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Remember A Day



Watkins Glen To The MUSE Concerts

During the seventies and early eighties, several changes in rock music occurred that would also change the rock festivals between Altamont and Live Aid. As rock became more prominent and successful in the early seventies, partly due to the rise in popularity of FM radio, bands such as the Who were getting critical acclaim from non-rock critics. One of the turning points of the early part of this era was the Who performing their rock opera "Tommy" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. This has been called an "unprecedented association between popular culture and high culture." (1) This transition to an open embracement of rock music by culturists can be demonstrated by the two major rock festivals of the seventies, Watkins Glen and the MUSE concerts.

The largest rock and roll concert ever presented was at the Raceway in Watkins Glen, New York on 28 July 1973. Over 600,000 people attended the single day affair. This was three times the amount promoters expected. Like Woodstock and Altamont, people from all over started arriving days before the event; 80,000 had arrived by the 26th. It was estimated that twelve hours before the show was scheduled to begin that traffic had been blocked for over one hundred miles.

Watkins Glen was, simply, a presentation of the three most enduring rock & roll bands ever - the Grateful Dead, the Band, and the Allman Brothers - a "Summer Jam." (2)

Musically, this concert was quite different from any other festival. The day before the concert all three bands played short one to two hour sets for the 150,000 people that had already arrived. On the day of the concert, the Dead played for five hours, the Band for three hours, and the Allman Brothers for four hours. Then everyone got on stage for a ninety minute jam. This was to be the last Woodstock-like concert; it was also one of the most Woodstock-like concerts.

Like Woodstock, which was also in upstate New York, preparations for the concerts were not as good as they should have been. "In spite of the overflowing field toilets, the crowd sat, danced and got zonked...." (3) After the toilet problems at Woodstock it is difficult to imagine that promoters could keep making the same mistake. The promoters of Watkins Glen, like Altamont and Woodstock, did not anticipate the number of people, and especially the number of cars, yet again creating parking and other transportation problems. The promoters could have arranged for enough facilities to cover the basic needs of the audience, but perhaps the lack of facilities was an attempt to make Watkins Glen more like Woodstock. Possibly the promoters thought that the audience would enjoy chaos more than order.

Although most of the festival locations are out in the country, the traffic problems can create quite a disturbance, enough to annoy people to not want this kind of event to happen again. This is one of the reasons why the post-Monterey legislation to try to control large gatherings was passed. The day was more peaceful than was expected. Like the police at Woodstock, the police at Watkins Glen were impressed with the crowd and they way they interacted. Police Chief A.T. Elsworth commented, "These kids aren't here for the music.... They don't care what it's really like. They're determined to make this another Woodstock." (4)

Although it was not Woodstock, there were enough changes between Watkins Glen and the MUSE concerts that it might as well have been another Woodstock. "America's cultural revolution had entered a six year hiatus (1974-80) coinciding almost exactly with the presidencies of Ford and Carter." (5) This period of time was not the greatest in the history of pop music. Disco was very popular, but it is not possible to have a large disco festival for the simple reason that it is impossible to fit 100,000 people on a dance floor. The punk and reggae movements of the late seventies were akin to the underground rock movement of the late sixties, but not as strong or large. The political and social consciousness that existed during the Carter administration certainly did have its influence in rock music however.

The nuclear energy debate was one of the most highly discussed topics of that era. Billed as "concerts for a non-nuclear future," MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) held a five night concert series at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Although the musicians certainly had something they wanted to say, the rock audience was not as open-minded. Out of the five nights, only one was sold-out, and the reason was Bruce Springsteen. As Rolling Stone pointed out: "This is a Springsteen crowd, too, with little patience for preliminaries." (6) Springsteen felt that this issue was important enough to donate his time, but the problem with his presence was that "the political nature of the concerts is lost; his crowd doesn't particularly notice the anti-nuclear theme." (7) Yet only because of Springsteen's appearance was the MUSE concerts profitable.

This exemplifies how the rock festival has changed since Monterey. Even from the earliest jazz festivals, the point was to hear good music and have a good time. The rock festivals of the late sixties skewed the importance more towards having a good time, viewing the festival as an event or "happening." The music was secondary to the gathering. About the Woodstock era: "The rock festival has become, in a way, the equivalent of a political forum for the young." (8) These so-called "political forums" disguised as the rock festivals of the late sixties never accomplished anything except for increasing the media coverage on their concerts. The effectiveness of these festivals matured with its participants into the rock benefit of the eighties. The examination of social and political issues by musicians has led into an increasing examination of these issues by their audience. The rock festival has been the best forum, so far, to generate the most interest. Through these forums, the opportunity for change exists. Money was the bottom line, once again, but instead of just trying to turn a profit, like a Woodstock, the money was to be used for the betterment of all mankind. "Woodstock was about being there.... The point of Live Aid was to attract as many viewers (donors) as possible." (9) The MUSE concerts were the first attempt using the popularity of rock to generate as much money for charity as possible. Without the MUSE concerts, Live Aid could not have been conceived.

The appeal of these concerts has even become more universal than the early festivals. The major festivals of the sixties are named by location (Monterey, Woodstock, Altamont) as compared to the eighties benefits which are named by what they are for (MUSE, US Festival, Live Aid). Although this is a minor point about the change in festivals, it is a simple indication of how they have changed.


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Copyright 2005, Adam Stanley