[30 July 2009]
Legend has it that on July 3, 1947, a mysterious object crashed on a ranch in the New Mexico desert, about 30 miles north of Roswell. The Roswell Army Air Field at first issued a press release claiming to have recovered a “flying disk,” with the Roswell Daily Record running a famous front page story reporting this the next day. But the RAAF then retracted the statement and said the object was merely a crashed weather balloon.
This effectively ended the story for most national observers, until 1978 when Jesse Marcel Sr.—the intelligence officer at the RAAF in 1947—came out of the cosmic closet and said what the military had recovered was “not of this Earth.” The Roswell Incident has since become the holy grail of UFOlogy, with numerous books and television shows devoted to exploring the case.
There’s not much happening in Roswell these days, so the town seized on this notoriety in the mid-‘90s to create the Roswell UFO Festival, and why not? This is a desolate area that can use all the action it can get. It’s basically 200 miles from anywhere—Albuquerque, Las Cruces, El Paso, Lubbock, Amarillo… all a three-hour drive away. This explains why the U.S. military’s most sensitive installations were located in Southeastern New Mexico in the 1940s—the atomic research at Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was developed, the testing of captured German V-2 rockets at White Sands near Alamogordo, and the Trinity Site, where that first atomic bomb was detonated.
The newly revised and expanded Witness to Roswell by Thomas J. Carey and Donald R. Schmitt—who spoke during the festival at the International UFO Museum and Research Center—colors in such details in compelling fashion. The book documents such an array of both civilian and military witness testimony so as to render denial of the Roswell cover-up irrational.
Roswell, we learn, was also home to Uncle Sam’s 509th Bomb Group, the first and only atomic strike force in the world at the time. It therefore makes perfect sense that extraterrestrial visitors trying to size up humanity might take a keen interest in the area. Those events of 62 years ago remain a compelling enigma, drawing thousands of visitors every July.
Organizers pulled a coup this year by landing the resurgent Jefferson Starship for the festival’s headlining performance. The band has been riding a new wave of energy since the addition of captivating vocalist Cathy Richardson last year, along with the subsequent Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty album that pays homage to a variety of ‘60s classics that inspired Paul Kantner and company when they were forming Jefferson Airplane. Kantner is the only member left from the halcyon ‘60s era, but he’s stepped up to steer Jefferson Starship back on course, away from the slick pop sound the band devolved into and back to the psychedelic rock roots that helped pioneer the legendary San Francisco Sound.
Word was leaked approaching the show that the first set would be an acoustic-oriented affair, while the second set would have a science fiction theme. Kantner’s been known for such material at least since Jefferson Airplane’s 1970 single “Have You Seen the Saucers”, as well as that year’s Blows Against the Empire concept album that told the tale of a group of rebels that hijack a starship to take off and pursue a more utopian society than what Uncle Sam has to offer.
The show was also billed to include a variety of special guests, including one-time Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten, former Jefferson Starship vocalist Darby Gould, veteran psyche rock musician and early Starship member Pete Sears, folk legend Jack Traylor, and pedal-steel guitar maestro Barry Sless. Kantner and crew were clearly planning a special event.
The First Set
Tom Constanten opened the program with a solo performance of the folksy “Urban Spaceman”, followed by an instrumental version of the Grateful Dead’s mystical “Mountains of the Moon”. Kantner and longtime cohort David Freiberg then came up through the crowd with acoustic guitars playing “This Land is Your Land”, turning it into a patriotic ode about taking the power back. Being a one-time military school attendee in his teens, it must have given Kantner an ironic pleasure to take the Pearson Auditorium stage at the New Mexico Military Institute as a conquering hero.
Actor Brian Thompson, best known as the alien bounty hunter from The X-Files, then introduced the band. But Kantner threw a curveball by sending Traylor out first to perform “Me and My Uncle” and “Billy the Kid”, the latter Traylor attributed to Kid’s frequenting of the region. The full band then fired up with the Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” to get the show flying. It was the first of many tunes to feature dazzling four-part harmonies from Richardson, Gould, Kantner, and David Freiberg.
