June 28, 2017

“The Best Time of All” — 50 Years Later, “Monterey Pop” Flows On

By Stuart Mitchner

The best time of all was Monterey. It was one of the highest points of my life.

—Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

“Everyone thought the Beatles were at Monterey in disguise,” said Derek Taylor, the group’s close friend and onetime press officer. “Three of the four, no one knew which three. But they were there. Well, they were and they weren’t.”

It didn’t matter that the Beatles were in England that mid-June weekend 50 years ago. People wanted to believe they were at the festival, so they were, and if any entity on the planet could be two places at once in the summer of 1967 it was the creators of Sgt. Pepper, which had come out on the first day of June, like a preface to the glory of Monterey Pop. Plus, Paul McCartney was on the festival’s Board of Governors and George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” was spreading the life-flows-on mantra through speakers all over the fairgrounds. 

In fact, what the Beatles were doing the week of June 14 was recording “All You Need Is Love,” having been asked by the BBC to write something for Our World, a program that would be shown live on June 25 to some 400 million people across five continents. The words had to be simple, the message direct. The result became the anthem of the so-called Summer of Love, with words that actually seemed to signal their omniscience (“Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be”) and with a line Taylor quoted years later to describe the attitude he and the organizers, performers, and audience brought to the festival (“Nothing you can do that can’t be done”). “We were sloppy people in a sloppy time, but somehow we did it. Monterey was the first, a turning point. After Monterey, Pop became Rock.”

“All Across the Nation”

The intended theme song of Monterey was Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair),” written by John Philips of the Mamas and the Papas to publicize the event he and Lou Adler were producing. Though I had no use for the saccharine ballad at the time, I’ve learned to live with it thanks to D.A. Pennebaker’s The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (The Criterion Collection), which opens with “San Francisco” playing on the soundtrack as people stroll through the fairgrounds with, of course, flowers in their hair. The strength of the song is in the more anthemic middle part (“All across the nation …. Such a strange vibration …. People in motion ….A whole generation with a new explanation …” ). Don’t worry about the new explanation. One of the pleasures of the film’s flow of music and imagery is that nothing needs explaining. Like it or not, the song did accomplish its mission: it put a whole generation in motion, not just the thousands that came to Monterey but the multitudes from all around the country heading for San Francisco that summer.

Among the song’s other objectives was to help convince Monterey’s administrators that the people descending on their city would not be the hoards of drug-crazed hippies and bikers they imagined. As Pennebaker’s film makes clear, the organizers kept their word, even with Owsley, the Johnny Appleseed of acid, cruising the grounds, his pockets brimming with Monterey Purple, and in spite of the Sunday night smash-ups and pyrotechnics delivered by the Who and Jimi Hendrix. If you doubt that love carried the day, just watch the crowd’s reaction to Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, and above all, to Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha’s spell-binding film-ending “Raga Bhimpalasi.”

The Flow of the Film

In the outside world it was not all music, love, and flowers. By the time Monterey Pop reached the theatres in late December 1968, the summer of 1967 had been followed by a summer of assassinations, riots, and the Democratic convention that helped put Richard Nixon in the White House. Soon after that debacle, a UC Berkeley grad student named Greil Marcus published Rock and Roll Will Stand, a collection of high energy pieces that included the transcript of a tape of some Berkeley students, musicians, and songwriters having a conversation (“Chuck Berry Brings You the Free Speech Movement”), in which one speaker refers to “destructive art, like the Who” in the context of “a really crummy landscape like politics today,” while observing that “any song I hear is fairly political, a bass line or a word.” The book’s cover image shows the Who’s Pete Townsend arm raised high in mid-slash, ready to hammer some excitement out of the guitar he will eventually smash to pieces, just as he does on Sunday night at Monterey. A recent 50th anniversary Tweet from lead singer Roger Daltry says “We reminded ‘em … that it wasn’t peace and love at all.”

