.Woodstock West: The Celebrated ‘Woodstock Nation’ Had Roots in San Jose.

More than 800 significantly sized music festivals happen each summer in America. According to Billboard, 32 million people attend one or more each summer, and festival amenities have improved since the days when Hells Angels guarded stages and attendees peed in buckets.

Nowadays there is ample parking, and clean portable toilets abound. Yet the enduring popularity of music festivals has a single origin point, Woodstock, at the end of the summer of 1969. 

Woodstock changed people’s perceptions of rock festivals forever, and it was unique in that way. Three months earlier, an event showcased many of the same discourses that circulated at rock festivals that year. The Aquarian Family Festival, a two-day “free” event held May 24 and 25, 1969, took place on San Jose State University’s football practice field.

music in the park san jose
music in the park san jose

The festival was held simultaneously alongside another nearby event, the Northern California Folk Rock Festival, which was held at the family park adjacent to Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. It featured Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and the Jefferson Airplane as headliners.

Forgotten Festival

The Aquarian Festival is notable because it was almost entirely unmediated. With the exception of a few short newspaper articles, police reports and event posters, it’s all word of mouth from here on in.

Now, there’s a lot of Rashomon-like conflicting details regarding who played and what happened at this forgotten festival, particularly as those with whom I spoke are now in their 70s and admit to ingesting large amounts of drugs at the time. 

Although 80,000 people were said to have attended one or the other or both of these events that weekend, the San Francisco Chronicle makes no mention of it—being taken up with more serious protests in Sacramento and in People’s Park that were going on simultaneously. The San Jose Mercury does cover it, but calls the Be-In the “AquariuM” festival.

The Mercury covers the festival in its issues of May 24, 25 and 26 with plenty of pictures with jolly captions making fun of hippie-speak, a small amount of attention paid to violence and chaos that occurred in the neighborhood around it, and no mention of the dispute which sparked the Be-In in the first place.

The task of attending the events fell to the newspaper’s youngest reporter, 25-year-old jazz fan Rick Carroll. “I was the only one who knew who Jimi Hendrix was or read Rolling Stone, so I became the default reporter, though I was too old for the scene,” Carroll said this week by phone from Kauai, where he now lives.

Here as Folk

These events seem to have carried no cultural weight at the time. But in fact the Aquarian Festival was an almost spontaneous response or protest against a promoter who was putting on the Northern California Folk Rock Festival 2 at the San Jose Fairgrounds the same weekend. (The use of the word “folk,” a high art signifier meant to befuddle local opposition, is borrowed from Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival.)

The year before, the first Northern California Folk Rock Festival had been marred by a huge influx of PCP, which sent 1,000 people to the emergency room. According to the San Jose Mercury, the PCP was distributed by “a hippie called the Hog Man”; the same article quotes the clearly miffed San Jose Sheriff Charles Prelsnik as calling the event “impossible to police.” 

In addition to those issues, that event also irked concert goers because it had advertised numerous famous acts who failed to show up—since they hadn’t been booked. In response to those abuses, a man named Dennis Jay contacted the promoter and asked if his organization, IRU, could provide free medical help at this year’s festival. The promoter said, “If you pay me.”

At the same time, radio station KSJO warned listeners that the acts advertised on the poster—particularly Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix—were not going to appear, as they were booked elsewhere at the time. The latter situation resulted in a lawsuit against the promoter, who retaliated by paying Hendrix $30,000, an unheard of amount at the time, to fly in by Lear Jet and play for half an hour.

Meanwhile Jay and members of San Jose’s Free University and the Druid Corporation, a nearby commune, and a few other groups (Institute for Research and Understanding, San Jose Red Eye and Dirt Cheap Production) organized the Aquarian Family Festival to occur about a half mile from the Northern California Festival 2 site. 

The concert came about fortuitously. According to Roger Desmond, quoted in Jim Shelley’s “Woodstock Whisperer” site, “It was a bunch of us talking. We thought the fairgrounds festival was a rip-off for many reasons. Mainly, the promoter, Bob Blodgett, promised that Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin would play but we found out they were booked at another venue at the same time. Soooo we basically contacted the bands and told them we wanted to do a free concert and wham! It was happening. As a San Jose State student I was able to help secure the venue. Ironically, Jimi showed up and checked it out, and would have played but the amps he needed were not present. But the bands that DID play were amazing!” 

In addition to pissing off the other promoter, the original point of this gathering had been merely to provide a place for hippies and travelers to camp and sleep between sets. Many of the attendees were expected to arrive from Berkeley, where they’d been protesting at People’s Park, and this began a precedent: providing campsites near the events has become the norm at festivals like Bonnaroo, Glastonbury and Coachella.

Music Never Stopped

Phil Sharkey was a member of the Druid Commune at the time.  In order to help people planning on coming down to camp, he used the then newly introduced Student Bill of Rights to requisition the San Jose State football practice field. But, he says, “the college, looking for an excuse to deny my request but sensitive to the new Bill of Rights, laid down a rule that we could only use the field while there was music.

