Living Theatre

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(Pictured: let this shot of a happy festival-goer, taken at Knebworth, England, in the 70s, stand for all the naked hippies who enjoyed all of the festivals everywhere, and who are somebody’s grandparents today.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Mar y Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico which, like other festivals of the era, was staged in half-assed fashion and was fortunate not to turn into a greater debacle than it did. I wrote about it during my 2008-2012 tenure with CBS Interactive and the website of radio station WNEW. I repeated the post here in 2013; this reboot revises and adds some hyperlinks. 

By the spring of 1972, the bloom was off the rock festival rose. yet eager promoters were still willing to try putting them on, and fans would attend if they could. In April 1972, the Mar y Sol festival attracted about 50,000 fans to an oceanside site in Puerto Rico.

A festival planned for the previous November had fallen through—and Mar y Sol nearly did, too. New promoter Alex Cooley had chosen Easter weekend for the festival—an extremely important weekend in heavily Catholic Puerto Rico—and Puerto Rican officials, who had welcomed the idea of Cooley’s involvement at first, were suddenly not so supportive. The week of the show, a judge issued an injunction against the festival on the grounds that drugs were being sold at the site, only to reverse the injunction a day later and let the festival go forward.

About 25,000 people had arrived by Friday March 31. On April 1, the day’s headliners included B. B. King and the Allman Brothers Band; on the 2nd, Alice Cooper and Emerson Lake and Palmer performed. Faces and the J. Geils Band were the top stars on Monday the 3rd; Black Sabbath was also scheduled that day, but they were unable to get to the festival site from the airport on the gridlocked roads. Other performers were sprinkled throughout the weekend, including an unknown from New York State named Billy Joel, whose set wowed the crowd, even if nobody can remember clearly whether it was on the 1st or the 2nd.

The vibe at the festival was ominous: armed gangs roamed the grounds, one concert-goer was murdered in a fight gone wrong, and several people drowned in the ocean. The biggest enemy was the sun; the festival medical tent saw more cases of sunburn than anything else. And by the end of the weekend, island authorities had had enough. Cooley had to be smuggled off the grounds because he was the subject of an arrest warrant. About 3,000 people had come down from the mainland, taking advantage of combined flight-and-ticket offers. It took three days to get them all home, because the fine print hadn’t made clear that most of the return flights would be on standby.

A report on the festival in Creem magazine that summer captured the end-of-the-world feeling of Mar y Sol: “More than once during the three days, in fact we were to feel like a yellowing photograph in Life magazine; a living theatre re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans.”

A compilation album of music from the festival was released officially, but it’s long out-of-print. A portion of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s set was released on their From the Beginning box set; this bootleg is supposed to be the whole thing; Billy Joel’s performance has also been bootlegged. There was a plan to film the concert a la Woodstock, but it didn’t happen. When I first wrote this post, YouTube had what was what purported to be film from the show, although it was soundtracked by bands that did not appear there. And in any event, my typically shoddy research process has been unable to find it today.

“A living theatre re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans.” That’s a very perceptive comment from a writer of the moment. We know now how far the wheel had turned by early 1972, but it’s harder to assess the currents of history while they are carrying you along. It was probably easier when the subject was rock festivals, after a year or more of states and municipalities trying to legislate them out of existence. Perhaps, after a dedicated festival-goer had spent one too many weekends in one too many fields, where there was too much sun and too much dope and not enough drinking water, he or she might feel like they, and the world, had just gotten too old for it.

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