SECTION TWO

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COLUMN SIXTY-SIX, DECEMBER 1, 2001
(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)

RETROPOP SCENE:
1970 ISLE OF WIGHT DIARY


JIMI HENDRIX
(Photo by Baron Wolman)

It's a short night from New York to London.

In six and a half hours the sun has somehow traveled around the earth to greet you.  Leave after 9 at night and you arrive before 9 in the morning.  In between there is hardly more than three hours of darkness.

As for me I wanted to get to England in the worst way and so I went by Air India, bumming a ride with the Great Medicine Ball Caravan, flying through the trans-Atlantic looking glass aboard the Hashish Express, Tom Donahue's Magic Carpet, carrying 150 freaks who had started out in San Francisco and who now were on their way to Canterbury.

On the same plane were three members of Miles Davis' band and up in the first-class cabin was Tiny Tim, all of them on their way to the Isle of Wight. Could Tiny or the caravan have hoped for better company?

Boarding the plane, the caravan members were completely ignored by the onlookers craning their necks for a glimpse of Mr. Tim, who was reported to have complained at having to travel on the same plane with so many weirdos.  The only complaint I got from Tiny's direction came from his wife, Miss Vicki, who wrinkled her nose at my cigarette smoke while doodling rabbit faces on a piece of paper. 

Meanwhile, Tiny talked about the old days with Hugh Romney, the Hog Farm boss, who once played on the same bill with Tiny and Moondog at the Fat Black Pussycat in the Village.  You'd never think that Hugh used to be a comedian would you?

Now his name was Wavy Gravy and for entertainment on the Caravan he'd fill a huge tubful of Jell-O and invite everyone in for a dip while it steamed with vapors from the dry ice tossed in to chill it.

Aboard the Hashish Express the sudden dawn of England brought with it the awakening of new fires to burn the vast quantities of evidence before the freakniks of the Great Medicine Ball caravan had to expose themselves to British Customs.  By the time they landed at Heathrow Airport, all of them were ready to take their clothes off and be strip-searched,

There is a civilization that exists on the other side of the looking glass even if people drive cars on the left side of the street.  England has long endured the high accident rate of American tourists who look the wrong way before stepping off the curb, but a long-haired freak who steps off the plane while carrying dope is no accident.

I said goodbye to the caravan as quickly as I could, leaving it to find new stashes in pot-parched London while I hitched a ride with Miles Davis' band to the Isle of Wight.

Miles' road manager rented a limousine but we had to wait while organist Keith Jarrett, the least likely of the whole planeload, stripped for the Customs inspectors.  Then we had to
wait more than another hour while the Immigration officials tried to find the band's working permits.  

When we finally got to the airport snack bar, the waitress snapped at Airto Moreira, Miles' Brazilian percussionist, telling him he couldn't sit down unless he ordered a meal. Airto, who'd stuck his head into the mouth of the Amazon to roam through the jungles looking for new percussion instruments to play, grimaced like a hideously painted coconut.

"I hate this country!" he said.

Actually, England has its advantages.  One of them was our limousine, a Daimler, one of the great British automobile masterpieces that crowds a lot of room into a little space.  We rode south to Portsmouth past the centuries of cultivated English countryside, past the Texaco stations and the hedgerows and the rotaries and the Edwardian pubs with their "Take Courage" signs, while Keith, Airto and Gary Bartz, Miles' new alto player, discussed the futility of traveling all this distance to play just one hour-long set.

When Portsmouth, the ancient capital of England's romance with the sea, finally spread itself out below us, I told the driver to take us to the Hovercraft landing. With the Isle of Wight rising seven miles off England's bottom across a strait called the Solent, there was


The Hovercraft came
out of the darkness and up on the beach like some monster


no way to get to it more exciting than by Hovercraft, a ship that skims over the water on a cushion of air.

I had taken the Hovercraft the year before, watching it come out of the darkness and up onto the beach like some kind of Loch Ness Monster.  I didn't know that there were two types of Hovercraft, one of them with more emphasis on capacity than showmanship.  Naturally the driver took us to the wrong one.

Somehow our luggage got aboard it but Airto and I didn't.

We had neglected to buy the necessary extra ticket and we watched from the dock while it sailed off with the three other members of our party, past an atomic submarine coming into the harbor and a row of frigates tied up at the naval station dock.