“Let’s Get Together”, the classic ‘60s tune devoted to peace and unity—covered by the Airplane on their first album—was given even more local relevance when Freiberg said that songwriter Dino Valente had been stationed at Roswell when he was in the Air Force. The song soared behind the band’s four-part harmonies for an early highpoint that flowed into Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”, with the group harmonies conjuring up a majestic quality Dylan’s version never had.
The lead vocal baton was then passed all around as Freiberg sang the folksy “Cowboy on the Run”, Richardson sang her own “I Can’t Forgive You”, Gould starred on “Genesis Hall”, and Traylor returned for a rousing “Earth Mother” and “Flowers of the Night”, a pair of Traylor gems recorded by Kantner and Grace Slick in the early ‘70s. “Earth Mother” shined as Richardson and Gould harmonized behind Traylor on insightful lyrics like “Once the earth was a garden / It gave us all we need / Then it grew so barren / All because of greed.”
“Here’s one for all the police people in town,” said Kantner introducing “Lawman”, a Grace Slick classic featuring Gould on vocals. The band then closed the first set with an electrifying rendition of “Wooden Ships”, with the four-part harmonies soaring once again. The power of the forthcoming second set was alluded to as drummer Donny Baldwin and bassist Pete Sears pumped up the tune’s foundation, Barry Sless added transcendent pedal steel and lead guitarist Slick Aguilar threw down a smoldering solo.
The Sci-fi Set
As the lights dimmed for the second set and NASA footage of various rocket missions played on the screen, a sound clip from The Empire Strikes Back came on with Jedi Master Yoda instructing student Luke Skywalker on the ways of the Force as Luke struggles to try and get his X-Wing out of the bog on Dagobah.
“You must unlearn what you have learned… Do or do not. There is no try… Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes,” said Yoda.
After Yoda uses the Force to lift the ship out of the bog, Richardson and Gould opened with a sparkling duet on “Sunrise” from Blows Against the Empire, which led into an epic performance of “Have You Seen the Saucers”, Kantner’s powerful tune that sums up the UFO phenomenon from the open-minded perspective:
“Have you seen the saucers? / Do you know the people out there / Who aren’t happy with the way that we care / For the Earth, the Mother / Have you seen the saucers / Tranquility Base / There goes the neighborhood / American garbage / Dumped in space and no room left for the brotherhood
Have you seen the saucers? / See our lights in your western skies, California? The rainbow skies / The government tells you another missile is flying / Have you any idea why they’re lying to you? To your faces / Did they tell you?
Have you seen the saucers? Star children on the back road to salvation / Children of the forest, child of the Woodstock Nation / Have a care for the needs of your planet / Catch the dawn that once was there / First-born atomic generation / Open the door, don’t you know that’s what it’s for? Come and join us on the other side of the sun.”
The performance was simply mesmerizing, with the band riding the momentum into the gorgeous “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” from Blows. With Kantner’s 12-string guitar, keyboardist Chris Smith’s piano, and Sless’ pedal steel, the band conjured the majestic vibe of looking out at the stars from the deck of a starship. The Blows theme continued as the band moved into “Hijack”, wherein the rebels steal the starship. It was another epic performance, again made all the more so by the entrancing harmonies of galactic queens Richardson and Gould.
The band then dipped back into Tree of Liberty as Kantner introduced “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as being sort of a space song since it’s about instructions to 19th-century slaves on how to navigate the Underground Railroad to freedom. It was yet another shining moment for Richardson, as she channeled the urgency of such a precarious journey, as well as throwing down a bluesy harmonica solo.
Kantner and the ladies then exited the stage as Constanten returned to lead the rest of the band into the Grateful Dead’s psychedelic classic, “Dark Star”. It’s performed instrumentally but is no mere tease—Sless moves from pedal steel to regular guitar as he and Aguilar launch into a full-on 1969-style rendition with deep exploration, augmented by Constanten and Smith on keys, with Sears weaving the deft bassline to keep the sonic journey moving. The huge “Dark Star” is most apropos since Jerry Garcia was one of many Bay Area musical luminaries to contribute on the recording of Blows.
