Musicians are a unique breed .They are among the most creative, adaptable and resourceful people in the world. Watching them perform has always been my favorite pastime. Living among them is even more gratifying, because that’s where you hear the stories.
Mick and Angelina are couple of musicians who are among the dearest of my friends. I consider them “tribe”. They are magical. Mick plays the guitar, writes music, and lyrics. He has created some of my favorite music. A while back Mick thought that arthritis was going to claim his manual dexterity. Most people would have fallen into deep depression about it. Mick, on the other hand, wrote over a dozen songs, arranged new interpretations of some standards and recorded a series of tapes, just so he wouldn’t have any regrets later about not doing it. I was lucky enough to get copies of each tape. The tapes were brilliant. Over the course of the years, I wore out to oblivion each cassette in the player of my car. The sun rose and set over the highway many times to Mick’s music. Happily, Mick still plays and composes beautifully. I am convinced that Angelina belongs to the fairy folk. She sings, has an uncanny photographic eye, produces amazing pieces of work, and is without a doubt, easily, the best teacher of acting, music, and voice for children. A kid in her charge for a few hours inhabits a charmed world of unlimited creativity and self-discovery. Mick and Angelina live in a house with a terraced backyard garden, replete with two fishponds, a dozen beautifully hand painted (and occupied) birdhouses, and two dogs. It is a sanctuary, a refuge where all the troubles of the world simply ooze away. Several times a year, there is a party in the backyard, a mini-music festival with an open invitation to any musician who wishes to perform. One of these musicians is Eric.
Eric is a musician who earns his living as a photographer. Anyone who has ever done any acting in Denver has probably, at one time or other, tossed a headshot taken by Eric onto the audition table. Eric is responsible for launching more community theatre careers than anyone in the area. Eric plays the mandolin. Consequently, when his fingers aren’t busy focusing a lens or pressing the camera shutter, they are dancing along a mandolin’s fingerboard picking out a tune. He is very good. One Friday evening, as Angelina, Mick and I sat in their backyard “oozing”, Angelina told the following true story about Eric.
One weekend, Eric and his band had a gig at one of the local saloons. As was typical with most saloons that occasionally offer live music, this one had a makeshift stage filled with excellent sound equipment, but no ready area for musicians to fine-tune their instruments. With only moments left before going on stage, Eric was having a difficult time tuning the last string, the E string, on his mandolin. Not only was the string stubborn, but the din of the bar discouraged any attempt to tune properly. Resourceful Eric, therefore, did the only logical thing. After borrowing a tuning pipe, he and his band mate headed for the only spot that could provide some shelter from the noise – the men’s room. It’s important to note that the older saloons in metro Denver do not have extravagant toilet facilities. The typical men’s room in a saloon is designed for Spartan practicality: one urinal, one stall, and one basin. There is little room for anything else. Occupancy by more that one person is rather precarious. Eric and his buddy huddled into the men’s room unaware that the closed stall beside the basin was occupied. Time was of the essence. It was to be a quick blow on the tuning pipe, a swift adjustment to the tuning nut on the mandolin, and sharp pluck on the string. Then it was out the door and onto the stage. This would not take long. (Eric has an acute ear for pitch) He grasped the tuning nut with this left thumb and forefinger, rested the pick on the string and signaled his friend to blow an E. Just as Eric’s buddy was about to blow on the pipe, the occupant in the closed stall simultaneously began his purging with the customary release of gas. It was a quick sharp but clear discharge. It also happened to be a perfect E note. Eric heard the note, did a quick twist with his left thumb and forefinger, plucked the string, said, “Got it”, and walked out of the men’s room onto the stage. He played his entire gig with a perfectly tuned mandolin. It was a historical moment. It was probably the first time in that a mandolin was ever perfectly fined-tuned to a fart.
The dexterity of musicians amazes me. Nothing is more gratifying than watching musicians perform - actually to see how the music is made rather than just listening to it. Growing up in America, I, of course, developed an enthusiasm for rock and roll. However, rather than dancing across the floor to an R&B beat, I preferred to stand near the stage and watch the musicians romance their instruments. However, stage access at the larger venues was severely limited. In 1968, however, cinema changed everything.
