Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Right Place At The Right Time

It Happened In Monterey: classic photographs by Elaine Mayes.
Britannia Press, 2002

Nico of the Velvet Underground looks amused. Her hair is long and blonde. Her lips, full and sensuous, are on the verge of a smile. Her eyes, artfully darkened with eye liner, express a calm, affable elation. Her cheekbones are prominent. Her presence is unmistakable. I feel I am about to have an enjoyable conversation with her. And I would, if she weren’t a photograph.

Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, leans into the back of a folding chair, his feet resting on two chairs in the row ahead of him, revealing silk, gray stockings. He wears a broad brimmed fedora and a heavy coat lined with black fur. His hair is shaggy, and he sports a neatly trimmed beard. A necklace of beads hangs from his neck in a long, pendulous loop on his sweater. His gaze is directed to someone or something on what must be a stage. Two people sit next to him, a man with short, well-groomed hair and sunglasses, and a woman with long dark hair whose head is resting on the man’s shoulder. A pretty young woman with a charming overbite and long, thick wavy hair, a pair of sunglasses resting on top of her head, a short striped skirt revealing a pair of shapely legs, looks bemusedly in the same direction, her hands clasped lightly and resting on her lap, the tips of her fingers holding a daisy, a roll of paper pointing upward from her other hand. Since there are quite a few empty folding chairs, one imagines a rehearsal in progress, a musical group getting their equipment set up.

A woman wearing a black wool sweater, seated a row or two behind Andrew Loog Oldham, looks off to the side, her attention distracted by something else.

Eric Burdon, his eyes closed, his mouth open, stands before a microphone in a bluish light. He wears a scarf and a striped wool shawl with tassels. His facial expression is beatific. He could almost be a figure in a medieval religious painting.

These are some of the photographs included in a book called It Happened In Monterey, by photographer Elaine Mayes. The photographs, which were done on assignment in three day’s time, chronicle a time and a place but mostly an aura, a confluence of energies and musical genius that happened in one of the world’s most beautiful settings, the town of Monterey, California, where John Steinbeck staged Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row and East of Eden.

The Monterey Pop Festival of June, 1967, was an extraordinary event. It was the first full manifestation of a feeling that began several years earlier, circa 1964, with the so-called British Invasion and a sudden elevation of consciousness helped, in large measure, by the introduction of LSD and growing popularity of marijuana. Alcohol was frowned upon in those early, halcyon days of mind exploration and spiritual expansion. Drugs of choice were all hallucinogens: LSD, psilocybin, peyote, mescaline, nitrous oxide, fly agaric mushroom, even Morning Glory seeds. Alcohol was rightfully perceived as a depressant whose effects diminished rather than expanded the mind. It was associated with the people in mainstream society who supported the war in Vietnam. Obnoxious cowboy truckers whose bumper stickers read “Love It Or Leave It” and whose bruised, bullied wives worked in sullen resignation washing dishes on cracked linoleum floors. Bitter, bridge-playing spinsters with snippy poodles, pink sunglasses, and cyanide personalities. Cynical, hardcore military men chewing tobacco by the backyard barbecue.

The sixties was neither a political movement, cultural movement, religious movement, or hedonistic celebration of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was a social and cultural dynamic whose engine was fueled by all these things. The sixties cannot be analyzed, broken down into components. The sum was quite definitely larger than the sum of its parts. It was quintessentially a feeling. A feeling of rapture and change, excitement and romance, joy and rebellion.

The sixties have been so trivialized it is impossible to utter that phrase without automatically reducing it to lava lamps, long shaggy hair, sappy naiveté and colorful clothes. That was not the sixties. The sixties were incendiary, joyful, and monumentally open. The 70s, which ushered in Disco and Studio 54 and cocaine, consumerism and celebrity culture, were its polar opposite: exclusionary, aggressive, competitive. How the coin got flipped so suddenly, I’ll never know.

The joke “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there” is funny, but not true. Quite the contrary. My memories of the sixties are extremely vivid, the most vivid I have in my 64 years on this planet, and I was quite definitely there. I lived in the Bay Area just south of San Francisco throughout most the 60s and the early 70s. I took a small hiatus home to Seattle in 1966 due to a bad acid trip, and was working at Boeing’s Plant No. 2 on the Duwamish in June of 1967, so I missed the Monterey Pop Festival. I quit that same month, but didn’t make it back to the Bay Area in time for the festival. This would remain an ongoing frustration, since all my friends could not stop talking about how wonderful the music had been at the festival.

