Saturday, December 4, 2010

Monterey Pop

D.A. Pennebaker, having already followed Bob Dylan through the artist's whirlwind reinvention (complete with Dylan's ironic take on the whole mad process), should have been prepared to go out and film a gathering of counterculture heroes and fans for a music festival out in Monterey, California. Yet not even he could have adequately foreseen just what the festival would symbolize. Hell, on a basic level, not he nor anyone else could even hope to capture all the great music there for a theatrical release.

The film Monterey Pop condenses three days that shook the world to a scant 79 minutes, a reflection of its original intent to be shown on ABC, a plan that naturally fell apart the second anyone in a suit saw the footage Pennebaker obtained. How could even a ratings-hungry network allow themselves to air this frightening display of youth madness on its section of the broadcast spectrum? If the station wanted to scare people, it could just do a news story on the perils of some vaguely defined social evil starting to enter the public consciousness. It needs rock as a scapegoat. What could ABC hope to accomplish by airing the ultimate explosion of mid-'60s music, a collection of tunes so listenable that even a stuffy old audience would be as excited by the rock as those in attendance?

The occasionally frustrating time limit of Monterey Pop actually works to its advantage in this respect, separating us from the audience by not only truncating the show but playing clips out of sequence, yet also capturing the overwhelming feeling that something changed across these three days. Preceding the actual concert with the defining single of the Haight-Ashbury scene, Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)," playing over images of artists arriving and roadies erecting the equipment. Pennebaker devotes the entire film to performances, not milling about the crowd the way Michael Wadleigh and his arsenal of editors and camera operators did at Woodstock, yet the brief moment before the festival begins provides the snapshot into the mentality for the entire event, even the movement.

Pennebaker interviews a young, attractive woman, a vision of the innocence and naïveté of the hippie movement. With wide, saucer-like eyes, she breathlessly conveys her expectations for the festival. "I think it's gonna be like Easter and Christmas and New Year's and your birthday all in one, you know?" she says in the loopy, sincere voice of the casual drug user, but whatever she might be taking to prepare herself for a trip that covers no spatial distance, she certainly seems to know that they're all about to go somewhere. From her giggly, eager talking head comes McKenzie's song over the montage, then come the songs.

I long ago discovered I am not the holdout minority on this opinion, but I must confess: I always found the music at Monterey Pop to be vastly superior to that of Woodstock. Culturally, Woodstock was of course the apotheosis, the pinnacle of the hippie movement and its ultimate display of social relevance. Yet today one can more clearly see the cracks forming in the dike, portending the flood unleashed at Altamont. Monterey, however, is where the secret got out, where the various rivers of protest and social revolution converged into the same mouth. Those waters may have overflown later, but everything's just groovy here, baby.

That is not to say that everyone who played at Monterey was good. Outtakes reveal a number of groups so meandering and zoned-out that they border on the infuriating. Some group called The Blues Project commits two unforgivable sins: engaging in an endless drum solo and ruining the electric flute. Speaking as someone who loves the flute and has a close friends who is amazing at it, the latter was especially disheartening. But this is confined to the outtakes; Pennebaker may have given a number of acts the short end of the stick, but he knew exactly what to leave in and how to arrange it to maximize flow.

Pennebaker eases us into the concert by started at the end. Mamas and Papas, who sound a bit dated in their druggy shuffle before settling into the irresistible groove of "California Dreamin,'" a song as fresh now as it was then. Pennebaker jumps from the last performance of the festival night back Saturday morning to capture Canned Heat's frenetic take on the blues standard "Rollin' and Tumblin,'" a version that's a bit too unhinged to properly harness that song's fierce riff -- even I, a consummate anti-fan of Eric Clapton, must say that Cream perfectly captured it and shame most who try to put their own spin on it. Cut back to Friday night for Simon and Garfunkel, a sly move by the director to let the mood rise and fall instead of front-loading the film with Friday's more laid-back material.