The deep jam eventually segued into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” with Freiberg on lead vocal for the tale of astronaut Major Tom. There was a rough patch where Freiberg and Aguilar didn’t seem to be quite on the same page, but the tune was nonetheless another triumph for the set’s continuing thematic journey. A melodic jam led into “Hyperdrive” from 1974’s Dragonfly, with groovy vibes flowing as Gould and Richardson did a sexy little dance with each other before Gould took the vocal, with Richardson harmonizing on the chorus.
Another spacey jam seemed to revisit the “Dark Star”, as well as touching on Beth Orton’s “Galaxy of Emptiness” before finding its way into “Your Mind Has Left Your Body”, from 1973’s underrated Kantner/Slick/Freiberg album Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, with roadie Michael Eisenstein joining the band on guitar. Kantner’s spacey vocals oozed psychedelia, with Gould and Richardson joining him for the “Riders of the rainbow, let it grow” chorus. The psychedelia continued to grow when the band segued into the ultra-classic “Brain Damage” from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Gould enchanted the audience on the vocal about seeing your friends on the moon’s dark side, with Richardson contributing the track’s mocking laughter and more harmonies.
The band brought the space trip resoundingly back to Earth with “Somebody to Love”, the Airplane’s 1967 hit that put the San Francisco Sound on the global map. Richardson and Gould traded verses in a magnificent performance, with a hard rocking arrangement that concluded the set in purely triumphant fashion.
Richardson seemed absent when the band returned for the encore of “White Rabbit”, only to crawl out from underneath the stage and slink her way up the stairs to the stage for a mesmerizing rendition of another Summer of Love classic. A slew of friends then joined the entire band for a rousing grand finale of “Volunteers”, the call for revolution title track from the Airplane’s 1969 album that would be the last with the classic lineup intact. Fans slowly exited the auditorium in a pleasant daze from the monumental three-hour performance. There is probably no other band in the world that could so skillfully blend rock’s retro-folk roots with its space jamming power.
Good vibes continued to flow at the aftershow party at Pepper’s Bar & Grill, where Los Angeles trio UFOetry entertained on the patio with tunes about UFOs, the Mayan calendar’s intriguing 2012 conclusion, and other metaphysical topics. Richardson, Gould, Sless, and Sears held court inside, graciously autographing posters and posing for photos with fans. The band filmed the entire show for a purported “Spockumentary” and fans can only hope that a DVD of this historic show sees the light of day ASAP.
The MUFON UFO Speakers Conference
The concert was the highlight of the festival, but there was much more going on throughout the weekend. Friday night’s show was preceded by a festival parade featuring Jefferson Starship as the “Grand Martians.” Roswellians and visitors alike lined downtown’s Main Street in a festive atmosphere, though the overall parade left many scratching their heads. It started a half-hour late and had little in the way of actual floats, with the parade mostly consisting of mere automobiles with a few folks dressed like aliens. It seemed fitting then when posters for the festival included a depiction of special guest Hank Williams Jr. saying: “Where’s the parade?”
But while the parade disappointed many terrestrial observers, the MUFON Conference presented an array of compelling research from top UFOlogists from around the world. Italo-American journalist Paola Harris focused her talk on her work with two legends in the field—J. Allen Hynek (who worked on the Air Force’s Project Blue Book before starting the Center for UFO Studies) and Col. Philip J. Corso. Corso’s 1997 memoirs, The Day After Roswell, made shock waves when he testified that he’d worked in the Pentagon in the early ‘60s dispersing salvaged technology from the Roswell crash to various corporations for further research and development, leading to advances in areas such as lasers, fiber optics, and integrated circuit chips.
Physicist Dr. Claude Swanson gave an intriguing presentation on “Clues to a Future Physics,” where he speculated about advances in human understanding of physics, such as group consciousness. “Subtle energy is the missing part of our physics… the energy that consciousness adds… the laws of physics change,” said Swanson.