Two huge artists emerged from the Monterey Pop Festival: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Elaine took Hendrix’s picture as he wandered with a female friend by a flower stand before she knew who he was. He had not yet appeared on stage, and was new to quite a few people. There is a shot of Janis Joplin standing in the audience, although the audience itself is not visible. The focus is on Janis and her look of delight as she watches an act on the stage, and a young man with black hair and a black coat next to her, lowering his head as he readies to light a cigarette. He is virtually invisible, save for a little sheen on his hair, the white stick of the cigarette angling down from his mouth, a glimpse of his shirt, and a large button on his coat. Janis looks so wonderfully casual you wish you could hug her. It is unimaginable that she has been dead for 40 years.

There is a beautifully expressive shot of Laura Nyro. I had a close friend who loved her singing and song writing, but she was not a hit at the festival. According to the commentary provided by Michelle Phillips, “Laura Nyro was devastated after her performance. She was sure she had bombed. I took her aside, and we drove around Monterey for a while, and I tried to make her feel better.”

Elaine’s photo shows Nyro looking profoundly sad, the microphone barely visible in the darkness of the stage next to her long, black hair. Her hand rests on her upper chest. Her eyes are partially closed in a deep, pensive moment. Her shoulder is bare, smooth and vulnerable.

It could be Nyro’s music was a tad too nuanced and urbane for this crowd. People in the sixties liked their music forceful, jubilant, and intense. The lyrics were of a very high quality, and the musicianship was prodigious. These were very smart people. But there was a strong, anti-intellectual side to the sixties which I did not like, a forced naiveté that exalted a false, childhood innocence that was one part Jean Jacques Rousseau and one part Mr. Rogers. In that respect, the sixties were not too unlike the current Zeitgeist. The preferred literature - if people took out time from getting stoned to read a book - were titles of inane fantasy such as Tolkien’s hobbit series, or science fiction thrillers like Dune. Richard Brautigan was hugely popular, Trout Fishing In America especially, which revealed a nicer, more benevolent side to sixties anti-intellectualism, a receptive appetite for drollery, for anything quirky and bizarre, particularly if was expressed in language that was deceptively simple in structure and tone. Brautigan was far outside academia and its pompous, over-complicated literature. The hippie ethos sought simplicity and innocence in all things. Brautigan managed to command extremely high sales without ever becoming remotely commercial, and for a time enjoyed the fame of a rock star.

I never understood the connection with the beats and the hippies, Kerouac especially. Kerouac was edgy and often full of despair. He was a fairly easy read in terms of phrasing and vocabulary, but the prose expresses an intensity and gritty, working-class veneration for male toughness and goofy bravado that was beautifully expressed in figures such as Neal Cassady, James Dean and Marlon Brando. There is no false grab for innocence in Kerouac’s hectic, Benzedrine-driven prose. With the arguable exception of The Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s writing is not utopian. Compassion is emphasized and there are numerous allusions to Buddhist philosophy, but states of malaise and tragedy are just as common, and appreciated for their inherent nobility. The bop spontaneity Kerouac espoused was meant to liberate everything trapped in the human psyche, be it monstrous or screwball or disdainful or full of compassion. Beat could mean beatitude, or beaten down. Juju beads on cold knees. Bleak coffee tired hope. Sunlight smashed through forbidden window panes. Kerouac would have felt awkward at the Monterey Pop Festival. Bodhisattva toasting ants with a bottle of Ripple.

I can see some of the frustrations Elaine experienced with lighting working in such chaos and with such little time available to take in all the variables in the environment. But there is often a plus side to certain liabilities, chance elements that injure a perfect picture, but allow for something more natural and revealing to occur. This is certainly the case with a shot of Brian Jones as his attention is held by something occurring on stage, though all that is visible is Brian’s head and part of a blurry figure next to him. The blondness of his hair and paleness of his face fuse in an ethereal gaze. The light is a bit washed, which heightens the ethereality, the ghostly quality of the photograph. He appears to be flooded with soft, yellowish light. He could easily be one of England’s romantic poets, another Keats or Shelley, a spirit visiting from the realm where the authors, as Blake put it, live in eternity.

“It helps to realize that the frame is not a natural thing at all,” observes photography teacher Philip Perkis, “it is an imposition on vision. The paradox, of course, is that the frame is a very important contributor to content in a photograph. What is included, what is left out, and what is cut can be, and frequently is, the central meaning in a photograph.”

Throughout It Happened In Monterey, you can feel the “it” happening, whether it is in the frame or outside the frame. The eyes of the musicians and audience are often directed elsewhere. This is the joy and meaning of any festival: its thousand distractions. The uniqueness of this festival is clearly outside the frame. That’s what made it so special. It was one of a kind. Terra incognita. By the time Woodstock rolled around, the media had framed the sixties’ movement so thoroughly, it was already as saturated with cliché as a tie-dyed t-shirt.