The spectacle and stagecraft of the Who’s smoke-bombed, chaotic finale is carried along in the flow of the film being masterfully orchestrated by Pennebaker. The transition between the Who’s “My Generation” and Hendrix’s literally fiery “Wild Thing” is smoothed and deepened by Country Joe’s hypnotic instrumental meditation “Section 43” and then emotionally illuminated by Otis Redding, who, like Hendrix, Joplin, and the Who was at the time all but unknown to the audience. The way Pennebaker has arranged it, Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas sings “Got a Feelin” while the sparks from Hendrix’s sacrificial conflagration are still falling, the film moving on, like “the movement you need” in “Hey Jude,” as you see people waking in the sleeping-bag dawn before the Ravi Shankar afternoon raga with which Pennebaker and his crew, the crowd and the music, coalesce in a denouement of power and beauty, the event becoming its own epiphany, a vista of countless clapping hands like whitecaps on an ocean of applause.

Life and Death

It makes rock and roll sense that on the 50th anniversary of the festival the 92-year-old filmmaker is looking 20-25 years younger than his age as he introduces the restored print of Monterey Pop shown in New York and L.A. earlier this month. Pennebaker is still trying to fathom what happened when Janis Joplin sang “Ball and Chain.” Astonished by her Saturday afternoon performance (“When she sang, all of her sang”), he asked Joplin’s soon-to-be manager Albert Grossman to convince her to perform again on Sunday night: “We have to film her! We just have to do it. This is the basis of the whole film.” Looking back, Pennebaker says, “It was that kind of exultant moment when a person of extraordinary musical talent runs into an audience and gives them what they’re looking for all of their lives, and when that happens it’s like an explosion.”

You can see it happening in the film. This is Janis Joplin’s entrance into the great world and she’s giving everything she has to it: her life, nothing less. It’s more than talent, voice, will, desperation: she’s staring into the floodlight of fame, born into it before our eyes, and in her heartache and passion she seems to know what it will mean for her, where it will take her, what the stakes are, and maybe even a dark flash of foresight, that she’s being born to die only three years later in Los Angeles.

“Come to San Francisco!”

If you want to see Janis happy and howling, free of the soul-wrenching extremes of “Ball and Chain,” you can find her in Big Brother’s rollicking free-for-all “Combination of the Two,” which didn’t make the final cut, although it can be heard during the psychedelic title sequence. Here’s the essence of San Francisco energy, forget the peace and love and flowers, this is just Janis and the band steaming along like a train with multiple engines, the delirious diva in the middle of the call and response singing “Oh-Oh-Oh Yeah!” to Sam Andrew shouting/singing “Come to San Francisco!” and “Feel more at the Fillmore!” Each crescendo ends with Janis stomping up a storm (“We’re gonna knock ya, rock ya, sock it to ya tonight!”).

There are great things among the outtakes preserved on the 3-CD Criterion set, notably the out-of-body sensation of watching that mad engine driver of the drums, the Who’s Keith Moon, sucking the camera into his whirling flashing flailing vortex, but Big Brother’s was the performance that surprised and delighted me. Rock journalists and musicians had carped about the quality of the playing. Janis needed superior talent behind her, they said. Eight months after Monterey I saw, up close, an inspired band and a charismatic singer. In On the Road with Janis Joplin, John Byrne Cooke makes special mention of that night at the Psychedelic Supermarket in late February 1968. It was “as close as you can get to a San Francisco rock-and-roll ballroom on the East Coast … Janis and the boys feel more at home here …. The audience fills the dance floor and Big Brother plays a spirited set, happy to feel something like their hometown connection to the dancers.”

Cooke was Janis’s road manager and close friend as well as one of Pennebaker’s cameramen at Monterey, and it was Cooke who discovered her body on October 4, 1970, at the Landmark Motel. He gives her the last word in his book: “All my life I just wanted to be a beatnik. Meet all the heavies, get stoned, get laid, have a good time. That’s all I ever wanted. Except I knew I had a good voice and I could always get a couple of beers off of it. All of a sudden someone threw me in this rock ‘n’ roll band. They threw these musicians at me, man, and the sound was coming from behind. The bass was charging me. And I decided then and there that that was it. I never wanted to do anything else.”

“Tomorrow Never Knows”

The way the Beatles made their “nowhere-you-can-be-that-isn’t where-you’re-meant-to-be” presence felt at the festival was by using crayons and marking pens to create a colorful card sending “Peace to Monterey from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The message at the center says: “It happened in Monterey a long time ago” — as if they were writing from a distance of years, not miles, on the other side of the event Derek Taylor described with a line from their song “Tomorrow Never Knows”: “Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream. It is not dying, it is not dying.”