“I guess they thought that would solve their problem. Some of the Druid Corp and Dirt Cheap folks came up with the idea that we could use our weekly ‘Be-In’ contacts to keep the music going. During this process we found out that many of the bands who were on the bill for the Folk Rock Festival were not, in fact, planning on showing up.  So the objective shifted to an alternative and free show.”

Because the conditions of the license granted said that music at this festival had to be continuous, the collective called up every band they knew. Ron Cook, a local luthier who performed at the festival and helped build its stage, recalls a list of bands names taped to the sound board determining the order of play—similar to the way people now sign up for tennis courts.

More famous bands like the Jefferson Airplane rushed over from finishing their (paid) set at the Northern California Festival to show solidarity with the hippies. By all reports, the free festival drew approximately 20,000 people (though Sharkey says it was 80,000). Although this number is dwarfed by the crowds that would go to Woodstock three months later, the concert is instructive because it exhibits many of the same narratives—yet none of the goodwill—of the later event. (This may be because that goodwill was mediated by the film versions, however, which is how most of us remember Woodstock.)

Age of Aquarian

The main theme that the Aquarian Festival illustrates is the tension between the “free” and the “paid” festival, which would play out to greater degree at Woodstock when concertgoers broke down the fences to attend. The genesis of this notion—that festivals should be free—seems to have arisen because some early psychedelic bands played for free in parks; later, when the bands became popular, larger crowds required them to incur incidental expenses like sound systems and security. 

The early free festivals seem to have given your normative hippie a hazy (and self-interested) sense that they were “being ripped off” by “the man” if they were charged admission at outdoor festivals. It also seems to have something to do with nature: for some reason, audiences understand that they have to pay when the venue is indoors, even though an outdoor venue incurs all the same (if not more) expenses.

The Dead, obviously, fanned the flames of this when they “liberated” the equipment at Monterey and played on it for free in Golden Gate Park: such acts gave rise to bizarre expectations of freeness on the part of their fans for the next 30 years. The film Festival Express documents a set of Canadian festivals in 1970 featuring Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and others. Each festival is met with violence and protest from attendees who want them to be free. 

In one case, the bands play for free outside the grounds, thus angering those who’d already paid; in another, the promoter lets people in for free and winds up losing his shirt. The film has scenes of the musicians debating whether the fans should be paying to see them; their consensus is that they should. Needless to say, the fans don’t agree—the trope of “free music in parks” has become too strong by then.

However impractical, the ideology of freeness was certainly well in play by 1969: a week before the Aquarian festival, 100,000 people attended a free festival that was held in Grant Park in Chicago; it was considered a big success. An attempt to organize a festival called the Wild West Fest in Golden Gate Park in August which was to cost $3, however, met with such rancor and infighting from community members and promoters that it had to be canceled. 

Race and Rape

During this period, the tension between paid festivals and free festivals was at the root of a number of very violent incidents; indeed, the violence that characterized the Aquarian Festival and later Altamont—a free Rolling Stones concert held in December at which an audience member pulled a gun and was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels—was not unique to those festivals.

The Aquarian Festival is also a useful lens through which to peer back at other less idyllic discourses that circulated at the time. Clearly race is one of them. According to police reports, there were four stabbings at the festival—and two involved what were then called “negro” victims. (As well, Sharkey remembers witnessing three beatdowns, which he describes as retaliatory, if violent, in nature.)

We know from this that African Americans did attend the festival, but probably not in great numbers. We also know there was some resistance to their presence—except of course, on stage. 

Like Woodstock, this festival also gave Black performers a large performative role. In San Jose, at the main event (Northern California Festival 2), this fell to Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and Sweet Linda Devine.  At Woodstock the slots would be filled by Richie Havens and Sly Stone, with Jimi making a reprise appearance.

As for women concert-goers, the newspapers in this era can’t seem to get over the presence of topless women and foregrounded their presence in every article. In fact, it’s hard to read archival reports of this festival without thinking that race and gender are—by their very absence in the record—central to the narrative. 

Today, Rolling Stone’s lack of outrage at the concert’s violent events is still startling: seven assaults, four stabbings and 15 attempted rapes merits the following lackadaisical report, “Stolen cars, property damage, stabbings, and one gang-bang with an involuntary chick headed the list of non-musical noise.” The magazine did dub the concert season a “summer of bummers” after riots broke out at festivals in Denver and Newport though. 

But even in a year when music festivals were all the rage, 1969’s Aquarian Festival was a unique event, a weekly Be-In that successfully expanded into a giant festival, entirely run by volunteers, including the Hell’s Angels. “We did not ‘hire’ the Hells Angels,” Sharkey says. “The San Jose Police were not permitted on the practice field, just SJSC security (and that was one guy). The bikers (not just Angels, but Gypsy Jokers also) set themselves up in that role because it gave them access and a way to park their bikes on stage left. It was not possible to deny them under their understated but clear threat of violence.”

