Thursday, February 11, 2021

Aquarius Rising

Aquarius Rising, by Robert Santelli
August, 1980  Dell Books

This is sort of the nonfiction equivalent of The Rock Nations in that it’s an overview of the rock festivals that occurred across America in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But unlike that earlier novel, Aquarius Rising goes further into the ‘70s, author Robert Santelli documenting how the rock festival concept was basically dead by the end of the “Me Decade.” Santelli also seems to have a clear appreciation for rock music, something you couldn’t really say about the narrator of The Rock Nations, and also he keeps his opinions to himself – though I have to admit I would’ve preferred a bit more color commentary. 

Indeed, Santelli goes for a dry, almost textbook format for the book, whereas the material calls for a bit more personality. You don’t even get the impression Santelli’s been to any of the festivals, as he never mentions himself in any of the sections. This is all well and good if you want to read about the facts and less about some guy’s recollections of them, but still, an “I was there” viewpoint for the Woodstock material in particular would’ve been welcomed. The strange thing is, at least judging from a few of the photo credits herein, Santelli was there…he just doesn’t tell us he was. This is a curious omission, and I can only assume Santelli was going for more of a “just the facts” approach. 

Santelli opens the book with a quick preface in which he states the goal of the book is to document the rock festivals of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and how they were more than just rock concerts for those who attended them – that they were thriving communities in which young people communicated with like-minded heads. The other goal is to show how corruption gradually set in post Woodstock, with the ultimate outcome that by the late ‘70s the rock festivals of a decade before – three-day affairs in which people stayed on the site for the duration – were basically dead and gone, replaced by one-day concerts that lacked any of the community experience of the earlier fests. Also, and Santelli doesn’t broach this as much, but by the late ‘70s the music sucked, too. I mean I could see standing in the rain and mud for three days to see Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane, and maybe even Janis Joplin, but Aerosmith or Rush? I think I’d stand in the rain and mud not to see them. 

Another curious thing about Aquarius Rising is that Santelli writes about the great rock festivals as if they were long ago, whereas in reality Woodstock was only eleven years before the book was published. In many ways the tone of the book is akin to one that would be written today, over fifty years after Woodstock; there is a wistful tone to Santelli’s narrative of a time lost, never to be regained. Again, it lacks the immediacy of an on-the-ground sort of report; I know there are multiple Woodstock books out there, but I’ve never read any of them. I could imagine the majority of them give more immediacy to the reporting than Santelli does here. And not to beat a dead horse, but if Santelli really was at some of these festivals – he’s got photo credit for both Woodstock shots and Altamont shots – you would expect a slightly less reserved perspective. 

The book opens with a look at the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, which is generally considered the first major rock festival, setting the template that others followed. It was also the intro of many acts who would play at other major festivals, like Hendrix and Joplin. Santelli documents how the festival was created and set up, dropping some notes I’d not seen before, like how Monterey was one of the only festivals with assigned seating. We learn in this first chapter another important element of Aquarius Rising; Santelli won’t be telling us much about the music, either. Very rarely do we get any sort of description of the sound of these various groups; if anything it will just be sweeping statements about their overall contributions. 

In addition to some detail on Ravi Shankar’s three-hour performance (in which he advised everyone to sit still and keep quiet!), we get a little more color on the two most remembered events of Monterey: Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix’s respective debuts. There’s also some detail on the Who’s destructive set. The Jimi stuff is cool, but not a patch on the Monterey material in Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child Of The Aquarian Age, but then Santelli’s m.o. here as stated is more of a dry overview. Actually I know I wrote this above, but “textbook” really sums it up – I mean this bit on Steve Miller reads like it could’ve come out of a high school Social Studies textbook: 

Miller became a near-legend in San Francisco rock circles. His albums, Children Of The Future and Sailor, both released in 1968, are still considered classic psychedelic albums. But while other San Francisco bands were crisscrossing the country in the late sixties and early seventies, Miller slowly faded from the picture. It wasn’t until 1973 that he resurrected himself with The Joker. The album contained the smash hit single by the same name and helped introduce Miller to the Top 40 AM radio audience. He’s been a superstar ever since. 

