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The Miami Pop Festival: Silver Linings Galore in the Faint Cloud Over Rock

By Salahuddin I. Imam

My first night on Miami Beach I found myself in a grunjy teen-age hangout semi-filled with its regulars. Music from a tape-recorder on a table in the center of the room with a huge lampshade hanging right over, filled with a disturbingly weak bulb. The music was unmentionable top-40 staple. The girl in rapacious charge of the tape-recorder brutally cut short "Hey Jude" saying "I don't like that song at all" to a general chorus of approval. Walls covered with Gauguinesque posters and Peanuts homilies. The kids didn't dance but twitched spasmodically on their way to the bar--once three or four of them went out into the street in the comforting warmth of the Florida night and danced deliberately. "You want to hear some good music--not all this crap," the girl barked, turning on Frank Sinatra, greeted by the others as if he were a Bob Dylan piercing the night like a prophet. "Cheri," "Spanish Eyes," a strikingly syncopated version of "Three Coins." Strange to tell it was the most beautiful music session I have experienced in a long time. The music became a ferocious whole with the setting of gloom and ease and I assimilated it into my consciousness in delirious chunks.

One more time: the purring of the Atlantic Ocean by night, to the visual beat of four tiny buoy lights, red, green and blue, blinking on and off in god knows whose rhythm, is a form of music if you too are sitting there feeling the instability of the cosmos and brooding.

All this by way of pointing out that Any collection of sounds, from the most banal to the most complex and abstract, is enhanced by the right environment, spatial and spiritual. Ordinary music can be transformed into transcendental music if the conditions for it are right, if its purpose is felt at any one instant to be compelling, if it takes the listener's thoughts and sense-perceptions and embodies them in sound. Any music can be good music depending on your mood and the objective circumstances you find yourself in.

With this axiom firmly in mind we can begin to understand the peculiar vitality and uniqueness of rock and roll. Of all the forms of music, rock is the least demanding of a particular environment and atmosphere. Thus, I can see that "Revolution 9," which is hardly rock 'n' roll, might turn out, some dark and wintry night, to be right (it hasn't happened yet for me) but I know that "Ob-la-di Ob-la-da," which is pure rock, is right nearly all the time. This instant impact that rock 'n' roll has is due in part to the fact that it hits the listener at that deep level at which he stores his reservoir of the basic emotions of man: sorrow and delight, sexuality and violence. Being always present these responses are easily aroused. In part also rock 'n' roll owes its profound charge to the form itself: the typical rock song (and this applies even to a masterpiece like "Satisfaction") is internally compact in lyrics message, and overall feel, rigidly prescribed within a chosen format, a format defined above all by a thrusting beat. It brings its own tiny bristling life with it and is for this reason less dependent on one's personal circumstances which makes it easily, and so universally accessible.

In this respect rock 'n' roll differs from jazz and classical music both of which require that the listener impose a discipline on himself, that he abstract from the music to his own being. These two less starkly structured musical forms involve one's conscious relating to the music and so are helped by the intermediary of atmosphere and mood. Given this right environment and the appropriate mental attention they can be as beautiful as, or more beautiful than, rock 'n' roll.

But rock is immediately gripping and this immediacy is what makes the greatest rock music as widely popular as it is. Jimi Hendrix was named the most important star of the year by, of all publications, Billboard, that infamous organ of AM radio rock. This would all be fine, and all the various forms of music would coexist happily, if it were not for the fact that American rock today is in some danger of being subverted by pernicious influences. This is a message I bring back from the Miami festival: The music of groups like the Grateful Dead, Iron Butterfly, Spirit, the whole West Coast style that is spreading rapidly to the East, replete with long solos (often tasteless and meager in content) within a virtually unstructured form, is music of sorts, and under certain conditions it sounds magnificent, but it isn't rock 'n' roll, and so it is forever denied a mass audience.

The author's top 10 albums

This is a list of the 10 Best Rock albums of 1968. Blues albums, being in another realm, have been consciously excluded to make a hard task easier. --SII

1. Beggar's Banquet -- The Rolling Stones

2. The Beatles -- The Beatles

3. Electric Ladyland -- Jimi Hendrix

4. John Wesley Harding -- Bob Dylan

5. Wheels of Fire -- Cream

6. The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter -- The Incredible String Band

7. Shine on Brightly -- Procul Harum

8. Traffic -- Traffic

9. Otis Redding Live at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go -- Otis Redding

10. Music from Big Pink -- The Band

Rock 'n' roll is the only high-quality mass art form we have today and it would be a ghastly mistake to allow it to degenerate into the middle-class art form that classical music is, or into the cliquish limited-audience music that modern jazz became. It is disturbing to see many of the best musicians in America trying to remold rock in an alien jazz and classical music inspired cast.

