Festival Summer

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(Pictured: a scene on the road to Woodstock.)

The rock festival era was fairly short. It began in 1967 with San Francisco festivals at Mount Tamalpais and Monterey. Around the country during the next several years, festivals big and small were held, some at racetracks and fairgrounds with a great deal of forethought and regimentation, others ad-hoc with promoters putting up a stage in the country, inviting the tribes to gather, and hoping for the best. By the end of 1970, the era of the multi-day festival passed, as states and municipalities legislated them out of existence. After that, single-day festivals were the norm, such as the Concert 10 Festival in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania in 1972 and the Watkins Glen Summer Festival in upstate New York in 1973. From that point and down unto the present day, festivals were carefully planned and tightly controlled, leaving nothing to chance.

In retrospect, the two most famous festivals, Woodstock and Altamont, left plenty to chance, more than they should have for events attracting hundreds of thousands of people. That Woodstock became a cultural touchstone and not a humanitarian disaster—which is how it was portrayed by some media reports on that August 1969 weekend—was mostly due to good luck. Bad luck was bound to catch up eventually, and in December 1969, at Altamont, it did. But the fires of Altamont were outshone in memory by the glow of Woodstock, and in 1970, there were many attempts to recreate the Woodstock vibe for people who lived thousands of miles from Max Yasgur’s farm. In Wisconsin, the Sound Storm Festival, held in April 1970, was sprinkled with Woodstock-style fairy dust. On the weekend of June 26-28, 1970, the Iola People’s Fair gave attendees a taste of Altamont.

In 1970, Steve Benton of Beloit, Wisconsin, graduated from high school. He played in a rock band. And in that year, he attended both Sound Storm and Iola. In the latest episode of my podcast, Steve shares some of his experiences at both shows. I don’t think we made any groundbreaking historical discoveries in the course of our conversation, but if you’re interested in the festivals, you’ll enjoy hearing Steve’s stories about them. The episode is below.

After you listen to this episode, you might like to revisit the first episode of this podcast, posted last summer, which discusses Sound Storm and Iola as well as the Midwest Rock Festival, held at State Fair Park in suburban Milwaukee three weeks before Woodstock, and the Wadena Rock Fest, a northeast Iowa festival, in the summer of 1970.

You can find all of my podcast episodes at my Soundcloud. Episodes are available at Google PlayTuneIn and Stitcher, and can also be found at Apple Podcasts. If you visit my Soundcloud, you’ll find a link where you can kick in a bit of financial support to help defray the cost of producing the podcast and maintaining this website, if you choose.

Many thanks to Steve Benton for the conversation, and to Dan Bartlett for putting us in touch. If you like this episode, please share it on your social media feeds, and if your platform lets you give it a like or a positive rating, I hope you’ll do that.

Wisconsin’s Woodstock

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(Pictured: Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, onstage in 1970.)

The Sound Storm Festival took place on the York Farm near Poynette, Wisconsin, 50 years ago this weekend. Here’s what I wrote about it in 2010. 

In the summer of 1969, State Fair Park in Milwaukee hosted the Midwest Rock Festival, which attracted 45,000 fans over a three-day weekend to see headliners including Led Zeppelin, Blind Faith, Johnny Winter, Delaney and Bonnie, the MC5, and Joe Cocker. Others scheduled to appear included Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, and the Bob Seger System, but many performances were wiped out by a Sunday afternoon rainstorm. Sounds a bit Woodstockian—although it took place on the last weekend in July, three weeks before that legendary festival.

In the wake of Woodstock, other people in other parts of the country wanted their own piece of the festival experience . . . and in the spring of 1970, plans were laid for an outdoor festival to be held in the Madison area during the last weekend in April. The Sound Storm Festival was originally set for a site just west of Madison near Cross Plains. When that site fell through, a woman in Columbia County, just north of Madison, offered to rent her 800-acre farm near Poynette. The festival was on.

The locals fought the festival, fearing marauding bands of hippies would entice their children to run away to California, or that they would loot the small towns nearby, or bring down some other apocalypse. The promoters planned to hire teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin, idled by a strike at the time, as a security force—which prompted one local official to respond, “That’s just the type of person we don’t want here.” The local sheriff was confident that his men could control the crowd, although he also made plans—not revealed until after the festival—to rush plenty of heavy ordnance to the site if need be. But the festival came off smoothly, with only a couple of arrests. (The key was ignoring the rampant use of drugs and alcohol, and the public nudity.)

