Rob and Connie were the reason we wound up back there, back in the hot, hot summer of 1970. Have you ever had best friends in the form of a couple for a year or two and can't remember how you met them in the first place or why you have no idea what ever happened to either of them? That's the way it was with Rob and Connie. She was an awkwardly tall but completely self-assured brunette. She lived in a house with her parents, even though she was a student like the rest of us at the big southern college where they yell "Roll Tide" while having an elephant as a mascot. Her family had a Hungarian puli for a pet and I had never thought a dog could have braided hair. Rob was a rugged kid who convinced me that sitting in front of a pair of speakers the size of Tuscany and listening to Traffic's John Barleycorn Must Die as loud as you could without exploding some vital organ was a life-changing experience. Even though Rob turned out to be correct on that one, nothing else made much or any sense in that place and time. That's a big part of the reason that we all wound up at the second Atlanta Pop Festival on the Fourth of July weekend back in those halcyon days of your.
I was not a pop festival virgin since this was the second one to be held in the Atlanta area. In 1969 news of the Woodstock deal had filtered down to middle America and this had led a few of us to venture over to the first festival event in Georgia. It's said that there were around 150,000 there for that one. That seems about right in light of what happened the next year. You might have heard of some of the bands we saw there at the first version of this event.
But we were just kids at that point. Hippies were still just an idea, a theory, for the most part. We wandered around and drank some beer. We might have smoked a joint or two. We listened to some music and then drove home. How much difference a year can make.
In 1970 my girlfriend and I plus Rob and Connie were off to Byron, Georgia, for the rerun of this event. We were in a white Mustang convertible with red upholstery. I remember that much. The tickets cost $14. I remember that. We drove down a long dirt road leading into the festival gates out in the middle of a pecan grove and adjacent to the Middle Georgia Raceway where the event actually took place in the middle of Nowhere, Georgia. That I recall. We parked the car and threw down a couple of blankets on which to sleep. That much is clear.
The rest is a blur. Not unlike a friend I saw from my old hometown, Greppart Frog, I probably should have spent most of the weekend in the medical tent.
While the Secretary of State William P. Rogers was in Saigon trying to negotiate a settlement to the war that's fucked up America's psyche for all the years since, somewhere between 400,000 and half a million hippies managed to coexist for an entire weekend without one seriously violent incident. And this is in 100o hot as hell southern summertime with no preparations whatsoever on most of the participants' part, aside from the recreational items.
Like Woodstock, the event was promoted as "three days of peace, love and music." On the bill for this reprise were:
The host act was a bunch of guys who lived just 15 miles from the site, in Macon. They were called the Allman Brothers and were kind of new on the music scene. However, since they were the local unofficial "hosts" of the event, they opened and closed the festival.
The promoter later said that they were expecting 100,000 folks to show up, max. When he went up in a helicopter on Friday afternoon even before the first act took to the stage, traffic was backed up ninety miles to Atlanta. He later said that this "scared (him) to death."
In fashion with the prevailing culture (and don't tell me that there is not an anti-southern bias in the media; don't even start to tell me that), this festival never really made any news headlines like Woodstock (1969) or Altamont (also '69) or Monterey (1967). The reason I know that is because you've heard of all the rest, but you've never heard of this one, have you? But it did more that you can imagine to solidify a culture of the hippie lifestyle in the Confederate south as well as allow folks like me the opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix play the Star-Spangled Banner at midnight on the Fourth of July before he died of an overdose in London just a couple of months later.
The stage crew that night had it arranged to set off the fireworks display at the end of his version of America's tune. They had told him to give them some sort of signal when he was about ten minutes from being done because they needed that much leeway to get the fuses ready. Apparently they had missed the big signal that Jimi had already given to anyone paying attention when he segued from "Foxy Lady" into "Crosstown Traffic" without even realizing it. The looks of confusion on his band's faces when that happened was nothing compared to the look on Jimi's face when the fireworks went off while he was still deeply adrift in the anthem's solo. He jumped about three feet in the air when the first blast took place. If you have ever been as stoned as Jimi Hendrix was that evening in 1970 while I stood there right in front of the stage to see what all the hype was about this left-handed black guitar player, I would like to buy you a drink as well as some professional help. Someone who'd been backstage told me later that Jimi had ingested at least three (3) hits of the purple microdot acid. I tend to believe that was not Jimi's first dose of the evening. I don't think I've ever seen anyone as high as that man was that evening, and I have seen my share of seriously fucked up folks.
