The Lost Love-In : It was the Woodstock they forgot: Newport ‘69, Los Angeles’ own weekend of music, masses and mayhem
On that first day, a midsummer Friday, 50,000 people jammed into a dusty fairground in the San Fernando Valley.
Sheets of burlap were laid across the barren field, but trampling crowds raised clouds of dirt anyway. A few dozen shade trees scattered across the grounds were useless in oppressive heat. The $2,000 worth of rented toilets simply weren’t enough.
The crowd didn’t seem to mind. “Hippies” recalled one person who was there. “Longhaired people, unshaven and with not too many clothes on,” said a state official. They had arrived from all over the country.
By sundown, the Devonshire Downs fairground took on an eerie feel. Jimi Hendrix wailed electric madness on stage as bonfires burned through the night.
This was the Woodstock that everyone forgot about.
On the weeked of June 20, 1969--two months before Woodstock--Los Angeles hosted its own three-day circus of music, masses and mayhem.
About 200,000 people passed through Devonshire Downs during those three days, according to news accounts. Newport ‘69, as the festival was called, was the largest rock ‘n’ roll concert to date. Twice as big as anything before.
Creedence Clearwater Revival played at Newport ’69. So did Jethro Tull, Joe Cocker, Marvin Gaye and Three Dog Night. Depending on whom you ask, so did Janis Joplin.
Like Woodstock, the crowds assembled in waves of tie-dye and free love, peaceful protest and psychedelic drugs. Like the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert six months later, the festival degenerated into chaotic violence as hundreds of police battled rock-throwing youths.
Newport ’69 made national headlines and left city officials scrambling to change the laws governing concerts. At the same time, it embraced the youthful surge of love-ins and be-ins. It also took the concept of the massive rock event--created on such hallowed grounds as the Monterey Pop Festival and the Newport (N.Y.) Folk Festival--and pushed that concept a step further.
In these ways, Newport ’69 may have paved the road to Woodstock.
And, in the relative blink of an eye, it was forgotten.
One of the first bands on stage at Newport ’69 was Love Exchange.
Almost as soon as they began playing, the band members realized that the sound system at Devonshire Downs wasn’t powerful enough to reach people at the rear of the tremendous crowd. They also realized that many of those people could care less.
“Everyone was partying and the music was background,” said Danny Altchuler, who played rhythm guitar. “It was like a super big party. It was like a massive, massive love-in.”
Tim Emerson was 15 and among the masses. Emerson, who now runs a sandal manufacturing company in San Diego, wandered through the fairground, sometimes listening to the bands, sometimes talking to people he met.
“Free psychedelics and all that sort of thing. There was a warm glow,” he said. “I ran into some people from Northern California who were camping in an old Cadillac hearse. The one fellow’s name was Happy Jack. He was an older fellow with a 19-year-old girl who was his old lady. They had an American flag hung over the hearse with a peace symbol where the stars would go.”
Terry Frazer was there, too, but she was a little too intimidated to mingle. The 15-year-old Reseda High School junior had bluffed her parents into letting her go to the concert.
“I don’t think they knew what it was all about.”
Neither did Frazer.
“I was a little sheltered Valley girl, and I’d never seen anything like this before,” she said. “Really, there had never been an
event like this, so no one had any idea what they were getting into.”
According to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, the next largest festival, held months before in Miami, had drawn 99,000 over the course of three days.
“There were so many people that we were literally shoulder-to-shoulder,” said Frazer, who is now a nurse-practitioner in Century City. “You couldn’t help but get caught up in the energy of the crowd. It was overwhelming.”
Backstage, some of the musicians were finding the experience just as heady. Love Exchange had been popular in Southern California and had cut several mildly successful records. Playing Newport ’69 was a different matter.
“Jimi Hendrix, to me he was a saint,” said Altchuler, who is now a Santa Monica podiatrist. “The one thing that sticks out in my mind was making a human chain from the limo to the stage for Hendrix. They were trying to keep people away from him, so they gathered whoever was backstage and we made a human chain.”
The crowds were generally calm that first day. There were gate-crashers but no violence.
After dark, though, someone triggered a flare gun at a police helicopter that circled above. It was as if a warning shot had been fired.