Apart from the elderly farmer who chose to rent her land to the kids, just as Max Yasgur had done at Woodstock, the Sound Storm Festival had other echoes of the more famous festival. Members of the Hog Farm Commune handled the stage announcements, and there was a “bad trips” tent, staffed by medical students from the UW. The food situation was a little better than Woodstock—the promoters contracted with vendors to provide food, and Madison’s Mifflin Street Co-op chipped in as well. The concert was headlined by the Grateful Dead, who performed on Sunday for less than their normal fee. (One of the promoters was a friend of Jerry Garcia’s.)

About 30 bands were featured in all, most but not all from the upper Midwest. Other top acts on the bill included Mason Proffit, Rotary Connection, and Illinois Speed Press. Also appearing: a Rockford, Illinois, band called Fuse, which featured a couple of then-anonymous musicians named Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, and Soup, which would play the post-prom at my high school later in the 1970s. One band, Northern Comfort, held an onstage wedding between two of its members on Sunday afternoon.

A non-musical celebrity prominently featured in the publicity for the show was author Ken Kesey, but he didn’t appear. Something else that didn’t happen—although many who were there swear it did—was the dropping of LSD tabs by helicopter into the crowd. What was actually dropped by helicopter were leaflets aimed at encouraging the crowd to act peacefully in the wake of news that police undercover agents were among them.

About 30,000 people attended the festival over its three days, most of whom hadn’t bought tickets. When the festival ended on Sunday, the promoters got a shock—the weekend’s proceeds, about $100,000 in cash, had gone missing from its hiding place backstage. The good citizens of Columbia County were shocked as well by what had happened—all those drugs, all that nudity, all that music—but their aggrieved quotes in the local newspaper after the event added up to continued worry about what might have been if the thing had gone wrong, which it had not. . . .

Jeff at AM, Then FM, has also written about the festival and linked to many, many photos of the event. Get started with his post here. This post launched a series of posts at this site about rock festivals, which I turned into a podcast episode. Stop back on Sunday, when the last day of the festival gets the One Day in Your Life treatment. 

Finding the Fair

(Pictured: the Iola People’s Fair. Photo lifted without permission from the Facebook group mentioned below.)

In June 1970, a rock festival called the Iola People’s Fair was held in a rural area about 80 miles west of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Like other festivals of the era, it was thrown together on the fly and attracted a respectable lineup of national and regional performers. About 50,000 people showed up, and newspaper reports about Friday’s opening day painted the festival as a benign Renaissance frolic, all peace and love. But by Saturday night, with every imaginable drug in use and wine bottles littering the ground, the event took on an ominous vibe. On Sunday morning, after a night of shakedowns, beatings, and rumors of rapes by bikers in the crowd, concertgoers started chucking rocks and wine bottles at them. In response, the bikers mounted up and counterattacked (“chicks were on the handlebars, shooting,” one attendee told me), and the festival dissolved into a riot. The next week’s newspaper reports were all about what a disaster the festival had been, from start to finish—as if the papers had forgotten their own reporting just a few days before. Even the Portage County sheriff had forgotten: on Friday, he praised the organizers for their cooperation and their attendees for their behavior, but by Monday he was calling the festival a “nice, big, organized, lawless drug party.”

In 2010, I dug into contemporary newspapers and interviewed attendees about what happened at Iola and why. My stuff shows up on the first page of Google when you search “Iola people’s fair.” There’s a Facebook group that’s mostly pictures and a sparse entry at a wiki called “Festivival,” which lifts the first paragraph of one of my posts as its description of the show, but apart from that, there’s a 1990 newspaper story, a Pinterest board, and that’s about it.

I seem to be the predominant Iola scholar on the Internets, for whatever that’s worth.

The 1990 story from the Racine Journal-Times contains one item I didn’t find in my research: a baby was born prematurely on the festival grounds and died. That wasn’t reported in any of the contemporary newspapers I read, although it certainly could have happened without making the papers. But nearly every rock festival from the turn of the 70s has its tales of babies born during the event. For years, people insisted that there were births at Woodstock, but nobody has ever identified the babies. It defies belief that someone with that particular claim to fame would keep quiet about it, so it’s likely they never existed. (There’s a story from the 1972 Concert 10 Festival in Pennsylvania that claims five babies were born during that single-day event, but that’s clearly nonsense.)

