Caught by the River

The Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 21st May 2012

by Andy Childs.

Perhaps as an antidote to the unsettling increase in acceptance of e-books and digital publishing as ‘the future’, but also to the sheer denseness and weight of Johnny Rogan’s magnificent Byrds tome which continues to dominate my desk, I have chosen two books this month that in another era would have been called ‘coffee-table books’. They are both large-format, well-illustrated, very approachable and lacking in neither depth nor scholarship. They would both definitely look good on your coffee table if you have one.

The first is This Land Is Your Land : Woody Guthrie and the Journey of an American Folk Song by Robert Santelli (Running Press, 256pp, hdbk). Guthrie’s life has already been well-documented, notably in Joe Klein’s definitive biography Woody Guthrie : A Life, and somewhat less reliably in Guthrie’s own Bound For Glory, and there’s nothing here that will come as a revelation. A pre-first world war child from Oklahoma, Guthrie was a restless drifter for most of his life. He travelled the roads and railways of the U.S. as a hobo, had very little time for social niceties, cultivated an unkempt and unwashed appearance, was unwilling or unable to maintain relationships and, in his thirst for adventure, ill-treated and neglected his three wives and eight children on a regular basis. In later life he drank excessively and his behaviour became ever more erratic, due in no small measure to the onset of Huntington’s Disease, the appalling condition that eventually took his life in October 1967 aged 55. He was also a man of steadfast social conscience, a prolific songwriter whose work has inspired successive generations of artists to speak out against social injustice. Most of his best work is associated with the desperate 30s, dust-bowl, depression-era chapter in America’s history and, but for one song in particular, it is conceivable that Guthrie may perhaps not be considered as important and influential a figure in popular music history as he is today. That song is ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and Santelli employs the origins and subsequent ongoing development of this iconic work as the central theme in his book around which he adds the relevant episodes in Guthrie’s life as well as that of the other protagonists in the story – Irving Berlin, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan among them.

Irving Berlin penned ‘God Bless America’ at the end of the first world war, but sensing that America had had enough of patriotic songs, stashed it away and didn’t resurrect it until 1939 and the beginning of the second world war when one Kate Smith, apparently America’s favourite radio personality of the time, sang it on air and it soon became unstoppably popular. Woody Guthrie was listening and the song jarred with him. He considered its overly-patriotic and uncritical tone a false comfort to a population where poverty, economic corruption and social injustice were in evidence for all those who bothered to look. In response he wrote a song which he initially called ‘God Blessed America’ and which soon became known as ‘This Land Is Your Land’. It had an easy-on-the-ear tune and was a lyrical tirade against inequality and a rallying cry for social cohesion. A genuine protest song. But, given no real prominence in Guthrie’s repertoire and endlessly revised, it was several years before its potential as a song for our times began to be recognised. Pete Seeger played no small part in championing both Guthrie and ‘This Land’ in particular as did Bob Dylan a decade or so later and then Bruce Springsteen after him. Santelli describes how, over the years, the song’s sentiments have been interpreted to suit the cause of whichever beleaguered faction of society has adopted it, how verses have been deleted and new ones added to a point where Seeger rightly describes it as a “living, breathing musical document”. It has become the song that Woody Guthrie is most well-known for and, in these times when social injustice, inequality and economic corruption appear as prevalent as ever, it still has the power to resonate and stir the emotions. The book concludes with a moving description of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performing ‘This Land Is Your Land’ complete, at Seeger’s insistence, with the original lyrics at Barack Obama’s inauguration. As a song it is simple and straightforward enough to appeal to all ages and to all levels of musical appreciation. And the lyrics, while personal and true to Guthrie’s experience are also wide-open to a level of interpretation that obviously moves people’s hearts and souls. This book tells a fascinating story very well indeed. It’s also a beautifully produced book with a generous number of illustrations and drawings as well as a tear-out poster in the back of Guthrie posing with his famous “This Machine Kills Fascists” acoustic guitar.

Nearly four months before Woody Guthrie died a new movement in popular music came of age. In the fairgrounds of the Monterey peninsula in California the first and only Monterey International Pop Festival was held over three remarkable days that re-defined rock music as an art-form on a par with jazz and folk music and laid down the blueprint for music festivals ever since.

It began life as an idea by a wealthy chap named Alan Pariser to stage a Mamas & Papas concert in Monterey, the site for which he’d already booked. Pariser and cohort Benny Shapiro approached John Phillips of The Mamas & Papas who, coincidentally it seems, had been hatching a plan with fellow group members, plus Lou Adler and Paul McCartney no less to stage a festival that would generate unprecedented national media coverage and compel people to treat this new era of rock music as more than an ephemeral fad. Phillips and Adler took up Pariser’s offer on the condition that they could turn the event into a non-profit making festival, all proceeds to be donated to charitable arts and music organisations. Shapiro opted out, Pariser agreed and Phillips and Adler highjacked the operation and set about organising the whole thing. A company was formed and a (largely passive) board of governors assembled that consisted of, among others, McCartney, Mick Jagger, Brian Wilson, Roger McGuinn and Smokey Robinson. Legendary publicist Derek Taylor was recruited and a bill, the likes of which has never been seen since, was put together. It all kicked off in the afternoon of Friday June 16th 1967 with a line-up that climaxed with Eric Burdon & The Animals and Simon & Garfunkel. A promising start that picked up momentum on Saturday afternoon with Big Brother & The Holding Company who, thanks to Janis Joplin’s raw, arresting performance was the first big hit of the festival. Later that evening The Byrds played (with David Crosby aggravating everyone as usual) followed by Jefferson Airplane and then an incomparable, ground-breaking performance by Otis Redding. Sunday afternoon began relatively sedately with Ravi Shankar (the only musician who took a fee) and then the excitement level rose steadily – Big Brother played another short set, then Buffalo Springfield (without Neil Young but with an apparently clueless Crosby), and to take the event to a suitable climax, The Who, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and The Mamas & Papas. Guitars were smashed and set alight.

