Rock Festival Days

“Truckers Getting LSD for the Road” by The Rocketeer is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 9th grade a friend of mine owed me three bucks. He didn’t have the money, but he had two tickets he’d gotten for free from an older brother who worked at a radio station. I went to the concert with him in lieu of the cash. The Doors had had only one hit record, and the promoters didn’t really understand them. They booked Glen Campbell, who had hit it big with “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” as the opening act Campbell came out in cowboy outfit and looked uncomfortable in front of the half capacity crowd of hippies and freaks. Our free tickets were in the third row on the main floor of the Memorial Coliseum in front of the stage. Not far in back of us were a few acres of empty seats.

The stage was at least seven feet high. That was odd. At previous events the stage was always short enough for the musicians to hop up and off it. Jim Morrison put on an amazing show. He wore tight black leather pants and would sing with one hand in his pocket like he was trying to caress his dick. Most of the songs lasted ten minutes and the finale was a long, long version of the “The End.” He started improvising lyrics about starting a revolution and then jumped off the stage onto the floor and beckoned all of the people sitting in the far reaches of the place in the cheap seats to come forward. They all surged forward and the main floor became jammed. From the side of the stage a bunch of cops with helmets and batons rushed in. They kept the crowd, now forming a half moon around him from each end of the stage, about ten feet away from him. Morrison kept singing about defying the police and taking over the world. The cops looked worried. He clearly wanted to incite a riot. One girl burst past the cops and ran up him. He grabbed her and kissed for a couple of minutes. When he let her go she wandered back with glazed eyes and cop grabbed her. Other girls tried to rush the stage but more cops had arrived and were able to manhandle them all. There was incredible tension in the air. Robby Krieger and Ray Manzarek kept playing psychedelic, dreamy music, and Jim kept singing. About the time the place was about to explode the lights suddenly went up and power was killed to the main stage, stopping the music. Robby Krieger reached his hand down. Morrison grabbed it and was pulled up onto the stage. The band then ran off the stage and the crowd stood there stunned. I had never felt better in my life.

It was a violent time. Deaths were escalating in Viet Nam, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were shot, and race riots had become a normal event of the summer in cities across the U.S. Nothing was too grisly for us to believe. I remember being told that all of the members of Cream had been killed in a car wreck, and that Jimi Hendrix had killed himself by cutting off his lips with a razor and bleeding to death. This was before Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison all died. Student protests against the war were also escalating. In 1970 governor Ronald Reagan of California famously said “If it takes a blood bath to silence the demonstrators, let’s get it over with.” It wasn’t long after that four students were shot dead at Kent State.

I saw Blue Cheer, The Grass Roots, Sly and Family Stone, John Mayall, Edgar Winter, Yes, and Merrilee and the Turnabouts. One of the oddest live bands I saw was The Mob. They dressed like gangsters, or like Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, in 1969, I was at a party when someone mentioned the Sky River Rock Festival, which was being held that weekend in Tenino, Washington. I called my mom and told her Rick, John, and I were going camping for the weekend. Early the next morning, the four of us climbed in John’s 1947 GMC panel truck and took off. John did the driving. One of us could sit in the front seat with him, and two would bounce around on the floor in the back. It was less than a hundred miles to the event, but the truck didn’t like to go faster than fifty. A lot of floor boards and insulation between the cab and the engine were gone. This made stepping on the gas for any long time very painful as the heat would toast your toes. To get around this the front seat passenger would have step on the gas intermittently with the driver. We finally made it.

A bigger problem was that we had no money. The admission to festival was cheap, maybe five bucks each, but it wiped us out and we still needed to eat. John had brought along fifty hits of what was purported to be “Brown Owsley” LSD that he initially was hoping to resell for a profit. He found out he had been ripped off and what he had bought were salt tablets. We decided to sell the stuff as Brown Owsley anyway to make enough money to eat. The festival was packed. Topless women were everywhere. Completely naked people were common. One naked man had painted his dick and balls green. A surprising number of children were present, traveling with their hippie parents. Almost everyone had long hair and a lot of the men wore beards. It was dry and very dusty in what had been a big cow pasture or hay field. Close by the festival was high embankment with a railroad track along the top. Occasionally a train would pass and sound its mournful whistle. We were clean cut, fresh faced, and in most ways very innocent. Rick kept saying “I wish I’d brought a camera. No one in Battle Ground will believe this.”