There is no imagery or vocabulary to describe what occurred between 1965 and 1967. It helps considerably that I lived in this area during this time, which gives me a leg up, but it will always elude analysis. This makes it impossible to put down in words an event whose chief qualities were utterly intangible. What might someone who came of age during the Reagan years when non-commercial values had become virtually extinct and everything became concentrated on profit and commerciality see in this book? Someone for whom the swaggering belligerence of rap with its materialistic obsessions have become the norm, or the glitzy, in-your-face, semi-pornographic theatrics of Madonna and Lady Gaga, or the brassy, corporate polish of Beyoncé?

They would see a policeman stringing orchids on his motorcycle antenna.

People gathered together in shared communion but gazing in different directions.

Musicians in various states of rapture, joy, meditation, or radiant consummation just as a brilliant, unexpected note has been reached and sent echoing out among the audience.

A melding of cultures, ethnicities, modes. Ravi Shankar. Otis Redding. Jerry Garcia.

Paul Butterfield, his eyes squeezed shut as he opens his mouth in front of the mike, his hair parted down the middle, his double-breasted jacket buttoned, he could be a crooner from the roaring twenties.

David Crosby smiling under a thick fur hat as a woman with long brown hair gives him a hug.

Jimi Hendrix bent over his guitar in a frilly shirt looking as if he has just discovered the source of the universe.


David Grove said...

The passage about Nyro dovetails with my image of her as a sensitive, soulful person. Ethereal in a blue-collar, Bronxy way.

I'm a Laura Nyro fan. I have about half a dozen of her LPs. I just tried to post one of my favorites from New York Tendaberry, but youtube wouldn't let me.

When I was young, Madonna was hugely popular; but I wouldn't have crossed the street to see her for free, and I found her about as attractive as a leprous octegenarian.

I wouldn't know a Lady Gaga song if I heard one.

Anonymous said...

I haven't listened to Laura Nyro since my friend David played her for me, in 1968. Madonna has always seemed to me a younger version of Ethel Merman, whose singing voice I could not stand. I could never figure out why people liked her singing. Maybe because it was so quintessentially American. Brassy, ballsy, vulgar, harsh, martial, imperial. Madonna put an erotic spin on it, but it wasn't the Eros of the beats or hippies, which was joyful, but the Eros of the marketplace, i.e. whore (no offense to sex workers).

David Grove said...

No offense to sex workers, right. I think prostitution, drugs, and other things--e.g., victimless crimes--should be legal. And I didn't object to Madonna's whorishness. She just wasn't my type. I didn't think she was a very nice person. Couldn't understand what a smart, cool guy like Sean Penn saw in her. And I didn't like her voice, melodies, lyrics, or synthy instrumentation. I wanted either folky orchestration or plugged-in blues rock à la Hendrix and Zepp.

"I never understood the connection with the beats and the hippies, Kerouac especially." Right. To me, Kerouac and Burroughs especially. Maybe even Ginsberg. It's easier for me to imagine those guys black-turtlenecked on the Left Bank than flower-haired in the Haight-Ashbury. I associate the Beats with punkdom. I have a temperamental affinity to punkers. I respect a good hippie, but I couldn't be one, not exactly.

Anonymous said...

"black-turtlenecked on the Left Bank," absolutely. Ginsberg visited Celine on one of his excursions to Paris. He also performed with The Clash. The Hippie ethos of tolerance and sexual openness masked a lot of neurotic, passive agressive behavior. The "back to the garden" effort to regain innocence at all cost proved fatal. It resulted in a lot of dishonesty. And Jesus Christ Superstar.

The whorishness I see in performers like Madonna, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and so on, hasn't much to do with sex at all. It is the garish, dime-store trashiness and lack of aesthetic integrity that is so off-putting. By contrast, singer song-writer Adele is fantastic, a hugely talented musician. I love that video for "Rolling In The Deep."

Anonymous said...

once again, thank you.

James P. Cannon said (I think in his 60th birthday speech)

"Youth is the age of virtue. Or, more correctly, it is the age of courage, which is the first virtue. Every man's younger self is his better self. Youth is when your ideals and values seem to be, as they really are, more important than anything else...
I've been lucky... "


oh, maybe I shouldn't, but I will...
it is... oh, it is just so easy to look at the modern music industry, or any industry, or any other person, but oh let us look in the mirror -- and sincerely calculate there what we have defended and what we have given up...