November 27th, 2010 at 3:32 am
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(First, some words. Then, the comics. And, yes, some more words.)
I’d completely forgotten about this one until just a few days ago.
Back in 1991, Kitchen Sink Press brought out a series of Grateful Dead Comix, a glossy magazine-sized licensed product that offered a lot of underground and alt-comics artists the opportunity to interpret their favorite Dead songs. The line-up was pretty impressive, offering work by Tim Truman, Nina Paley, Rand Holmes, Waller and Worley, Mary Fleener and other superbly talented folks. It was an ambitious project, but an expensive one – the covers printed on heavy coated stock didn’t come cheap, the Dead weren’t exactly waiving those licensing fees, and a potentially lucrative plan to have the comics sold at Grateful Dead concerts got torpedoed at the last minute. After publishing seven large-format issues, Kitchen Sink circled the wagons and rebooted the series for a second, less expensive, volume printed at regular comics size. That version ran only two issues before KSP faced the inevitable and pulled the plug.
I wasn’t terribly shocked to see it die. There was some imaginative work going on, but I remember thinking that the emphasis on illustrated song lyrics was too limiting, too much a case of preaching to the choir. The hardcore Deadheads, after all, already knew the songs and could play the music in their heads as they turned the pages, but beyond the occasional striking image there just wasn’t much to hold the casual reader.
I found out some time later that Denis Kitchen felt the same way and had lobbied Jerry Garcia for permission to include actual stories. Garcia eventually agreed, but insisted on the Dead retaining all the copyrights; as a result, only about half a dozen short original pieces appeared over the course of the entire run. Of those, no more than two or three were about the band itself, and I think that lessened the book’s appeal. Terry LaBan turned in some clever snarky tales centering on being a fan of the group, but without actual Grateful Dead stories to appear alongside, the effect was about the same as opening a copy of Batman and finding mostly stories about the trials and joys of organizing your longboxes. There was material by the Dead, material about people who liked the Dead, but virtually nothing that was actually about the Dead themselves, and the lack of that vital element struck me as a sadly missed opportunity.
Around the time the series was making its transition from magazine to traditional comic book, artist Dan Burr pitched KSP editor Dave Schreiner the idea of doing a story about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. One of them asked me to write it, and – even though it was work-for- hire – I jumped at the chance to do something else with Dan.
I ended up doing a surprising amount of research for such a short piece. All I knew about the Monterey Pop Festival came from having watched D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary several years before – hell, I wasn’t even all that familiar with the Grateful Dead – so I had to give myself a crash course in what a groundbreaking event the festival was.
And, though 1967 had fallen during my lifetime, I hadn’t been quite old enough then to have been all that plugged into the hippie zeitgeist, let alone the specific Haight-Ashbury vibe in any more than the most generic fashion. So there was a fair amount of research into that specific time and place, too – which led me to the Diggers.
The Diggers only appear in a single panel, but what they did and what they represented around the time of the Summer of Love propels the entire story. Largely remembered now as a guerrilla theater group, their most important contribution at the time was scrounging up free food, shelter and medical services for the ever-growing parade of young people whose idealism, naiveté and sheer ignorance of the harsh realities of life brought them to San Francisco in the latter half of the ‘60s. While the festival was in the planning stage, a rumor was floated that part of the proceeds would go toward funding the Diggers’ efforts; the Diggers themselves refused to have anything to do with a concert that charged for admission, but the rumor persisted.
For such a huge and unprecedented undertaking, Monterey Pop ran like a dream (and did ultimately end up funding a number of charitable organizations) – but some of the San Francisco contingent, notably the Dead, found themselves increasingly fed up with what they considered the overly regimented aspect of the whole thing…and organizer John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas was an easy target for their irritation. Not an easy man to love in the first place, Phillips had just co-written a popular ballad exhorting young people to come to San Francisco with flowers in their hair, which earned him the contempt of those living day-to-day and frequently hand-to-mouth in the Haight.
So the philosophical friction between Phillips and the Dead provided the story’s underlying conflict. I remember having a little trouble finding the voice for the narration, briefly experimenting with various members of the Dead telling the story. I finally settled on what I hoped was a more universal approach, the nostalgic recollection of Someone Who Was There, leaving the specific identity up to the reader. With only seven pages, I had to take an impressionistic approach to the material, but in terms of creating the kind of slight but solid story I’d thought the series needed, I was mostly satisfied with the way it came out. As usual, Dan took my stuff and turned it into a gorgeous document-cum-work of art.
The scans that follow were taken from the printed comic, and you can click on each page to get a larger image. One caveat: Ray Fehrenbach did a good job coloring Dan’s work, but the eco-friendly printing process that was part of the deal with the Dead let us down a little here (recycled paper, soy-based inks and comics were an iffy proposition in those days); some of Dan’s fine line work was lost in the process, and the blues were particularly oversaturated. It’s a shame, because Dan’s originals were gorgeous and meticulous, as always. For those in need of a scorecard, I’ve included some annotations following each page. If you don’t want to read the notes, scroll on past and enjoy the festival.
When Dan and I were doing Kings in Disguise, I would snailmail him piles of photocopied reference – but for “Monterey Pop,” all I had to supply was the words. This was his baby, and though he was working in the days before Google Image starting making it almost too easy, you can believe that what you see on these pages is what it looked like on the Monterey County Fairground in 1967. The one glaring exception is that handsome couple in the middle of the page, who absolutely weren’t at Monterey Pop. In Dan’s words: “…yeah, I Hitchcocked myself (with my arm around my lovely future wife who, in 1967, I was still ten years away from meeting) in roughly the center of the splash – wearing sunglasses and the kind of clothes and hair I was wearing in that month of that year.” I have to admit getting a kick out of the lettering style of the credits, just what you’d see if Dan and I were playing the Fillmore West.
