Friday, September 11, 2009

May 25, 1968 Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, San Jose, CA: McCarthy is Happening


The 1968 "McCarthy is Happening" event at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose is only known from the flyer (shown above). The event was scheduled for Saturday, May 25, 1968, and probably took place, although I have no direct evidence one way or the other. Nonetheless, there are numerous interesting things about the conception of the event, whether it took place or not.

The Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, at 1st Street and Tully Road (the formal address was 344 Tully), were regularly used for rock concerts. However, concert events were typically in one of the buildings or grandstands, with a few or several bands, like any typical concert. Sometimes local San Jose bands played--many of them quite popular--and by 1968 bands from San Francisco and even elsewhere had started to play there. This festival event, however, was distinctly different than any event that had happened before or since at the Fairgrounds, including the famous (and infamous) Northern California Folk Rock Festivals of 1968 and 1969. Those events were multi-day rock shows with headliners like The Doors (1968) and Jimi Hendrix (1969), and were organized like The Monterey Pop Festival. "McCarthy is Happening," which although it took place after the 1968 Folk-Rock Festival (which was on May 18-19), had to be planned before hand, appears to be a different animal entirely.

The Name

The "Title" of the festival is "McCarthy is Happening." Senator Eugene McCarthy was the popular anti-Vietnam War candidate, and popular with young people, and the crucial California primary was on Tuesday, June 4.  However, nothing in the flyer says anything about the election, or being a fundraiser, or political speeches. At this remove, it appears that McCarthy is invoked as sort of a talisman of cool, simply a marketing device. Either this is an example of ultra-clever campaign marketing, decades ahead of its time, or its simply a cynical use of a popular politician. It does say "Donations: $2.00" but no organization or cause is cited--many sixties events claimed tickets were "donations" so as not to appear too commercial.

The Event

The flyer says "12:00 Noon Continuously 12:00 Midnight." The Fairgrounds were set up for this kind of arrangement, and indeed the implication is that the event is simply a hippie fair. The circle in the center says "with Arts and Crafts, Pony Rides, Animal Zoo, Food, Games: Peace To You." All of those amenities--well, perhaps excepting Peace To You--were standard at the Fair, and no doubt the same operators managed them. The tickets are "Donations: Big People-2.00, Under 12-50 cents" so children are at least encouraged, if not entirely expected.

I count about two dozen musical acts, at least three dance troupes, one multi-media show and a few more hard to determine performers. Given the vast number of performers, there must have been multiple stages, but of course the County Fair is set up for that as well, and there were plenty of venues. Clearly the intent is to provide continuous entertainment, so that people will stay several hours and buy food or other items, so the economics were probably intended as similar to the County Fair. A detailed discussion of the musical acts is below, but in general only a few of these acts would have been known, and most would have been quite obscure even then. As a result, the performers would not have been particularly well paid, once again similar to County Fair economics.

The Headliners

The headline acts are HP Lovecraft, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Jack Jones and Jill St. John. HP Lovecraft, while not major, were a unique Chicago psychedelic band with enough of a following to headline the Fillmore Auditorium. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a Long Beach "folk-rock" (later country rock) band had released two albums and had a Top 40 hit with "Buy For Me The Rain," so while they were perceived as a bit slicker than a Fillmore band, they would have had a following too. Jack Jones and Jill St. John are the only act with a listed start time (1:00 pm), and they would have been considerably better known, and considerably less hip, than anyone else on the bill. Jack Jones and Fillmore bands on the same bill, and at an outdoor concert, is a surprising and even curious combination.

Jack Jones (born 1938) was one of the more popular singers in the 1960s, but he sang in an "Adult Contemporary" style that was typical of Frank Sinatra and Las Vegas lounges. Modern readers will probably only recall that he sang the theme from "Love Boat." Jill St. John, then a rising actress, was his wife at this time (they were married from 1967-69). I do not know what their act was, but it was probably a very professional Las Vegas-style revue, quite a bit different than the bluesy psychedelic stylings of many of the bands. Jack Jones remains a popular performer, although obviously his schedule is reduced. Jill St. John went on to become a famous Bond Girl ("Tiffany Case" in Diamonds Are Forever) and remains a working actress.

The Acts

Of the 32 acts listed, I recognize 13 of them as rock bands, and all but HP Lovecraft, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Clear Light are local (see below for a more extensive analysis). There are three acts identified as dance troupes, and several acts with names that seem vaguely multicultural rather than psychedelic (like Ruiz De Luzuriaga), some that I can't say for sure whether they are bands I haven't heard of or some other act (Azziza, The Anatolians and Rikudom), and several 'regular' names. I think the names like Chloe Scott and Vickey Drake are local "Contemporary" performers, like Jack Jones. Since they are near "George Gershwin", who died in 1937, I think the lower semi-circle of acts are local performers intended to appeal to older people who will like Jack Jones (mind you, even these people wouldn't yet be 40, as Jack Jones himself had just turned 30).

Based on the acts I recognize, and some assumptions about 60s naming conventions, the appeal is at the two types of "McCarthy Voters"--young people, who were actual or aspiring hippies, and 30-40 year olds, probably with families and jobs, who didn't hate rock music but liked something more refined. Given that I can think of no outdoor festival that attempted this mixture, I highly doubt that this was a good idea, but that is one thing that makes this event so interesting.