We waited for the next one with a queue that mixed English rock fans garbed in acid freakiness with straight-arrow mechanics, their families and miniskirted salesgirls off to the Wight beaches for the Bank Holiday weekend.  Airto leaned against a wooden piling, looked into the dark, murky water and said:

"Never again will I go anywhere like this without my woman."

On the other side of the Solent, the others were waiting for us with taxis.  The Isle of Wight is where Queen Victoria used to spend her summers with her children and where you can still leave the butter out all night.

Now, retired admirals and colonels live on the Isle, both in its castles and in its newly built ranch house developments. It is maybe the last piece of Empire that the British still own and yet, after all these years, it is closer to Disneyland than it is to England.

The drive over its narrow, winding roads, through its post card villages, past its windmill and its gingerbread cross?roads makes all the effort of getting there seem no more troublesome than the price of a bleacher seat.

Why would anyone want to hold a rock festival here, in one of the most inaccessible places in all of England?  We drove to the Culver Lodge Hotel in Sandown, a block away from the English Channel, with a great chalk cliff rising over the seascape.

The hotel was a neat place, small and clean, but it had the feel of varicose veins, where retired Army sergeants wounded in some dumb distant war came to spend their pensioners' vacations and where apprentice pipefitters and their dime store girlfriends, not yet introduced to the fast life, came to hide amid the blandness for a shack job. 

It was maybe 3 a.m. New York time when I got there.  I took a walk down the beach, stuck a toe in the Channel and went back to my room to sleep.

England long ago left the continent, but if its distance, from France and the rest of the world seems greater than ever now, the reason, of course, is that England is on a trip.  Turn on the telly and you'll find unabashed acid freaks sharing almost equal time with the high-button faces that have survived the Empire.

Where else could you get Kenny Everett, in his stardust garb, with a beard that outlines his face like a dope advertisement, certified to run one of the local TV shows?  Local? As Derek Taylor says, all British television looks like it's coming from just down the road.

When you watch Kenny on London Weekend, "Your Panic Station," you realize that England's politicians are well aware that they'll now win or lose elections on the votes of 18-year-olds and of the intellectualized suburbanites who come home on the 6 o'clock out of Waterloo Station to be greeted by wifey not with a cocktail but wit a big, fat joint.

What about England, then, where the pollution from the chimneys is being challenged by the smoke from hash pipes?  Everybody and his brother-in-law are going out on strike for some reason or another, but if the country isn't at peace with itself it doesn't seem to have a single beef with the rest of the world.

Britain seems to drift further and further away, not giving a damn about the international crises that could really send it on a trip. The country seems to be having too jolly a time getting high to worry about the slogans France's radical kids are shouting.  Where else is there a country so civilized that the cops don't carry guns and you can smoke on public buses?

Even the pimps play according to the rules in England, so you can imagine how surprised everyone must have been, the English kids as well as promoters, when a contingent of 600 French and Algerian anarchists showed up at the 1970 Isle of Wight pop festival.

When Bob Dylan played the Isle of Wight the year before, England had never witnessed so conspicuous a pilgrimage. From Wick, at the northernmost tip of Scotland, and from Perth, Edinburgh, New?castle, Liverpool, Sheffield, Ipswich and all the cities to the south of Wick it was as if England's young blood was rushing from its head to its feet.

With rucksacks on their shoulders and bright, hopeful innocence on their faces, thousands of kids hitch?hiked on the roadsides or crowded onto buses and railroad cars in a pilgrimage to experience the presence of the man who had given them their ethic.  For the first time in history, the ferries across the Solent kept operating all night.

For the week that Dylan was in England, the press never took its eyes off him, or him off its front pages.  Reporters, photo?graphers and cameramen camped outside the 16th Century stone farm?house where he was quartered, trying to catch his every word and movement.

The 125,000 kids who slept in the chilly cornfields of Wootton Creek, who waited hours in line for a moment of odious relief in the handful of filth-ridden portable toilets, who all but starved on overpriced fish and chips--they hadn't come for Joe Cocker or the Who or the Moody Blues or Richie Havens. In 1969, the Isle of Wight pop festival was Bob Dylan's festival.  In 1970, the Isle of Wight pop festival was something else.

By the time I flew in from Bembridge Airport by helicopter, landing in a rutted field outside the stage entrance at the festival site, the battle to preserve the integrity of the gate had already been lost.  So had the battle to preserve the integrity of the festival.  This year, the festival was at a site different from the year before.

