[24 September 2009]
On the weekend of 16-18 June 1967, Dunhill label chief Lou Adler, Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, and John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas presented the Monterey Pop Festival to 55,000 rock ‘n’ roll besotted disciples. The festival became the prototype for future rock festivals and was the unofficial coming-out party for the ‘Summer of Love’.
The promoters hired D.A. Pennebaker, hot off the success of his Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, to capture the weekend. His resulting films, Monterey Pop, Jimi Plays Monterey, and Shake! Otis At Monterey perfectly captured the dangerously unstable compound called rock music right before it exploded and permanently altered the American cultural landscape. The Criterion Collection’s The Complete Monterey Pop Festival contains all three films, plus Pennebaker’s outtakes of other performers and Pennebaker’s and Adler’s audio commentary.
All presented in glorious Blu-Ray technology.
I have yet to upgrade to Blu-Ray. I have yet to upgrade to HD television. A couple of weeks ago, half my stereo system plunged from a top the perilous stack of LP-filled crates on which they perched, killing my eight-year old subwoofer. I in no way possessed the kind of gear needed to do this set justice.
But hell, I’ve gerry-rigged far lesser technological resources into working. I walked to the local video store fully confident in my abilities to pull this off.
The perfect casting choice for a local revival of the film Clerks processed my Blu-Ray request. He informed me that I was the first person to rent one. I’m fairly certain this is because of the $250.00 deposit.
I put down less money for my first car.
Blu-Ray player in hand, I arrived home eager to luxuriate in a bastardized hi-def experience. I followed the most basic instructions I’ve ever read for a high-end component.
And I couldn’t get the blue screen off my Samsung TV.
I went back to the directions. I phoned a friend. I ran it through my stereo receiver. I called the video store back and was made even more aware of my own ignorance.
It was Wednesday night. My column is due Monday night. I would be in Iowa for the weekend. What to do…?
I ended up enjoying this package on a 15-inch HD screen in a friend’s bedroom. Not optimal conditions for a Criterion Collection product.
And you’re OK with that, right?
Now to the film. I saw the Hendrix and Redding films before, but never the official festival film itself. I had high hopes. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back might be my favorite documentary of all-time.
Then there is Monterey’s line-up. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The Byrds. Big Brother and the Holding Company. Buffalo Springfield. Simon and Garfunkel. Jefferson Airplane. Mamas and the Papas. The Who. Plus, Redding and Hendrix.
The film opens with Scott McKenzie’s ‘San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)’. While the ‘it’ pop single of that time plays, we glimpse preparations for the festival and images of young kids running their freak flags high enough to be seen all over the world.
Pennebaker belonged to the Direct Camera school of documentaries, alongside peers Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock. Direct Camera docs sought for a kind of ‘you-are-there’ perspective. In Don’t Look Back, Pennebaker kept the camera right off Bob’s shoulder. So close at times you could almost light his cigarette.
Pennebaker could never achieve that same level of intimacy with the cast of thousands who attended and performed at Monterey Pop. But he does grant us insider-level access. We see gorgeous Michele Phillips and her husband and band-mate John talk to Dionne Warwick’s people (Burt Bacharach?). We see Mama Cass pop her head off her boyfriend’s shoulder and mouth “Wow” as Janis Joplin and Big Brother howl through ‘Ball and Chain’. We see blissed-out and stoned revelers find somebody to love or get lost in the music. We see the ‘Summer of Love’-or at least we see the rose-colored vision of it promulgated by the Boomer media ever since.
Pennebaker’s style allows these classic rock icons to step off the pedestals that led to such neck strain for my generation. David Crosby gushes about the quality of the sound system. Michele Phillips inquires about Country Joe and the Fish’s luggage. After an exchange of perplexed glances and shrugged shoulders amongst the band, they inform her they don’t have any. Simon and Garfunkel appear to be one person, flooded by the red stage-lights and filmed at just the right distance.
The ‘Summer of Love’ was not the only Monterey debut. Monterey announced to the world that pop music now firmly followed a blues beat. Simon and Garfunkel and the Mamas and the Papas sounded great, but this was not 1964. From the moment Dylan plugged in, the folk-pop genre suffered a slow death.
Monterey was the wake.
Once the dust settled after electric performances from Redding, Hendrix, and The Who, the record execs in attendance knew what was going to sell right now. Whether soul or hard blues, Clive Davis, Mo Ostin, and Jerry Wexler left knowing that it had to be LOUD!
If you don’t believe me, listen to the final two Beatles albums. You know, the ones you just bought recently for the fifth time.
But this is not the only development the money men noted. The sound system that left Crosby in awe finally could generate the requisite strength to reach concert-goers waaay in the back. Fillmore owner and pop impresario Bill Graham, in attendance, surely had his interest piqued. From Monterey on, the most popular pop acts would fill the largest arenas.
The successful trade done by festival merchants also bore further corporate investigation. The reason you don’t see tie-dyed hippies or “Don’t be that guy”s with Who t-shirts is because they didn’t exist.
But they sure would now.
In short, the Monterey magic couldn’t even last the weekend. Jimi, Janis, and the Jefferson Airplane all signed lucrative recording deals shortly after their performances. How’d that turn out for everybody?
There was no better band to close Monterey than the Grateful Dead. The Dead would trot-out the perfectly embalmed corpse of the ‘Summer of Love’ every evening at hippie-jammed sheds and arenas for nearly thirty years. And earn a pretty penny.
“Turn on, tune in, drop out”? Ha! Most of the Monterey performers did anything but drop out. They sought hungrily for the engorged corporate teat of a Gulf and Western or Warner Bros. The artists themselves killed the Monterey commune vibe that so impressed Rolling Stone Brian Jones.
“Mr. Crosby, your 747 is ready.”
Maybe my favorite moment in the film is the shots of Hells Angels members walking the fairgrounds, getting into the groove. Yes, the same people who eagerly ushered out the ‘60s at Altamont with a subtle baton and boot heel (under Jerry Garcia’s blessing, no less) made it to the christening. How sweet!
With The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, you can own exactly what the late ‘60s never were. I have to admit the fantasy is quite compelling, even if the Who’s and Hendrix’s acts of stage destruction do not startle post-Boomers (I’ve seen plenty of crappy bands destroy their instruments).
What are you left with? Otis Redding framed by a halo of sweat and light, deep into his sermon, bringing eyesight to the blind. Janis Joplin open-throated and barefoot, naked to the world. Jimi Hendrix at one with the universe, baring Excalibur to a grateful land. Pennebaker’s films reveal that at the heart of every great artistic movement there lies deep reserves of sincerity and imagination.
You just had to be there.
Image (partical) courtesy of the Criterion Collection