There were other memorable moments, such as Richie Havens playing his version of Here Comes the Sun that Sunday morning. That's the kind of church you need when you really haven't had much for nourishment all weekend aside from a couple of watermelons tossed off a big truck going down the road and maybe a bologna sandwich.
Procol Harum was a standout act. The crowd demanded several encores before they dusted off the cobwebs from A Whiter Shade of Pale and played it like I'd never imagined it could be played. I still love that song mostly because of the version I heard that weekend.
At one point, we actually met John Sebastian. Apparently, he was so high on love and something else that he took his acoustic guitar and walked around just sitting down and doing requests for five or six people at a time. That was very nice of him, and I've always respected him for it. When he plopped down in our little group, the song I requested was Younger Generation, and you should listen to that song someday. Especially if you're a parent of a young child. It might be called a "must listen" for parents. The version he did for us brought a tear to my eye, and I was many years away from parenthood at the time.
There were a handful of cops there, but they were so totally overwhelmed that there was never any effort I saw to arrest anyone. As one cop said later, "There were just too many of 'em." Yes. Yes there were. So the State Trooper on duty on the main highway was reduced to this job: He stood guard on an overpass bridge where a large creek ran underneath. In the creek were a couple of hundred naked hippies. Lined up on the road were another couple of hundred naked hippies. The State Trooper's job was to make sure the creek was clear for the next naked hippie to dive in without hitting anyone. He was directing human traffic in the spirit of what must have seemed like total insanity to him. I will bet he's told this story to several folks over the years who thought he was making the whole thing up.
The drugs went the exact opposite way of the festival itself. The festival started out being a paid event and turned into a free event very soon when the crowds turned out to be overwhelming. The drugs started out being free and turned into an entrepreneurial enterprise when the crowd became overwhelming. There is still something quite disjointed in my mind when I recall seeing a guy walking around with a huge sign saying "Mescaline $10" standing right beside a State Trooper who is trying his best to ignore him.
More could be said about all the acts, but I'd like to just say a few words about the Allman Brothers before I wrap this up. They had put out their first album in 1969 and Duane was doing studio work to help supplement the band's payroll. In fact, he was in Miami working on a little project lovingly referred to at the time as "the Layla sessions" with Eric Clapton when he had to get back to this gig in Georgia that weekend. The rest of the band has been on site for a couple of days partying in their Winnebago, but as the time to open the show got near, Duane was still nowhere to be seen. This was in the days before cell phones, if you can imagine that.
It turns out that Duane was driving back in his old Ford Galaxie and had hit the traffic jam that was stalling everything in sight into the Festival out on I-75. When it looked as if he wasn't going to be able to get there, he parked his car in a parking lot and hitched a ride on a motorcycle with some madman who went off road and delivered him with twenty minutes to spare. (I guess I don't need to tell you how Duane would meet his Maker not too long afterwards.) They took the stage and blasted into "Statesboro Blues" to open the weekend. You really should hear their version of that song if you never have. It remains the best work they ever did as a band, in my opinion.
In case you ever wondered exactly what sort of tree-hugging hippie crap was being bandied about like Wisdom from on High back in those days, I leave you with the actually introduction to the Allman Brothers on the first day of the 1970 Atlanta Pop Festival. These were the first words spoken on the mic to begin those three days of madness. I have no idea who was speaking them, but I'm sure he put a lot of thought into this.
"You know, in Life magazine they had some pictures of, uh, the human egg being fertilized. And when I was in school, they used to give us this shuck that it was a big race. You know, the sperm goes out and as they race to the egg . . . and the first one to get there SPPGT goes into the egg.
"That isn't the way it happens. In Life magazine, this Swedish or Norwegian photographer took pictures of what happens. And what really happens is the sperm surround the egg, the female ovum, and they twirl it with their tails at a rate of eight times per minute. In this fermordial (sic) dance. And this, this actually happens. You know, eight times . . . eight is the sign of infinity. Right? It goes like this, you know? (Makes sign of "8" in the air.)
"And that's where we all come from is this dance. So life isn't a race. It's not competing with anyone; it's playing together. Like all men play together. And these are the Allman Brothers. And they play together. Allman Brothers. ALL MEN!"
When this was all over and we were back home again, I remember thinking to myself, "There is no way this sort of event is going to be allowed to continue." It's one of those things about which I wish I'd been wrong. That was some major fun.