6/14/2012

The Byrds at the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival: June 1967

On Sunday, June 11, 1967, at the beginning of the Summer of Love in the Bay Area, I was part of a youthful crowd that enjoyed an outdoor performance by The Byrds. They were making an appearance, along with a number of other performers, on the second day of the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, which was promoted by KFRC, one of the leading AM radio stations in San Francisco. Admission was only two dollars, and it all happened in an amphitheater at the top of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, a beautiful location to the north of San Francisco. Forty-five years later, I still remember it as a perfect day of wonderful music, good feelings, and fresh air. It was the sort of day, sunny and carefree, that made it easy to understand why the Bay Area was regarded as being among the most desirable regions in California.

The weekend festival on Mount Tamalpais, which I attended with several of my friends from school, was held only a week before the more famous Monterey International Pop Festival (where The Byrds made another appearance, and where two up-and-coming performers, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, made a distinct impression onstage and quickly established themselves as major names), and is now counted as one of the first gatherings at which a new community, made up mostly of young people who were soon to become known as "hippies," put itself on public display. Everyone in attendance at the KFRC festival had to board one of a fleet of buses and ride up the mountain to arrive at the amphitheater itself. In addition to many hours of music, the festival also featured booths at which food and varied wares could be purchased. It was an exciting day for me. I was thirteen, a few months away from turning fourteen, and it was only the third offering of rock'n'roll that I had ever attended, after seeing performances by The Beatles and The Beach Boys in 1966.

The Byrds were the top stars at the festival, and gave the main performance when I was there, but an ongoing flow of current rock'n'roll was offered throughout the day. Among the other performers who appeared in the mountain sunshine on that Sunday afternoon were Jefferson Airplane, six local musicians whose latest album, Surrealistic Pillow (which included their hits, "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit") was taking their psychedelic music to the ears of listeners far beyond the Bay Area, The Grass Roots ("Let's Live for Today"), The Seeds ("Pushin' Too Hard"), The Merry-Go-Round ("Live"), Every Mothers' Son ("Come On Down to My Boat"), and P. F. Sloan, a hard-working songwriter whose minor fame resulted mostly from the string of catchy hits that he had composed for Barry McGuire ("Eve of Destruction"), Herman's Hermits ("A Must to Avoid"), and Johnny Rivers ("Secret Agent Man").

At that moment in the middle of 1967, The Byrds were flying somewhat lower than usual, after two years of being one of the hottest bands in America. They had started in 1964, in Los Angeles, when Roger McGuinn (guitar, vocals), David Crosby (guitar, vocals), Gene Clark (vocals, tambourine), Chris Hillman (bass, vocals), and Michael Clarke (drums) were known as The Jet Set. They soon changed their name from The Jet Set to The Byrds, and released their first single, an electric rendering of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man," on Columbia Records in April, 1965. The single reached #1 in the USA within months of its release, and The Byrds quickly were designated as the American counterparts to The Beatles (hardly surprising, considering that they had the same hairstyles and the same guitars) and the undisputed leaders of folk rock. Their second single, "All I Really Want to Do" (another song written by Bob Dylan), and their first album, Mr. Tambourine Man, were released in June, 1965.

The sound of The Byrds was built on a dense foundation of vocal harmonies, combined with bright clusters of compressed tones that chimed from the twelve strings of Roger McGuinn's Rickenbacker guitar. It was an extremely compelling sound, stirring and unmistakable, and it easily set their recordings of The Byrds apart from those of their peers. Their third single, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (with music by Pete Seeger and words taken from the Old Testament of the Bible), was released in October, 1965 (followed by their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn!), and provided them with another major hit, reaching #1 in the USA. Their sixth single, "Eight Miles High" (written by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby), released in March, 1966, also was a hit, but many disc jockeys apparently were distressed by its supposed references to drugs, and a number of radio stations declined to play it. When Gene Clark resigned from The Byrds in 1966, the other members continued as a foursome and recorded their third album, Fifth Dimension. In February, 1967, their fourth album by The Byrds, Younger Than Yesterday, was released.

Because there were no security measures at the festival (in contrast to the heavy-handed approach that usually prevails nowadays), fans were able to mingle freely with the musicians. My friends and I had an opportunity to speak with David Crosby of The Byrds and Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane (who were sitting together on the back of a truck near the stage, engaged in a happy conversation), and we also watched the musicians as they prepared themselves for their performances. In the minutes before The Byrds commenced their set, Roger McGuinn could be seen standing to one side behind the stage, alone and aloof, quietly tuning his guitar. When two girls approached David Crosby, who was tuning his own guitar, and shyly asked him to sing into their portable tape recorder, he responded with "Yeah, yeah, yeah!" We also had a chance to closely observe members of The Grass Roots, The Seeds, and The Merry-Go-Round (whose leader, Emitt Rhodes, seemed unfriendly and wearily brushed aside our request for an autograph) as they came offstage.

My friends and I stood as close as we could get to the front of the stage to see The Byrds, who performed their songs (including several from Younger Than Yesterday) in a generally workmanlike fashion. They were joined by Hugh Masekela, a jazz musician from South Africa whose trumpet had been heard on their single, "So You Want to Be a Rock'n'Roll Star." It was fairly evident, however, that in spite of the high quality of the music that The Byrds played, all was not entirely well within the band. Roger McGuinn, who was attired more sharply than the others, seemed distinctly remote in his onstage demeanor, and apart from a few words of random hipness that were uttered between songs by David Crosby, there was little attempt, either singly or collectively, at smooth showmanship. Chris Hillman, in particular, who was casually dressed in a white T-shirt and a pair of well-worn bluejeans, actually appeared more informal than many of those in the audience.

Before the end of 1967, David Crosby and Michael Clarke both had departed from The Byrds. (David Crosby soon went on to even greater things, joining in a musical venture with two of his closest friends, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash of The Hollies, and becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1970s.) Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman elected to stay together and carry on as The Byrds, adding Gram Parsons (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Kevin Kelley (drums) to fill out the lineup, and boldly changing direction by moving into the realm of country rock in 1968, with the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album recorded partly in Nashville, Tennessee. (Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, and Michael Clarke later performed alongside one another as members of The Flying Burrito Brothers, another band known for skillfully blending country and rock.)

The festival on Mount Tamalpais turned out to be a sign of things to come. During the course of that lively summer in 1967, young people in the Bay Area and elsewhere, with rock'n'roll as their motive power, would turn away from the rules of conformity and the bounds of tradition that guided their elders, earnestly seeking to find a different way of life for themselves. The Byrds and the other musicians who appeared at the festival were an essential part of that experience. After the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival came the Monterey International Pop Festival, and after that came a number of other festivals, including the famous ones at Woodstock in New York (held on a farm and attended by half a million people), the Altamont Speedway in the Bay Area (where The Rolling Stones lost control of their audience and the situation turned violent), and the Isle of Wight in England (an annual festival which featured, from 1968 to 1970, performances by Bob Dylan, The Who, The Doors, and many others). Through the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, music would be a prime force in shaping the mood, the manners, and the mentality of the times.

My remembrances of the KFRC Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival are featured among the firsthand observations in this article from Rolling Stone.