We were walking along a dusty path with few people around us when we first tried to sell the salt tablets. One of us would say “Brown Owsley” to people who walked by. We tried this on the biggest hippie I’d ever seen. He must have been at least six eight. He said “You got Brown Owsley?” We nodded our heads in unison like four Porky Pigs in a Warner Brothers cartoon agreeing to some ridiculous thing Daffy Duck has suggested. He shook his head and said “I don’t think so. Owsley’s been in prison for over a year, there’s been none of his stuff around for months.” John was probably thinking “I wish I’d known that.” I was thinking “I hope this guy doesn’t kill us.” He said “Let me look at it.” We shook out a few of the pills. He examined them and said “Ah, this isn’t Owsley. I don’t think it’s even LSD. I think you kids got ripped off.” We tried to look disappointed. He had to have had a dozen of the pills in his hand. He gulped them all down and said “If I get off, I’ll let you know.” He smiled at us and walked away.

We decided to get out of the ersatz drug selling business.

We did have some change and found cheap Mexican food being sold. With what we had we were able to fill up on beans and rice. A big stage had been constructed with a big screen in back of it for the light show. Music was continuous. The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Youngbloods, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, Country Joe and Fish, Pacific Gas and Electric, Kaleidoscope and The Sons of Champlin all played. Kaleidoscope featured the violinist David Lindley. The Sons of Champlin used several horns and a Hammond B-3 organ. It was a unique sound. We were there for two nights. We managed not to starve and had just enough gas to make it back home for the start of the school year and football practice.

My second rock festival was 1970, the summer after my junior year. I had a friend named Mike who was lead singer in a rock band. Their claim to fame was that they had once opened for the Box Tops. Mike and I had gone to see Led Zeppelin at the Memorial Coliseum, had dropped acid, and had a really good time. Rock festivals had been outlawed in Washington since Sky River. To get around that a couple of determined promoters formed a political party and said their festival was a political convention to nominate a candidate for president of the United States. The festival was called The Buffalo Party National Convention, and Cesar Chavez was the intended nominee. Mike wanted to get there early to help set up and that way
we would get in free. He had some like-minded friends who had a 1956 Chevy panel truck who also wanted to go. It was early July and sunny and hot. The hay wasn’t ready to be cut on the farm so I had free time.

A bunch of us piled into the truck and headed off. In the back of the truck we sat on the floor. One of Mike’s friend was a drug addict with needle marks all over his arms. He had a dark haired friend with him. It was a not long, uncomfortable ride. We were able to get into the site free, but soon afterwards, with a thousand of people inside, the festival was declared illegal and was sealed off by the police. No more people could get in, and once you left you were out of luck. The first thing we did when we arrived was split a hit of blue flat acid. We then pitched our tent and stowed our sleeping bags and other gear inside. We then walked around. By the time the acid hit me it was dark. Sitting around the camp fire I suddenly could see the true nature of the people around me. Looking at the face of the dark haired guy, I saw a monster. The same with the needle marked guy. I walked off.

After walking awhile I realized I was lost. I was tired and wanted to find my sleeping bag and sleep. I kept walking until I realized I would never find the tent. I decided to lay down and die. I was laying in tall grass staring at the stars when a girl stumbled over me. She asked me what I was doing. I told her I was waiting to die. She told me that it wouldn’t work and walked off. I lay there a while longer, and then got up and walked on. Two more times I lay down to die, and both times it didn’t work. I finally found the tent and went to sleep.

When I woke up in the morning it was a beautiful sunny day. I felt so glad to be alive. I decided there was a God and that I would never drop acid again. The site for the festival was a big ranch that had a herd of buffalo. They were behind a barbed wire fence and were bigger than I had imagined. On the edge of the site was a creek that ran down into a forest. I followed it into the trees. After a few hundred feet there was a big waterfall falling at least a hundred feet. At the top were pools of deep water. I stripped and jumped in. I discovered that jumping into water feet first without a swimsuit or a jock strap was painful experience. Finding the water deep, I dove head first from then on. After bathing I looked for a trail that would skirt the cataract. I found it, winding downward through the trees. I walked into the small town of Eatonville.

I found a diner and went in to have breakfast. I didn’t look like a hippie and no one paid any attention to me. All of the talk was about the rock festival and the hordes of dirty hippies who had invaded the area. I kept my mouth shut and listened while I ate bacon and eggs. I walked back into the festival by the trail that had led me out. More people had found the same way to skirt the police and get into the festival. One young man didn’t find the trail and instead decided to climb the waterfall cliff. He had almost made it to the top when he fell. People were with him at the bottom and were waiting for a stretcher to come and carry him out. I walked to the front gate to see if the ambulance had arrived. It was there, but the police would not let it drive in. Some hippies and the ambulance attendants were arguing with the police. The police finally allowed the attendants to enter on foot with the stretcher. I walked with them back to the young man. It was several hundred yards down the trail. It took four people to lift the stretcher once the young man was laid onto it. We got it back up to the top of the waterfall, and as soon as we reached an area where people were gathered I gave up my handle to another man and dropped exhausted to the ground. I hadn’t liked looking at the face of the injured man while I was helping carry him. His face was a bloodless color I had never seen and his breathing was labored. He was unconscious. I was at the gate as the ambulance drove away. I read later that he died. His body was never identified.

