coming.”

But when Phillips and Adler – who concocted the 1967 hit “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” – traveled there in April of that year, they failed to follow their own advice. Instead, they wore their usual well-tailored best and checked in to the elegant Fairmont Hotel, where they met with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. The two cultures immediately clashed. “They just didn’t like us,” says Adler, who feared that a fistfight would break out. “It became contentious. We were in totally different places.”

Though the festival was set to be nonprofit, with proceeds going to various charities, the San Francisco acts wanted admission to be free and were suspicious of the $400,000 deal Adler had negotiated to televise its highlights. (The broadcast never happened; director D.A. Pennebaker used his footage for the classic documentary Monterey Pop instead.) “We all resisted Monterey Pop, because we felt it was slicko L.A. hype,” the San Francisco concert promoter Chet Helms later recalled. “We felt they were coattailing a bunch of L.A. acts on the success of what was happening in San Francisco.” Ralph Gleason, the respected San Francisco critic who co-founded Rolling Stone later that year, convinced the local bands to change their minds. Even the Dead played, though they kept threatening to put on a rival free fest down the road.

But Monterey – three days of music by 32 acts, from Hendrix to Simon and Garfunkel – did far more than simply unite two rival groups of musicians. With as many as 50,000 fans on hand each day and not a single arrest, it was an extraordinarily peaceful show of force for the burgeoning counterculture – and the kickoff to the Summer of Love. “Monterey was the nexus,” wrote Jann Wenner, who launched Rolling Stone five months after the event. “It sprang from what the Beatles began, and from it sprang what followed.” For better or worse, Monterey was also the moment when the record industry realized that hippie rock could be big business. Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records and one of the many music executives on hand, called Monterey the “creative turning point” of his life – and signed Joplin to his label after the event.

The road to Monterey began with Alan Pariser, a young heir to a paper-manufacturing fortune. Though he already had plenty of money, Pariser sold weed on the side so he could meet people on the rock scene. The strategy worked: “He was Ringo’s favorite friend,” says Chip Monck, the lighting director at Monterey.

Although the genesis of the idea is fuzzy, Stephen Stills thinks it came out of a late-night conversation at Pariser’s house with jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela. The next day, Pariser brought Stills to meet Ben Shapiro, a Los Angeles talent booker. “Tell him what you were saying last night,” Pariser demanded.

“They have a jazz festival in Monterey,” Stills told Shapiro. “Why don’t you do something there like Newport back east, only with pop bands, all the bands on the West Coast, all this new music?”

Shapiro and Pariser took the idea to Adler and Phillips, proposing that the Mamas and the Papas headline a one-day for-profit festival. Their offer was a mere $5,000. Adler and Phillips were unimpressed with the cash but intrigued by the idea. “We wanted to validate rock & roll, the way jazz at Carnegie Hall validated jazz,” says Adler. So they bought out Shapiro for $50,000 and turned the festival into a three-day nonprofit event with all the artists playing for free (except Ravi Shankar, who had already been guaranteed payment). “We realized that we’d never be able to afford to pay all these groups,” says Adler. “It’s amazing, in that no one said, ‘I’m not gonna do this thing for nothing, what for?'”

The rock royalty of the day – Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Smokey Robinson, Paul Simon, Mick Jagger – signed on to the festival’s “board of directors,” which mostly meant lending their names to the cause. The Beach Boys signed up to headline the Saturday-night show; at one point, Wilson planned to debut Smile there. But when the band pulled out two weeks before the festival, fearing its act would seem square and old-fashioned, the organizers bumped Otis Redding up to headliner.

Adler, Phillips and their publicist – the great Beatles hypester Derek Taylor – had just six weeks to put the whole thing together. They set up shop in an office on the Sunset Strip and got to work. They were so strapped that Michelle Phillips, a Mamas and Papas member and John’s wife at the time, found herself answering phones and selling $1,500 ads for the festival program. Meanwhile, at a May 15th meeting in Monterey, John charmed the local authorities, convincing them that the bands would attract a levelheaded audience and that the musicians had no plans of inciting revolution from the bandstand.