Stewart Brant's Wargod

"Stewart Brant's Wargod" would actually be Stewart Brand's "War: God", a multimedia presentation. Brand was a remarkable figure, a pioneer in multi-media presentations and computers, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, co-conspirator of Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and organizer of the legendary San Francisco Trips Festival (January 21-22-23, 1966), upon which all Fillmore and Avalon concerts were modeled thereafter. War: God would probably have been running continuously in a special room, once again a need that the Fairground would have met very well (the presentation was probably a mixture of slide shows, lights, music and movies). Brand would have been a known quantity amongst the hip and forward looking, and his presence indicates that at least some aspect of the organizers plans were not directly commercial.

Speculative Conclusions

This event seems so unique that I suspect it was a commercial disaster. I say this not just because no one seems to remember it, but because if the peculiar mixture of an all-day hippie fair with kids rides and lounge music was a winning combination, it would have happened again. This event seems such an odd mixture of performers--Stewart Brand and Jill St. John, to name two--that it was fated to either be a success or failure but not inbetween.

The fact that a huge two-day rock festival had taken place on the same site the previous weekend, whose 20 performers included The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Electric Flag and numerous other fine groups must have made the event seem anticlimactic in any case. The Eugene McCarthy phenomenon, well outside the scope of this blog, was also a rare event, so the conditions that made this event seem plausible were not likely to be repeated in any case.

Its also possible that this event was so peculiarly conceived that it never took place. Many sixties events are "obscure" because while the flyer exists, the event was canceled, and nobody publishes a flyer to announce a cancellation. Anyone with any knowledge (real or imagined) about this event is encouraged to Comment or email me.

Notes On The Bands

May 25, 1968 Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, San Jose, CA
McCarthy is Happening (Noon til Midnight)

Jack Jones and Jill St. John/HP Lovecraft/Nitty Gritty Dirt Band/Clear Light/Flaming Groovies/Stewart Brand's War: God/Marion Andus Jazz Ballet/Crystal Syphon/The Anatolians/Le Aloha Dancers/Ruiz de Luzuriaga/Azziza/The Womb/Jimmy Nite and The Nite Caps/Phantasmagoria/LA Bloth Feeling and Center/Anonymous Artists of America/The Howl/The Ching/Day Blindness/Paul Curtis Ballet/Shango/Randy Conger/The Great Darv/Chloe Scott/George Gershwin/Big Mike Dinga/Rikudom/Vickey Drake/Peter Donner/Dave Gabe

Notes on bands familiar to me: 

HP Lovecraft: HP Lovecraft was a Chicago group, and they had been billed at the Fillmore as recently as May 9-10-11, 1968, sharing with Loading Zone and Seattle's Crome Syrcus, the last show (May 11) of which was released in 1991. In mid-1968, they had probably just released their second and last album.

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: A Long Beach group, initially a jug band, they evolved into folk-rock and eventually country rock. In 1967 they had a Top 40 hit, "Buy For Me The Rain" and they also released two albums. In 1968, multi-instrumentalist Chris Darrow would have just joined. The group has had a long career, and are still active today.

Clear Light: A psychedelic rock group on Elektra, Clear Light were one of many bands that ought to have made it but didn't. They only released one album, in 1967. This event would have been near the end of the band's career. Bassist Doug Lubahn played with the Doors, and drummer Dallas Taylor ended up with CSNY. Danny Kortchmar may have been the lead guitarist by this late date.

Flamin Groovies: The Flamin Groovies were a British Invasion style band from San Francisco, the Groovies were never very popular in the psychedelic era.

Crystal Syphon: Crystal Syphon were a Merced band, who played a little in the Bay Area.

The Womb: The Womb were a San Francisco band who were somewhere between psychedelic and progressive rock. The lead singer was Rory Butcher, previously of The Hedds. The band released two albums on Dot Records in 1969.

The Nite Caps: Based on ads I have seen, The Nite Caps seemed to be an East Bay bar band.

Anonymous Artists Of America: The Anonymous Artists of America lived in a commune in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and they basically took over from Ken Kesey's Pranksters when Kesey left for jail and Oregon. They were a real hippie organization, and played their share of Be-Ins, but they did make a stab at being a real rock band. Jerry Garcia's ex-wife (Sara Ruppenthal) had been an early member, but she was surely out of the group by this time. The organist was Chuck Schoening (aka Chuck Steaks), previously in The Frantics and Luminous Marsh Gas, and later in Quicksilver Messenger Service.

The Howl: I have seen traces of The Howl in the Bay Area in 1967--apparently a psychedelic rock band.

Day Blindness: Day Blindness was founded at Jefferson High in San Mateo in 1968. The group had probably just formed. The band did release an obscure album in 1969. The group evolved into Fox, and guitarist Gary Pihl went on to play with Sammy Hagar.

Shango: Shango was a successor band to The New Delhi River Band, and apparently played very few gigs before they were signed and taken to Los Angeles to record under the name Horses. Shango's membership was Matt Kelly (vcls, harmonica), Tim Abbott (ld gtr), Dave Torbert (bs) and Chris Herold (drums).

3 comments:

  1. Frank Zappa scholar Charles Ulrich reports that this event was listed in the May 24-30 issue of the Berkeley Barb. Intriguingly, the Mothers of Invention were the only act listed (along with "artists, booths, industries, speakers"). The Mothers were playing Fresno, at an event called "Happening 2." Was this a conflation of two events by the Barb staff, or were The Mothers originally scheduled as headliners?

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  2. I don't know why I am only commenting on this now, but I actually emailed Stewart Brand and asked him if he recalled this event and his answer was a definite NO.

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    1. The Web is forever now, and I'm sure Stewart Brand still doesn't remember it, if it even happened at all.

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