All of this is documented beautifully and in detail in Harvey & Kenneth Kubernik’s sumptuous book A Perfect Haze : The Illustrated History of The Monterey International Pop Festival (Santa Monica Press, 288pp, hdbk). Much of the book consists of quotes from the characters involved and of course there are enough revealing anecdotes and colourful stories to render any additional comment almost superfluous. Townshend and Hendrix tossing a coin to decide who should go on first and destroy their instruments is but one. Using this material and some often startling bare facts, The Kuberniks weave an entertaining narrative of this totally one-off event. For one reason or another The Beach Boys, Dionne Warwick, The Impressions, Donovan, and Cream were earmarked to play the festival but didn’t, the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver both ‘liberated’ the constantly replenished back-line equipment after their respective performances, 50,000 orchids were flown in from Hawaii and one placed on every seat (yes there were seats!!) and scattered onstage, and the local police were persuaded to miraculously relax the drug laws to enable everyone to exist in a state of euphoria for three days, fortified by Monterey’s ‘chemist-in-residence’ Augustus Owsley Stanley III’s specially-made batch of LSD called Monterey Purple.

Monterey wasn’t strictly the first-ever pop festival – the Mount Tam Festival held a week before in Mill Valley just about pre-dates it but it was the first truly significant festival that became a media event. It was filmed – by D.A.Pennebaker (a 3DVD set is still readily available) and recorded – by Wally Heider and Bill Halverson (a 4CD box set was issued by Rhino several years ago). It was documented and covered extensively by press and radio. It was also a landmark event for rock photography, the results of which adorn this book in spectacular fashion. It was a festival that helped create the environment for Rolling Stone magazine to launch and to thrive, for Woodstock to be a reality, and for FM radio to flourish. Concert billing became more musically eclectic, it influenced the way record companies behaved towards rock acts in a positive way and, through the The Monterey International Pop Festival Foundation which still receives income from CD and DVD sales, it makes donations to this day to various worthy causes such as the UCLA Children’s Hospital and The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies – all in keeping with the original ethos laid out by John Phillips and Lou Adler. The magnitude of Phillips and Adler’s achievement in actually succeeding to stage this event and for it to be so phenomenally successful and influential can hardly be exaggerated and this book is an entirely appropriate tribute to their efforts.

Apart from the completely wonderful Port Eliot festival in Cornwall I am not an enthusiastic festival-goer – the horrors of the Weeley Pop Festival in Clacton in 1971 all but smothered any eagerness I may have had for outdoor music, but if I could go back in time to June 1967, to Monterey, I’d be there in a flash.

BYRDS : Requiem For The Timeless Vol 1 by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House, 1,200pp, hdbk)
…..the continuing saga.
Producer Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day) was brought in for the recording of Turn Turn Turn and wanted The Byrds to sound like Sonny & Cher! Not surprisingly Crosby didn’t like him and manager Jim Dickson didn’t see eye-to-eye with him either. It was McGuinn and Melcher vs Crosby and Dickson. Crosby and Dickson won and Melcher was fired. Meanwhile more people are beaten up. Michael Clarke smacks Crosby in the studio just for being Crosby probably, and during an infamous beach video shoot Dickson slaps Michael Clarke for “wasting time”. Crosby then punches out Dickson and a fight ensues. As the most prolific songwriter in the group and subsequent top earner, Gene Clark’s life is transformed and there is jealousy within the ranks. Clark eventually takes “an extended leave of the group” due to his fear of flying and nervous exhaustion. The single of Eight Miles High, which apparently Brian Jones may have had a hand in writing and was predictably banned by some radio stations because of its drug connotations, is released and rock music is never the same again. Crosby doesn’t change though and manages to upset the entire crew of the Ed Sullivan Show. Gene Clark, tormented by Crosby, left the group for good and had an affair with Michelle Phillips. Clark’s departure also scuppers a potential film about The Byrds. We’re up to the summer of 1966 and the Fifth Dimension album is released and viewed generally as a disappointment. We are still flying, but it’s a bumpy ride!

P.S. In case you may have noticed, David Crosby is not a man I have any desire to meet. Almost everything I have read about him casts him as a villain. But he did make one of my favourite albums ever – If I Could Only Remember My Name – and I would be horrified if my various comments about him were misconstrued as gratuitous insults.

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