“We were kind of flying by the seat of our pants,” recalls Michelle. “It’s really a testament to Lou and John that this actually got pulled off.”

“Be happy, be free; wear flowers, bring bells – have a festival!” That was the advice offered by the festival program, and the massive audience who turned up – jamming the surrounding highways – seemed to take it to heart. The artists performed in an arena that held barely 7,000 people, but the 23-acre fairgrounds accommodated many more. There was a modest concessions area to the rear of the arena seating, where some 40 hippie vendors sold food and homemade jewelry. In a futuristic touch, a second, smaller arena on the grounds featured closed-circuit live video of the performances, projected onto a large white sheet. Overall, it was a picturesque setting, as Grace Slick wrote in her autobiography: “Unlike most summer concerts where the sun shone down mercilessly, here the big tree branches broke up the light into soft beams, making everything look like a Disney version of Sherwood Forest.”

Monterey Pop

The Beatles and the Stones were there, at least in spirit: Between sets, the just-released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band played over the PA, and Brian Jones wandered around, pale and wasted on drugs, Backstage, artists mingled in comfort, snacking on lobster, cracked crab and steaks while helping themselves to the open bar. The smell of pot was everywhere, and the cops either ignored or didn’t recognize it. The punch backstage was spiked with the hallucinogen STP. And famed LSD evangelist and chemist Owsley Stanley was on hand with a special gift for the attendees: 14,000 tabs of a potent batch of acid he dubbed Monterey Purple. Adler had to beg him to stop giving it to the crew before the show fell apart. When lighting director Monck popped what he thought was speed, he ended up bathing Simon and Garfunkel in ominous, utterly inappropriate red light during “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” then missing cue after cue during Laura Nyro’s infamously awful set. But others were more comfortable working on Monterey Purple: Hendrix casually took two tabs of it before his set.

“A lot of people psychedelicized, both in the back and in the front,” says Crosby. “It was a very happy crowd, very good vibes.”

Friday night was dominated by dated L.A. pop acts such as show openers the Association, but things started to pick up on Saturday afternoon. Janis Joplin, the 24-year-old lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, gave a howling, foot-stomping, star-making performance that stunned the crowd. The set should have been legendary – but for reasons known only to him, the band’s manager had ordered filmmaker Pennebaker’s crew to turn its cameras off. When Joplin came offstage and realized her performance had been lost forever, she burst into tears. Adler and Phillips promptly offered Joplin a second time slot the next evening. She accepted, and with the cameras turned on, Joplin redefined what a female star could took and sound like. “I remember being amazed that this white woman was singing like Bessie Smith,” says Michelle Phillips. “I was astounded.”

Saturday evening concluded with Redding, who awed the Monterey hippies with the same set he used on the soul circuit. His success paved the way for his crossover hit “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” and opened doors for black acts from Sly and the Family Stone to Marvin Gaye. The next day, the Who unleashed five songs and one mini rock opera, framed by Pete Townshend’s waves of guitar distortion. When they smashed their equipment at the end of “My Generation,” Adler ran onstage to try to save the microphone stands. Hendrix followed, spilling lighter fluid on his Stratocaster and setting it ablaze. Critics hated the sexuality and theatrics of his performance, labeling it a form of minstrelsy, but most of Hendrix’s fellow musicians understood it instantly. “I almost melted, right along with that guitar,” says Stills, who befriended Hendrix at the festival. “He was the most amazing thing I ever saw.”

Monterey finished Sunday night with a set by the Mamas and the Papas that was stronger than it had any right to be – they hadn’t been able to rehearse, because tenor singer Denny Doherty arrived from the Virgin Islands twenty minutes before showtime. “I was ready to just haul off and hit him,” says Michelle. After they finished the final performance of the festival, “Dancing in the Street,” Mama Cass Elliot looked out at the new nation that had formed in the fairgrounds and smiled. “We’re gonna have this every year, you know,” she said. “You can stay, if you want.”

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