For the most part, however, most of Monterey Pop is an extended crescendo. Hugh Masekela's acid jazz/Afrobeat is the first example of the organizers' admirable desire to spotlight more than just the San Francisco scene. Masekela's trumpet, played over the same experimental collage of colors and dissolving "skins," sounds ahead of the curve Miles Davis was establishing for jazz fusion even though Masekela and his band play traditional instruments and not electronic devices. He doesn't offer the audience any chance to slowly acquaint themselves with a style they've never heard, opening with African screams over a beat that begins at a frantic pace all will only spiral further into madness from there. Ironically, his is the first outright electric performance, pushing two traditional sounds -- jazz and African music -- to propulsive relevance. Masekela isn't the only world music artist to appear at the festival, and it's strange to think that they perhaps tap into the underlying atmosphere of musical liberation and psychedelic frenzy better than almost any of the Western pop acts there specifically catering to that sound. Just consider how well the film flows from Masekela to one of the more brilliantly far-out San Francisco bands, Jefferson Airplane. It's one of the smoothest transitions in the film, but Pennebaker must also move from the Airplane's incendiary "High Flyin' Bird" and "Today" to Big Brother & the Holding Company's "Ball 'n Chain" just to capture the full range of passion and aesthetic in the South African trumpeter's music.

By the time The Who take the stage, oh forget it. There's no better indication of the goodies left to come than the fact neither the concert nor the film ends with their performance. Justifiably perched near or at the top of any list of the greatest live performers (generally forming a trinity with James Brown and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band), The Who certainly come to play, thundering through "My Generation" before demolishing their equipment. That's not unusual for the band, of course, but you get the feeling they tore up their stuff out of the frustration of knowing they'd been beat. For during the planning of the schedule, Pete Townshend noticed the name of another performer, one upstart ex-pat returning to his homeland after honing his craft in England, and refused to go on after the guitarist. A coin flip decided the matter, and Townshend had to settle for being the opening act of James Marshall Hendrix. The fact that The Who were scared of letting the Jimi Hendrix Experience go on after them, but in retrospect it might have been even more damaging had Hendrix gone on first. Either way, while The Who broke into American stardom at last through this performance, it was Hendrix more than anyone who made his name at the festival, and his combination of a bold new sound and an outlandish stage presence condensed everything about the counterculture into one unstoppable act.

Pennebaker would wisely go back and put Jimi's entire set on video at a later date, but even with his sole contribution of "Wild Thing," Hendrix invents the modern guitar, coalesces a scene into one unified and beautifully squall and unleashes the sexuality of rock music. Blowing The Who out of the water is just the cherry on top. Hendrix combines the best aspects of the other acts, fusing Jefferson Airplane's otherness, Joplin's searing emotion (hers delivered through her voice, his through the guitar), Otis Redding's explosive R&B and The Who's anger. He also lays down the blueprint for playing the rock guitar, that is to play it as if an extension of the penis. But Hendrix molds that style into something orgasmic and shared, not a masturbatory exercise. When he sets his guitar on fire at the end and genuflects over his god/demon at it screeches death throes through its pickups, Hendrix says more about sexual liberation than any sociopolitical tract.

Of course, the hilarity of Townshend's fears over Hendrix showing him up are moot in Pennebaker's sequencing, because he rearranges the appearances to let two other show-stoppers come after: Otis Redding, the King of Soul, steps out for the first time before a predominantly white crowd, and if the outdoor festival had a roof, he'd have blown it off the sucker. One of the great tragedies of Monterey was that no Motown artists were featured thanks to a moratorium by the label's founder, Berry Gordy, who made as many terrible decisions as brilliant ones (this was one of the former). Redding, favored son of Stax/Volt, appears to pick up the slack left by the omission of so many R&B artists, and while The Who may usually deserve the term "maximum R&B," the energy Redding brings to Monterey leaves Townshend and co. in the dust. If Hendrix knocks you on your ass with his ability, Redding makes it impossible to sit down. He didn't have nearly the dancing talent as James Brown, but that hardly matters, as it is Redding's goal to make you dance, not him.

