Celebration At Big Sur

Celebration At Big Sur
Authored By John Nicholson

Celebration At Big Sur

If you’ve ever been to Big Sur, California, it is a very far-out place up in the woods overlooking the Pacific Ocean. So cool is it that me and Dawn once walked past David Crosby coming out of a diner on Pacific Coast Highway, just before the turn off for Big Sur, as he was going in.

It has long since been a bit of a hippie central and this was certainly the case back in 1969 when the Celebration at Big Sur festival was held over two days on 13th and 14th September, just a month after Woodstock.

If you’ve ever seen the movie you’ll know it was a small affair but I think really gives us a flavour of the times. About 15,000 attended, paying $4 each. There was no gate, presumably because gates are uncool. Unusually though, the gate, despite not existing, was respected and those without tickets listened to the music from outside of the perimeter. Whereas people had tore down fences at many festival in the late 60s and demanded free music, here that wasn’t the case.

For some reason all the band played on the far side of a swimming pool with the ocean behind them. It looks quite chilly actually - as it came be up there. The music was notable especially for Joni doing an as yet unrecorded version of Woodstock and CSNY being filmed with Neil Young for the first time.  It is their music which dominates the soundtrack as they play superb versions of Down By The River, 4 + 20, Sea Of Madness and other classics. Joan Baez is there too breaking wine glasses with her trademark warble.

The funniest part of the movie is a contretemps between Steve Stills and a heckler with ends in a physical confrontation. For all it’s a hippie gig, it looks like every Friday night barroom brawl, albeit one by a swimming pool halfway up a mountain. There is the obligatory nude freaking out by men with beards and footage of roads being jammed up with traffic and yes, John Sebastian turns up stoned out of his gourd. Some traditions are worth keeping.

I thought this had been released as a soundtrack album but apparently it wasn’t. However the 1970 gig with Joan, Linda Ronstadt and Kris Kristofferson was. So maybe that’s why I got confused.

You can watch most of the movie in various sections on YouTube and it’s a lovely thing. In comparison to today’s well-organised, policing, sponsored, marketed and merchandised festivals, it looks shambolic and all the better for that. Man, it looks like peering back a thousand years, not just 50.

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