Fifty years ago, one of my first assignments as a reporter provided a backstage press pass to a rock festival in northern California.
Wow, I thought, what a great gig this newspaper business, being paid to spend two days in the sunshine – peace, love, dope – listening to music and interviewing the folks who were making the music.
I was 21, a few weeks on the staff at the Herald & News in Livermore, only an hour’s drive east of San Francisco but a world away from the birthplace of the Beats and the hippies.
As I recount in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, that assignment was an inauspicious start to my career, missing a nearby “riot” while hanging out with the boys in the bands and my then-wife Anita:
She was very pregnant when she joined me backstage the last weekend in October for the San Francisco International Pop Festival, at the fairgrounds in the neighboring town of Pleasanton.
I was there providing the coverage, of course, as the resident cool kid on the Herald, able to translate into English the musical menu that included Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida; Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale, The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun.
While Anita and I went home Saturday night, a couple of thousand people camped on the grounds for the next day’s show, which featured a new group that called itself Creedence Clearwater.
When I got back to the office late Sunday to write my story, my editor asked about the riot.
“The police say five-hundred people crashed the gates, the cops had to call for reinforcements.”
“I didn’t see anything, or hear anything about that.”
I wrote my story …
PLEASANTON – “You and your damn music. I have to exercise my horse and the track is swarming with dirty hippies,” an elderly cowboy said walking his horse up and down the sidelines.
Thus, another nail was hammered into the generation-gap casket as a result of the San Francisco International Pop Festival, held at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton this weekend.
I inserted info from the cops. It ran under the headline: Pop Festival Success Despite Youth Melee.
It really wasn’t much of a melee. No injuries. No arrests. Just a bunch of kids climbing over fences to get free admission to the show.
I guess gatecrashing was big news in Livermore. Or maybe my editors knew the locals disapproved of all those “dirty hippies” invading their peaceful valley.
Like today, 1968 was a time of great division in the United States (and elsewhere). Young versus old. Hippies versus straights.
And the people who ran the Herald leaned straight/right on most issues.
It’s one of the reasons I left the next spring. Went home to New York. Took a job on a magazine called Changes, which was going to be the East Coast answer to Rolling Stone.
It wasn’t. Only lasted a few months.
I moved on, was out of the country when Woodstock happened that summer, and was covering a terrorist trial in Zurich later in 1969 when the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont – in Livermore – descended to murderous chaos.
By then, my journalistic ambition did not include backstage passes at rock festivals, though the music of that time remains the music of my life.
Today, those music-makers are old – or dead, including two of the three who appear in my pictures published in the Herald.
Guitarist Erik Brann was only 18 when he played with Iron Butterfly that weekend in 1968. He died of a heart attack at the age of 52 in 2003.
Bob “Bear” Hite of Canned Heat was 25 when I interviewed him. He died of a heroin overdose during a gig at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood in 1981 at the age of 38.
The Herald & News is also dead. It was folded into a succession of regional papers and, after the mid-1980s, no longer had a newsroom in Livermore.