By Saturday morning, thousands more young people had poured into the north Valley. Frazer recalled that many arrived with only a blanket or a sleeping bag. Northridge was largely rural at the time; the only major development was San Fernando State College (now Cal State Northridge), which owned Devonshire Downs and leased it for the rock festival. Thousands of hippies slept on the ground at nearby ranches and vacant fields.
“They were a rather disheveled-looking group,” said Warner Masters, a retired university official. “The few people who had homes in the area saw these kids wandering around and they got upset about it.”
Phone calls were made to police and there were a few arrests, but that was all. The music continued. And if Friday had been hot, Saturday was broiling.
“Buffy Sainte-Marie was sort of the earth mother who kept peace all day on Saturday,” Frazer said. “There were a couple of times when she came out on stage and asked everybody to calm down.”
For some, the heat and crowds were overwhelming.
“I remember lots of dirt, and it was very chaotic, and it was very hot,” said David Fox, who wore tie-dye and boots to the concert and sported a “Jewish Afro.” He is now a marketing director for a Houston cable company.
“We finally got in after being in line forever,” Fox said. “As soon as you got in there, you wished you weren’t there.”
Robert Barnett, the manager of Love Exchange, recalled that the crowd found a way to cope.
“Everybody was taking tons of psychedelics,” said Barnett, who is now a family law attorney. “Everybody was kind of hazy.”
Hazy? One man who went to Newport ‘69--he’s now an industrial recruiter--recalled that the Rolling Stones put on a tremendous show. The Rolling Stones weren’t at the concert. Several people remembered seeing Hendrix and Joplin on stage for a rare duet. Others insisted that Joplin never showed up at Devonshire Downs.
It is, however, a matter of record that Hendrix was so disappointed with his performance Friday night that he came back Saturday to play a surprise jam with Buddy Miles and Eric Burden. According to the Hendrix biography, “ ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky,” after the second performance the musician sat in a mobile dressing room and talked with several Black Panthers, causing some commotion backstage. On that same afternoon, someone recalled, Jethro Tull crawled inside a bass drum during his performance.
“I just can’t forget Saturday night culminating with Creedence Clearwater,” Frazer said. “They played all their best tunes. Everyone was energized. How can I describe it?”
During all this, Emerson was still wandering.
“I remember going into a local market and finding all these festival-goers ripping off and eating food right in the middle of the store so they wouldn’t have to buy it,” he said. “There were so many of them that the storekeepers couldn’t do anything about it.”
Later, back at the fairground, he noticed a group of teen-agers pulling the clothes off a drunk young woman.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I said, ‘Hey, that’s my girlfriend!’ ” Emerson said. “The guys looked up at me and by that time I had attracted some attention. These four biker guys who were standing nearby said, ‘What’s going on?’ I told them and they chased the kids away.
“The girl readjusted her clothes and I ended up walking around with her all afternoon and all night,” he said.
“She gave me her phone number. “It’s funny, I never called that girl. I may still have that phone number somewhere.”
In 1969, Mark Robinson Jr. was just 1 1/2 years out of Stanford University, where he had earned a degree in economics while playing flanker for the football team. His father was a Southern California attorney. Robinson--photographed for the Times with short hair and a sports coat--was the picture of conservatism.
Yet he had chosen to become a rock promoter.
After some small shows and concerts, Robinson staged the Newport Pop Festival at Orange County Fairgrounds in 1968. Eighty-thousand people turned out to see Tiny Tim, Iron Butterfly and Jefferson Airplane. But there were problems: Conditions at the festival were, in the promoter’s words, “slipshod,” and the event ended in chaos as 20,000 people crashed the gate. The next Christmas, Robinson staged a concert at the Sports Arena that was sparsely attended.
Still, in the summer of 1969, the 24-year-old entrepreneur was pushing ahead with Newport ‘69, now transplanted to the Valley. According to an interview in The Times, he spent $123,000 on advertising. He leased Devonshire Downs for $31,500 and spent $11,000 to erect a barbed-wire-topped fence around the fairground. Carnival rides and food trucks were brought in. He spent $282,000 to sign 32 bands.
“This will be a giant convergence of humanity for music,” he said. “This is to kids what the Rose Bowl game is to their parents.”
And the young promoter insisted that he had learned from past failures. But Robinson made a new mistake: He hired a local car club, the Street Racers, to provide security. Some say he hired a number of Hells Angels, though Robinson denied this.
