When my friend Malcolm Levi called me in late August of 1969, he was ready for a vacation. Malcolm co-owned The Electric Outlet, Memphis' first hippie clothing store located at Poplar and Evergreen, and he invited me to join him and some friends for a trip to upstate New York to the Woodstock Music Festival and Aquarian Exposition. Rather than visions of Jimi Hendrix, all I could see was twelve or so hours locked in a cramped hippie bus with acquaintances known for erratic behavior, and so I declined. Besides, nothing could ever top the festival Malcolm and I had attended only eight months previous, which turned out to be promoter Michael Lang's trial run for Woodstock; the incredible three day festival held over the New Year's weekend of 1968-69, at Miami's Gulfstream Park thoroughbred racing track.
After the "big bang" of the Monterrey Pop Festival of 1967, this was the first attempt at such a gathering on this side of the continent and the promoters saturated radio stations in college towns all over the southeast. Since my musical passions were the new, psychedelic music as well as the classic soul sounds of the sixties, I could barely believe I was going to get to hear Procol Harum and Marvin Gaye on the same day. Soul music was still huge in the south and the promoters wisely included such artists like Joe Tex, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, and Chuck Berry to lure the college kids, and Iron Butterfly, The Grateful Dead, and Fleetwood Mac to attract the freaks. Featured for the folkies were Jose Feliciano and a new artist named Joni Mitchell. A gang of Memphis pals piled into cars and headed south and when we reached the bucolic, green racing grounds, graced by flocks of pink flamingos, we were astonished at the sight. In our separate southern locales, the hippies were cautious and few, but together in Miami, we were many and mighty; colorfully dressed and long-tressed, we stared at each other for a full day before we could believe it.
The grounds were separated into two stages, giving the manageable crowd of thirty to sixty thousand room to wander between competing acts, while free-standing, whimsical sculptures in the walkways in between offered shade and wonder. Our Memphis group staked out a small, secluded spot under a tree by the entrance as a meeting place. If anyone were feeling distressed or confused, a few minutes under the tree would bring another friendly face from home. I had just witnessed such familiarity in the faces of Booker T. & the MGs and had made my way back to the side of the mainstage when I saw my boys; the band formerly known as Ronnie & the DeVilles had hired a new lead singer named Alex Chilton and had changed their name to the Box Tops. Alex was in the process of telling a huge audience that he didn't know what they were doing there, as if their hits weren't hip enough, but I managed to get close enough to shout at Thomas Boggs on the drums, who also seemed delighted to see another face from home.
As the days grew in number, so did the extraordinary kindnessness shown between strangers. There was a permanent smile on the face of the entire festival, and even those who never tampered with the locks on the "Doors of Perception," could feel it. Our little group had kicked in the doors and were probing around in the ethers looking for cosmic clues when a helmeted, motorcycle policeman roared a Harley onto the mainstage and stomped down a kickstand with a heavy black boot. I was searching for the exits when the menacing cop grabbed the micropohone and growled, "Got your motor runnin'," and John Kay and Steppenwolf exploded into "Born to be Wild." After sitting through the entirety of Iron Butterfly's "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida" drum solo and the debut performance of Three Dog Night, big Bob "The Bear" Hite and Canned Heat took the stage. When they locked into that John Lee Hooker groove it was like an electric current went through the crowd. I felt myself propelled toward the front until I stood with a large, writhing group beside the stage, and while normally reserved at such events, I became somehow transformed into a Native-American warrior under the relentless beat until song's end found me shirtless but for a sheepskin vest, in bellbottoms and moccasins. To celebrate my conversion, we all travelled to the large campgrounds set up for visitors at the nearby Seminole Indian Reservation, where we sat around fires and smoked the pipes of peace well into the next morning.
I left Miami believing that I had witnessed the dawn of an age of gentler people who retained the capacity to love and treat one another with more compassion than previous generations, and it would only spread until we ended the war and changed the world. That euphoric naivete lasted about three weeks until Richard Nixon's inauguration, the demonizing of war protesters as "bums," the bombing of Cambodia, and student strikes ending in the blood of Kent State and Jackson State. But for one golden weekend, I saw it. I saw that by surrendering exclusivity, the worth of all people can be revealed, and that everyone has something to offer if only you are receptive. I witnessed that love is better than hate and kindness is superior to indifference. But that was a long time ago, and, like other flights of fancy, I haven't seen it much since.
My buddy Malcolm told me Woodstock was a bonding experience because so many had to endure so much, but when he described a half million hippies slopping around in the mud, I was glad I didn't go. I went to a few big festivals after Miami, but they only grew more commercial, with massive crowds herded into the infields of auto raceways surrounded by asphalt and inadequate facilities. The promoters of Miami Pop were emboldened to go on to Woodstock, but rather than obtain the cooperation of a friendly community and even an official welcome from the Governor, as in Florida, local officials in New York state gave them nothing but resistance and Governor Nelson Rockefeller threatened them with the National Guard. It is a great achievement of the hippie experience that showed the world that determined people can live without violence. Unfortunately, there are far too many others with no such determination. I can still recall that pop group from Memphis, though, among all the "heavy" acts at the Miami Pop Festival, that sang, "Love is a river running, Soul Deep."