America’s First Rock Festival: Drugs, Hells Angels and the Doors
Though it’s often overshadowed by larger events of the era, America’s first rock festival – the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival – was held June 10 and 11, 1967, at Mount Tamalpais in Northern California. The location was a natural choice. The Summer of Love was blooming in nearby San Francisco and the hippie counterculture was ready to join together in celebration. Local radio station KFRC hosted the event, with profits from ticket sales (which cost $2 each) benefiting local charities.
Up until this point, outdoor music festivals had been more subdued affairs, focused on jazz or folk.
Maria Muldaur, who performed at the Fantasy Fair with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, told Rolling Stone that “the portent of things turning into rock festivals was when [Bob] Dylan first played electric at Newport [in 1965]. The ‘alternative lifestyle’ – the hipsters, the jazz aficionados – were already drawn to Newport, but things were a little more buttoned-down and straight. There were still vestiges of the '50s.”
As America’s first rock fest, the Fantasy Fair would dramatically change the festival blueprint.
For starters, road access to the picturesque festival site was limited. Attendees had to park in nearby Marin and take rented school buses to the event, dubbed the “Trans-Love” bus line. Meanwhile, the local Hells Angels motorcycle gang was enlisted to keep the peace.
“They were not hired,” festival co-producer Tom Rounds later clarified. “It was their turf and we needed their support. I don’t think it was our intention to use them as security; it was just our intention to have them present to be fearsome. [Laughs.] It was totally nonconfrontational, just them being there said, ‘OK, there’s law and order.’”
The Fantasy Fair also played up its theme, with decorations including a giant inflatable Buddha balloon and banners displaying each astrological sign. Booths and tents housed a wide array of local merchants selling food, jewelry, handmade candles, clothing, bongs and almost any other trinket you could dream up.
“The fair part was based on the Renaissance Fairs where people dressed up in costumes for period pieces and they had jugglers, acrobats and people reciting old poetry,” noted Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. “It was part of the whole attraction of the festival – of having various talented people in their community able to express their talent in so many different ways.”
“There were kids sliding down the hill on cardboard, people selling trinkets and incense, painting faces, all kinds of people in the woods smoking pot — that was the most amazing thing,” photographer Elaine Mayes told Marin Magazine.
“There were cops everywhere, and nobody paid any attention. That had never happened before.”
Watch Fan-Shot Footage From Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival
Despite all the accoutrement, the Fantasy Fair was still a music festival. Organizers delivered an eclectic lineup, including Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, Dionne Warwick, the Byrds, Steve Miller Blues Band and – in one of their biggest gigs outside of L.A. at that point – the Doors.
“I remember seeing the Doors and thinking it was more theater than music,” John York, who was playing with the Byrds at the time, later recalled. “Jim [Morrison] was like Hamlet or Macbeth; he’s created some kind of a character that generates this energy where people want to see what happens next.”
Unfortunately, the Doors singer wasn't exactly on his game.
“Morrison was shit-faced drunk and there were these two poles on the corner of the stage that held lighting,” long-time San Francisco music critic Joel Selvin later recalled. “He was swinging around it. One minute he was there, the other, he wasn’t. He fell off the stage about 15 feet, but came back and finished the song like nothing happened.”
See Footage of the Doors at Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival
The Doors' performance was just one of the weekend's memorable moments. The Byrds delivered their set with a stagehand as their drummer. “He had no idea who we were; he just recognized that we were four guys on stage with guitars and a bass but no drummer,” York recalled. Unable to find a spare set of drumsticks, the stagehand played using the broken-off legs of a coffee table. “He didn’t know the songs. He just listened to the music and played. And no one was upset with what he sounded like.”
Still, the trippiest performance of the fest belonged to Captain Beefheart. During his Magic Band’s second song, something came over namesake frontman Don Van Vliet.
“Don completely froze,” drummer John French said. “I see Don turn around, panicked, and walk off the back of the stage like there was no drop and fall off.” According to French, Van Vliet suffered an intense acid flashback. “He was looking down at this girl [from the stage] and her face turned into a fish and bubbles came out of her mouth.” Captain Beefheart wasn’t the only one seeing things at the Fantasy Fair. By all accounts, drug use was rampant. “Everybody was doing acid, if nothing else,” admitted Art Resnick of the band Salvation. “It was San Francisco in the Summer of Love, for Christ’s sake. After all the drugs and shit, man, I don’t even remember playing.”
Watch Amateur Footage From Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival
The Fantasy Fair was celebrated by attendees and hailed in the local press as a huge success. The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “wild sound and wild colors, skydivers and side-shows, bizarre hippies from the Haight-Ashbury and T-shirted fraternity boys from Cal, young people necking. ... There was something for everybody.”
Despite breaking new ground and establishing many elements that are still used in music festivals today, the Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain event has been largely forgotten. The Monterey Pop Festival took place a week later followed by 1969’s Woodstock, and they are commonly held as the era’s most historically significant fests.
“[Fantasy Fair] was a weekend that symbolized how we were and how we felt at the time,” singer-songwriter Penny Nichols later explained. “By the time Monterey comes around, now we’re all feeling self-aware of how important we are.”
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