Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

A Musical Weekend

It was six P.M. Saturday, the apogee of the Big Sur Folk Festival at the Monterey Fairgrounds, and the Beach Boys were thumping out an old Coasters' song called "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine." They hadn't changed. Brian wasn't there, and Dennis was off doing a road movie with James Taylor, and his replacement had black hair and a Polish (Jewish?) name, and Mike Love's beard was longer than ever, and even though they've done r&b novelty songs in the past, this one seemed (to me if not them) more, well, relevant than "Long Tall Texan." But they hadn't really changed. They were still goofy and unsexy and good-humored and innocent as only Los Angeles surfers, which none of them are, can be innocent, and that was doubtless the main reason the press section was waxing somewhat enthusiastic, clapping and jiving. Around the time of "Good Vibrations" the audience, which had been quite cheerless as the set began, picked up and went into some semidutiful joy-of-rock-and-rolling of its own. It was nice. Good old rock and roll. Good old auto-hype. Good old Monterey.

The afternoon had been disappointing, or anyway, remarkably low-key. There was the opening from Joan Baez, under whose auspices the festival has been held--in Big Sur, at Esalen--since 1967. Kris Kristofferson and Merry Clayton proved themselves no more and no less than the strictly music-industry phenomena that their histories--his as the secret genius of Nashville, hers as the all-time studio soulchick--would suggest they are. Kristofferson did introduce another Nashville singer-songwriter named Chris Gantry, who despite his own major credit--"Dreams of the Everyday Housewife"--provided a good ten minutes of verbal musical pyrotechnics. And Merry Clayton did get everyone on their feet for a while. But then, her back-up band, a terrible demi-Sly outfit, had more success, so it was probably just the old superspade shuck once again. John Hartford provided an enjoyable set, wry and quiet, with a little country fiddling for energy. And then the Beach Boys came on. Yeah, it was nice enough.

And nice was all anyone had a right to expect. The Big Sur Folk Festival has gathered a reputation over the years: no advertising, no mass influx, no paid performers, all proceeds to the Baez nonviolence foundation. This kind of reputation is usually referred to as underground, which means that it is strongest among two overlapping audiences--those who are hip and those whose business it is to know what is hip--and that most people don't get wind of it. In this case the reputation is combined with a variation on the old folk aesthetic/ethic: no star trips, no reveling in decibels, and lots of acoustic guitars. I've got very little against acoustic guitars anymore, although I certainly prefer the postrock appetizers (Chris Gantry, who bears watching) to the prerock leftovers (Mark Spoelstra, who got something closely resembling the hook later on), but the result seemed, well, irrelevant to me. The ideal setting for an acoustic guitar, I think, is a room filled with people who like each other, or a small club.

Oddly enough, the only purely acoustic music at Big Sur/Monterey came from the two rock ex-superstars who appeared: John Phillips (who sounded fine when he sang songs from his own album and thin, not to say spectral, when he tried to reprise old Mamas & Papas material) and Country Joe McDonald (who has finally regained his old authority). Most of the acoustic people opted for drums behind and electric guitar alongside. The result was intimate, personal, and never indecently ambitious. Since the crowd numbered six or seven thousand, it was a peculiar kind of intimacy. Yet given the outdoor setting and the hordes who usually attend such affairs, intimacy is what it was.

Now, there is some question whether those who anticipated the weekend most acutely were in the mood for intimacy. Perhaps. But in the back of everyone's mind was the Haight and flower power and all those heavy vibes. It would be the Monterey International Pop Festival all over again; 1970 would become 1967. We were returning to the wellspring after three years of bureaucratic dam-up. Despite its strict antihype, the Big Sur event was getting too big for Esalen anyway, and this year it looked as if Joe Cocker wanted to show. Just imagine what a destructive effect an hegira of Joe Cocker freaks might have on that carefully secluded interactive environment. So on Saturday there would be a second Monterey Pop Festival, and the night after, to top that, the three remaining original San Francisco groups--Quicksilver, the Airplane, and the Dead--were to open a new Winterland, one more attempt to break Bill Graham's death-grip on rock concerts in Hip City. Needless to say, I had to pass.

I remember Monterey as a turning point, the beginning of a hope that would have seemed entirely chimerical a year or two before and proved to be exactly that. Yes, that was where I had first seen Quicksilver, the Airplane, and the Dead, but it was also my first exposure to Jimi Hendrix and Al Wilson. I had shaken hands with Brian Jones there and led my piece on the festival with a long tribute to Otis Redding. They were gone too. Monterey was a happy accident, and I no longer placed any credence in its myth.

And yet I attended Monterey Two and participated willingly in the little daydream of California's pop cognoscenti. The big thing, they all seemed to agree, was to avoid the mob. Keep the numbers down. Shun the mass with its mass taste. Let the city government move in with its decibel-meters. Let it be a one-day affair. Perhaps the sense of that lost promise would be regained, if only for a day or two. Perhaps everyone would have a great time.

But it was only a nice time, a barely pleasant time, because you don't hedge your bets and gain a great time. The first Monterey produced something bigger than Derek Taylor and Emmett Grogan could have handled between them, namely, Woodstock and Altamont and what the trades refer to as the next billion-dollar business. And the best anyone who wants to be comfortable with all this can achieve is a retreat.