The next day the music started. The police were not allowing anyone, not even the musicians who were booked to perform, to enter the festival site. So there were no name bands, just talented people on hand who would jam together. It wasn’t bad. Finally a helicopter brought in blues musician James Cotton and his band, one of the scheduled acts. There was a long wait. Since no one had paid to get in, there was no money to pay Mr. Cotton. An announcement was made and people went through the crowd collecting money. On the side of the stage, Mr. Cotton counted it. There still wasn’t enough. People went through the crowd a second time. He still wasn’t happy with the amount but decided to go on anyway. He put on a hell of a show. He played fabulous harmonica and sang with the voice of a born in Mississippi blues man. His set lasted a couple of hours. The next morning we all drove back home.

Mike had a 51 Ford coupe. On a double date we dropped acid and watched the Frank Zappa film 200 Motels at the Hazel Dell Drive In. That was where I had first seen an Elvis movie, Love Me Tender. Mike’s girlfriend was a nice girl named Carolyn. Mike also had an interest in a girl named Chris. She lived way out in the sticks. Mike liked to have me along when he visited Chris. After it happened a couple time, I realized why: he didn’t have enough gas to get back. He knew I was one of his only friends who had the nerve to crawl into a farmer’s yard, and using a hose and can, siphon out gas from a parked pickup. After I realized that, I refused to go.

My last rock festival was in the summer after my senior year at Battle Ground High School. Once again the idea was to get there early and not pay admission. Mike and I got a ride with a friend and arrived at the Satsop River Rock Festival in the pouring rain. We hadn’t brought a tent. I walked into downtown Satsop, which was about half a block long, and went into the only store. I bought the last 40 feet they had of six foot wide black plastic. Others before me had had the same idea. With sticks and rocks we were able to make a shelter. I borrowed a shovel and dug a trench around it to keep the water from washing through us. It worked except when the wind blew so hard that the edge of the plastic would slip out from under the rocks and flap like mad and threaten to bring the whole place down while rain was driven sideways into my face. Somehow the morning came and the structure was still standing.

The festival was in a big cow pasture with the Satsop river to one side. The whole thing was a muddy mess. It was late August and the water in the river was freezing. To get into the festival proper, a car had to make it up a short hill. Cars would have to back up and make a good run at it in order to fishtail to the top. Half of the cars didn’t make it their first try and would stall just before the summit and then slide slowly back to the bottom. Somehow enough stuff had been brought in to build a stage. Unnamed jam bands played the night before the festival was to open. After another night of rain in the face I decided I had had enough. I told Mike I was leaving. He asked how I was going to get home. I said I would hitchhike. He said “You’ll end up sleeping in a ditch.” I told him I’d take that chance. I made it to the main road without falling on my butt. It took several rides to get to the interstate. There I was picked up by a beat-up car full of country girls, one with a little baby. They joked about taking me into the woods and making me a sex slave. I was glad when they let off at the little town of Kalama.

I then got picked up by a guy who looked like he was in the army. He was driving a Mustang and wore a sheepskin-lined denim jacket. He never said a word, kept all the windows in the car rolled down with the wind and the rain rushing in, and drove me all the way to Vancouver while blasting classic Elvis on an eight track tape. I slept in my warm bed that night and decided I’d attended my last rock festival.

I never saw the film Midnight Cowboy. It was restricted to those of age eighteen and over. For boys it was easy to enforce the age limit: all boys who turned eighteen had to have a draft card.

I turned 18 shortly after the Satsop Rock Festival debacle. So did Mike. My number was 334. I was safe. It would take a nuclear war to get to my number. Mike’s number was five. He enlisted. He said “This way I have some choices. I can get training as a mechanic and when I get out I can get a job repairing Sherman Tanks.” That wasn’t necessary. He was drummed out of the military after a couple of months for drug use. While I was in college he was committing armed robbery to support his heroin habit. He was finally caught and convicted of 19 robberies. He is now my Facebook friend. I’ll go see him when the COVID-19 rules are over.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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