Other speakers included the legendary Jesse Marcel, Jr., who was 12-years-old when his father—the Roswell Army Air Field intelligence officer—woke him up that fateful night in 1947 to show him some of the “memory metal” retrieved from the saucer crash site. Marcel Jr. spoke to “the Roswell legacy” and was also made the first inductee into the Roswell UFO Hall of Fame, with author Peter Robbins serving as master of ceremonies. Robbins is well-known in the UFOlogy community for his book Left at East Gate, with Larry Warren, which chronicles a dramatic 1980 UFO incident in the United Kingdom that came to be regarded as the British Roswell. This made for an appropriate thematic link to the following presentation by Nick Pope, a former British intelligence agent who worked on that country’s equivalent of real-life X-Files.
“We were all budding Fox Mulders,” said Pope of he and his associates during his time in the department from 1991-94. Pope devoted most of his talk to the ongoing declassification of the British government’s UFO files, the release of which began in May of 2008.
He noted that this led to what many observers considered a “summer of the saucers” last year, with a wave of sightings across the United Kingdom, as well as a ripple effect on other countries such as France, Brazil, and Denmark releasing their files too.
Canadian researcher Grant Cameron spoke about his studies of the relation between American presidents and UFOs, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Cameron indicated some hope for disclosure may be drawn from the fact that John Podesta, known as Bill Clinton’s “X-Files man” when he served as his chief of staff, was in charge of Obama’s transition team and remains a close advisor. Podesta called for UFO disclosure in a 2002 speech to the National Press Club, and would indeed seem to be the man to coordinate any such eventual effort.
But the most compelling talk of the weekend came from historian Richard Dolan, whose first book UFOs and the National Security State: Chronology of a Cover-up 1941-1973 is widely deemed the best and most comprehensive history of UFOs ever written, with publication of his second book covering 1974-1991 being imminent. What’s intriguing about Dolan is that he only developed an interest in UFOs after his graduate studies of Cold War history led him to recognize certain names that seemed to be involved with some monkey business inside the government pertaining to UFOs and “black budgets.”
Dolan ran through a list of significant government documents that reveal the essence of the cover-up and compared the cover-up’s lifespan to that of the Soviet Union, suggesting an imminent fall within the next four to 25 years. He also discussed the paradigm shattering ramifications of disclosure.
“In the short term, it might not be all beer and skittles,” said Dolan regarding the theoretical economic fallout that free energy could wreak on the markets, as well as potential class action lawsuits by citizens against the government for withholding it. He termed the free energy technology our visitors use to get here (theoretically via wormholes or stargates of some kind) as both a potential salvation and a potential problem.
“What if we DO get access to free energy? What if we learn to manipulate time? What if we learn that we all possess certain psychic or spiritual abilities? What if we discover the UFO secret has gone private?” asked Dolan. He also addressed exopolitical problems, such as how to determine if we are being told the truth?
“True disclosure will of necessity confront the illegal structure of our society… Where did the money come from, a subversion of our political system… Is there a global police state coming in to deal with it? Disclosure will almost surely not be done voluntarily by the government, but will have to be forced by the citizens,” said Dolan.
“Impossible. Inevitable,” he said of eventual disclosure. “We are living through revolutionary change… Revolutionary change breeds political instability… and opportunities for disclosure.”
He finished by pointing out that humanity is in need of cultural development to enable us to deal with extra terrestrials. “We are the greatest show in the cosmos right now,” concluded Dolan, hinting that the plethora of UFO activity over the past six decades indicates Earth has drawn the attention of the galactic community.
Saturday’s 4th of July proceedings meanwhile treated visitors to a huge fireworks show, made even more magnificent by a thunderstorm that offered spectacular sheet lightning that lit up the entire sky, as well as massive lightning bolts that perhaps approximated the storm which legend says was a factor in 1947. The festival wrapped up on Sunday with a stage performance back at the Pearson Auditorium of Top Secret: Majic, a two-act play by Marty Martin about the events following the Roswell Incident, dramatizing the implementation of the cover-up.
While some will remain skeptical until ETs land on the White House lawn—an unlikely outcome—most visitors to the Roswell UFO Festival seemed inclined to walk away with the feeling that the truth is indeed out there. The biggest question on the minds of most attendees was not whether there is a cover-up, but when it will end.