It turns out that there were two festivals in San Jose, California on Memorial Day weekend in 1969. They both happened within one mile of each other. Neither festival was recorded or filmed, as was the case for many of the 1969 festivals. There was some film taken of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s set, but many of these early festivals did not have professional film crews present. Certainly, not on the level of the filming that took place at Woodstock, or in 1973 at Watkins Glen. [Ken wrote about the latter in Issue 146 and Issue 147 – Ed.] I attended the second Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, located on the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, with some people from A&M Records. The other one, the Aquarian Family Festival, took place at the San Jose State University’s Spartan Stadium practice field. Upwards of 80,000 people were said to have attended these festivals. Both festivals were firmly entrenched in the philosophies of peace, love, and rock and roll. (Sex, and drugs were intimated.)
The Northern California Folk-Rock Festival took place on May 23 – 25, 1969. (I wrote about it in Issue 149. Note that although it wasn’t officially named the “Second” Northern California, Folk-Rock Festival, a previous one took place in 1968.)
These bands were advertised, but not all were booked: the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Jefferson Airplane, Chambers Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Eric Burdon, Spirit, Canned Heat, Buffy St. Marie, the Youngbloods, the Steve Miller Band, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Taj Mahal, Noel Redding (and Fat Mattress), Lee Michaels, Blues Image, Santana, Aum, Elvin Bishop, Poco, People, Linn County, Loading Zone, Sweet Linda Divine, Cat Mother and the All-Night Newsboys, Doc Watson, and the New Lost City Ramblers.
Eric Burdon did not get to play due to time constraints. At the time, Santana was just another popular local band without an album, although their groundbreaking debut would be released a few months later.
According to reports, the Aquarian Family Festival was started as a protest against Bob Blodgett, the promoter of the Northern California Folk-Rock Festivals. The 1969 (second) festival he had produced had contained false advertising of groups who were not actually booked, who Blodgett claimed were no-shows. And there were bad drugs around at the 1968 festival, mostly bad PCP. In most cases a promoter has no control over the distribution of drugs at his or her event, but they are responsible for security. Over 1,000 attendees of the first Northern California Folk-Rock Festival had to go to the emergency room, where gallons of orange juice were dispensed. The high sugar content in OJ will help bring you down from a bad psychedelic trip.
Because of the prevalence of bad drugs at the 1968 show, Dennis Jay, head of an organization called Drug Crisis Intervention, contacted Blodgett and asked if his group could provide free medical help at the 1969 Northern California Folk-Rock Festival. Blodgett reportedly said, “If you pay me.” That off-the-cuff comment cost Blodgett. Also, radio station KSJO warned listeners once again that the acts advertised for the festival, particularly Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, were not going to appear, as they were booked elsewhere at the time.
The newfound scrutiny of Blodgett’s operation was a result of the public outcry that caused a review of his earlier 1968 festival, but it was apparently too late to cancel his permits for the 1969 event.
In spite of all the bad advance publicity, the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival was successful. The acts that did play were paid, and the event came off relatively smoothly. That said, the negative press about Blodgett’s false advertising was such that no major talent agency would do business with him in the future. Also, neither the San Jose or any other authorities would ever again entertain any thought of granting concert permits for him. As a promoter, he was toast.
Roger Desmond, who helped organize the Aquarian Family Festival, wrote this in an e-mail that was made public:
“We thought the [Northern California Folk-Rock Festival] fairgrounds festival was a rip-off for many reasons. Mainly, the promoter, Bob Blodgett promised that the Jimi Hendrix Experience would play but we found out the Experience had dates booked in Canada at the same time. (Closer to that Memorial Day weekend, those Canadian dates had to be canceled. Jimi got busted and wasn’t allowed to leave the US.) So, we basically contacted some bands and told them we wanted to do a free concert, and wham! It was happening. As a San Jose State student, I was able to help secure the venue.”
The hippie community and some San Jose college students organized a concert committee. Dennis Jay and members of San Jose’s Free University, the Institute for Research and Understanding, and the Druid Corporation (a musicians’ collective) were granted permission from San Jose State College to organize the concert at the football practice field across from the football stadium (Spartan Stadium). Dubbed the Aquarian Family Festival, it would be held less than a mile from the site of the 1969 Northern California Folk-Rock Festival.
In addition to wanting to mess with Blodgett, another goal of this festival was to provide a place for hippies to camp and sleep. It was assumed by the concert committee that a large portion of the attendees of the free festival would be coming from Berkeley, where they had been protesting at People’s Park. The Aquarian Festival committee asked Hells Angels to provide security. They were cheap and happy to show their muscle, but they did more harm than good. It was not until later that year at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont that West Coast promoters fully understood the problem in using outlaw biker gangs for security.
One of the conditions of the license granted to the Aquarian Family Festival required that attendees could be present only when bands were playing, so the music had to be continuous, with the bands playing nonstop. To fulfill this obligation, two stages were constructed so that one band could set up while another was playing.
The poster for the Aquarian Family Festival could barely contain the names of all the bands appearing over Memorial Day Weekend, 1969.