This year the festival site was alongside Afton Down, on the Southwestern coastal heights of the island, where a 16-year-old kid tripping on LSD could fall 200 feet down a cliff if he took just one misstep.

This year, the stage was bigger.  The arena enclosure was bigger.  There were more food stalls and a greater variety of foods.  Some of the dressing room trailers even had water closets, a non-existent commodity backstage the year before.  If it was Bob Dylan's festival the year before, this year it was the festival's festival.

I ran into Jan Hodenfield, the Rolling Stone correspondent, who seemed to be always outraged by success.

"There are a lot of sharks in the music business," he said.  "But this is a festival of minnows."

Where were all those respectful English kids who had waited with such awesome silence the year before for the heavens to open up while Bob Dylan descended on a golden staircase?  Who's to say he didn't?

Even this year, they weren't quite ready for those French and Algerian anarchists who came equipped with duplicating "machines and lorries to cart away stolen kitchen equipment away. They also came with Maoist harangues, recited as if someone had robotized them with transistorized tape equipment in their heads. 

They had come prepared to destroy the festival, as if it already weren't poised to do itself in. Listen to 24-year-old Ray Foulk, one of the festival promoters:

"It doesn't matter how much we give in to them, they still keep looking for a fight.  They don't want free music, they just want to cause enough of an uproar so that police or troops will have to be sent in."

By the time I got there, the French and the Algerians, aided by the British White Panthers, The British Hell's Angels and American radical splinter groups, had already won the battle of Devastation Hill, the 80-foot-high ridge which ran the length of the arena and which provided a free grandstand view of the stage.  An attempt by the festival security force, equipped with Alsatian police dogs, to clear the Hill was beaten back by the thousands camped there.

Some fans were bitten.  Others, said to be Americans riding on motorcycles, fired back at the dogs with air rifles.  When the promoters tried to fence off the ridge with a 10-foot-?high corrugated metal barrier, the freaks on the ridge carried off the material for


Everybody who
was anybody
was there the year before


use as lean-tos.  The promoters' secret weapon---high-powered searchlights to beam up into the eyes of the campers on the ridge---also ultimately failed.

The year before, just about every music celebrity who happened to be in England crowded into the press enclosure at the foot of the stage to hear Dylan.  Three of the Beatles were there, sitting as sort of a guard of honor.  Of the Beatles this year, only George's wife, Pattie, attended.  The difference between last year's Isle of Wight festival and this year's Isle of Wight festival was the difference between shopping on Fifth Avenue and shopping on 14th Street.

Backstage, a pop festival is like a performers? convention. I think about my days as a police reporter, remembering some roped-off street in front of some blazing block of buildings, where I would hobnob with the mayor, the councilmen, the chaplains, the Salvation Army canteen staff and the police and fire department brass, all of whom I otherwise would never see gathered together at any other type of occasion.

A pop festival is like an eruption, like a tidal wave, like a battleground, a historic moment of spontaneous emergency, exploding, inevitably, on some least likely geographic location, engulfing all with panic and with heroism, with legend and with dung.  No matter how well laid out, a pop festival can always get out of hand.  Can you really enjoy a disaster?  All that remains is to relish the excitement. 

Backstage, it was like a party in the midst of a plague.  Woodstock was a year gone and 3,000 miles away, but England was trying to re-live it. I must admit there were pleasant similarities. There were vibrations that reminded me of the happy bantering and roaring reunions that took place amid the tables in the performers' pavilion between rainstorms up on Max Yasgur's farm.

At the Isle of Wight, for instance, I remember the simple joy of passing a bottle around with John Sebastian, Roger Daltrey, Robbie Krieger and Jim Morrison, who had flown to the festival to perform during a weekend break in his obscenity and morals trial in Miami.

With the five of us getting drunk amid the tents and trailers behind the big wooden ramp leading to the stage, Jim talked about how it was to be at the defense table listening to the testimony unfold as if it were a story being told about someone else.

"At first I thought maybe I was guilty." Jim said, "but now I'm beginning to think I wasn't."

I remember sitting in the chill Wight darkness around a campfire of two metal garbage burners along with the Apple contingent, headed by Terry Doran, George Harrison's right-hand man, while two roadies dressed as skinheads played Frisbee off to the side.

But there was something strange in this temporary city of light, blazing like a cataclysm in the middle of a rural black nowhere.  There was something uneven about the magic of this isle.  You would be having fun and then suddenly you would not.  It was like falling off one of the chalk cliffs that overlooked the English Channel.