After this lengthy introduction I move to the delicious business of describing the Miami Pop Festival. Held for three days in late December in a gigantic race-track cum park just outside Miami the Festival unrolled smoothly. It represented in its music a cross-section of the entire rock scene today: folk (Joni Mitchell, Buffy Ste. Marie, etc.), blues (James Cotton, Butterfield), jazz (Charles Lloyd), rock, progressive rock, Motown (Marvin Gaye, Jr. Walker) and even top-40 rock (the Boxtops, the Turtles). All this in a setting of serene scenic beauty.

There were two stages far enough apart so as not to interfere with each other's music, one in a meadow dotted with trees and the other in front of the racing track's grandstand. Vast open spaces in between with enormous Pop-Artifacts strewn along the way deliberately aimed at re-creating the Pepperland atmosphere of the movie "Yellow Submarine" and in the unfettered Florida sunshine amid throngs of healthy young people (46,000 on the last day) it came as close as is possible in real life to achieving its purpose.

Performers were carefully scheduled on each stage so as not to overlap, by catering to people's different tastes (thus Steppenwolf on one stage while Joni Mitchell was playing at the other, Ian and Sylvia in the meadow while Iron Butterfly played the grandstand) though even with diligent shuttling from stage to stage I inevitably missed some performances. This kind of sensible planning on the part of the Festival organizers marked most aspects of the three day show. Facilities were thoughtfully and adequately provided: free parking, food stalls, seating, elaborate and powerful sound systems. Not to mention the whimsical diversions on the site such as a "Meditation Grove," a display of walking fish (only in Florida . . .), and a giant three-layered slide. Above all, though, there was the music.

It was entirely appropriate that the Festival started with Chuck Berry playing early on the first day and very nearly stealing the whole show with his fervent affirmation, and confirmation of the values we hold so dear in rock and roll: dynamism out of steely simplicity. Doing songs that are nearly fifteen years old, Chuck Berry, like Elvis, nearly proves that supreme rock 'n' roll is, in fact, as timeless as it so often seems when you're listening and quivering to it. "We are going to do a number that everybody (high-pitched scream) knows. An old (English accent) one." He signals and the band goes into "Maybelline" slow and easy. The shuffling guitar riffs that he bequeathed to rock, still vibrant and powerful. The voice as reedy as ever, the knee-walk as wildly right as ever.

Rainwater all over my hood

But I know its doing my motor good

Chuck Berry was so much the Jimi Hendrix rolled-into-Mick-Jagger of his times in the sense of being a demonaic force, tinged with evil and unabashed about it. When he sings "Sweet Little Sixteen," about the girl with the 'woman blues" who loves to wear "tight dresses and lipstick, high heel shoes" but then must "change and go to school," the thought that he was jailed for years for statutory rape (Rage that he was sent to jail, delight that he knows what he's singing about)

I'm drinking tea and cheese

Smoking that dynamite

I wish some fuzz would come here

and try to start a fight

He prowls all over the stage in slow-motion. Chuck Berry, handsome smiling face, these days with long flowing black hair, playing his guitar with jerks of the forearm as if he were drawing water from a well, playing a boogie to blow Bill Haley's mind. He ends the set with a triumphant "Go, Go Johnny, Johnny B. Goode" and is gone waving his guitar.

From Chuck Berry, again appropriately, to Terry Reid, the latest staggering import from England. At 19 Reid runs one of the most well-honed combos around: drums, organ and himself singer-guitarist. His group's polished, gleaming-hard sound has all the taut excitement that one associates with the best rock. In a sense Terry Reid, with his towering individual talent for arranging and composing and leading, is very much a Chuck Berry figure. He has the same inventive rock 'n' roll ear, the ability to make original driving music out of the simplest basic elements, all presented in an overpowering whole through flamboyant and charming showmanship.

The musical structure that he favors is basically one of tight bursts of packaged melody--made up of a stinging organ sound, precise drumming and his own jabbing giutar, between intervals of his own singing which is acute and stormy. He also seems to have a nice sense of balance and discretion, rarely overstepping into excess. "Tinker Taylor," for example, has a pleasant original riff and this is milked in the song just about as far as it will go and no more--not pounded to death as some American groups are prone to do with their own minor creations. Within the limits in which prediction is possible in rock Terry Reid is definitely a find.

Fleetwood Mac, yet another of the English blues groups, is built around two Mayall proteges and the influence of the master shows very clearly. Peter Green on lead guitar plays an authoritative and firm role with his sinuous guitar lines, insistently and sympathetically guiding the group to put out the refined and fluid sound that is so typically Mayallian. The other presence is that of John MacVie (also ex-Bluesbreaker) who contributes a strong and uncluttered and incredibly well-felt blues-bass throughout. This kind of restrained and delicate watered-down imitation of the Chicago sound is a valid method of interpreting the blues classics and of creating new blues material. It is the other side of the, equally legitimate, Clapton-Beck style of English blues which produces radical guitar-oriented re-interpretations of the old material.

