LONDON, ONTARIO – In the end they couldn’t get a 50th anniversary edition of the Woodstock festival off the ground last weekend in upstate New York and perhaps that’s just as well. I was not relishing the prospect of watching that saucy young minx, Katy Perry, share a bill with however many surviving members of Country Joe and the Fish could still manage to cradle an instrument in their laps and croak out the never-more imminent proclamation, “Whoopee, we’re all gonna die”.
I was momentarily tempted to take in a special screening of Michael Wadleigh’s documentary Woodstock at the Hyland cinema on Friday night until I remembered that as one of the perks of working in a used video shop for all those years, I had scooped up deluxe DVD sets of the documentaries that were made about the 1967 Monterey Pop festival (directed by D.E. Pennebaker) and the Woodstock music festival two years later. And these babies are what they call ‘extended director’s cuts’ and have all kinds of bonus footage and special features coming out the wazoo. Of course, I’d seen both films at the time of their original release (’68 for Monterey and ’70 for Woodstock) and occasionally caught fragments and highlights from each over the intervening years. But it was most instructive – even a little jarring – to watch them back to back this weekend and see how they held up and how they compared to one another.
We all know that Woodstock is the one with the bigger reputation – an epochal event which crystalized an historical movement and defined a generation and blah, blah blah. And socially, logistically, it really is quite a spectacle. It’s engrossing in much the same way as watching Chris Doty’s film about the London Flood of 1937, Lost April. We’re curious to see how all of these poor people will cope with the onset of a not-so-natural calamity and the sudden absence of nearly all of the necessities of life. It’s taken a half century for the heavily promulgated aura of “peace, love and music” to flake away so that we can start to appreciate the extent to which this most famous of music festivals should be more properly regarded as a state of emergency. In a rather alarming article for The Federalist last week, Warren Henry outlined some of the challenges that faced the half million young people who found themselves stranded for four raucous days in Farmer Yasgar’s rolling fields:
“Established food vendors wanted nothing to do with Woodstock, so the promoters hired an inexperienced group called ‘Food For Love’. As their supplies ran out, they naturally increased prices, which resulted in angry mobs burning down two concession stands. The ‘Hog Farm Collective’ hired for security and support services stepped in with emergency supplies of brown rice, vegetables, and granola. The worst problem, however, was the sanitation . . . There were only 600 toilets on site, meaning there were as few as one for every 833 attendees. People might have to wait an hour to use a toilet; many chose not to wait, enriching the pre-existing manure in the process . . .
“The awful sanitary conditions were aggravated by the weather. There was rain throughout Friday night, tapering to a drizzle until Saturday afternoon, more rain Saturday night, and a torrential downpour on Sunday afternoon. As one attendee put it, ‘It was a quagmire. It sucked your shoes off. It was not only mud, but cow manure and it was so dark it looked like chocolate syrup’. Efforts to deal with the fetid muck led to one of the two deaths at Woodstock. [The other was a garden variety drug overdose.] The mud was inches deep as sodden sleeping bags were churned up with cellophane, cigarette butts and discarded clothes. Standing rainwater was steaming skyward, blanketing thousands of sleeping kids with an eerie fog. Raymond Mizsak, 17, was protecting himself from the rain in his sleeping bag when a water-tank trailer tasked with hauling away sewage rolled over him on Saturday morning.”
Woodstock holds up as a gripping disaster movie but with only a few exceptions, it’s got a pretty tedious soundtrack. A then new-on-the-scene Santana are hungry enough and nervous enough that they play brilliantly well. And two previously unreleased sets included in the bonus features of disc three are well worth a look. Creedence Clearwater Revival bash out three of their hits and remind me what a solidly unpretentious outfit they were. I didn’t have much use for CCR back in ’69, but retrospectively I’ve grown to appreciate the no-nonsense integrity of their approach. And the other fresh revelation for me was Johnny Winter; an undeniably superb guitarist whose records I never found particularly compelling but it’s something else to watch him stalk around Woodstock’s plywood stage like a white leopard who only has to blink those pale, lashless lids of his to out-exoticize David Bowie at his most freakishly contrived.
But otherwise – toothless, one-chord Richie Havens, that warbling and oh-so-tiresome scold Joan Baez, the charmless Canned Heat, the out-of-tune Jefferson Airplane, the exuberant but mindlessly repetitive party band known as Sly and The Family Stone, the incredibly fast but utterly heartless Ten Years After, and even my usually beloved Who – all put in overblown, self-indulgent sets. To his credit, guitarist and guiding light Pete Townshend, admitted that The Who stunk that night, blaming most of it on the jerk who secretly spiked his and Roger Daltrey’s drinks with LSD. And this at a time when Townshend was trying his best to clean up his act so as to better follow the spiritual dictates of his guru, Meher Baba. Townshend’s finest Woodstock moment unfortunately wasn’t filmed though it was caught on audio tape and is included as a fiendishly enjoyable cut on The Who’s box set, Thirty Years of Maximum R&B. When a stoned Abbie Hoffman wandered onto the stage to raise everybody’s political awareness with an impromptu rant about jailed political agitator John Sinclair, Townshend went ballistic on him, eliciting the crowd’s roaring approval by booting Hoffman in the nuts and telling him to “Fuck off my fucking stage.”
