Monterey Pop: The Event That Pioneered the Power of Music Festivals

Article by: Jemayel Khawaja|@JemayelK

Mon June 12, 2017 | 12:30 PM

Even more than Woodstock, the Monterey Pop Festival — which took place in California almost fifty years ago to the day — reflected the themes of freedom, consciousness, and experimentation that defined the Summer of Love in 1967 and the countercultural movement from which it sprung. Moments like Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire while frying on acid, Otis Redding introducing Motown to a captivated, white audience, or The Grateful Dead jamming out for thirty minutes over their set limit in protest, will forever be hallmarks of rock and roll history, even Americana itself. The Monterey Pop Festival is the event that brought together disconnected communities from San Francisco, London, and Los Angeles, and crystallized them into a movement, launched the careers of legends, and captured the cultural zeitgeist.

Now, in 2017, the Monterey (International) Pop Festival has been revived. Taking place June 16-18, 2017, on the very fairgrounds where it made history fifty years ago, the fest features new names like Jack Johnson, Father John, Misty, and Jim James, alongside a smattering of holdovers from the original including Eric Burdon & The Animals, Booker T., and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead. The return of Monterey Pop, this time as a branded modern festival enterprise, provides a poignant moment to look back at the human experiences of San Francisco and the Summer of Love, to see what it felt like to be in the midst of such a powerful movement, and ask if that energy can ever be recaptured. After all, its original incarnation harnessed a moment in time so perfectly that it pioneered the "you had to be there" vibe modern music festivals now strive to embody. That's a difficult je ne sais quoi to replicate.

We spoke with four people who were in the thick of Monterey Pop Festival in 1976: Elaine Mayes, a photographer whose pictures of the festival feature in her book It Happened in Monterey , Joel Selvin, who wrote extensively on the movement in his book Monterey Pop , Paul Ryan, a cinematographer who went on to capture footage for the seminal Maysles Brothers' documentary Gimme Shelter, and Marty Pinsker, for whom that weekend was a coming of age. What follows chronicles the legacies of The Summer of Love and the Monterey Pop Festival, in their own words.

Seeds of a Movement

“San Francisco in the 1960s was very experimental. Not self-consciously so, but the rules of life had been suspended. People felt free to try things they never had before in terms of relationships, where they could go, what was possible. ” – Paul Ryan

1966 was a very different world than 1967. One of the main elements was psychedelic drugs. It had an impact first with the musicians, and then with the audience. January of 1967, they had the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park. Nobody took tickets, so nobody can say how many people were there, but probably between 60,000 and 100,000. The Human Be-In marked the beginning of national media exposure and the whole 'hippie scourge' being broadcast. ‘One hundred thousand people showed up in Golden Gate Park...and they picked up after themselves! Nobody was arrested! Couldn't do that at a football game.’ It really sent a message.” – Joel Selvin

“As a photographer in that era, the access to the music was extraordinary. Any Sunday in Golden Gate Park, you could walk out to find Jefferson Airplane playing, The Grateful Dead, Steve Miller. You could just walk up to the stage, there were no barriers, no police. It was just like your friends playing in the park.” – Paul Ryan

Monterey Pop Festival 1967 Elaine Mayes Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Photo by: Elaine Mayes

“We all knew each other. There weren't any cell phones. There was barely even television! We didn't have any encumberments. That made a big difference. I lived in the neighborhood with Janis [Joplin]. We knew her, and we knew she was amazing before she happened outside of San Francisco. Jimi Hendrix was the same thing! Nobody knew who he was!” – Elaine Mayes

“You walked into those concerts at The Fillmore or The Avalon — it cost $3 to get in — you went up the stairs, and it felt like entering a new realm. You felt that bond walking in the room. You knew how special it was, you knew that everybody else there knew it was that special. And you were all joined in that knowledge. The music was captivating and imaginative. Every week or two, there'd be some new band playing at a club, and you'd go over there on Tuesday night and there'd be 75 people and the band is Creedence Clearwater Revival. The weekend of the Monterey Pop Festival, The Who played The Fillmore the week before. The opening act, a group so new they didn't get their name on the poster...The Santana Blues Band. Even by June of 1967, there is no “underground rock” establishment. There's one tiny FM station in the country playing new music. The San Francisco bands never really performed outside of the Bay Area, and the bands from London were largely unknown outside of small scale in the U.S.” – Joel Selvin

The Festival

“The backdrop to Monterey was The Beatles putting out this album, Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band], that really reeked of San Francisco. Everything was pointing to San Francisco in June of 1967. It was a summit meeting of immense proportions.” – Joel Selvin

“My cousin was in town from L.A. and I traded him a tab of acid for a ride, even though we didn’t have tickets. So we go over there in his beat up old Buick, just having the time of our lives. We get there, and it’s just a sea of people spilling out of the grounds — thousands and thousands — camping in the parking lot, having their own party. It was chaos, but we were loving it. We knew we had to get in somehow.” – Marty Pinsker

“I was in the press pit taking photos. I had a magazine assignment. I didn't dare leave, even to go to the bathroom, because if you left, it was so crowded that you couldn't get back in!” – Elaine Mayes