That suited some. Al Aronowitz, who likes to exert that expansive sense of one's own prerogatives that accrues to reporters as it does to few men, dropped down after Jimi Hendrix's funeral to pick up on the weekend. Between the afternoon and the evening concerts he stood backstage near the free-for-some organic food and compared this festival to others he had attended over the summer. At the Isle of Wight, he reported, the crowd had gotten completely out of hand. Cans and bottles were thrown at the press section. Fences were wrecked. It was almost a free-for-all. This one was truly peaceful. Aronowitz was pleased that at least one portion of hip culture was living up to its own pretensions.

Joe McDonald, coiffed so stylishly it looked like he was wearing Aqua Net, listened to Aronowitz for a while, grinning. It was weird to see the famous Berekely toughie dressed like a try-out for Harper's Bizarre. But the old Joe was underneath.

"Oh yes," he said. "This crowd is much better behaved. They're well-behaved children, good children. Good children."

I drove back with Sam Silver, of Good Times. As befitted a political rock writer, he was disturbed at the lack of politics. Only Country Joe, who had written a song for Eldridge Cleaver and included "The Ballad of Hattie Carroll" in his performance, and Joan Baez, who not only sang her protest songs but also spoke briefly for the lettuce boycotts and other good causes, offered any content. And people's music, where was people's music? I tend to scoff at talk of people's music, but Silver made some good points. There really are people's bands in Berkeley, and some chicano music would surely have been more, well, relevant than the Nashville cats who dominated. But Joan Baez, with one foot in the record industry and the other in the wounds of the world, doubtless feels more comfortable with Nashville. What strange amalgams ensue when the pop attitude is adopted halfheartedly.

I was staying in Berkeley with Susan Lydon, who used to make her living writing about rock and roll and women's liberation and now just makes her living. She is involved with what might be described (by me if not her) as personal (and mostly historical) popular arts--crafts, really--like furniture and embroidery and jewelry, and early the next morning we drove to the flea market in Alameda to look for stuff. Many longhairs exhibited wares there, mostly Susan's sort of thing, but a few of the longhairs were into pop. These tended to be hard-nosed in their business practices. One guy wanted five bucks for a Dr. Pepper thermometer. Late in the afternoon I came across a longhair named Barry who was selling comic books and old records. He also exhibited a pretty good portable phonograph for fifty dollars. Slightly overpriced, I thought, but Susan had been living without a record player for months, and maybe she could deal with him. We were both feeling sick, and I was inspired to offer my Winterland pass as part of the bargain. But that wasn't enough to get the price into Susan's range, and finally he agreed to come over and trade.

Barry had blond hair and what I assumed to be surfer or ex-surfer muscles. He brought a friend to judge the value of Susan's goods. She showed him an Arabian tapestry, a fur rug, Oriental rugs, small pieces of embroidery. Barry seemed unmoved. What records did she have, he kept asking. Could she get him any dope? How big were her lids? Oh, Barry was very hip. Susan was getting pissed, and to mollify her, Barry took to admiring certain of her possessions--a Tiffany lamp worth more than his record player, a quilt.

"What do you call that?" he asked.

"A patchwork quilt," Susan said. "It's a pretty good one."

"A Patrick quilt?" Barry asked.

"A patchwork quilt," Susan said.

"What, what?"

"Patchwork, patchwork," everyone repeated.

"Oh," Barry said, "patchwork. I couldn't understand you. Christ, these New York accents . . . ."

Barry had good taste in music, though. He ended up taking my Winterland pass, the Arabian tapestry, the fur rug, twenty-six dollars, and two albums I knew Warner Bros. would replace, Live/Dead and Neil Young's After the Gold Rush. If someone were to ask me to name the two best albums of the past twelve months, I'd probably answer Live/Dead and After the Gold Rush. It's reassuring to learn how good music can change the heads of people like Barry.

One reason I didn't mind forgoing my visit to Winterland was that the opening was also the occasion of an important day in the history of media: the first live quadraphonic television broadcast. Quadraphonic is four-speaker, all-around sound. Two FM stereo stations can cooperate with one TV station on one quadraphonic broadcast. Do you remember how you resisted stereo when it first appeared? Well, you're not resisting it now, are you? And soon, given the continuance of our present economic system, most of us will be listening to music over four speakers, more complex cartridges and amplifiers, and more expensive phonograph records.

Far be it from me to obstruct the progress of art. Susan and I went up to Greil and Jenny Marcus's, and he set up the TV and his big FM tuner and two other radios, and we settled down to four channels of the Grateful Dead. No, it wasn't like being there. The Marcus house was less busy and less exciting than Winterland seemed to be. But it was more lifelike than stereo, you bet.

Between acts the music radio stations competed in filling in the void of no music. And then something very strange happened. One station learned that Janis Joplin had just died, and the other didn't. So as the announcer on one station rattled on about the red of someone's guitar blending into the red of his shirt, the other talked about heroin in a blank undertone. The displacement was eerie. Fittingly, our talk turned to Altamont, and then festivals, and Greil mentioned that in aerial photographs of the Isle of Wight Festival there was a well-defined patch right in front of the stage that looked relatively uncongested. That was for press and VIP's. Behind it, all of the fans were compacted together, like dead plankton in a red tide.

We didn't listen to the Airplane, and before Quicksilver came on, Susan and I went home. We listened to Johnny Darrell and Abbey Road and Tracy Nelson Country on her newly acquired stereo before going to sleep.

Village Voice, Oct. 1970
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Look at That Stupid Girl Rock Is Obsolescent, But So Are You