Despite the body count, the Aquarian Festival was still largely characterized as “peaceful” by the press, since stabbings of people of color and petty criminals, not to mention 15 rapes, didn’t seem to register much in the annals of the press at the time.

Of course, in the same vein, it is necessary to bear in mind that “peaceful” may have been meant relative to the times. Just one week prior to this festival, the national guard had tear-gassed 500 UC Berkeley students, killing one of them; over the same weekend, 7,000 people, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning molecular biologist Linus Pauling, marched on Sacramento to protest police brutality to then-governor Ronald Reagan.

Three days after the festival ended, at a San Jose City Council meeting, the Northern California Music Festival was chastised for the decibel level of the amps, in a hearing which has been reprised countless times since the opening of Shoreline Amphitheatre in nearby Mountain View.

Noise abatement has long been a tactic used to limit rock festivities. It would come, in later years, to be one of the main legal weapons in challenges to urban festivals, and one of the main reasons most festivals are held in rural areas.

Today, the very existence of the Aquarian Family Festival is lost to the mists of antiquity; it is barely even a blip on the internet. Peering back in time, it is difficult to even imagine what it looked like, what it sounded like, what it felt like to be there, because so much is different today. The entire region around San Jose State has been swallowed up in the tech boom, and the idea of running a concert for 20,000 on volunteer labor alone simply does not compute.

Instead, what we think of when we think of that summer is a very similar (though infinitely larger) event that was held three months later in Bethel, New York. Like the Aquarian Festival, it was intended as a response to a canceled concert. It too “became” free by accident and required all kinds of negotiations with the surrounding community. 

The narratives, however, that were foregrounded by the mainstream press at Woodstock were entirely different from the ones at the Aquarian Festival. Instead of being critical of the event for its chaos, violence, traffic and noise, the press championed the concertgoers for their peacefulness, declaring the week after Woodstock in national magazines the “birth of a culture.”

Thanks entirely to Woodstock—or, rather, to the enormously popular movie of it, which was released the next year and which won the Oscar for best documentary—music festivals are invariably presented to prospective ticket buyers as utopian spaces of multiculturalism, freedom and peace. 

Whether that is or not actually the case, festivals do allow audiences ways of processing contested ideas about society—ideas like ecology (Live Earth) social justice (Live Aid) and even, in 1983, the possibilities inherent in new technologies like personal computers, streaming and mp3s, which were on display at the U.S. Festival, a concert that was spearheaded and funded entirely by the private fortune of Steve Wozniak.

Today, it is estimated that the music festival market will make $3 billion, drawing upwards of 100,000 attendees per day. (California Roots, Monterey Jazz Festival, Rebels and Roots are just a few that occur in this area, as is last weekend’s Re-Set, at Frost Amphitheater, the Portola Festival in San Francisco, and others too numerous to mention.) Their popularity can be attributed in part to social media: for some, a shot of themselves in front of Coachella’s iconic ferris wheel is the ultimate FOMO-invoking status symbol. But it may also be because in the age of smartphones, streaming and social media, music festivals represent one of the easiest and most satisfying ways to untether one’s self from the internet and connect with like-minded others.

They are also cost-efficient. This year, artists like Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have been able to command single ticket prices in the four figures for seats at their stadium shows, so attending a music festival for three figures and seeing countless top-name acts is actually a bit of a bargain.

Of course, it’s always nice to see your favorite artist perform all your favorite songs. But a music festival’s intention is to create a giant community in which people can experience music together. And at their best, they allow people to do even more than that. They allow them to experience history. At their best, rock festivals can be harbingers of societal trends, expressing the lived experience of a new generation. 

The events in San Jose in May of 1969 clearly expressed the dread and turmoil of that era. Let’s hope 2023’s festivals are more peaceful.

Gina Arnoldhttps://gina19e.substack.com/
Gina Arnold is an American author, music critic, and academic. A lecturer at Stanford University and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, she is the author of four books, including the 33⅓ book on Liz Phair, Exile in Guyville.

1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting article and a snapshot of a place in time that I was too young to care about (9 years old in 1969). Attitudes have changed in 50+ years and most importantly they’ve changed regarding society’s attitude toward rape. The fact that 15 rapes occurred during the festival is a damning indictment about the idiocy of a world with no guardrails (or police). The new society that the “hippie-think” thought they could build was/is totally unrealistic and any of the 15 victims still living (they all must around 70 or older) would have definite opinions about the terror they experienced at the hands of their aggressors. The festivals did bring people together to experience music in a new way and it did build community, but the treatment of women at these early festivals by some men is a real negative and it takes the shine off of what the festival organizers were trying to accomplish.

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