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Concert, Anti-Concert

March 11, 2013

In the mid 1960s the real, hardcore, honest to goodness hippies were the ones you found up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and unless you very regularly commuted up to the Haight, being a hippy in the South Bay was something less extreme, less committed, less unconventional. To my awareness, the south bay hips were more like “weekend” hippies, working pretty normal “9 to 5” jobs Monday through Friday, or going to school, then dropping acid or smoking hash on Saturday and Sunday. Their hair wasn’t really that long and they would stuff their calico red headbands into their back pockets on Monday when they went back to their workday jobs. The “real” hips, up in City (San Francisco), lived an entire life style of hipness, 24/7, as they say now-a-days. They might panhandle for their “bread” (money) or they might own a head shop, selling hookahs and psychedelic rock and roll posters, but they’d never work for the “man,” the man being any one of the corporate “suits” that ran the straight world. The real hips would always have their psychedelic music playing on a record player, if they weren’t making it themselves. The south bay hips might spend eight hours a day listening to elevator music while they sat under fluorescent lights in a drafting room or stuffing electronic components into printed circuit boards.

I, personally, have no stomach for city living and I couldn’t spend more than one or two nights up in the Haight. I spent the bulk of my hip days on the ridge of the Peninsula just south of the City or in the San Lorenzo Valley sliding down off the Peninsula’s ridge and running down into Santa Cruz at the mouth of the San Lorenzo River. There was a good sprinkling of hips all up and down this stretch of redwood covered hills and canyons. These were the mountain hips, an entirely different sub-breed of hipness.

During what should have been my college days, every few months I’d trek off the mountains down to the San Jose State neighborhood and visit with my lifelong friends sticking it out in school. I can remember my fits of culture shock while having to sort out the new and complicated eight way stoplights at the intersections of the newly built expressways. I was never sure which light was pointed at me in my dinky little Volkswagen. I would get to the various apartments adjacent to the campus and make my presence known. I’d catch up with the gossip, kiss a few old girlfriends, make some music then return to the calmness and and natural order of the hills, with a big sigh of relief.

I liked to think of myself as more than one of the weekend hippies, even if I might not be the absolute real thing, after all, having not really spent much time in the Haight. Though I wasn’t a big time doper, like many hips, I never worked for the “man” in those days and my life style was pretty committed to hipness. I made leather clothes, hammered nails, chopped frames (worked in a frame shop), I did just about anything but sell dope to make a living and stay “under the radar,” the man’s radar. I lived OK and pretty honestly.

The one thing that is pretty hard to express without having been there, is that the one big reality in all these realms of the hip world, was that music, our music, was the soul of the whole thing. Our special music kept us all headed in the same direction and soothed all of our counter culture wounds. The music was everywhere and ever present. The music was the tangible fabric of the hip. If it wasn’t real in your ears, it was real in your head. If you couldn’t hear it in the stillness of the forest’s mists, you could see it in the filtered and tempered forest light. It was the poetry and the philosophy of the times. It was the binder that held the brotherhood together.

The music was so important that even the big, famous San Francisco bands of this era, would put on free shows in Golden Gate Park just to make sure that our community was getting its proper dose of the great music that was so very important to us. Even while they were making successful commercial albums, the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company were yet providing free concerts to the hip people in San Francisco.

While a few attempts were made in the South Bay to duplicate the free concerts in the San Jose area, no one really got it right. We still had to go to the City to get our music, free or not. Then some San Jose promoter got it all wrong. While I was never privy to all of the actual facts, the way I understood it is that this promoter signed on some minor league bands and made the proper arrangements to hold a two day concert in San Jose State’s Spartan Stadium out on Alma and Seventh Streets. The big problem is that he was not of the altruistic hip persuasion, he was profit motivated. The promoter was going to charge the south bay’s hips to listen to their weekend music. I really don’t remember all the details of the uproar that developed but I do remember flat bed trucks running up and down the numbered streets around the campus with guys mounted on the beds of the trucks with bull horns demanding a boycott of this upcoming concert. The radio stations were supporting the promoter and a regular war of words started. While I was in the mountains for the first few fusillades of this tempest in a teapot, I finally descended into the campus environs to personally watch where all of this musical tumult was going to end up. I had just started spending time with the young lady who I would marry a few years later and, at this time, we were blindly and madly in love and we never wanted to part except that I didn’t want to move out of the mountains and she didn’t want to move out of her parent’s house in Monte Sereno. Was not this a truly adolescent dilemma?