A couple of years later when the myth of Woodstock as a model of the new Aquarian social order was still being trumpeted, Townshend did his best once again to puncture this narcissistic balloon in the bud: “All these hippies wandering about thinking the world was going to be different from that day on. As a cynical English asshole, I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them, trying to make them realize that nothing had changed and nothing was going to change. Not only that, what they thought was an alternative society was basically a field full of six-foot-deep mud laced with LSD. If that was the world they wanted to live in, then fuck the lot of them.”
So it was the strangest feeling to be watching this documentary of the most revered concert of the 20th century and be waiting for most of these tedious blowhards to finish their songs so the film crew could head off on one of their infinitely more interesting non-musical tangents. In addition to a slew of delightful sequences showing beautiful young hippies skinny dipping or sliding through fields of mud; there are fascinating interviews with all manner of people including harried police officers, besieged townspeople, worried neighboring farmers and one magnificently serene man with the Sisyphean task of hoovering out and freshening up the porta-potties of Woodstock. When this thoroughly decent soul with the worst job in the world mentions that he has one son in attendance at the festival somewhere and another on a tour of service in Vietnam and that he doesn’t begrudge any of these prodigious crappers a few days harmless pleasure . . . that was the only moment in my latest viewing of the film that actually brought tears to my eyes.
And with Monterey Pop (regarded as a commercial sellout by some of the hipper-than-thou San Francisco bands who were so boring in Woodstock), it was the musical performances (in original and bonus footage) that turned on my optical waterworks. Were The Who ever lovelier than they are here, tearing their way through their goofy mini-opera, A Quick One While He’s Away, which includes that heart-melting moment when – in lieu of the string section they couldn't afford in the studio or on stage – they all lean into their mikes and sing in four-part harmony, “Cello, cello, cello, cello, cello . . . ? Was Keith Moon ever a more supernaturally explosive drummer?
And the good old Byrds are here as well, just before David Crosby flew the coop. You can see him getting on Roger McGuinn’s last nerve with his inane political between-song patter in which he speculates on who really killed JFK. Monterey captures the only first-rate concert footage there is of The Quicksilver Messenger Service (playing Dino’s Song) and the always unstable Buffalo Springfield (with David Crosby sitting in for an absent Neil Young) performing their only hit, For What It’s Worth. The arrestingly original Laura Nyro turns up on the bonus disc, sultry and gorgeous as she belts out Wedding Bell Blues and Poverty Train with a pure and powerful voice that makes Janis Joplin sound like Yosemite Sam.
Joplin appears in both films and the contrast between her two performances is emblematic of the deterioration I sense in popular music overall from 1967 to ’69; as a more generously inventive playfulness gets pushed aside by billowing egos and posturing bombast. For Monterey Pop, Joplin is still performing with her long-time mates in Big Brother and The Holding Company and is so pleased with how well their act has gone down, that she executes a little jig of joy while exiting the stage. By the time Woodstock rolls around, she’s dumped her old friends and is headlining in front of anonymous session musicians and looks as cut off and alone as in fact she was; leading to her suicide 14 months later.
The Toronto-born drummer Skip Prokop (who played out most of his career in London, Ontario), also makes fleeting appearances in both films; backing up Joplin at Woodstock and propelling his original Toronto band, the criminally overlooked Paupers, at Monterey, where they can be heard in the background in one scene but, alas, are never given actual screen time of their own.
In Monterey Jimi Hendrix makes his galvanizing American debut with the Experience; burning his guitar at his performance’s conclusion in an act of one-up-manship as The Who had smashed all their equipment earlier that same evening. And the electrifyingly sexy Otis Redding gives one of the last performances of his life. Already a well-established soul singer by this time, it’s delightful to watch Redding dazzle this slightly more effete hippie crowd with some old-school masculine charm, backed up by a crackerjack band consisting of Booker T. and the MG’s and the Mar-Keys. The complete Hendrix and Redding performances comprise a separate bonus disc in the Monterey set.
With hindsight it occurs to me that 1967 was about the moment when ‘pop’ started to be supplanted on the charts by a harder-edged rock. And the appearance on this earlier festival’s roster of acts like (in order reflecting the diminishing respect paid to each of them today) Simon & Garfunkel, The Mamas and The Papas and The Association, confirms that Monterey was indeed a pop festival. The largely forgotten and terminally uncool Association performed their first hit at Monterey – And Then Along Comes Mary. It’s a song I haven’t listened to or considered in decades and I was bowled over by its inventiveness, its shifting time signatures, and the giddy, headlong way in which it accomplishes everything it sets out to do in two and a half minutes. And I realized I would rather listen to this whimsical ditty three or four times in a row (and would happily glom onto different ingenious facets each time) than have to listen to Alvin Lee and Ten Years After’s interminable Going Home once.
It is also notable that the range of featured genres and styles on the bill at Monterey was far wider as well, including jazz man Hugh Masekela, The Blues Project and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the horn-driven Electric Flag and the inimitable ukulele-and-falsetto concoctions of a certain Tiny Tim. And at the absolute other end of the musical spectrum, I’ve never seen Indian sitar-master Ravi Shankar play with such animation and reciprocal joy as he does in Monterey’s penultimate set.
The big difference for me between Monterey and Woodstock is this: in 1967, most of the assembled acts were 'playing' their music. And two short years later at Woodstock – to these ears at least – Monterey's more playful and exploratory spirit had largely evaporated and an awful lot of what was going down had begun to feel and sound like a bit of a chore.
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