Bounding out on the stage launching into "Shake" without hesitation, Redding couldn't look more out of place. Standing in front of a white, middle-class audience with that same trippy film running behind him that fit so well with, say, Jefferson Airplane, it's a fish out of water moment that could have derailed another artist. By the end of "Shake," no one watching can deny that he belongs there, or at least no one would wish to be denied the potency of amped-up soul. Even the cameramen can't stop moving along to the groove. Redding himself justifies being at the event with a bit of banter preceding his next number: "You're the love crowd, right?" he teases the hippies. "We all love each other don't we?" Then he launches into his simmering, pleading "I've Been Loving You Too Long," a piece as maddening and frothing in its despairing seduction as Brown's "Please Please Please." Doubling over as if in agony, Redding squeezes out each syllable in dry sobs until you just can't take it anymore.

In Redding's full set, also released by Pennebaker to complement Hendrix's show, the energy is even higher, moving into a fiery version of "Satisfaction" and ending with a magnificent rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness" that should have made all the other performers grateful no one else had to go on Saturday night. The overlapping of the montage of young women around the festival on top of the music is the clearest demonstration of how unprepared everyone was for Redding's set; shoved at the end of Saturday's roster as the act few in attendance would know, Redding took to the stage as the film crew had already shot their stock for the various hippie acts that day. One can only imagine the terror with which Pennebaker and co. tore up their supplies looking for extra stock when Otis blew up the festival. When he jubilantly yells "I got to go, y'all!" at the end of his set, I've let a pained "No!" escape my lips more than once.

The final performer in the film's sequencing, Ravi Shankar, actually played on Sunday morning, before The Who, Hendrix and The Mamas and the Papas brought the proceedings to a close that night. Shankar gets 18 minutes, an eternity compared to the one or two singles afforded to the pop bands but not so gargantuan when one considers his set ran for nearly four hours. Shankar, invited at the insistence of his disciple, George Harrison, is more out of place than either Masekela or Redding. Yet his droning sitar instantly fits the psychedelic mood of the Summer of Love, and if the entire concert as staged by Pennebaker seems one long crescendo, then Shankar is the perfect embodiment of that approach. His raga builds and builds, layering drones and fast runs until you think it cannot possibly get louder or faster, then it does. With Shankar flanked only by Kamala Chakravarty on the droning tambura and longtime collaborator Alla Rakha on the tabla, the trio fill the stadium and have everyone in attendance staring in awe -- one of the best shots in the film is Hendrix looking on with reverence as Shankar blisters his fingers. Shankar's music, though drawing upon centuries-old classical forms, somehow feels as if it were created to move the sound of the '60s forward, a building to emotional catharsis that draws out for minutes, a prolonged orgasm that feels at least as daring as anything cooked up by these bands to fight the Establishment, and in some ways more so. The crowd absolutely loses it when Shankar cuts off, and it's hard not to leap to your feet as well, transformed by this most spiritual of music.

The film of Woodstock would spend more time with the people, more interested in what they believed and how they perceived the world. By reducing crowd interaction to a bare minimum, Pennebaker puts all the emphasis on the music, not what it symbolizes. The crowd exists mainly for reaction shots in his mind, montages of heads slowly bobbing along to the more psychedelic acts or going crazy for the energetic bands. As such, Monterey Pop has held up as well as the music it spotlights, undated by the absurdity of the hippie worldview and some of the more unbearable acts that can be plainly seen in outtakes. Perhaps something can be read in the fact that the '60s plays best in this 80-minute special, nearly 1/4 of which belongs to an artist removed from American hippie-dom by half a planet, but Monterey Pop is as hopeful as Woodstock without that faint air of fate hanging over it. Pennebaker had already documented one of the major artistic shifts of '60s pop, and it's funny how Don't Look Back feels more epic than this. Maybe that's because he'd finally gotten into the music himself, and, like us, he just wants to sit back and enjoy the tunes.

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