In June of 1987, the late John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, along with promoter Lou Adler, producer Alan Pariser and publicist Derek Taylor invited documentarian D.A. Pennebaker to make the first major documentary about an American pop festival. The Monterey Pop Festival was a mix of talent from all the genres of popular music – rock, acid rock, R&B, soul, standard pop, Indian raga, and South African music- all shared a common stage. 50,000 spectators were expected. Over 90,000 attended the three-day event. The entire experience was captured on film and released in 1968. The documentary was a milestone for many performers. Otis Redding, who already had an established career as a soul singer within the African-American music scene, became a national icon after the film's release. Furthermore, Monterey Pop introduced four acts, which had until then received very little attention among the American public – The Who, Ravi Shankar, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. The film is worth seeing just for those performances alone. The Who, who were later destined for legendary stardom, astonished audiences when Pete Townsend smashed his electric guitar to bits during band’s finale, Ravi Shankar (later to be the father of Norah Jones) lifted the spirit with his atonal Indian selections. Jimi Hendrix awed viewers with his outstanding virtuosity on the guitar. Moreover, Janis Joplin proved that a small, shy, unknown girl from Part Arthur, Texas could wrench the soul of the most rigid stoic with her deeply personal, painful rendition of the blues. I had the good fortune of seeing both Hendrix and Joplin live in concert the following year at the Singer Bowl in Queens, NY. Even from a thousand feet away, the vibrations that emanated from those two performers embedded themselves so strongly within me that they still reverberate to this day. The film, however, offers a much more intimate view of their performances. You see the fingers on the fingerboard, the close-ups of the face, the genuine expression that lives through every single note and lyric. Monterey Pop was responsible for exposing the eyes and ears of an entire generation to a completely new range of music. Furthermore, it planted the seeds of enthusiasm within the movie-going public for every music festival documentary that followed.
Based on their success of producing and promoted major festivals Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld gathered at Max Yasgur’s 600 acre farm near Bethel, NY in August of 1969 and to stage the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. What was planned as a modest event with a reported expected audience of 50,000 became a pivotal point in the history of American music. By the time it ended, the Festival featured 32 major acts, including Jimi Hendrix, and the Who, all who in the short time since Monterey attained fame, before an audience of nearly 500,000 people. Despite all the negative media; the concern of the New York State government about rampant drug use (one attendee did, in fact, die of a heroin overdose); law enforcement’s concern for potential rioting and subsequent fatalities (there was no riot, but another attendee was, in fact, killed when a tractor accidently rode over him while he was asleep in the middle of an open field); despite the torrential rains that fell during the Festival, Woodstock proved that it was possible to gather a half a million people into a small area for three days of peace and music. The event was never to repeat itself.
The entire experience was captured in the documentary Woodstock directed by Michael Wadleigh and edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. It was nationally released a year later. Unlike Monterey Pop, which focused primarily on the performers, Wadleigh’s film adopted a very personal approach. Within the film, the camera travels freely. Interspersed with the stage performances are scenes of armies of hitchhikers on the New York Thruway on their way to Bethel; interviews with concerned local folk reacting to the unexpected invasion of youth; shots of National Guard medics who volunteered their time to the Festival treating heat de-hydration; and, candid backstage conversations among the performers prior to their sets on stage. When the camera reaches the stage, it mingles in with the performers. There is a very memorable scene in the film. Jimi Hendrix is on stage tuning his guitar for the next number. The final string, however, is stubborn. Without exasperation, he continues hunting for the right pitch. During the ordeal, individual members his band begin to trail him, quietly improvising to every key he discovers with the tuning nut. The drummer haphazardly joins the pursuit. Suddenly, Hendrix finds his note and the entire ensemble breaks into the song with sublime syncopation. The camera was close enough to capture the sheer subtle beauty of that moment. The Woodstock Music and Art Fair was listed in Rolling Stone Magazine among the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll. The film Woodstock is a fitting archive of the event. It is possibly the best music documentary ever made. It certainly contributed toward defining of my, Mick’s, Angelina’s, and Eric’s generation.
If there is a heaven, and if I am lucky enough to get to there, I hope the gatekeeper will allow me to visit the musicians’ garden regularly. It would be wonderful to sit next to Jimi playing, Otis singing, Janis wailing, Ravi plucking the strings of his sitar, and The Who staging a performance of Tommy. I’m sure the stories and the conversation would be fascinating. Hopefully, that won’t happen for quite some time. In the meantime, I am content to visit Mick and Angelina’s terraced backyard garden, ooze, and listen to stories about musicians like Eric. If nostalgia gets the better of me, I can always rent a copy of Monterey Pop and Woodstock, pop it into the DVD player and “groove out” for several hours. It’s a good temporary substitute for the musicians’ garden in heaven.
Of course, as always, this is only my opinion. However, dear reader, if you really have a desire to understand how two events had a significant impact on the American culture in the sixties, I recommend that you search out both Monterey Pop and Woodstock. Watch both films at the same sitting. Combined both films offer a remarkable chronicle of a truly amazing era in American music. In the least, your action will provide you with fair explanation for my awe of musicians.