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What was soon known as a rock festival, didn’t really exist until 1967. There were plenty of jazz and folk gatherings but rock n roll freak-outs really only started happening in early 1967 starting in San Francisco with the Human Be-In and also the Mantra-Rock Dance which was what was known as ‘a counterculture music event’ held on January 29, 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco.
It was organized by followers of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) as an opportunity for its founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, to address a wider public. It was also a promotional and fundraising effort for their first centre on the West Coast of the United States.
They were somewhat pushing an open door with this sort of Eastern mysticism, party because it was fashionable, partly because stars like George Harrison were turning onto it and partly because it all kinds of made sense when you were stoned and doing time in the universal mind.
The Mantra-Rock Dance featured some of the most prominent Californian rock groups of the time, such as the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, as well as the then relatively unknown Moby Grape. The bands agreed to appear with Prabhupada and to perform for free; the proceeds were donated to the local Hare Krishna temple.
The participation of countercultural leaders considerably boosted the event's popularity; among them were the poet Allen Ginsberg, who led the singing of the Hare Krishna mantra onstage along with Prabhupada, and LSD promoters Timothy Leary and Augustus Owsley Stanley III.
Later Ginsberg called this event "the height of Haight-Ashbury spiritual enthusiasm, the first time that there had been a music scene in San Francisco where everybody could be part of it and participate." Cultural historians have referred to it as "the major spiritual event of the San Francisco hippy era." Which is quite a claim given that for a few years, the whole of the city seemed dedicated to engaging in profound spirituial experiences, of one sort of another.
Ginsberg was especially big on this and had been chanting for years, recommending it to hippies coming down from LSD "who want to stabilize their consciousness upon reentry.” And who doesn't want to do that?
So if your ideas of a good time was chanting ‘hare krishna’ for an hour followed by a red hot set by Moby Grape, this was a night out to remember.
What I find fascinating about this period is how the growth of the music both creatively and commercially (the Grape were signed soon after to Columba) was so tied into such spiritual and cosmic exploration. This does not seem to happen anymore and perhaps we look upon such things with the narrowed eyes of the cynic these days. But back then, people were searching for Otherness, not queueing outside an Apple store for the latest phone.
I suppose this was a time before marketing and corporate values turned people into breadheads. Worth also noting that although the outside world was only just hearing about what was going down in ‘frisco, the freaks and counterculture acolytes were already seeing the commercialisation of the scene as a negative thing, holding the Death of the Hippie mock funeral on October 6, 1967 to lay to rest what they saw as the original spirit as the The Man and his minions moved in.
This was an important gig musically and culturally. The idea of blending rock n roll and mysticism in this day and age seems an idea that belongs to a very different era.