Despite our confused priorities, me and my girl managed to borrow an empty room in one of the friend’s apartment near the campus for the concert weekend. As the Spartan Stadium concert approached, the radio station/flat bed truck announcers became more harsh and threatening, trying to give the impression that this “war” was even more important than the war in Viet Nam. It was getting ridiculous even to the most inexperienced and naive of bystanders. Then, with true counterculture logic, a new and separate concert was announced. This counter-concert was to be held in the athletic fields adjacent to the very stadium where the paying concert was being held. Now, things were starting to get really interesting. Me and my sardonic friends had willowy and wispy grins all teasing ’round our lips and eyes, this could go just about anywhere. Let us watch this very closely and we rested lightly on our expectant haunches and waited for the fire works to begin. We wanted no part of the drama to come, but for to watch it. This was right out of the heart of unreality; sort of concert and anti-concert, like matter and anti-matter, when the two touch, they uncreate the universe, or so we are told in the weekly Star Trek episodes.

The streets became littered with quickly drawn handbills for the “anti-concert” as we came to call it. It was going to be more of country faire sort of thing than a concert, where there would be a variety of casual booths set up offering bar-b-qued hamburgers and hot dogs and a variety of drinks and desserts, a few t-shirt and tie dye outfits were to show up, and there were going to be a few small venues set up in the various practice fields for different types of music. The flyers told of a stage set up for acoustic folk music, one for rock and roll and one for “experimental” music, this last one had us turning our heads to each other and wrinkling our noses. There were no specific names of bands, just styles of music were mentioned and everyone figured the actual music would be nothing more than a collection of garage bands from local suburbs. It wasn’t a real professional effort but at least we were showing that insidious, profit motivated, penny pinching, capitalist promoter that we could still do something with at least a semblance of idealistically motivated hipness. One half hearted effort to counter another half hearted effort. This was now looking pretty un-exciting to us expectant shit kickers.

As the concert-anti-concert weekend approached, my girl friend and I had lost interest in this dissipating tug of war and we focused more on two days of pre-matrimonial bliss in the borrowed room, her parents believing she was staying at a girl friend’s place for the two day concert. But just two nights before the weekend, everything escalated to the level of World War III. Rumors had come from the City that we were going to be seeing some big name bands at the anti-concert, names that would dwarf the stadium musicians. A keen and edgy high intensity of interest was refocused on the two concerts once again. New rumors were flashing down from San Francisco almost on an hourly basis. It was said that the biggest names of the City’s rock and rollers were really pissed off at the San Jose promoter for trying to make a financial killing on a concept they have been supporting for free for the last few years. Some hours later, we heard that the big names would play in a sympathetic anti-concert in Golden Gate Park on one of the weekend days and on the alternate day, they would come down to San Jose and play in the anti-concert here for free, making the stadium concert a total bust. Why go pay for a concert of “also rans” when you could see first rate acts for free? The shit kickers were giggling with glee. The announcers of both sides were worked up into a frenzy. Everyone wondered what the cops were thinking. Both concerts had the correct permits and licenses and whatever else that was required. Where in the world was this strange situation going to end up? One of my smart aleck friends made me snigger when he noted that this was the ugly underbelly of “flower power.”

The Saturday morning of the embattled two day concert came with a dusky sunrise of high clouds faintly streaking the sky. It was going to be one of those hazy, listless, dry days in Santa Clara Valley. We put air in the tires of our funky bikes that were used to pedal around the campus because the one thing that was for sure on this concert day, parking at the stadium grounds was simply going to be impossible. A two mile bike ride from the apartments to the stadium would surely be quicker than a walk from a parking space ten blocks away. The anti-concert flyers said they would be starting the music around noon. Considering what the rumors were telling us, we didn’t want to miss any of this peculiar show, no matter which musicians showed up.