“The security was more violent than the audience,” said Cory Wells, one of the lead singers for Three Dog Night.
When the festival was over, when all the arrests had been made and Devonshire Downs was left with $30,000 worth of damage, a police investigation concluded that Robinson had not prepared for such a large undertaking. Called before a police commission hearing, Robinson was asked what he would do differently if he could replay the festival.
“I wouldn’t do it.”
Three Dog Night took the stage on the last day, Sunday. By that time, the crowd had swelled, by some reports, to more than 60,000.
“It was just an ocean of people out there. So many people . . . it was scary,” Wells said. “We had never performed before such a massive amount of people.”
Poco and Mother Earth had already played. So had Booker T. & The MGs. The Chambers Brothers where the top act of the day.
“There were so many bands,” Wells said. “The rock festivals were exciting and new. That sort of thing was in its infancy. Newport got the wheels turning and, of course, Woodstock came after that.
“Hendrix, I was gaga about him,” Wells said. “The Rascals were big then. But everybody was on the same level. We’d rap and talk, ask where they were gigging next. It was just plain fun.”
Somewhere along the way, though, Newport ’69 went wrong.
Maybe it was the sheer size of the crowd. Maybe it was the heat, as if all those people were being brought to a boil.
Police said the problems began when thousands of youths showed up for Sunday’s show with neither tickets nor the $7 needed to get in. The gate-crashing soon began.
“When people would try to sneak in,” Emerson said, “the security guys would gang up on them and beat them wildly.”
Crowds near the fence--both inside and outside--saw this and began pelting security guards with rocks and bottles. Soon after, a man who was at the concert said he heard the pounding of footsteps. He looked up to see helmeted police marching toward the fairground.
The police remained outside but soon became a target for angry crowds inside and about 5,000 people roaming the perimeter of the fairground. One officer was seriously injured when he was struck in the chest with a metal bar.
By late afternoon, 250 police officers had arrived, joining with 168 security officers. The violence spread outward as clusters of youths vandalized nearby homes and ranches. Barnett, the band manager, recalled watching as “a bunch of kids ripped up a gas station.”
Residents panicked at the sight of roving packs of hippies.
The majority of the festival remained peaceful. Tens of thousands listened calmly to music that was punctuated by the sirens of arriving ambulances. A number of people said they weren’t aware of the fighting that was going on a few hundred yards away.
“The last day was a melee because of a bunch of kids running around drunk and smoking dope,” Barnett said. “They got real crazy because it was really hot.”
Just after dark, Robinson diffused the situation by ordering all the festival’s gates opened so the crashers could get inside to listen to music.
In the end, police made 165 arrests. Hospitals treated about 100 people. Twenty-seven police were injured. A 17-year-old San Diego man sued the Los Angeles Police Department, claiming that officers clubbed him without reason. Local property owners reported $10,000 in damages.
The Police Department concluded that “ultra-liberal organizations” and at least one person “reported to have Communist connections” had incited the riot. City officials, after conducting a number of hearings, began drafting tougher show-permit laws.
“Woodstock got so much publicity,” Frazer said. “If you were west of the Rockies, the Newport festival was Woodstock.”
Yet the moment that 250,000 people began packing onto Max Yasgur’s farm in western New York state, Newport ’69 fell into a shadow of obscurity.
Woodstock instantly became a symbol for the youth movement, the “Woodstock Nation.” It spawned hit songs, two albums and a motion picture. Robinson had such dreams for Newport ‘69, but film negotiations with Universal Studios had failed in the weeks before the festival.
Robinson was recently honeymooning and could not be reached for comment. One person involved with Newport ’69 said the festival effectively ended Robinson’s career as a promoter. He has since gone to law school and joined his father’s firm.
A half a dozen rock festivals followed Newport ’69 that summer; none were as big as Woodstock’s 400,000 or Newport’s 200,000. All of them, says the Rolling Stone encyclopedia, tended “to verge on disaster.”
In December of that year, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death at the Altamont festival in Livermore. A Hells Angel hired as a security guard was charged with the murder, but was later acquitted. There were three other deaths at the concert. Only nine major festivals have been held since.
Still, the 20-year anniversary of Woodstock has stirred nostalgia for the massive, rock ‘n’ roll parties of the past.
“Everyone has been talking about Woodstock,” Fox said. “Isn’t it funny how everyone has forgotten about Newport?”
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