Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Music, Love, and Flowers

By Matt Hanks

MAY 26, 1998:  San Francisco has long been a mecca for the rock-history obsessed. No other city, except perhaps Memphis, attaches such a strong sense of place to the musical events that transpired within its limits. The names of its neighborhoods and landmarks – Haight-Ashbury, the Fillmore District, Golden Gate Park – resonate as strongly as the bands – the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service – that put them on the musical map.

But a trip to San Francisco can be fulfilling and disheartening. Much like Memphis, San Francisco has chosen either to ignore or commodify many of its historic musical sites. For the faithful – or desperately nostalgic – driving by the Regency II movie theatre that used to house Chet Helms’ infamous Avalon Ballroom can render the same chills that setting foot on the vacant lot where Stax once stood at the corner of College and McLemore can. But if you require a little more, well, presence from your rock-and-roll relics, try heading about 100 miles south of San Francisco, down Highway 1 to Monterey.

Monterey is famous for a few things. There’s the Old Fisherman’s Wharf and its accompanying seafood restaurants, and the beautiful 17 Mile Drive up the coast. If you fancy shellfish and Kodak moments respectively, then these two spots should suit you fine. But if want to rock (or want to imagine what it must have been like to rock), head back into town about a mile from the coast to the Monterey Fairgrounds. These days the Fairgrounds are occasionally used for flea markets, dog shows, and other mundane events. Most of the time, they aren’t used at all. The amphitheatre on the grounds is hardly an impressive structure. The quintessentially ’60s peak-and-valley roofing and strung dome lamps are antiquated to the point of kitsch. On the day I visited, the arena was flooded from the previous night’s storm, and folding chairs were strewn carelessly throughout the stands.

But despite (or perhaps because of) this general neglect, the Monterey Fairgrounds stand as the most faithfully preserved vestige from what was arguably this country’s most important – certainly its most idyllically romantic – rock-and-roll event. From June 16 to 18, 1967, these grounds played host to the Monterey International Pop Festival, the first rock gathering of its size (an estimated 200,000 people attended over the entire weekend), and the inaugural event of rock’s festival era. Due to sheer size (more than double that of Monterey), Woodstock’s place in history is forever preserved, but for the quality and breadth of music presented, and the precedent set, Monterey was, and is, without peer.

And you couldn’t beat the weather either. Woodstock had its rainstorms, Altamont had its bitter cold (and bitter end), but during those three days in 1967, Monterey was sunny and temperate. In surroundings and spirit, Monterey offered a reprieve from the long hot summer, and the simmering social climate that accompanied it.

The Monterey Fairgrounds amphitheatre
Photo by Matt Hanks

Those at the festival knew that they were part of history in the making. Monterey was the first time that the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin played before a national audience; the first time Otis Redding played before a white audience; the first time Ravi Shankar played before a young audience; and one of the last times the original lineups of the Mamas and the Papas and the Byrds played before any audience at all. But more importantly than all these, Monterey marked a crucial, overtly discernible turning point for the medium it engendered. Everything rock had produced up to that point – Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Stones, even the Beatles – was preamble to this picturesque June weekend in ’67. As an artform, a cultural force, and a commercial concern, rock would never be the same after Monterey.

If you’re a rabid, or even casual fan of the Monterey Festival, a trip to the Fairgrounds will not disappoint. Watch D.A. Pennebaker’s classic festival documentary Monterey Pop before your trip, and you’ll realize that time has stood completely still here. Everything from the oak-lined grounds to the drab gray paint on the amphitheatre walls remains intact.

If you visit the Fairgrounds on an off day (and as I mentioned, there are more off days than on), they will likely be completely deserted. Go ahead, stroll around the bleachers where thousands of dosed boomers had the time of their lives. Explore the backstage area where rock-and-roll immortals consorted. Walk the stage where history was made, where rock-and-roll was given tenure. The 30 years’ worth of events that have occurred onstage at Monterey carry the comfort of nostalgia, the weight of history, and the beginning and end of an era – all at once.

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