December 21, 2011
In the beginning, there was Monterey
One way to mark the chronology of the counterculture, a pastime that is beloved by the baby boomers, is by reference to rock festivals. Woodstock and Altamont, for example, are now fully transformed into transcendent symbols of life and death, good and evil, the beginning and end of something. But the real starting point, the uber-festival, was Monterey.
The story of the Monterey International Pop Festival, which took place in a sleepy coastal backwater in California over three days in June 1967, is told by music journalists and music-industry veterans Harvey Kubernik and Kenneth Kubernik in “A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival (Santa Monica Press: $45). It is an appropriately phantasmagorical scrapbook that will trip out those of us who were adolescents at the time and teach our children about one of the defining moments in American music and, in a larger sense, American civilization.
“On that memorable weekend in June 1967, the cusp of my 13th birthday, I should have been rigorously preparing for my bar mitzvah,” recalls co-author Kenneth Kubernik, who is shown with his brother in a snapshot from the same year, both of them attired in tuxedos. “Instead, my ears were riveted to a puny transistor radio, feasting on KRLA’s live broadcast from the Monterey Fairgrounds. My mother was screaming from downstairs, ‘Don’t embarrass me, young man! Practice your haftarah now!’ Sorry to disappoint, but I answered to a higher God. ...”
Kubernik, in fact, was present at the creation, at least via the airwaves, because Monterey was the archetype of the rock festival as a showcase of musical genius and, not incidentally, a gathering of the tribes. As we learn in Lou Adler’s foreword, the idea snapped into focus at Cass Elliot’s house only six weeks before the musicians took the stage at Monterey. Adler, along with John and Michelle Phillips, Paul Simon, Johnny Rivers and Terry Melcher, put up $10,000 apiece, and six weeks later, history was made.
The stars were in alignment, literally so. The lineup at Monterey shattered barriers of race, class, culture and musical taste — Jimi Hendrix, Laura Nyro, and Simon and Garfunkel shared the stage with Buffalo Springfield, The Grateful Dead and The Association. Ravi Shankar, The Byrds and The Who were there, and so was Hugh Masekela and Otis Redding and Jefferson Airplane.
The unlikely enterprise, a result of both calculation and impulse, is captured in all of its richness in the images and artifacts on display in “A Perfect Haze” — candid shots and publicity shots, press releases and newspaper clippings, posters and advertisements, legal documents and telegrams. Many of the participants contribute their own vivid reminiscences in short bursts of oral history. But the whole kinetic collection is tightly stitched together by the Kubernik brothers, who indulge their enthusiasms with rhapsodic prose but fully grasp the significance of what they are writing about.
The result is both a scrapbook and a serious work of pop-culture history, all of it informed with an acute and astute sense of the time and place. The first group to take the stage was The Association — “this L.A. group was dismissed by the snob set as nothing more than the Four Freshman with Telecasters and mustaches” — followed by Lou Rawls (“the scent of Vegas showroom trailing after his canned intros and overworked arrangements”) and Eric Burdon (“The blues boy from Newcastle had supped deeply from the American South, from Broadway’s Brill Building, and now turned his appetite toward an acid-laced approach”), among others. The first night ended with Simon and Garfunkel, and we learn from first-nighter Johnny Rivers that Simon had approached all of the other acts and warned them not to go over their time limits “because he didn’t want to cut his own set with Art short, because of the curfew.”
Monterey was a convocation of the counterculture, a phenomenon that was not yet fully understood, but everyone recognized that what was happening on stage was the real thing. Synthetic pop stars like The Monkees were in the audience, Mickey Dolenz dressed in full Native American regalia, but so was pop royalty — Brian Jones, a founding member of The Rolling Stones, was “a kind of unofficial king of the festival,” garbed in “a mind-shattering gold lame coat festooned with beads, crystal swastika and lace.” Some famously achieved stardom at Monterey, as when “a homely young girl walked onto the stage with fright in her eye” and the world witnessed “a volley of 12-gauge musical buckshot” from Big Brother and the Holding Company and its girl singer, Janis Joplin.
Above all, Monterey succeeded in shattering the boundaries that had characterized the American music industry. Redding, for example, had been confined to the “chitlin’ circuit” before Jerry Wexler, chief of Atlantic Records, encouraged Redding’s manager to accept the invitation to appear at Monterey “as a foothold into the exploding white rock market.” Some audience members were already heading for the gates when he took the stage late in the evening, but as soon as Redding’s Memphis sidemen started pumping out the backbeat, “They raced back to their seats as if swept up in a tidal force.”
Monterey, the Kuberniks conclude, was “a tipping point in the way the music industry conducted its business.” Indeed, “A Perfect Haze” allows us to see that the subtext of the Monterey Pop Festival was a matter of money and career for many of its participants. But this glorious and pleasurable book also captures the ecstasies that were on offer during those three history-making days in Monterey.