The Sunday Conversation: Lou Adler on Monterey Pop

The 45th anniversary of the legendary Monterey International Pop Music Festival will be marked June 17 with a screening at Cinefamily of the D.A. Pennebakerdocumentary "Monterey Pop" and a Q&A session with Lou Adler, who produced the event — the first major rock festival — with John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas. Adler also wrote the introduction for a new commemorative volume, "A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival," written by Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik for Santa Monica Press.

What inspired the Monterey Pop Festival?

A couple of things inspired it. One was a conversation at Cass Elliot — Mama Cass' — house a few months before the festival. And it was John Phillips, Paul McCartney, myself and Cass and Michelle [Phillips]. The discussion was how rock 'n' roll wasn't considered an art form as jazz was. They were both American forms of music. And then a man named Alan Pariser, about a month later, had gone to the Monterey Jazz Festival and came to us as a promoter to hire the Mamas & the Papas for a concert at the Monterey [County] Fairgrounds. And John and I thought this might be the situation we were looking for, where we could put rock 'n' roll into a venue that is known for jazz, thereby elevating it. Then the idea [came] to make it a charity. So we contacted as many artists in as many genres of what was considered pop music, and that was the impetus.

In what sense was it charitable?

We immediately established a foundation. All the artists performed for free. There was an admission charge, but most of the money was made on the sale of the television rights to theAmerican Broadcasting Co., which eventually never took place.

Why didn't it take place?

The head of ABC at the time was Tom Moore, and we were supposed to show him some of the footage that had been filmed at Monterey, and we chose to show him Jimi Hendrix fornicating with his amp.

That was naughty of you. Why did you do that?

We obviously thought we had something more than was television-worthy. It may have seemed underhanded, but we wanted to see if the film and the festival were going to be represented in the way that it happened. So we chose to show him that, and he rejected the film.

Jimi Hendrix also smashed his guitar there, and so did Pete Townshend. Had that been done before?

It was the first time I think an American audience had ever seen it. Hendrix and Townshend were familiar with each other's act because of both having played in England. It certainly was trying to top each other or be more explosive than the other before the other came on.

Jimi Hendrix lost the coin toss to go first. So is that why he lit his guitar on fire?

That's exactly right. He said to Townshend in a different set of words, "I'm going to do something you're not going to be able to match." No one knew. If you watch the film, the stage managers and the people who owned the equipment were completely taken by surprise, and they're shown trying to rescue microphones and drums.

Paul McCartney was the one who suggested booking Jimi Hendrix and the Who. Also [Rolling Stones manager] Andrew Oldham. It came from Paul and from Andrew.

So they were the catalyst for Jimi Hendrix's and the Who's introduction to the U.S.?

I would say they were. We went to them for any acts coming out of England that they thought should have been exposed at the festival.

Why didn't the Beatles perform?

The Beatles were having other problems along with the Stones. The Stones had had a drug bust and were denied permits. And the Beatles at that point weren't really performing [live].

So what went on backstage at Monterey that we didn't see in the film?

Quite a bit, actually. You didn't see the Association in the film. You didn't see Lou Rawls in the film, you didn't see Laura Nyro. That was an unfortunate story. Laura came out not really knowing what the rest of the artists were going to look like, the music that they were going to perform. She had sort of a New York look to her. And it was very stark. She didn't have time to rehearse. She was one of the only acts that used a backup band that we had put together, and she didn't have full arrangements for the band. So it wasn't a very good performance. But she was devastated by the performance and carried it for quite a long time.

Then when D.A. Pennebaker and I were putting together something for VH1 and we went back and looked at the performance, what Laura thought she was hearing were boos from the audience, and it turned out that there were two people that were yelling "Beautiful!" to her. Pennebaker called her and said, "Just come in and look at it." And unfortunately she passed away before she had a chance.

Monterey seems to have gone more smoothly than Woodstock did two years later. Was that simply a function of the different weather?

Monterey was about the music — Woodstock was about the weather. Not many people remember the music that came out of Woodstock. They talk about the rain and the amount of people. Just the fact that it was East Coast and the sheer numbers is why it's talked about. But when anyone wants to talk about the music that was created during that period or the iconic groups that came out of it, they were at Monterey. Some also performed at Woodstock but not with the impact they had at Monterey.

Did other festival producers — like the people behind Woodstock — ever ask your advice?

John Phillips and I were asked to be involved in Woodstock, and we decided not to. I don't remember the real reason. They already had three or four people that were involved, and I think the fact that we were joining something as opposed to starting something probably was the reason for the decision.

What aspect of Monterey's legacy are you proudest of?

I'm most proud that the legacy of Monterey after 45 years that there are iconic artists like Otis Redding and Janis Joplin and Hendrix and the Who — artists that were introduced on one level or another at Monterey still have an impact on music. And above and beyond that is the foundation. It was the first rock and roll charity established and maybe it led to Live Aid and Farm Aid. And the fact that we are still writing checks, giving money to causes on behalf of the artists that appeared at Monterey.

Do you remember how much did the tickets cost back then?

Orchestra, the evening show was $6.50. The cheapest seat was $3. That was the bleachers. We were seated [on chairs]. I showed my 12-year-old a couple of photographs, and the first thing he said was, "They got seats?"

You've had a track record of being in touch with the zeitgeist throughout your career, e.g. "Rocky Horror Picture Show," which still has legs. What would you look for in finding acts and shows to produce?

I never really looked for an act. I was living the life and keeping my eyes and ears open. If it struck me as something that wasn't out there already, like in the case of Cheech and Chong, that was so totally different than anything that was out there. I found them at a hootenanny. The Mamas & the Papas were brought to me by Barry McGuire. Even though Carole King was a very successful songwriter at the time I started recording her, she wasn't a well-known recording artist by any means. It's a cliche, but I was in the right place at the right time.

Who do you listen to these days?

I have a house full of kids. I listen to what comes out of their rooms. Out of one room is coming electronic music, and I listen to Deadmau5 out of that room. In another room I might be listening to Coldplay. I listen to Adele, who I think is tremendous. When I'm in the car, I'll listen to the '40s, '50s, '60s and '70s, and I'll jump over to Siriusly Sinatra. I listen to pretty much everything. I hit the buttons.

What else are you doing?

I just finished, last week, an animated film with Cheech and Chong based on the old tracks we did at that time, for theatrical release. My wife and I have established a camp with Paul Newman called the Painted Turtle for children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses, so I spend a great deal of my time fundraising. I have seven boys — I spend a lot of time with my children. My oldest boy, who runs the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard, his name is Nicholai, he's 38; my youngest son is 10 years old.

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