Monterey Pop was also a trendsetter in how it proved to be a one-off; once the festival promoters had their fun, politics set in like a rot and another festival was prevented due to legal wrangling, public hue and cry, and the like. In fact the festivals for 1968 were pretty understated, and Santelli only sheds a little light on them. The Miami Pop in December 1968 sounded pretty cool, with unusual acts like Procol Harum and Iron Butterfly (who were supposed to play at Woodstock but couldn’t get there due to traffic – something Santelli doesn’t mention in this book, but which I knew from James Kunstler’s novel The Life Of Byron Jaynes). There was also the Northern California Folk-Rock Festival, which was noted for featuring The Doors, an atypical presence at rock festivals. The Sky River Rock Festival in Washington was another trendsetter: gatecrashers led to such a violent scene that cops descended on them with billy clubs smashing hippie faces. Santelli sees in this a prefigure of the later Altamont debacle. 

1969 of course was the pinnacle year of rock festivals, and of course Santelli spends the most time looking at the most famous rockfest of all: Woodstock. We get a lot more detail here, from the origins of the festival to the setting up of the site. Again, some personal commentary would’ve been welcomed, but Santelli does a good – if overly dry – job of describing the hellish conditions…and how these conditions made such little impact on the good vibes of the massive crowd. For that matter, here’s another thing I learned from Aquarius Rising: previous to this I was really only aware of Jimi Hendrix’s set at Woodstock, having picked up the CD released in 1994 when I was in college. What I didn’t know is that Jimi only played to a fraction of the audience; some 400,000 people attended Woodstock, but most of them finally had enough of the constantly pouring rain and hit the road on Sunday morning…right before Jimi started to play. So he only played for like 25,000 people. I mean come on, hippies! Leave during Sha Na Na’s set, not Jimi Hendrix’s! 

Santelli doesn’t give as detailed a look at the performers, but he does provide a list of the pay each act received. Hendrix was contracted for the highest amount ($18,000), with an obscure band named Quill getting just $375 for their set. They were so obscure that I don’t think their set was even filmed, though bootleg audio exists. What Santelli really brings to the fore is how the media made Woodstock sound like a disaster waiting to happen…which it in fact was. Constant rain and trampling feet exposed some power lines, for example, threatening to electrocute a couple thousand long-haired freaks. There were also the downed communication lines, backed-up portapotties, the infamous brown acid (“It’s not poison. It’s just bad acid!”), and etc. 

While Santelli’s account is a little dry, it did provoke me to do something I’d never considered doing before: watch the 1970 Woodstock film. Santelli’s description of it, with the split screens and other filmic effects, got me interested in it, and I’m about halfway through viewing it, though I could only find the 3+ hour Director’s Cut. It seems that the original theatrical release, which Santelli discusses in the book (the Director’s Cut not existing until 1989), is now almost impossible to find. I couldn’t find it, at least, and I can usually find just about anything after some thorough web searching. Santelli presents Woodstock as the apotheosis of the youth movement, the hundreds of thousands of kids congregating peacefully in their own little republic. Unfortunately it was all downhill after that. 

In fact, the post-Woodstock festivals are progressively hellish, with Altamont not even the most violent, though it’s the most often namechecked. Thus Altamont gets nearly as much focus as Woodstock. I’d never realized how poorly planned this thing was; it was a disaster waiting to happen. Santelli opens with the well-documented moment in which a young black man was knifed to death by Hell’s Angels, right in front of the stage on which the Rolling Stones were performing. Santelli well captures the desperate plight of the Stones, who realized their “only choice” was to continue playing, else chaos would descend on the Altamont Raceway. From there Santelli jumps back to how this festival had the most hazy of planning, the Stones only vaguely giving their approval of it…and then the site being decided upon a mere twenty-four hours before the scheduled show. Laborers only had a day to set up the stage, the scaffolding, etc, thus there wasn’t even a bare minimum of safety checks in place…and 300,000 rabid kids showed up. 

Speaking of which, Santelli brings up something here few other Altamont chroniclers have; that the wanton rampage of the Hell’s Angels was just as much the fault of the cowed audience. As Santelli argues, there were only 200 Angels, yet they were “the masters,” smashing hippie heads and even knocking out Marty Balin of the Airplane – the only person, Santelli states, who stood up to the Angels that day. And yet there were like over 300,000 people in the audience. They could’ve easily swarmed upon the Angels and brought them to bear, yet they never did. All it would’ve taken was say for Jagger to call for their aid in the mike – this by the way is not something Santelli opines, though. He just says the fans themselves should’ve come to this conclusion. Santelli does bring up another salient point, that the stage was so important to the Woodstock community, with frequent updates to the throngs of what was going on, what to look out for, etc. But at Altamont, the stage was to be avoided – the only thing up there was a pack of Angels who would beat you bloody if you tried to climb up. 

