The Aquarian Family Festival was a free three-day music festival, which was held in San Jose, California on May 23, 24, and 25, 1969. This was pretty much at the epicentre of the counter-culture movement at the time, so it was inevitable a big crowd would show up.
It was an almost spontaneous protest against a promoter named Bob Blodgett, who was putting on the Northern California Folk Rock Festival 2 at the San Jose fairgrounds the same weekend. The year before, the first Northern California Folk Rock Festival had been marred by a huge influx of PCP, which sent 1,000 people to the emergency room. It also had advertised numerous famous acts who failed to show up, since they hadn’t, like, y’know…in fact, been…err…booked, dude. Ooops, a mere oversight, dear boy.
In response to those abuses, a fella called Dennis Jay contacted Blodgett and asked if his organization, called Drug Crisis Intervention, could provide free medical help at the second festival. Blodgett reportedly said, “If you pay me.” So it was a case of, “Dude, it ain’t about the bread” versus “Err, dude, it is.”
At the same time, radio station KSJO was warning listeners that the acts advertised on the poster for 1969 festival — particularly Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix — were not going to appear, as they were booked elsewhere at the time. This situation resulted in a lawsuit—paid for by Zeppelin against the promoter, who retaliated by paying Hendrix $30,000, an unheard of amount at the time, to fly in by Lear Jet and play for half an hour.
Man, was this ever getting messy?
The Aquarian Family Festival concert was held on the San Jose State University football practice field with the cooperation of the University’s School Community Involvement Program. An agreement had been made with the University that people could be present only during the performance of music but because part of the purpose of the concert was to provide a safe place to stay for tens of thousands of people traveling to town to attend the other concert being held in town about a mile away at the Santa Clara County fairgrounds, it was decided music had to be performed continuously from the start at 12:00pm Friday until the close of the festival at 4:00pm Sunday afternoon. Thus the festival featured 52 hours of continuous music. The Music Never Stopped. Clever huh? Freaks always be thinking, y’see!
Some of the performers billed included Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane (who played both festivals), Quicksilver Messenger Service, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Moby Grape, Chocolate Watchband and Boz Scaggs among others. An early appearance by the Doobie Brothers is also notable. Also a lot of hippy bands from the Bay Area like Mad River, Sons of Champlin, Joy of Cooking and the brilliantly named Frumious Bandersnatch also played.
The festival was put together in just 10 days at a total cost of a mere $968.00 by approximately 30 people, all of whom were volunteers with the very late 60s progressive hippy dudesville sounding, Institute for Research and Understanding. Assistance was also given by the musicians’ cooperative Druid Corporation House (were they really druids?)and the San Jose Free University. Independent sources estimated the total attendance at 200,000 people, with 80,000 spending the night on Saturday. Cosy.
Spartan Daily Mercury reporter Rick Carroll wrote that local businesses boomed and that despite hippies wandering around “making love” in people’s backyards(when the straight press said ‘making love’ it always sounded so dirty and unnatural, huh?) the atmosphere was peaceful. Carroll also recalls all kinds of ’60s high jinks, including the Chambers Brothers promoting a riot, meeting Chuck Berry (and a very young girl) in the art deco De Anza Hotel, Jimi Hendrix’s agent (probably the Svengali-like figure, Mike Jeffrey)landing in a helicopter at the county fairgrounds to collect his cash payment, and the plug being pulled on the Jefferson Airplane to get them to leave the stage.
On the very heavy and despicable minus side, there were assaults, four stabbings, 15 attempted rapes and one gang rape of a festival employee at the Aquarian Festival (by Hells Angels). Three days later, at a San Jose City Council meeting, the Northern California Music Festival was chastised for the decibel level of the amps, in a hearing that has been reprised countless times since the opening of Shoreline Amphitheatre in nearby Mountain View. Anyone who knows that venue knows how the sound travels.
This all sounds very typical of such events at the time as a powerful brew of hippies, Hells Angels, not-for-profit organisations and hard-nut, bread heads wrestled each other for control of the culture and the money. In California this event was a really big deal but for some reason, it remained an event of local but not national significance. Grace Slick even referred to it on the Dick Cavett Show, comparing it favourably to Woodstock.
*Thanks to Gina Arnold for help in writing this piece.