The week before last marked the fiftieth anniversary of a pivotal and defining event of the so-called Summer of Love. The Monterey International Pop Music Festival was held on June 16-18, 1967 at the Monterey County Fairgrounds in Monterey, California.
And less than two weeks ago Monterey 50 took place at the same location to commemorate and update the original event; I doubt we’ll be seeing any Altamont Festival reunions anytime soon. Unlike the several rather unsuccessful attempts to revive the 1969 Woodstock festival, the Monterey redo was apparently a hit. At least it was good to see Booker T. Jones back on the stage playing his Hammond B3 Organ and reminiscing about his original appearance with Otis Redding just six months before the soul singer’s tragic death.
Because I was unable to attend both the 1967 and 2017 events, I rewatched D.A. Pennebaker’s groundbreaking documentary of the original festival, now available in a deluxe two-disc video package by those wonderful folks at Criterion. Pennebaker, who Dennis Lim has described as “arguably the pre-eminent chronicler of sixties counterculture,” had gained recognition prior to Monterey as part of the Robert Drew and Associates team that produced a series of intimate up-close-and-personal documentary films about John F. Kennedy (also collected in a Criterion edition). Pennebaker’s style has been termed “Direct Cinema” for its revolutionary-at-the-time documentation of a particular place and time without the overlay of narrative. Call it “reality TV” for the 1960s if you will. In any event, Pennebaker’s “Monterey Pop” blends candid audience shots with concert footage to produce a valuable snapshot of a time that has entered American mythology and has been both maligned and praised. Virginia Woolfe remarked in the 1920s that all motion pictures are ghost stories in the sense that they capture for all time the spirits of those long gone. Watching “Monterey Pop” is indeed like watching a ghost story, but one that finds many of its spirits still alive, yet now drained of the youth that was so poignantly captured by Pennebaker’s camera crew. And the film seems positively quaint and old-fashioned in our age of instant video and mobile technology that casts all of us as filmmakers staring at images produced by our iPhone Memories application.
Pennebaker’s film became the template for Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 film about Woodstock (which employed a young Martin Scorsese as an assistant editor, an experience that inspired him to record The Band’s last concert in 1976), and “Gimme Shelter,” the 1970 documentary by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerlin that captured the various horrors of the December 1969 rock concert at the Altamont Speedway (an event that has been expertly and provocatively chronicled in a new book by Joel Selvin). Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont have become cultural touchstones for a significant slice of America’s ancient history.
In his essay for the Criterion edition of “Monterey Pop,” Michael Lydon asks some tantalizing questions: “The Monterey International Pop Festival is over, all over. And what was it? Was it one festival, many festivals, a festival at all? Does anything sum it up, did it mean anything, are there any themes? Was it just a collection of rock groups of varying levels of proficiency doing their bit for a crowd of thousands who got their fill of whatever pleasure of sensation they sought? Was it the most significant meeting of an avant-garde since the Armory Show or some Dadaist happening in the twenties? . . . .One is left only with questions that a mind besodden with sound and sound and sound and sound cannot answer.” Perhaps Booker T. Jones, in his account last week of what he remembered about being a participant in the original Festival, gives us the most telling answer: “You know, everyone wants to know what I thought of the [original 1967 festival], but I can’t tell you, because I was just talking to [Cream bassist] Jack Bruce the whole time. I missed the entire concert; so did he.” Of course, Booker T. no doubt does remember his performing with Otis Redding–performances that are vividly captured on Disc Two of the Criterion set, which also documents electrifying (no pun intended) performances by Jimi Hendrix, including the now-iconic one where he sets his Fender Stratocaster on fire before smashing it to bits on stage. Although a piece of the slightly charred Strat body is on display in Seattle’s Experience Music Project Museum, I have often wondered what happened to the guitar neck Hendrix threw into the audience. Who caught it, did they keep it, did they sell it, or do they remember catching it? At this point recall the well-worn adage that says if you remember the Sixties you weren’t there, etc.
Like Booker T., whose album with the MGs, “Hip-Hug-Her,” is my favorite album of 1967, I don’t remember the Monterey Pop Festival, although I was old enough (but just barely) to attend at the time. I do remember reading about it, but I didn’t watch the documentary until last year. And I didn’t see “Woodstock” until the early 80s and “Gimme Shelter” until 2014. I was aware of these events at the time, but despite my countercultural leanings, was only marginally connected to them. And this says a great deal about historical consciousness, memory, and nostalgia. So, while I was cognizant of the Monterey Festival as it was being staged, I only experienced it (vicariously of course) last year. This is the flaw in nostalgia–we often trick ourselves into imagining we experienced things in the past when we didn’t.
One event I did experience at the time, however, is the release of my second favorite album of 1967–Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow”–that I bought in West Jefferson, North Carolina the week it was released. Needless to say, I am fond of the Airplane’s alternate version of “Somebody To Love” as they performed it at the Monterey Pop Festival. Now I am looking forward to experiencing the 50th anniversary of the new Monterey Pop several years from now–which is destined not to wait that long now that we have 24/7 YouTube.
I am already waxing nostalgic over the future. And I hope you are too.
See you next week. In the meantime, check out the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.