As expected, the streets many blocks from the stadium and its athletic fields were tied up and confused with masses of cars at all the intersections, the worse the closer you got to the fields. The front of the stadium was just a jumble, many people demanding their money back because of all the unconfirmed rumors. No one, just no one, knew exactly what was going on, everything was up in the air. The shit kickers were loving it.

The so called booths for the goodies on the anti-concert grounds were no more than card tables with butcher paper signs with big plastic coolers underneath scattered on the green turf. There were a few bar-b-ques stoked up. It seemed that all of these anti-concert tables were manned by long hairs.

The stadium was generally filled with straight people. It had a professional, permanently installed sound system and their sound checks and tuning could be heard all over the various grounds and venues. The temporary stages of the anti-concert were spread far apart from each other. They had black speaker and equipment cases clustered in head high piles, bristling with cords and cables. Men could be seen rushing about looking for unseen sockets and plugs. There was a large circus type tent set up at one corner of the anti-concert area and there were some very serious looking people entering and leaving through guarded canvas flaps. This is where the really interesting stuff was happening.

Within the first hour we finally heard some guitars tuning up, drums being tested. Within another hour some actual music was starting to be played. Announcements brimming over the wall of the stadium said that the first band would be starting within ten minutes. When we heard this, some police cars arrived at the secretive tent and several cops went inside. A few minutes later about a dozen people filed out of the tent, including several police officers in full uniform and they all walked single file over to the stadium. Now, this seemed strange.

After about fifteen minutes we watched some custodial looking men walk to a back door of the Stadium and browse through some equipment cabinets and then they started walking across the large turf field to one of the temporary stages. None of this was making sense.

All of sudden, maybe a half an hour after the single file march, both the speakers in the stadium and the speakers of the temporary stages started clicking and coming to life. They were hooked together, they were all driven by the same microphone. We could hear someone saying “test, test, . . . test, test, . . . can you hear me?” coming from all the speakers, inside the stadium, and outside. This voice announced that he was lieutenant so and so from the San Jose Police Department. He went on to say that in the interest of peace and sanity, the two promoters of these two concerts were joining forces and this was now to be considered one large concert. The stadium was open to anyone and the anti-concert field was open to anyone as well (and it already was, anyway). We, in the anti-concert area, started laughing and hooting with the success of our conquest. Of course, those who had shelled out so many bucks to get inside, were booing at the top of their lungs. The police had already announced to them that there was no equitable way to refund everyone’s money in there. They would just have to take the loss. After all, they were still going to get better entertainment than they were originally promised anyway, they lost nothing. Everyone else just got the same thing for free.

What a day that was.

We heard lots of good music that weekend, and finally, we did have our free concert, with a little help from our San Francisco friends. No, a lot of help, actually. Honestly, I can’t tell you what San Francisco bands I heard on that weekend more than forty years ago, but there is one act I do remember clear as a bell. Someone set up a temporary stage in a tennis court with the high chain link fences surrounding it. On that caged-in tennis court, for the first time, I heard Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company behind her. I listened to her wail it out like no one else could in the whole world. That girl could sing to bring tears to your eyes. It was one of the most outrageously good performances I had ever seen. I worshiped her for years. And though there was chain link between us, I wasn’t more than ten yards from her. That little girl just shined like a light, a screamingly huge and brilliant light.

This one performance made the whole weekend worth it, but the weekend was filled with other good performances as well. Near the end of Sunday, my honey told me she could use something to wet her whistle. I took her hand and pulled her to one of the card tables with a paper sign for soft drinks. We walked up to the table and I pulled out my wallet, addressing a man leaning down with his back to us, reaching for one of his coolers. I told him we wanted two cokes, and he turned round to us and said OK and my girl screeched out a scream to tear your ears open and she swooned, falling to the ground.

The man had no face. His mouth and his eyes would open in the flat, featureless dough of human flesh, like a living pie crust with articulated holes in it. There were no features on this plate of flesh. He had been doused with napalm. I looked right into his eyes, forcing myself to not stare and apologized for my friend’s reaction. I had seen some stuff like this before, victims of napalm burns, but nothing so complete, so total. It was so un-human, and so ultimately inhumane. And there was no music at that instant, no green grass, no Janis Joplin, no sky.

Nothing was bigger than Viet Nam in those days and it was not to be joked about.

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