Pop Culture

Charles Bradley at the 50th-anniversary Monterey Pop Festival at the Fairgrounds in 2017.

IT WAS BEFORE WOODSTOCK. AND BETTER.

No mud. Less traffic. Less hype. Fewer crowds.

There are few moments in life that are literally unforgettable, but Monterey Pop was one of them. I know because I was there.

As a high school junior, I drove down from San Francisco at the last minute with some friends, including my buddy Stacy Samuels – he’s now best known as “The Banjo Man” at Bay Area sports events, but even then he knew how to pick.

When we arrived, we almost immediately ran into Cass Elliott at a Carmel diner. Late to the party, we couldn’t score tickets to the main events, even though box seats at the Fairgrounds were going for a mere $6.50. No matter, the sounds of Hendrix, Joplin, Otis Redding, the Blues Project, The Mamas and the Papas, The Byrds and The Who wafted through the air.

Influential San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason, a co-founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival and Rolling Stone, had blessed the efforts of festival organizers Lou Adler and John Phillips when they came to him with their plan, blending the L.A. and Northern California scenes.

So a killer lineup of the leading bands of the then-nascent San Francisco Sound were well represented: Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, the Steve Miller Band, Jefferson Airplane and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Man.

That night, with all the local motels booked, we camped out at the nearby grounds of the Monterey Peninsula College football field, where we were surprised to hear a free concert from Eric Burdon and the Animals.

We did manage to wangle tickets for the Sunday afternoon session from Ravi Shankar, a bravura effort in sitar improvisation that reinforced the sense that East and West were coming together, at least for this moment in time. Shankar’s concert was lent additional drama by rumors sweeping the crowd that George Harrison, his friend and advocate, might also make an appearance. (He was a no-show, though Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones was there, hanging with his friend Jimi.)

People say that Altamont marked the death of the ’60s, but I don’t know. I think the uncapturable joy of those moments may have peaked then and there. The free spirit of the music, and the inspiring sense of collective communion, however fleeting, could never be matched.

And it hasn’t been. Well-meaning efforts like 1979’s Tribal Stomp II at the Monterey Fairgrounds, organized by Chet Helms, the former promoter at the Avalon Ballroom, which gave Bill Graham’s Fillmore West a run for its money back in the day, couldn’t generate the same vibe – or attendance.

You can’t catch lightning in a bottle.

And the 50th anniversary celebration in 2017, while a fun affair that featured some of the original Monterey Pop acts, including Eric Burdon and Booker T, along with a talented contingent of younger players – Regina Spektor, Father John Misty, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats – was also something of an afterthought.

Some things can’t be repeated.

Jimi ripping it up. Mama Cass shaking her head in astonishment and mouthing the word, “Wow” at Janis’ rendition of “Ball and Chain.” Otis Redding call out, “This is the love crowd, right?”

Right. Every time I enter the arena in September for the Monterey Jazz Festival, I feel the ghosts of those who came before, silently but unmistakably, cheering them on.

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