From Me, to You Archive

#1 2009
June 2008: Books and Films part 2

There are so many great rock and roll books and films to enjoy, that this month, we're going back to the subject again. I'd like to offer a few recommendations that you may want to view and read. In the 60's/70's, the phenomena of the "rock festival" really caught it's stride. At the time, the films documenting these various festivals were required viewing for all "hip" citizens. You could sit in the theater and enjoy the top acts of the day without having to travel to the festival, camp out all weekend, endure the heat, rain, etc. If you were lucky enough to have attended the festival in the first place, you could relive some of the moments that were lost in the haze... David Crosby has, only half jokingly remarked, "if you can remember Woodstock, then all you saw was the movie. Anyone who was actually there, doesn't remember a thing". I was only 12 years old in August of 1969, and wasn't at the festival, so I can't really say. I really dig the movie however. Now, for folks like me, these films offer up a unique time capsule of the era in which they were made. The viewer can, if you watch closely, get a clear impression of the politics, social customs, hang-ups, and anachronisms of the "youth counter-culture". And, yes, the music (for the most part) still sounds great. We'll start with a few obvious choices. The first festival to really make an impact was the Monterey Pop Festival. Held in 1967 at the Monterey California fairgrounds over a three day period, it was a watershed moment in the burgeoning flower power movement. A unique combination of both the L.A. and San Francisco bands (who were often at odds with each other), it also introduced The Who and Jimmy Hendrix (Hendix was recommended by festival board member Paul McCartney) to the American audience. Hendrix's (higher than a kite) performance especially has become legendary. Yes, this is the show where he sets his guitar on fire... It also includes fine sets by Eric Burdon (debuting the "new" Animals), Simon and Garfunkel, Country Joe and the Fish, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, Al Kooper, and a very overlooked and cool song or two from The Association (a fine 60's California pop group who are waiting to be rediscovered). Janis Joplin does her soulful screaming (this was also a breakthrough gig for her and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company). But where oh where are The Steve Miller Band in this movie? The Mamas and the Papas close the show with a somewhat anti-climactic performance. They were HUGE hit-makers at the time and Papa John Phillips was one of the festival organizers (along with west coast producer Lew Adler). You can tell that, for better or worse, the tastes of the audience was already moving away from the 3 minute radio pop song to what would eventually become the lumbering monster we call "rock" music. But to offset all of this, Ravi Shankar does a brilliant set on sitar that mesmerizes this young hippie crowd. Boy, those were different times... By all means, seek out the box set of the Monterey festival on DVD which includes the original cut of the film, a "making of" documentary, and most importantly, the deleted performances which didn't make it into the film's final edit (the set by Quicksilver Messenger Service is one of the coolest hippie performances I've ever seen and I can't imagine why it didn't make the cut!). Throughout all of this, there are images of the audience that really tell a tale. Who were these people? Where are the now and what is their story? I'll tell you one thing, they are cooooool. Way cool. These young hippies have a lot of style and composure at this point in time (and that wouldn't last long). So Monterey Pop (as the film is called) is well worth a look. Next comes the big commercial blockbuster, Woodstock, documenting "Three Days of Peace and Music" and the Woodstock Nation. The ripening of the counterculture fruit, perhaps just as it began to rot. Once again, the audience is fascinating and the music is great. Make sure to get the new director's cut from a few years ago with plenty of extra performances not originally included. Some of the split screen camerawork won't be quite as effective on the small screen, but since we'll probably never have a chance to see this movie again in a theater, the home version will have to suffice.

Now, there are some lesser known, but equally fascinating festival films also available. Gimme Shelter, the documentary of the Rolling Stones' big comeback American tour of 1969 is a must see. Not only is it a great glimpse of The Stones on the threshold of one of their most creative and commercially successful periods, but it also is a harrowing record of the infamous Altamont free concert outside San Francisco filmed to end the tour and the movie. A Hollywood script writer couldn't dream this up and it has to be seen to be believed. Just a few short months after Woodstock (with all the peace, love, and flowers vibe), this concert spiraled out of control into a horrible nightmare of violence, including the filmed murder of an audience member by the Hell's Angels. As Jerry Garcia stated (the Grateful Dead were on the bill but showed up and refused to play) "it was like a nice afternoon in hell". This moment has been, arguably, offered as the "end of the 60's" not only literally, but philosophically as well. With the Manson murders of just a few short weeks before the concert, this claim is perhaps valid. Gimme Shelter is an unbelievable film. The English had one of their biggest festivals documented in the film Message To Love: The Isle of Wight Festival. Coming right as the 60's rolled over into the 70's, there are some really great artists included in this film that you wouldn't see in an American festival of the same period. Among them, the great rock band Free, The Moody Blues, Jimi Hendrix (in one of his last filmed performances), Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson, an outstanding performance by The Who (Pete Townshend regarded this show as one of the group's best ever), and leading the way into the "progressive rock" era, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. All really fine sets. These British hippies are very articulate but no less self destructive than their American cousins. In fact this festival degenerated into something of a riot as a result of there being a charge for tickets (amounting to about $10) and not a free concert. This was seen as a crass sell-out by these proletarian youths and they stormed the gate and crashed in by the thousands, thereby bankrupting the festival organizers... also young hippies. Bummer! Again, the music is great and, as a social study, it can't be surpassed. The Euro version of the rock festival is represented by the film Stamping Ground. An early 70's Dutch festival filmed in Rotterdam, it features some of the most civilized hippies since Monterey and some really unusual and entertaining bands such as The Byrds, The Flock, Dr. John, Al Stewart, T. Rex, It's a Beautiful Day, and Pink Floyd (in their Atom Heart Mother-Ummagumma phase. My favorite!). There's some pretty wild stuff going on in the festival grounds and it looks like these kids are enjoying themselves. Finally, I was able to obtain an extremely rare and hard to find (I'm pretty sure that my DVD is a bootleg) copy of a film called Celebration at Big Sur. A 1969 festival held in California featuring the west coast/Laurel Canyon rock aristocracy of the moment, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, The Flying Burrito Brothers, etc. All of whom are BLOWN AWAY by The Edwin Hawkins Gospel Singers! You can just feel these rich young hippies, draped in their expensive fur coats, wishing they had a fraction of that soul. They creep into every shot in the film to share the frame with these enormously talented black singers as if hoping some of it would rub off on them. Or, as if to be seen there, would give them some other kind of credibility that they lack. There's a sequence with Stephen Stills getting into a fist fight with an audience member who dares to call him on his phony posturing. Hilarious! You can see the decadent degeneracy, masquerading as "art", starting to flower that would give it's signature to this west coast life style in the 70's. Definitely worth seeing if you can find it (I got mine on E-bay and didn't ask too many questions...). One book that anyone interested in rock and roll films should own is Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock and Roll in the Movies written by singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw. A very comprehensive book that will lead to many enjoyable unseen films. Well, my friends, there's plenty more (we didn't even get to the book selections) so we'll continue this discussion next month. Stay up late, watch a triple feature!