The Monterey Pop Festival was to Rock what the Newport Folk festival was to the emerging alternative scene some several years earlier. In case of the former, the only real difference was that one, the music was louder, and two, it was a complete one-off. Just think Woodstock, but on a much smaller scale. The festival was also held at the height of the so-called Summer of Love, and the whole Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco, which had become a Mecca for every unconventional drugged-up hippie drop-out, along with an assortment of underage middle class refuse running away from their pent-up post-war parents, transforming what was originally a healthy community of intelligent young people trying to establish their own Utopian neighborhood, eventually into a psychedelic ghetto.
The importance of this festival should not be underestimated. For many bands and artists this was their one opportunity to make a statement, English groups especially, who must have simply relished at the opportunity of performing in front of an American audience. And amongst them was one artist whom I’m sure was just as eager to announce his talent, and that was Jimi Hendrix.
After a beneficent introduction by Brian Jones, Jimi hits the floor running with the sort of riff that will strip the paint off your walls and tear up your carpet. Of course we’re talking about “Killing Floor”, the Howlin’ Wolf classic. Mitch Mitchell proves that he’s a Keith Moon and Elvin Jones all rolled into one, while Noel Redding on bass throbs his instrument so thoroughly while no doubt hoping not to fly off the stage in the process.
“Foxy Lady” is next, and from the moment the alien feedback announces itself, until the sudden almost violent electric blitzkrieg, one wonders what must have been passing through the minds of those in the audience. Space blues indeed.
It’s no secret that Hendrix adored Bob Dylan, and “Like a Rolling Stone” was a song he had often played back in his Greenwich Village days, when he was just another unknown musician plying a trade. At that point for a black to be into some Jewish folk singer was quite unique for the time, but then Jimi wasn’t exactly your ordinary citizen of the black community. His execution here is exquisite as it is authoritative, full of charm as well as force, as if Hendrix had discovered in Dylan’s words an air of language he himself had longed to express.
“Rock Me Baby” is a bluesy number, albeit on speed. Quick, short, to the point, and just the sort thing you need to wake up the crowd and keep their attention. A beautiful rendition of “Hey Joe” follows, and remains one of the best versions he ever played, before he got sick of it and wished to move on to other things more interesting.
“Can You See Me” is far more exciting and alive than the version he recorded in London for his first LP. Here Hendrix gives it the full psychedelic six string workout it deserves, and is a song I’m sure he must have written under the influence of swinging London (The Who, Yardbirds etc). He brings things down with “Wind Cries Mary”, a delightful, almost jazzy piece, which everyone in England would have been familiar with if they’d seen his shows, but virgin territory to Americans. And now it’s time to freak-out with “Purple Haze”, a lysergic journey via the Devil’s chord and beyond, and something I’m sure the peace-loving paisley crowd were least expecting. Especially when it comes to Hendrix’s final song for the night, which is more of an assault on the ears to the extant even The Who must have been envious. And on “Wild Thing” he really does pull out all the stops. However listening to it on cd doesn’t really do it justice, because without the visual component thrown in, one cannot get the full experience in all its theatrical splendor. And for anyone who’s seen it, just watching him smashing his guitar and then squirting lighter fluid all over it, before igniting a match and setting it on fire, then simulating ejaculation on his own instrument (now what would Freud have made of that?). I’m sure the audience were just as stunned as they were entertained. But the result of such a display can rest solely on Pete Townsend, who himself well understood the concept of keeping the geezers guessing through gimmicks, something which Jimi himself new a thing or two about as well.
The Monterey Pop Festival produced so many great performances from so many acts. But it’s Hendrix’s gig in particular which remains for me the musical standout, a performance of its time and yet for all time, and a seductive monument of ancient wonder, whose explosive impact I fear we shall never see again (except on DVD, or what other media form may exist in the future), when Rock music was truly discovering itself, and the concept of the counter-culture was only just beginning to establish a small though important foothold in the minds of those who were creating it.