Monday, June 11, 2007

Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop Forty Years Ago This Month

Black Music Month Tribute, June 2007:

Hendrix at Monterey Pop Festival: 16 June 1967

At the request of Paul McCartney Hendrix was booked to play at the Monterey Pop Festival. Even though he had dominated the English rock scene, he was still largely unknown to the American audience. He was booked along some of the biggest names in pop; Beach Boys, The Animals, Simon & Garfunkel and some who were soon to be discovered by an American audience such as Janis Joplin and The Who. They soon all paled into insignificance once Hendrix had taken the stage.

Hendrix's performance went down as one of his most explosive and spellbinding performances of his career, not least because of the finale of "Wild Thing", where he set fire to his guitar with lighter fuel. Hendrix vowed that he would 'pull out all the stops' after following The Who's set.

The Complete Monterey Pop Festival

Director: D.A. Pennebaker
Cast: Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding
Released in 2002

Just as the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival has been overshadowed by its monolithic cousin, Woodstock, so has director D.A. Pennebaker’s 1968 documentary, Monterey Pop been overshadowed by 1970’s Woodstock, directed by Michael Wadleigh. But now, with the release of The Criterion Collection’s three-DVD set of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, Pennebaker’s films go a long way to taking back their own. Featuring the original 79-minute documentary, as well as the short films Jimi Plays Monterey and Shake! Otis At Monterey and a two-hour plus outtakes disc, Criterion’s package finally gives viewers an accurate look at what Pennebaker saw on June 16, 17 and 18th, 1967—79 minutes was never going to be enough to take all of this in.

Just as the Monterey and Woodstock Festivals were decidedly different affairs, the films are a study in contrasting style, despite the similar subject matter and general filming technique. Where Pennebaker’s film looks more like a documentary, the narrative structure of Wadleigh’s Woodstock film plays more like an actual feature. A lot of this has to do with the length of the films--Woodstock is more than twice as long--but also with the way they were assembled.

Pennebaker’s jump-cut style doesn’t always lend itself to the flow of things, and as a result, viewers might find his film a bit choppy. Woodstock on the other hand, used a multitude of split-screen effects and inserted a lot more crowd scenes into the mix, as well as following a more strict timeline of the events. Thus, from a strictly visual standpoint, Woodstock remains a flashy, and generally more viscerally exciting film.

But that’s not really Pennebaker’s fault. In retrospect, Monterey was a practically perfect festival. Produced by Lou Adler and John Phillips of the Mamas And The Papas (coincidentally sporting the grooviest fur hat ever), Monterey came off without a hitch, and Pennebaker’s film reflects this well: The weather was balmy; the hippies stayed in their seats, bought tickets, and were relaxed and mellow—there’s some great footage of some long-hairs joking and chatting with a uniformed cop! In general, everyone seemed happy and content, just grooving to the tunes, perhaps buying some arts and crafts or just checking out the scene, man. Contrasted with the disasters of Woodstock, with its crappy weather, invisible organization, and loudspeaker warnings not to take the brown acid, and the difference between the films seems plain—where Woodstock was like a mini-Vietnam, Pennebaker had little drama (save for music) to inject into the proceedings because there wasn’t any to speak of at Monterey Pop.

So while Pennebaker’s original film may have seemed a tad bit underwhelming before, the extra footage included in the box set helps to even things. Here, we find a complete film of Jimi Hendrix’ revolutionary set at Monterey, his breakthrough performance in the U.S., complete with torched guitar. Hendrix fan or not, one can’t help but be transfixed by his performance, coaxing noises from his guitar with such fury and seemingly little effort that one can’t help but be utterly fascinated. Legendary just barely begins to describe this footage—30+ years later and millions of guitarists still haven’t caught up to him.

The performance of Otis Redding is no less significant. Redding was one of the more inspired choices for Monterey Pop, and is heard talking onstage about “the love crowd.” Though many of the flower children in attendance had no idea who Otis Redding was--let alone were aficionados of the type of gritty soul he and the Stax/Volt roster were cranking out at the time--Redding transcended the cultural divide through sheer energy, grit and, yes, soul. The crowd was hooked, and rightfully so, as Redding tore through his set with Booker T. & The MGs in tow. He, too, would soon crossover to a much wider audience, largely thanks to his exposure at Monterey.

The expanded set also reveals footage of the wide variety of bands not seen in the original cut. Talk about daring and diverse selections—The Association (who knew they cooked onstage?), Electric Flag, Laura Nyro, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and even Lou fucking Rawls (yes, he really played, even though there is no footage here from his performance). Add in the acts that were in the original film, like Ravi Shankar, Hugh Masekela, Simon & Garfunkel, and even the Mamas And The Papas (who were a very good live band indeed), and I know which festival I would rather have attended. Even those bands that played at both festivals, like Hendrix and the Who sounded more inspired in the positive energy of Monterey than in the filthy quagmire of Woodstock. The Who sound especially energized, and their utter destruction of “My Generation,” both musically and physically, still gives me goose bumps today. The priceless footage of the hippie chicks staring up in disbelief is a bonus. The Who, for all their festival appearances, never seemed to take too keenly to the whole “flower power” scene, and their apocalyptic set reinforces that notion; they seem to revel in providing a bit of wanton destruction to shock the peace-and-love crowd out of its dope-induced mellow.

Pennebaker does mess with the chronology a bit, and so his film ends with a spirited romp from Ravi Shankar, who actually appeared early on the third day of the festival. If you’re like me and have never really gotten into sitar music, you might see this as a bit of an anticlimax, but it turns out to be Pennebaker’s masterstroke. First of all, Shankar is truly hypnotic—it’s easy to see how the peace and love crowd fell so hard for this music. But the most telling scenes come from the shots of the crowd, utterly mesmerized, even transformed by the performance, fully embracing this alien-sounding music for all it’s worth. By the time we see Monkee Mickey Dolenz jump to his feet for the only filmed standing ovation of the event, we finally get it. The Monterey Pop Festival was all about having an open mind, embracing differences, and achieving world peace, if only in that little corner of the world. And it might all sound like a cliché today, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t pull it off. What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding? See these films and maybe you’ll finally get that it wasn’t an ironic punchline.

FOOTNOTE: It turns out that D.A. Pennebaker filmed the action at Woodstock as well, but his film has never been released—until now, that is. Pennebaker’s Woodstock Diaries is out on DVD in Europe now; look for a U.S. release shortly.

1 comment:

heycareyann said...

Once upon a time there was a rebellion, a revolution against the status quo. The youth of America were sick and tired of the Viet Nam war, racism and the endless political whitewash in the media. Out of this anger and unrest came
the world's first Pop Music Festival.

The Monterey International Pop Festival was about music, flower children, and the celebration of life. The event was a protest manifesting in rock'n roll music, long hair, strange dress, drugs and free love. It was thrust in the face of what was then referred to as "The Establishment."

The Monterey Pop Festival was the main event of 1967's "Summer of Love" and one of contemporary rock's defining moments. This peaceful revolution was expressed through a universal language of music, poetry, the graphic arts and new lifestyles. The lyrics of popular songs reflected the feelings of the movement. Monterey Pop was a gathering of the tribes to celebrate the dawn of a new age and bring about a positive change in existing politics, ideals and institutions.

Tom Wilkes
Art Director
Monterey International Pop Festival 1967