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In 1972, promoter Alex Cooley, who had produced the second Atlanta Pop Festival two years previously, came up with a novel idea. With local authorities, the cops and just about everyone else making it harder and harder to put festivals on, why not go somewhere where The Man wasn't going to, like, bum you out, dude. Somewhere where legal hassles would be minimal. Hey, how about Puerto Rico? Cool idea, yeah? Well, actually no.
Veja Baja is on the north coast of the island on 420 acres of countryside right by sandy beaches and Cooley rented it for the Mar-Y-Sol (sea and sun) festival on April 1 to April 3.
Special package deals were put on from major East Coast cities. But at $152 for a round trip from New York, it wasn't cheap for rock fans used to gatecrashing for free. Cooley expected up to 50,000 to make the effort and spend the money but in the final reckoning just 30,000 turned up.
The site was constructed by the commune The Family in between bouts of being groovy and doubtless smoking the good stuff. It was a kind of paradise; sun, sea, surf and rock n roll.
Naturally, things, as they tend to do, went wrong.
A week beforehand the local court slapped an injunction on the festival because of the possible sale and consumption of drugs. No shit, Batman! Well, they got that right. Some fans decided not to make the journey on hearing this news. Others just travelled anyway figuring hey, it's a festival, things always go screwy.
It was as late as Thursday when the injunction was over-turned, just as people were arriving for the Friday show. Free buses were set to take people from the airport to the site, except none turned up. The bus people, thinking the gig was called off, didn't show. Ooops. So fleets of cabs were dispatched to pick people up instead. This took a long time because it was a three-hour journey so the Friday night music was delayed while people arrived.
It was hot, and wells drilled for water began to run dry. Locals started selling water for up to a buck a glass. Bad vibes, man. Then the locals found that people were showering in an open area and there were like chicks, in the nude, dude, like wow, so there was some leering, jeering and whistling. relations between the rock n roll festivalers and the locals deteriorated.
No one was surprised when some Puerto Ricans got drunk and tore down a couple of American flags before putting up their own flag instead. Fights broke out. Things were uncool.
A 16-year-old coke dealer from a neighbouring island was murdered with a machete in the night, presumably by local dealers. A couple of other people drowned while swimming and a third was killed when he hit his head on a rock. The grim reaper, it seemed, also liked to rock.
Apparently there was a marijuana shortage and so people got loaded on tranqs, barbs and psychedelics. Pot was selling for $50 an ounce instead of the more usual $15 or $20. But more suffered from sunburn than bad drugs. Presumably, if more widely stoned, the vibe would have been much more mellow. It's hard to get involved in a fight when you're lying on your back wondering what the colour blue tastes like.
Music finally got going on Saturday afternoon and things chilled out a bit. Nitzinger, Brownsville Station and folkie Jonathan Edwards all did good sets but it was BB King and then the Allmans who really put some energy into proceedings. Despite the death of Duane they were still the kings of festival, playing for hours, right through till dawn.
Sunday opened with jazzy Dave Brubeck and the excellent Herbie Mann - check out his Notes From The Underground album on which Duane Allman plays: it's marvellous. Savoy Brown did their boogie and ELP did their neo-classical noodlings. At some point Mahavishnu Orchestra did a set. Alice Cooper played till the sun rose.
However, reports suggest that of the 30,000 there, many didn't see the music for fear of having tents and such ripped off and so hung around the camp area.
As Friday had been a write-off, the music continued into Monday with J. Geils Band, Cactus, Dr John, Bloodrock and The Faces amongst others. Several bands including Black Sabbath were booked to play but didn't perform.
People began to drift away as rumours circulated that there was no transport back to the airport circulated. This was actually true. Bummer. Bad vibes pervaded. 'Get me off this island' seemed to be the general feeling. But with no way of getting to the airport many started walking hoping to thumb a ride. Remember when people did that without worrying they'd be picked up by a homicidal maniac?
And so a refugee line of hairy people trudged up the highway, some paying for rides from locals: $20 was the going rate. Everyone felt very bitter at this turn of events but it wasn't over yet.
The airport was in chaos, with planes overbooked with other tourists returning to America. The Red Cross even turned up and tents were erected to accommodate all the people waiting to leave. It took some three days to get a flight out. Cooley reckoned he'd lost $200,000. The Puerto Rican government wanted the promoters for tax evasion but didn't bother to try and extradite them.
It was the only festival to be held there. Everyone had their fingers and everything else burned.
There's a double album on Atco of the event: expect to pay around $20 for it. It spent seven weeks on the Billboard chart and peaked at 186. Best track? The Allmans' 'Ain't Wastin' Time No More' and Mahavishnu Orchestra's 'Noonward Race'. £10 or less will buy you a copy. Well worth it.
Cactus released some tracks recorded live at the fest on 'Ot n Sweaty and in 2006 Greg Lake found a 16-track recording of ELP's performance which is on From The Beginning on disc 5. I think J. Geils and a couple of others also released their sets.