Given these two successful and fruitful approaches to white blues-playing, one is at a loss to understand where the blues style of Pacific Gas & Electric (another West Coast group at the Festival), with its amorphous bag of drum solos, wanton guitar effects and indifferent singing, fits in. I suspect it doesn't and I fear again that this is a malady common to too many American groups, born of half-assimilated influences from jazz and Cream.

The Grateful Dead took the field midway through the second day. After much exacting tuning and preparation they began--and played without stopping for 45 long, and sometimes short, minutes. The music was essentially freeform or no-form jamming. If you put any bunch of talented musicians on stage and have them improvise for an hour it is inevitable that they will get it together a few times. For all that, it is clear that progressive rock is not instantly exalting the way supreme unvarnished rock 'n' roll (Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Who, etc.) is. Rather the Grateful Dead came into their own as superb environment musicians--when the environment is right, for example, on the grounds of Columbia for free during the insurrection. In front of a grandstand, however, despite the easy accommodation induced by the open sun and silent clear sky, the mediocrity of conception of the Grateful Dead's music was too apparent for comfort.

I would love to love the Grateful Dead and the other West Coast groups. They are part of the Revolution, they have a social consciousness, they give free concerts and feel with us the injustices and restrictions against free living. By contrast Terry Reid is nothing more than an engaging young hedonist out to carve a niche for himself in swinging London by selling himself to as many Americans as possible. Nevertheless I cannot help but acknowledge that it is Reid who produces the gifted rock and roll and the Grateful Dead the insipid rock.

This paradox can perhaps be resolved if we recognize that rock and roll is basically a working-class, lower-class art form (all the greatest American music has come from blacks while the English groups are, nearly without exception, staffed by urban lower-class kids) and much of the working class is not interested in revolution. In America today the main impetus for social change comes from alienated middle class kids. Some of them, the musically inclined, turn to rock music, but they retain the musical values they were brought up with, those of classical music. No wonder that their rock comes out genteel, and cerebral, framed within long-drawn out set pieces.

The Iron Butterfly discover a pleasant riff and instinctively they begin to give it the full treatment--toying with it pretentiously for about thirteen minutes, padding it with irrelevant organ solos and guitar solos and the mandatory drum solo (with extensive use of the bass drum yet!). This music is very different from, and inferior to, the concentrated, strictly organized, but striking sound of early black rock and roll of the Chuck Berry-Fats Domino-Little Richard variety--a sound which had its greatest impact among the swaggering, brash young British proletariat. When the white working classes in America finally shake off their acquiescence and become rebels against society I will expect to hear them produce rock to equal British rock. Till then we must see to it that music masquerading as rock and roll does not come to dominate the American scene.

Not that we should exaggerate the chances of vigorous rock and roll being submerged under the pseudo-heavy "sound" music of the more pretentious West Coast groups -- the Miami Pop Festival had enough talent on display to keep one's fears tiny. Country Joe and the Fish, say, who came on unprepossessing but grow in stature as they assert their calm and confident rapport with the audience all building up to that staggering moment when they launch into "Fixing to Die"--in such a way does rock and roll gell musical and spiritual elements to produce instants of screaming intensity.

Or, Richie Havens, unimpressive on records, enthralling in person, a man who manages, from the depths of his black being, to add another cutting edge to songs like "Blackbird" and "Just Like a Woman," those wrenching classics of our time. He pulled off once more that, by now legendary, feat in which he hums the whole of "A Little Help From My Friends" with the band going behind him. The hypnotic effect of the easily-remembered melody combining with Haven's encouragingly timed grunts and moans, accumulates till the entire audience is forced to sing-along without him but with him.

And then there was Canned Heat who elicit the same hushed and tense quiet from the audience that Havens does, but by beating it into submission as if through the brute impact of a natural force, sound system bursting, the drums hammering out the rigid boogie beat, guitars searing loud, and climactic. If Havens sends spiny threads to each individual listener pulling them close to him, Canned Heat throws out a broad blanket of all-enveloping sound to huddle under.

There were so many more, Steppenwolf and Jose Feliciano, Joni Mitchell's tart beauty, and the Charles Lloyd Quartet's tingling and dignified rhapsodies, but one special word about Procul Harum. They played two flawless sets on successive nights in front of the maedow. I remember them illuminated by the silvery-pink lights of the light show in the dark heat of the night crashing out their rapturous blend of music. Gary Brooker's expansively soulful singing, Robin Trower's eerie guitar, B. J. Wilson's deftly brilliant drumming, Fisher's streaking organ, and above it all the presence of Keith Reid who writes all the words, an enigmatic intricate personality, quite possible a troubled genius. Procul Harum are sobering and transcendental, allying glittering jewels of musicianship with their message of melancholia and self-doubt, one of the Sticking Greats.

If they hold the Festival again next year, as they probably will, you should go, though I may as well warn you the experience tends to make Reading Period worse not better.

Salahuddin Imam edits a weekly feature on Radicalism in the CRIMSON

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