“I got a job shooting for Newsweek shooting stills. I was very close to the stage. They had these lights that were around the edge of the stage, bulbs. They were in the way of my photograph, so I unscrewed one. All of the sudden, one of the guys from the Pennebaker film ran over to yell at me about ruining their cues!” – Paul Ryan

“The band everyone wanted to see was Jefferson Airplane. A couple weeks before the festival, they sprung 'Somebody to Love.' It was in the Top 5 the week of the festival. Me and my pal drove down on Saturday night and crashed the festival when people were leaving Jefferson Airplane. It was our intention to see Otis Redding.” – Joel Selvin

“Otis Redding, without a doubt, struck me the most. That was true for everybody. He was just incredible. White people didn't know Motown then, not really. When he hit that stage, they couldn't keep people in their seats. Someone came out and said that if the audience didn't calm down they would have to close the concert down! It was quite a moment!” – Elaine Mayes

“Everybody was impacted by Otis Redding. When he came on, with his bright green suit, and said ‘Well, I guess this is a love crowd, huh?’ and then opened up with ‘I've Been Loving You Too Long.' I don't think the crowd was prepared for the impact of his performance. And then there was Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar, which has become so iconic. On Sunday afternoon, while Ravi Shankar was playing, I walked out into the crowd and it was amazing to see that many people enjoying Indian music. They were totally transfixed.” – Paul Ryan

“I remember the festival sent Peter Tork of the Monkees out to make a stage announcement in the middle of The Grateful Dead set. The announcement was: ‘We hear rumors that The Beatles are gonna be here tonight. They're not!’ And Phil Lesh just took one look at that, just disgusted as he could have been, and then invited all the people who didn't have seats and were outside of the arena to come on in. And then they played one song for the rest of their set!” – Joel Selvin

“I lost my cousin after we snuck in. He had found some girl and they were making out in the crowd. Somewhere between The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, it think I lost myself, man. I have a fuzzy memory of the whole thing. I just remember looking at people’s faces, looking around, it felt like something very special was happening, like it was an important moment. Eventually I hitched a ride back to the Bay. I didn’t see my cousin again until two Christmases later!” – Marty Pinsker

The Aftermath

From the perspective of the mainstream media, it wasn't a big thing. As it turned out, it was a much bigger thing than anybody anticipated. The people at the core of San Francisco started to realize their impact on the world in general. In that sense, there was a big change afterwards. Grace Slick was a friend of mine. We all knew each other and they had a little band, Great Society. Suddenly, there we were at Monterey, and Grace Slick is with Jefferson Airplane! What was just somebody around the corner [turned out to be] a superstar. Things grew from very humble beginnings. Nobody had any anticipation of it being that big.” – Paul Ryan

Monterey Pop Festival was a watershed moment in the whole rock culture movement. Although it had this outsized historical influence, it really was a small-scale event. The arena sat 8,500 people. There were another 5,000-8,000 people admitted to the festival grounds, and possibly as many as 15,000 hanging out outside the fences. The groups that came into that weekend on top—The Mamas and Papas, Jonny Rivers, The Association—they were done by the end of the weekend. The ascendance of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, was assured.” – Joel Selvin

“The Fantasy Fair was a watershed. Having a bunch of people smoking pot was a watershed. The Human Be-In was a watershed. All of it added up. And Monterey was probably the last time that it all seemed to work well. The East Coast was not part of this. When 1969 came along and people went to Woodstock, they had learned about it because of what happened in 1967, but by then, it was not the same anymore.” – Elaine Mayes

Monterey Pop, Reincarnated

Monterey Pop Festival 1967 Elaine Mayes Otis Redding

Otis Redding slaying at Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Photo by: Elaine Mayes

“We knew [the original festival] was special. There was never anything like it before. But when you're in it, you're in it. You're not thinking about what's gonna happen in 50 years. Who even knew 50 years ago that what we were doing was going to matter later on?” – Elaine Mayes

“Rock is an art form in decline. That's in the nature of art movements. You have an avant-garde that seeps ideas into the mainstream. Then you get this bell curve where people keep repeating ideas until you get diminishing returns. And it's been a long time since there were any important popular new ideas in music. I guess hip-hop was the last one, but even that has become formalized. And when an art form becomes formalized, it will no longer innovate.” – Joel Selvin

“I went to the opening at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They tried to put Haight-Ashbury and 1967 into a museum. But the idea of putting your experience into a museum is a tough call! As far as the new Monterey Festival: I think it's totally impossible to catch that moment again. It's not the same culture! You can't go back. There's always a thread, but you can’t bring back the same moment. When I see things revived, I don't think they're the same.” – Elaine Mayes

“There is no evidence that there's some creative renaissance that's going on in pop music reflected in the stage right now, or a popular groundswell that would take those tickets. The original was a really incredible convergence of history and place and personalities. I don't see that happening next month in Monterey. I have no doubt that it will be a pleasant jaunt, but I don't think any history will be made this time. They couldn't even do a second Monterey the year after the original...And they tried!” – Joel Selvin