Santelli also presents the Stones as “partly to blame” for the chaos and loss of life, but he also repeats the oft-stated fallacy that they purposely came onto the stage after dark, to be at their most evil. As it turns out, the Stones performed late for two reasons – the Grateful Dead chickened out of their set and didn’t play, and also Bill Wyman flew in by separate helicopter and was delayed, thus the rest of the band had to wait for him. But likely Santelli wasn’t privy to this info in 1980; as I understand, it was revealed in Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, which was published in 1984. Santelli does make clear that the Stones played a great show, with some critics opining that it was indeed the best show they’d ever done. 

As mentioned, after this things become almost ridiculously more hellish; there’s Powder Ridge, the festival that never was due to local law shutting down the concert and threatening legal action against any act that played there; it pretty much became a drug bazaar. Another encroaching element that spelled doom for many festivals was politics; leftist radicals tried repeatedly to ingratiate themselves into the planning stages, “demanding” that promoters include shoutouts for various leftwing causes in the shows and to fork over earnings to support those same causes. Many would threaten dire repercussions if their demands weren’t met, and ultimately promoters would either cut ties with them or simply just cancel the festivals. (There may be a lesson here.) Of course Pete Townshend summed it all up the best when he knocked leftist rabble-rouser Abbie Hoffman off the stage at Woodstock, an incident Santelli documents here. 

As more and more festivals faced various setbacks, promoters tried novel approaches, like single-day festivals featuring nigh-endless performances from just a few artists; sorry, but three hours of the Allman Brothers just doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. Then there was the uneventful festival in Puerto Rico, Mar Y Sol, held there to get around the increasingly-stifling US laws…and the locals quickly showed skill in fleecing the naïve American hippies who descended on their town (ie twenty bucks for a drive to the festival site, etc). Santelli also bemoans the frequency of hard rock artists who proliferated at festivals in the later ‘70s, finding their aggressive styles far removed from the sounds of the early rockfests. Just imagine how he’d feel if he could see into the future and witness Woodstock ’94! 

Speaking of which, Santelli ends the book with the prediction that rock festivals are forever gone. It turns out he was sort of right and sort of wrong. Wrong because there was the above-mentioned Woodstock ’94, with such diverse acts as a mud-caked Nine Inch Nails and even Bob Dylan (who decided not to show at the original Woodstock), and then five years later there was Woodstock ’99, which seemed to be a new Altamont. (I recall really wanting to go to Woodstock ’94 – I was 19, a NIN fan, but tickets were like a couple hundred bucks or something and I was just a poor self-financed college student. At least I got to see NIN a little over a year later, when they toured with Bowie.) 

But Santelli is correct in that none of these later festivals had the spirit of the originals, and indeed how could they, given the sea change of ensuing generations. Watching the Woodstock movie, one thing that amuses me is that, despite how grungy and unkempt those hippies were, they were worlds more…well, wisened than the kids of today, not to mention infinitely better spoken. I mean there’s this one scraggly-headed kid in the movie who talks about how everything he needs in the world “is right on this roadside,” commenting how his father, an immigrant, grudgingly accepts his lifestyle and even encourages him to pursue it and learn his own life lessons. This kid talks like he’s in his 40s or something, and the irony is the mass belief at the time was that hippies were a stupid, drugged-out lot. Actually, maybe it was the drugs that made them so wisened…I imagine several heroic doses of vintage LSD would turn the average kid into an old soul. What more is there to see once you’ve peered into the cosmos? 

Anyway, Santelli’s book is a success in what it aims to be: a snappily-paced overview of the rock festival era. I forgot to mention, he only discusses American rock fests – no mention of Isle of Wight. Which by the way did factor into the finale of The Rock Nations. To again bring up that novel, it would’ve greatly benefited Aquarius Rising if Santelli had gone for a similar, more lively commentary, with a few personal reflections. So if you’re looking for on-the-ground reporting from the rockfests of the ‘60s and ‘70s, you won’t find it here. But you will find a concise overview with a few notable tidbits you might not find anywhere else.

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