Panel 1: That’s young beardless Jerry Garcia on the left and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan on the right; in the next panel they’re passing Peter Tork (signing an autograph) and Mickey Dolenz (in the headdress), of the Monkees – no, the Monkees didn’t play at Monterey, though Tork would have his moment in the spotlight on the final night. Panel 4: John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas (in the fur hat) and Dead bass player Phil Lesh are seated. Phillips helped organize the festival and took a ration of crap from some of his fellow artists, who considered him a sell-out for playing ball with The Man. Panel 5: As noted, the Diggers are remembered for their guerrilla street theater (young Peter Coyote was a member of the group), but their most important work was in providing life-giving care for the homeless young proto-Hippies who’d followed their bliss to the Haight and environs.
Panel 4: D.A. Pennebaker can be seen shooting the Monterey Pop documentary – and in this case, missing out on the drama going on behind the scenes. Panel 5: Clockwise from upper left – Paul Butterfield on harmonica, Simon & Garfunkel, Otis Redding, David Crosby (in another fur hat) with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Grace Slick and Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane, Hugh Masekela, “Country Joe” McDonald, and Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield. I think doing this page and the next were a big part of the draw for Dan. To quote him again: “I was between my sophomore and junior year of high school during the “Summer of Love” when the Monterey festival was held. I was, I suppose, a first generation Grateful Dead fan having bought their first long player when it came out in the spring of that year. But I’m really more of a fan of the Monterey Pop Festival itself (for both musical and social reasons) than I am of any particular act that played there (though I think it’s safe to say that I like them all).”
Panel 1: “Barney” was the nickname for Dead roadie Laird Grant, seen here helping Pigpen with a little after-hours Robin Hooding. Panel 3: Alla Rakha on tabla, left, and Ravi Shankar on sitar, right, playing their legendary four-hour set; Pennebaker’s Monterey documentary would make Shankar a star in the U.S. Panel 4: A mostly unknown guy named Jimi Hendrix, the Dead’s Bob Weir, and Paul Simon sitting in on an impromptu afternoon jam in the Guild Guitars tent. Panel 5: Janis Joplin delivers her breakthrough performance. Note the entranced Pigpen in the audience; he and Joplin had a brief romance around this time. And yes, that’s Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas in the sunglasses.
Panel 1: Holding forth by the big Buddha – yep, it was there – is pioneering music critic Ralph Gleason; if you squint, you can make out his trademark deerstalker hat. Rumors that the Beatles would appear persisted throughout the Festival, coming to a head on the final night. Panel 2: Center and Right are Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who strolled around the Festival like visiting royalty, and Velvet Underground singer Nico; bending their ear is Grateful Dead sound engineer Stanley Owsley, also known as “Bear.” Also called “the acid king” by some, Bear would get busted a few months later and draw a three-year sentence for getting caught with several hundred thousand doses of LSD, which he claimed were all for personal use. Panel 4: Pete Townsend of The Who and Jimi Hendrix watch as John Phillips flips a coin to decide which act was going on first – yeah, that’s really how pop-music history was made that night. Panel 7: The Dead actually performed between Who and Hendrix, but those guys can get their own damn books. And poetic license gave me a chance to focus on the events of the following page…
Panels 2-4: Yes, that’s Peter Tork of the Monkees interrupting the Dead’s set to ask the audience to chill. The mind boggles. Tork had introduced acts during the festival and was reportedly a decent guy, but here he came off as an Establishment tool worried about keeping order; the minor anarchy of the Dead’s response was considered a subversive victory by those annoyed by the button-down mindset behind the scenes. Audio recording of this exchange has turned up online in recent years, and the dialogue is actually pretty close to what appears here. Panel 5: Dan’s portraits of the Dead, clockwise from Upper Left: Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Pigpen, drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir.
Panel 1: Most of the middle finger of Jerry Garcia’s right hand had been amputated when he was a child, and in the original script I asked Dan to show Garcia flipping the bird with that hand, a small contemptuous gesture; Dan decided to go for a flashier moment and switched hands. (You can see Garcia’s stub in the following panel as the Dead refuse to have their work included in the Monterey Pop documentary or record album.) The object of Garcia’s scorn is, of course, the Mamas and the Papas, Phillips having nailed his own act down for the big finale. That song, “San Francisco,” was a huge hit, but not everyone struggling in the Haight was enchanted by this plastic little ballad. Panels 4-6: The rumor was floated that equipment disappeared from the Festival, and that maybe somebody in the Dead knew what had happened to it. If true, using the amps in a fund-raiser for the Diggers would have been a nice little irony. And I thought Dead fans would enjoy having the final say go to Pigpen, who was known for being a man of few words. I borrowed his snark from a letter written by the Diggers’ Emmett Grogan.
By the time I was hired as Kitchen Sink’s editor-in-chief, the story had already been scheduled for the ninth issue – and the handwriting was on the wall that the series was at an end. I’m listed as my own editor on that one, though in truth the only thing left for me to edit was the letters column; my predecessor Dave Schreiner had already laid it out, with “Monterey Pop” in the lead followed by a Terry LaBan short and an extended section of illustrated lyrics by Tim Truman. So I can’t claim either credit or blame for the way it turned out – but for that one issue I had the satisfaction of seeing Grateful Dead Comix put together just the way I thought it should be. And it was pretty darned groovy.