When I arrived, it was Saturday and the festival was already three days old.  There was Zal Yanovsky sitting at a table beneath a beach umbrella in the beer garden.  Inside the cafeteria tent, Lord Montague, an avid fan of pop stars, was busy making up a guest list for a party aboard his yacht.  Wearing a sweater, Steve Leber, the No. 1 agent at William Morris, was presiding over the servicing of all his clients.

Pop photographer Jim Marshall was threatening to murder a balding, dark-suited festival official who kept calling for guards to throw the man out.  Bert Block, who had booked all the American acts, was busy with promoter Ray Foulk in a backstage tent, counting out English banknotes from a paper bag into piles arranged on the ground so they could pay off one of the performers.

One of the first to greet me was Kris Kristofferson, who had played earlier in the week to a barrage of empty soda pop cans from the radicals in the audience.

"Have you been out front yet?" he said.  "I just took a walk through the crowd.  Man it's a real down trip!"

A hand grenade had been thrown at the turnstiles at the main gate to prevent the collection of tickets.  Undercover police were scouring the hillside looking for a pusher they called "The Acid Man." They also were raiding tents full of pot smokers.

I talked to Lewis Chester of the London Sunday Times. He had just filed this report of a conversation between promoter Ron Foulk and the head of his security force, who had rushed up to tell about an assault being mounted on the South gate:

Foulk: Well, transfer men from the North.

Security Man: Hopeless.  They're up there too.  And it's our most vulnerable section.  I've got all our dogs and most of our Land Rovers up there.

Foulk: How about from here, then?

Security Man: Daren't risk it. (Some of the unaccredited are apparently contemplating storm trooper tactics to make an assault on the Press enclosure.)

Foulk: Well, if it gets too bad there's only one thing you can do.

Security Man: What's that?

Foulk: Dial 999.

Nine-nine-nine, of course, is England's 911---the number to dial to get the police in a hurry.

According to the Foulk brothers, this would be the last Isle of Wight festival.  Who wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to sponsor a disaster?

As for the music, it came almost non-stop, except for the long set changes, with the Saturday night show lasting past the dawn Sunday morning.  I remember Sly Stone waking up the audience of some 500,000 kids, give or take a hundred thousand, making his entrance with the 7 a.m. sun.

He had wanted to go on in Melanie's time slot, about 5 a.m., when the first light of dawn hit the ridge at Afton Down.  Through his agent, Steve Leber, he even tried to buy


Most of the crowd
was asleep by the time
Melanie got onstage


Melanie's turn, Steve was her agent, too, but Melanie had been there for days, waiting to go on, rearranging her future bookings and postponing her European vacation each day that her own performance was set back.

"I wouldn't sell for a million dollars," her manager said. 

By the time Melanie went onstage most of the crowd was asleep.  She worked valiantly to be remembered.  When Sly appeared, he refused to be filmed even though Murray Lerner, with the contract to shoot the Isle of Wight Festival movie, pleaded with him.

"You can't buy light like this for a million dollars," Murray kept saying.  Sly said he would come back for another show that night but never did.

The bottles and cans thrown at Kris Kristofferson was an undeserved reception for one of the best songwriters of the 1970s. That prompted Procol Harum to come on with a rocker set rather than dwell on the Whiter Shade of Pale tempos that characterized most of the rest of their repertory.

"It's too cold to play anything slow," lead singer Gary Brooker explained.  Chicago had dominated its evening.  Cactus ended the Friday night show at 3 a.m. Saturday, with the audience in bedrolls.  Did you ever sleep with the radio on all night?  Can you imagine the radio to be live music?

The weekend kept building.  Miles Davis astounded the audience with music that refused to be jazz, refused to be rock, refused to be anything but Miles.  At the age of 44, he remains more avant-garde than anybody.  David Bromberg astounded himself.  He kept being called back for encores, thinking everybody was putting him on.

There was Ten Years After, there was the Doors, there was Richie Havens, there was Leonard Cohen, there was the cast of thousands. But for me the high point was Jimi Hendrix.

Ironically, this would be his last major public appearance---an epic two-and-a-half-hour set. He sang in a voice that was louder, stronger and that had more style and self-assurance than I had ever heard from him.  And yet there was also something strange about his performance at the Isle of Wight. 

