Monterey Pop: Sometimes You Really Can't Go Home Again
“ The performances highlight a chasm of disparity between the good and the bad. ”
They say you can't go home again, but people often expend a lot of energy proving just the opposite. Anyone who was alive during the so-called Summer of Love in 1967 would like to remember a time of openness and innocence. While Vietnam was full-throttle, Kent State was still three years away. Woodstock was two years away and Altamontethe wake-up call that signalled the end of an idealistic decadea few months further beyond.
But in 1967 it was all about peace and loveand plenty of drugs. Something made more than evident in The Criterion Collection's recent restoration and issue of The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, a three-DVD set which includes the original 1968 film along with two other DVDsone containing the complete (albeit short) performances of Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding, and another with two hours of outtake performances by bands that didn't make it into the original film and additional songs by those who did.
Viewing Monterey Pop and Jimi Plays Monterey/Shake! Otis at Monterey, what becomes increasingly clear is how poorly some of the artists represented weather over time. There are some whose performances are (no pun intended) as incendiary now as they were then, including the Hendrix and Redding segments. But the endless stream of hippiesclearly zoned out and most often unsuccessfully trying to string a few words togetherwill likely cause anyone who was around at the time and sharing the same general mindset (or lack thereof) to scratch their head and wonder, "What was I thinking?!?!
Directed by D.A. Pennebaker
The Criterion Collection
It's too easy to look back with fondness at one's youth, and there's really nothing wrong with that. But it's also too easy to forget that with age comes wisdom, and it's a sure bet that most of the people interviewed in Monterey Pop will look back at themselves with either amusement or embarrassment. I know I do, and I just barely missed being a part of that scene by a couple of years.
There's a certain cringe factor at watching a group of kids whose attempts at distinguishing themselves from the crowd ultimately found them meshing into one amorphous mass where hairstyles and clothes (or lack thereof) may have differed, but were ultimately unsuccessful. But there are some "light bulb moments that indicated not everyone at the time was forgetting about the increasing business aspect of running a festival and managing bands. The sixties were, after all, when the music business truly began to evolve into a real industry that set the precedent for where, with some sadness, we are now.
The Mama's and the Papas may have been "California Dreamin', but ostensible leader John Phillips was all business, as the camera catches him on the phone sounding nothing like the smiling "peace and love persona that he maintained on stage. It would appear that even during the Summer of Love exploitation wasn't to be avoided.
As for the performances, if anything they highlight a chasm of disparity between the good and the bad. The real test of a band is how they perform live, since producers could often make the most untalented singers and instrumentalists sound, well, at least half-way decent. The Mamas and the Papas were nothing more than a pop confection at best, but live they had a hard time singing together and in tune. But at least they only had Phillips playing an instrument, supported by a backing band that, no doubt, was a pick of capable players, invisible though they were to the audience. Jefferson Airplane suffer through the bombastic and uncontrolled vocals of Grace Slick and Marty Balinwailing that just got worse and worse as their one song went on...and on. It also proved that just because you know what notes sound blue it doesn't mean you can deliver them with any conviction.
But at least Jefferson Airplane had guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Cassidy and drummer Spencer Drydenthree musicians who could actually play. Not so for Canned Heat and Country Joe and the Fish, neither of whom seemed capable of tuning their instruments. Equally true, sadly, for Janis Joplin who, while her cathartic "Ball and Chain is a clear highlight of the film, was all too often surrounded by less-than-capable players, in particular her first band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.
But what the bad performances do, when watching Monterey Pop, is elevate some good performances to great, and some great performances to transcendent. Trumpeter Hugh Maskela may have seemed an odd choice for a pop festival, and the same could be said for sitar legend Ravi Shankar, who gets more screen time than anyone else. But one thing that could be said for the "peace and love generation is that their minds were considerably more open than generations to come. And both Maskela and Shankar deliver strong performances.