The bands that played at the festival included: Ace of Cups, All Men Joy, Birth, Beggars Opera, Boz Skaggs, Crabs, Crow, Cleanliness And Godliness Skiffle Band, Devine Madness, Denver, Scratch, Elgin Marble, Flaming Groovies, Frumious Bandersnatch, Gentle Dance, Greater Carmichael Traveling Street Band, Glass Mountain, High Country, Jefferson Airplane, Joy of Cooking, Last Mile, Libras, Lamb, Living Color, Linn County, Mother Ball, Morning Glory, Mad River, Mount Rushmore, Nymbus, Old Davis, Red Grass Green Smoke, Rubber Maze, Rising Tide, Rejoice, Sunrise, Sable, Sons of Champlin, Sounds Unlimited Blues Band, Sandy Bull, The Steve Miller Band, Stoned Fox, South Bay Experimental Flash, Throckmorton, Tree of Life, Weird Herald, Womb, Warren Purcell, and Zephyr Grove.
Looking at the band list, it seems that just about every band in the Bay Area was hoping for a chance to play. There is some uncertainty as to which of the local groups actually played. Most of these groups were club bands from the South Bay or East Bay. Ron Cook, who as a member of the Druid Corporation, which had helped build the festival’s stage, recalls a sign-up list for the bands. It was taped to the sound board to determine the order of who played when (whoever signed up first, played first). It got very crowded in the backstage area, causing difficulties with load-ins and band set-up. According to Dennis Jay, at one point the stage manager announced to the mingling musicians and crews backstage: “if you aren’t up now or scheduled to go on next, go away!”
Grace Slick knew how to handle that traffic jam as she casually walked up to the stage manager on Sunday morning and said, “we’re the Airplane and we’re scheduled to play now.” The Airplane played for close to three hours, as this was becoming their normal routine. However, nobody pulled the plug on them, an occurrence that happened often at that point in their career, not because of them not being good (they were the Airplane, after all), but because they seemingly had no sense of time when they were on stage, or didn’t care how long they played. Someone, probably the stage manager, wound up pulling the plug on them to get them off the stage.
Steve Miller showed up with his band but without his equipment (probably because their stuff was still at the Folk-Rock festival). According to Rick Carroll of the San Jose Mercury News (now The Mercury News), the stage manager was stupefied. He got himself together quickly and rounded up some equipment and instruments. He went out of his way to get Steve Miller a nice Les Paul to use. Steve Miller said to the stage manager, “You expect me to play this piece of sh*t?” Surprised and angry, the stage manager shouted,” Get off my f*cking stage!” Cooler heads prevailed and peace was restored. The Steve Miller Blues Band went on and did an incredible set.
By most reports, the festival initially drew approximately 20,000 people, but the word got out and those numbers greatly increased. The result was a mixed bag of bad and good, a crazy scene somewhat out of control. Musically both were good festivals. They were reviewed positively by the San Jose Mercury News, Rolling Stone and the Spartan Daily. Mercury reporter Rick Carroll wrote that local businesses boomed as a result of the influx of people, and that despite “hippies wandering around ‘making love’ in peoples’ yards,” the overall atmosphere was peaceful. (Personally, I think the statement about hippies making love in peoples’ yards was BS; and more of an assumption of what hippies were about, rather than reality. I am sure it happened on occasion, but in my experience, public fornication was not really a thing!)
Carroll also recalled negative happenings, like the Chambers Brothers’ attempt at promoting a riot (at the Folk-Rock Festival), and noise complaints, assaults, four stabbings, 15 attempted rapes and even a gang rape (allegedly by bikers) of a festival employee at the Aquarian Family Festival.
As it turned out, an agreement was made for the Jimi Hendrix Experience to be flown to the Northern California Folk-Rock festival to play for half an hour. Sunday afternoon at the Aquarian Family Festival, Hendrix stopped by hoping to jam. Jamming was Jimi’s favorite pastime, but alas, it was too late; the stage was in the process of being dismantled. Their permit had expired and they had to be off the property by 3 pm, so having Jimi play was a no go. Someone must have told him about the Aquarian Festival. (That is my assumption, because this was prior to the Experience’s set at the Folk-Rock Festival.) A real dilemma: on one hand you have Jimi Hendrix asking to play. How cool is that? On the other hand, you have no stage, no power, and no equipment. Ouch, dang it.
Janet Gray Hayes, the future first woman mayor of San Jose, got on a portable phone (this I would liked to have seen, a portable phone from 1969) and pulled every political string she could think of to try and get a place for Jimi to play, anywhere really. Nobody wanted to waste that opportunity. No such luck on that Sunday afternoon, and besides, there was a time consideration, as he had to play later that night. So, Hendrix wandered around for a bit and chatted with people, and then poof, he was gone. He went back to the fairgrounds to close out the Northern California Folk-Rock festival.
Notice Jimi is playing his guitar upside down. He is left-handed and left-handed guitars were rare back then. Though he sometimes used other guitars, he primarily played right-handed Fender Stratocasters upside-down, but with the nut reversed so that the stringing was correct for a left-handed person.
On Sunday morning I headed back to Los Angeles with the guys from A&M Records. We listened to the radio in the rental car, smoked some, stopped by a stream, and took a swim wearing just our underpants. Someone brought out a bottle of Ripple (wine). We walked eastward and explored some mid-coastal California woods. Back in the car, we resumed our drive south to LA, getting there around 10 pm.
That was a great Memorial Day weekend.