Any now-legendary drug-fueled rock festival from the height of the counterculture’s glory days, fondly recollected by aging hippies with fading memories, is going to spark its share of misinformation. For example, there’s a story about Iola that angry concertgoers “executed” a group of bikers in retaliation for an axe murder one of them committed. That, of course, did not happen, nor anything remotely close to it. The only death associated with the People’s Fair (apart from the possibly apocryphal baby) was that of a young man who died in a motorcycle accident near the grounds that weekend.

On a recent Sunday, I was traveling in central Wisconsin when I noticed a sign for the Iola Winter Sports Club. Remembering that the People’s Fair was held somewhere near there, I dipped into my e-mail file for some correspondence from a couple of years ago with a photographer looking for the site, and I took off into the wilds of Portage and Waupaca counties trying to find it.

And I’m pretty sure I did. There wasn’t much to see. After a Friday snowstorm, the town road that runs west of the site had theoretically been plowed, although a snowmobile would have been a better ride than my car that morning. I would have needed a snowmobile to navigate what looked like a trail through the roadside trees, a trail that ran into an open area. The county roads along the south and east sides of the site were better-plowed, but there wasn’t much to see from either one. I suspect the look of the grounds has changed over the years, given 50 years of forest growth. But the geography of the place, as far as I could see it, was right.

I didn’t take a picture. You’ve seen snowy woods and fields. It was like that.

The Faded Festival

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(Pictured: Janis Joplin, 1969.)

The telling of rock-festival history tends to start at Monterey Pop in 1967 before jumping to Woodstock in 1969—but there were festivals in between. I’ve written about the Atlanta Pop Festival over the weekend of July 4, 1969, and the Midwest Rock Festival, held in Milwaukee later that month. The weekend after Milwaukee, the festival focus shifted to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and another event now largely forgotten.

The Atlantic City Pop Festival opened on Friday, August 1, 1969, at the Atlantic City Race Course, normally a horse-racing venue. The event featured a rotating stage, supposedly designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The biggest stars of the first day were Iron Butterfly and Procol Harum; Joni Mitchell played too, but only four songs; it’s unclear why she cut her set short, although she said from the stage that she’d sung the same verse of one song twice and nobody noticed, so it’s presumed she thought the audience wasn’t paying attention. Crosby Stills and Nash were billed but didn’t show (Graham Nash had vocal-cord trouble, it was said); Johnny Winter got there but was unable to play due to some sort of equipment problem. Santana, then known as the Santana Blues Band, was introduced by MC Biff Rose as the “Santa Ana Blues Band.” Chicago and Booker T. and the MGs were also scheduled for Friday (but may also have played on Saturday), and the show was closed that night by the Chambers Brothers. On Saturday, the Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Creedence Clearwater Revival were the top acts; B. B. King, Paul Butterfield, and Tim Buckley were also on the bill. Sunday’s lineup was star-packed: Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Frank Zappa, and Three Dog Night were among them (although the Moody Blues were advertised, they didn’t appear). The show was closed on Sunday night by Janis Joplin and Little Richard, jamming together.

Among the reasons why Atlantic City Pop has largely been forgotten is because of what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the giant mudhole freakout of a generation; it wasn’t a place where babies were born and legends were made; it wasn’t mythologized by a movie or an album. It was just a show, for $6 per day or $15 for all three. There was no camping on the site (although many attendees slept in their cars in the parking lot). The three-day crowd of over 100,000 came from as far away as Texas and Florida. The weather was hot, and the crowd was occasionally hosed down by water trucks; a pond on the grounds of the track was a popular cooling-off spot as well. At one point, a stage announcement was made that if there were narcs in the crowd, they were unlikely to cause trouble. How anybody could know that isn’t clear, but it was true. Rolling Stone reported that there was so much marijuana smoke that a contact high was nearly guaranteed, at least near the stage.

There was a police presence, however, but according to one of the promoters, none of the cops were armed. Officers patrolled the site on 12-hour shifts, and the track’s owners hired a private security force to make sure nothing would happen that might interfere with the next week’s opening of the racing season. State troopers waited in reserve in case they were needed. Apart from the customary heavy drug use and a few attendees climbing the light towers above the stage on Friday night, the only serious incident occurred when a group of concertgoers ransacked a vendor area on Sunday, making off with about $20,000 in swag.

