The major “underground” social event of the season, the Midwest Rock Festival, is now nothing more than a hotly-debated memory. For those who might have missed it, it would seem proper here to sum up the affair, but how? Was it a success? Financially, according to all reports, it was a disaster. A mixture of bad weather with the printing of massive numbers of counterfeit tickets kept total paid attendance for the three days at about 15,000, and the promoters lost upwards of $20,000.
Artistically, the results were mixed, Ginger Baker played a drum solo that was, in his words, the very best he’s ever done. Buffy Saint-Marie and John Mayall did beautiful sets, but the Bob Seger System impressed less than many of the local bands. And the most forgettable moments were furnished in fine bubblegum style by the First Edition. The incredible power of the MC5 became insignificant in the outdoor setting, and the Shag returned from their year-long West Coast hiatus with a bag of gimmicks and little else.
But to discuss the Festival in terms of either artistic or financial success is really to miss the point because, for those who pays the price and sees the show, both are irrelevant. Like any social event, it is the being there that is important, being seen in the right places by the right people. The groups simply officiate, bless the assembled supplicates, certify the finding of the Promised Land.
All of which is not to denigrate the beauty of the already tradition-bound ceremony. For a sub-culture so lacking in ritual, it beautifully fills the bill.And, for better or worse, the First Annual Midwest Rock Festival became a part of what it means to be hip in Milwaukee in the summer of 1969.
But as alternative institution for a alternative culture it ain’t. Rather, it is a pretty accurate reflection of the middle-class suburban world whose children filled the Fairgrounds Grandstand. As American as the flag on the moon, high-priced tickets, overpaid musicians, overpriced refreshments, and a program (“only $1.00”) that was a crime.
And the Easter Parade atmosphered the latest in hip fashions paraded proudly in front of the grandstand to appropriate comments. (“Ah, Henry, looks like bare mid-riffs and see-through blouses are the rage this season… but the popularity of bras doesn’t seem down a bit. Strange!”)
In a sense, it was a convention. There we were, the employees of Leary, Hoffman, Rubin, Lennon et. al. & Assoc. Inc. Ltd. It was a chance to meet everyone from the boys in the shipping department to the board members, to discuss internal company problems using company terminology, to relax and raise a little hell, to make deals and compare prices on new merchandise.
The Midwest Rock Festival was all that, and because it was, it was a success. Attempts to define it in contemporary political terms (exploitation, co-operation, etc.) did not enter, as it has elsewhere this year, and so we were all free to relax, to dig whatever it was we dug digging, and to remind ourselves and others what a great time was being had by all.
But most important was that it could happen here at all. It was an event that, if not by, was at least for the community. The community asked for it, got it, and treated it well. It was perhaps the first time in Milwaukee that the hip community was able to see itself as it was a community. From this essential first awareness of community will come the consciousness and energy needed to build and create and cope. We know who we are; now what can we do?
Promoters Peter Knapp and Tom Caldwell deserve thanks for making it happen. They made mistakes, but they know it and are open to suggestions. Despite the financial loss, they’re willing to try again, and that almost makes them as crazy-beautiful as anyone who attended the affair.
Also to be commended are the State Fair administrators and police, who for the most part acted with intelligence and reasonableness. Perhaps that realized that to do otherwise might precipitate a crisis, but whatever the motives it made for a good scene, and for that, thanks.
And finally, thanks should be extended to those West Allis politicians who, like American politicians everywhere, showed willingness and even eagerness to publicly debate matters about which they know nothing, and who, in their predictable insanity, reminded us again that to be a free American is to be a danger to “the American way.”