I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me…
Do you remember hearing about the Monterey Pop Festival?
That’s okay; not many people do.
I began high school in 1968. That was a very good year to start high school. I graduated in 1973. That was a pretty good year to graduate. One year earlier, and I would probably be writing about a whole other thing.
In 1968, at a school in Atlanta’s suburbs, there were about a dozen of what would have been considered hippies. I wasn’t one of them. My hair was short, and my clothes were geeky. That was the last year I went ‘school shopping’ with my parents at Sears.
But I liked music. My tastes were eclectic. By the time I started 8th grade (the local school system didn’t have Middle Schools at that time), I only owned two albums. You kids may need to Google that term, album. I hadn’t yet discovered Record Clubs. 12 Albums for $0.01!!! And there weren’t any records stores in my neighborhood.
If you wanted to buy an album, you went to Rich’s, and Atlanta based chain later gobbled up by Macy’s, or Woolworths, a chain that was beaten to death by Walmart. You fingered through the racks with big white tabs with the artist’s or band’s name on them. Later, I would find all my music in the back of the rack, where the ‘underground’ music was abandoned.
But those first two albums were Girls, Girls, Girls, by Elvis Presley, and Hair, the Tribal Love-Rock Musical. If you look up eclectic in the dictionary, I think those two albums might be listed. My transition from listening to Elvis sing Return to Sender to listening to Ronnie Dyson sing about the Age of Aquarius spanned about three months, in 1968.
School lockers at my high school were assigned somewhat randomly, and you picked up your locker number and combination on the first day of school. As it turned out, my locker was right next to a couple of those early hippies, and it became their gathering place before school and during the mid-morning break.
We had little in common, but we did talk about music. And as my musical taste expanded, they were surprised at some of the artists I told them about. Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Fleetwood Mac, and this crazy guitarist from London named Jimi Hendrix. I remember at one point, I was anointed with one of their better labels, trippy.
Sometime during the last week of that first year of high school, they were all gathered and seemed pretty excited about something. “Whas happnin,” I asked. “Hey man, we’re all piling into Greg’s bus and heading up to New York for a concert in August. Wanna come?”
“Nah, I don’t think so, but thanks.”
And that’s how I never got to Woodstock. I lot of people did. Something like a half-million went to that concert. And probably ten times that many claims they did. The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Janis, and a couple dozen other acts performed over the three-day festival. It is spoken about with reverence as the granddaddy of the festival concert genre that was popular until the day that music died a few months later in Altamont and The Who concert in Cincinnati.
But it wasn’t the first. Not by a long shot. After all, 1969 wasn’t the Summer of Love, and neither, as many believe, was 1968. No, the Summer of Love was kicked off in high fashion in June of 1967 when most of the acts that performed at Woodstock first got together in a sleepy little village between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Monterey was closer to San Francisco than LA in both geography and lifestyle. Many of the acts had never even met, so diverse were the cultures.
But for three days in 1967, Haight-Ashbury met Laurel Canyon in the greatest concert ever at the time. Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and of course, the Mamas & the Papas. After all, it was Papa John Phillips who conceived and organized the show. And then there was Scott McKenzie reminding us all to wear flowers in our hair if we go to San Francisco.
Buttoned down record execs like Clive Davis and Lou Adler, who would later produce the Rocky Horror Picture Show, meets San Francisco flower children like Mama Cass and Janis Joplin. Stoned out hippies from the bay sitting alongside movie moguls from LA. And yes, that was another difference between Monterey and Woodstock, they had chairs.
I also had never heard of Monterey, but while browsing the back of the racks at Woolworths, I came across my third album, and it wasn’t Woodstock. I couldn’t afford that one. That was a huge, boxed, triple album that probably cost $20. No, it was one of the albums released from Monterey. This one had Otis Redding on one side and Jimi Hendrix on the other. Besides the color of their skin and a concert they performed, these two artists couldn’t have been any more different. But I literally wore that album out.
Just like with Woodstock, a movie has been made about Monterey. You should check it out. You can probably find it on YouTube. And while Woodstock documented a place in time that can never be repeated, Monterey documented its birth. At the time, there had never been anything like it. Both Pete Townsend and Jimi Hendrix setting their guitars on fire. An unknown Janis Joplin absolutely blowing the crowd away. The Mamas & the Papas in what was almost their farewell show, closing it out. And of course, Otis, singing about the dock of the bay.
Many similar shows would follow: Isle of Wight, Atlanta Pop, Newport, and of course, Woodstock. But Monterey was the first and, to many, the finest festival rock concert in history.