Approximately 70 vendors were on site, selling art, food, musical instruments, albums, and other merchandise, for Atlantic City Pop seems to have been very well planned in advance. The show was promoted by Electric Factory Concerts of Philadelphia, one of the top promoters on the East Coast. That made it quite different from other festivals, where it was sometimes assumed that quotidian details involving parking and sanitation and concessions would magically work themselves out thanks to the Aquarian spirit, or something.

Another reason why Atlantic City Pop has faded into history is Woodstock’s tendency to overshadow everything in proximity to it. It started on that very weekend 49 years ago: one attendee remembers being handed a flyer on his way out of the race track advertising the upcoming Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

My rock-festival posts often spike in traffic on weekend nights, when old hippies go a-Googling in search of their youth. If you were at Atlantic City, please tell us what you saw and did. I welcome your recollections.

Horror Show

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(Pictured: the Stones on stage at Altamont; L to R: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and tour manager Sam Cutler.)

This blog has written extensively about the rock festival era, the period approximately between the Summer of Love and the summer of 1971, in which young people gathered on farms, at racetracks, at ballparks, and in other large venues for concerts featuring multiple headliners. Some shows lasted a single day, some for a weekend, and some even longer. Some were successful, and some were not. Pre-Woodstock gatherings at Golden Gate Park and other venues in northern California (including the Monterey Pop Festival) were largely peaceable and well-run. Woodstock itself seemed to have worked, although the historical record shows that it was repeatedly blessed by guardian angels or simply lucky. Other festivals became disastrous debacles, like the Iola People’s Fair in Wisconsin. From our vantage point over 45 years later, the average festival looks like a crapshoot: maybe you’d pull it off, but maybe you wouldn’t.

In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. An outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.

The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.

Well before December 6th, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.

Ten years ago this month, this blog spun a theory that the last months of 1969 were haunted by a darkness you could hear on the radio. I developed it by cherry-picking the nation’s record charts, but Selvin’s book provides some halfway decent support for it—and I recommend it highly.

The Non-Festival Festival

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One of this blog’s more popular posts is about the Atlanta Pop Festival, held on the July 4th weekend of 1969, which was inspired by a collection of evocative photos of the event posted online. Retronaut, a site that collects marvelous old images, has a set of photos from another forgotten festival.

The Powder Ridge Rock Festival was scheduled for a ski resort near Middlefield, Connecticut, at the end of July 1970. The three-day festival was to be studded with Woodstock veterans, including Sly and the Family Stone, Mountain, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, John Sebastian, and Ten Years After, along with Fleetwood Mac, the Allman Brothers Band, James Taylor, Van Morrison, Chuck Berry, and even (it was rumored) Led Zeppelin. But as so often happened in the festival era, the good people of Middlefield took steps to keep from having their town taken over by an army of hippies, getting a court injunction to stop the festival. Two days beforehand, signs were put up along the state highways leading to Middlefield saying, “Festival prohibited,” but by then, it was too late. On July 29, 1970, the day before the festival was to open, the number of people already on the grounds was estimated at 15,000.

Headliners, contracted or rumored, were understandably not eager to violate the injunction against the festival and stayed away. But when it became clear that there would be no show, the crowd began to create its own. The New York Times reported, “The youths provided their own music—from guitars, chants sung to the beat of tin cans and elaborate stereophonic equipment set atop psychedelic buses and mattress-lined hearses.” Folksinger Melanie, who had been on the original bill, risked arrest by performing on the night of July 30. (The sound engineer hired for the show was arrested after ordering his people to get the PA system ready for Melanie.)

At its peak, the non-festival festival attracted anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 people—and dozens of drug dealers. Festival medical director Dr. William Abruzzi, who had filled the same role at Woodstock, said that there were nearly 1,000 “bad trips” over the course of the festival, telling the media at one point that the heavy use of hallucinogens was causing a crisis. Abruzzi credited the eventual appearance of musicians with keeping the number from being greater. “The whole spirit of the place changed when the kids heard there would be music. Drug use went down precipitously.” A news report at the time claimed there had been 73 arrests; a later count put the number at 237.

Continue reading “The Non-Festival Festival”