Something discordant and yet beautiful, something alarming and yet pure.  When he came onstage, dressed in the garish flamboyance that always made him look like an off-duty buccaneer, he turned toward the audience and said:

"It'd be better if you stand up and start singing for your country.  If you don't, fuck it!"

Now, looking back, it seems as if he said it with a snarl.  Immediately he began playing England's National Anthem, God Save the Queen, but with the same sound effects that he had played The Star Spangled Banner at the Woodstock festival, sound effects that made you hear dive-bombers and explosions and machinegun fire and children crying.

He played the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and he played Bob Dylan's Along the Watchtower, introducing it as "another song we did in the year of 1833, and I think it's pretty true today."

He played with a loudness and a fierceness that seemed to surpass all of his previous predilections toward those qual?ities, and in the enchanted night of that quaint Victorian island, with a smoky haze coming offstage and drifting low over the crowd, you felt as if you were in some kind of inferno of sound, with smoke literally coming from the amps.

Some people began to leave. There were women who said they were frightened by Jimi. Onstage, Jimi had amplifier trouble.

"It's taking a little time to get into it because we haven't got it all together,? Jimi said. "But I'm gonna stay here all night until somebody boos."

By 2 a.m., with three acts still waiting to go on, the festival officials were threatening to cut off Jimi's power if he didn't finish his set.  Jimi had promised to get off at the first boo, and that was it.  

When Jimi finished, one of promoter Ray Foulk's own hired hands set off a magnesium flare atop the corrugated metal roof of the stage as part of an environmental display and firemen had to be called, putting Foulk in further trouble with the island government.  As he stood watching the blaze with his jaw dropped he said he would never do another festival again.

"I've lost all faith," he explained.

Foulk had managed to stage the show after strong opposition from various factions on the island, mostly from the retired admirals and colonels. Twice he had to change the site and in the end there were only three weeks left for him to build his tiny city.

The 24-year-old promoter, who spent more than a half million dollars putting the festival together, said he was going to lose money on this one, financed for the most part with the profits he earned from Dylan's appearance the year before.

Some estimates of his losses ran as high as $62,000 but Foulk was hoping to recoup the money from the recording rights and from the film that Murray Lerner was shooting. They had overrun the refreshment stands and the food stores, ransacking some and setting others on fire.  By destroying this festival, they had destroyed any future festivals.

It was when they cut the tele?phone wires that I left. I was on a deadline and I had to phone in a story.  Joan Baez was singing as I drove away.

On a road banked by high hedgerows with a name that even the taxi driver didn't know, riding past centuries-old stone houses with thatched roofs that proclaimed all history to be straw, I looked back into the darkness and saw the lights against the sky rising like a halo over a nation of children, another city built right in the middle of nowhere for five days, another army of the young encamped in a field in the name of music.

0n both sides of the road, they were pouring homeward now, walking the 22 miles to the ferry esplanade at Ryde like an endless procession of refugees, sticking their thumbs out at the passing cars without even bothering to turn around, feeble gestures for rides they knew they wouldn't get. In the blackness I wondered how many of them were going to be run down before daylight.  The taxi driver honked his horn.

"They won't bloody move, will they?? he, said.

In the end a festival is just a party.  I thought of all the trouble it takes to get to the Isle of Wight and I looked at them walking with their rucksacks on their backs, with their tents and their bedrolls. They were too impatient to wait with the other thousands queued up for buses throughout the day in mile-long lines, or too broke to pay the fare.

Was the sound of Joan Baez singing The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down ringing in their ears?  Back there under the halo, she was still on stage, her flawless voice pleading for justice with the night while the diehards lay wrapped in blankets beneath the smoky haze and thousands of others were still lined up for fish and chips at the rows of concessionaire stalls.

I am weary of all this and I am disgusted with festivals and yet I can still feel the magic in the air.  I look out the car window at the disintegration of this pilgrimage and I remember driving over the same roads the year before with drummer Levon Helm of the Band, riding through the early morning dark?ness to see the same throng of kids walking with the same-rucksacks and I remember how Levon, overwhelmed by the hardship these kids were willing to go through to hear him play, suddenly rolled down the car window and cried out:

"They're beautiful."

And he made the driver stop and he started handing out food that he had bought to bring back to the other members of the Band trapped in their hotel room.

And now, on the taxi's radio, there's Levon singing All La Glory.

Yes, I am weary and I look out the taxi window at the walking kids and I wonder to myself what is the point of it all?  And then I realize there is no point except these are our children.  ##

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