(Image via: NYCDreamin Archives)
This week marks the 40th Aniversary of the mostly-failed attempt to hold what would have been one of the larger countercultural events/rock festivals of the early 1970's, the collosal failure known as the "Celebration Of Life."
"Never heard of it," you say? It's not surprising. This event was marred by poor planning, the fact that the event site was changed a few time in the days before the festival could take place, local civic ordinances enacted at the eleventh hour trying to prevent it from happening at all, a large number of drug overdoses, violence, sexual assaults and even a few deaths, food and water shortages and opressively hot weather. Only a handful of the nearly 70 artists and musical groups advertised actually got to play. Several of the artists advertised as scheduled to appear didn't even know they were supposed to be performing - their management had never been contacted in advance and the promoters just attatched their names to the event in the vain hope that the musicians would just appear because they were listed on the bill and didn't want to disappoint fans who thought they might get a chance to see them in concert.
Information about and photos from the Celebration Of Life festival have slowly been surfacing over the past several years, thanks to internet chat boards, blogs and such. But for many years, the best information and description of this festival came from a rather hard-to-find, long out of print book from 1980 titled "Aquarius Rising: The Rock Festival Years," by Robert Santelli.
Aquarius Rising: The Rock Festival Years
by Robert Santelli (1980)
[p. 204 - 213, 270]
Celebration Of Life
Date: June 21 - 28, 1971
Place: McCrea, Lousiana
Attendance: 50,000 *Estimated
Scheduled performers: At least 27 rock acts were to perform. Only John Sebastian, Chuck Berry, War, Jimmy Witherspoon, Stoneground, Bloodrock, the Amboy Dukes and a few other local groups actually played.
The largest rock festival calamity occured on the banks of Louisiana's Atchafalaya River after it was proclaimed the festival would renew the Woodstock Nation's faith in its future. The promoters billed the event as a "true resurrection of the rock festival." Celebration of Life lasted only four of the scheduled eight days, and when it was over, five people were dead, many were in hospitals nuring wounds inflicted by marauding motorcycle gangs, and hundreds had been arrested and thrown into jail.
The Celebration of Life was doomed from the very beginning. Before folksinger and Woodstock veteran John Sebastian had strummed the opening notes of the abbreviated event on Thursday, June 24, the festival's location had been changed three time in little over a week. Confusion, chaos, and uncertainty had effectively obliterated all efforts toward organization and order. The festival was on, then it was off. Then it was on again. Police officials and local politicians bickered about the proper course of action. Performers didn't know whether to fly into Louisiana or Mississippi. Only the drug dealers seemd to have a grip on the situation.
The festival, scheduled for June 21 through June 28, was first set to occour in Laplace, Louisiana, on a stretch of lakefront property owned by members of a prominent New Orleans family. The promoters had a verbal agreement with the Guste family that the musical event could be staged on the six-hundred acre Frenier Beach located on Lake Ponchatrain. But when Laplace residents found out about the rock festival, they pressured the owners of the property to rescind the agreement. The Guste family told Steve Kapelow, the spokesman for the Celebration Of Life promoters, that they did not possess adequate insurance coverage for the festival to occur at Frenier Beach.
Kapelow claimed that fifty thousand tickets had been sold, and already people were converging on nearby New Orleans. It was impossible, he insisted, to halt festival plans at such a late date. The Guste family stuck to their demand and requested that members of the festival's stage crew leave the property at once. Local authorities and sheriff's deputies set up roadblocks on all roads leading to Laplace and directed early arrivals away from the proposed site. Local campgrounds quickly filled up with those awaiting word on where the festival was to take place. Others went to New Orleans and received food and lodging from the Mardi Gras Coalition, a volunteer group designed to aid stranded young people.
Kapelow and the other promoters frantically searched for another site. The festival was set to begin in less than a week. A landowner in Lamar County, Mississippi, offered his property to the promoters, but before any plans could be worked out, a court order was issued that banned the Celebration of Life from moving into the area. Kapelow filed for an appeal, but the local judge, as expected, denied the request.
Kapelow and two other coordinators of Celebration of Life, Bo Emery and John Walker, went back searching for sites in Louisiana. Several landowners contacted the promoters, offering them leases on private plots, but none looked promising enough to accomodate the expected 100,000 young people for over a week. Finally, on June 17, an agreement was reached with a Baton Rouge attorney who owned a plantation in the small town of McCrea, Louisiana, located 40 miles north of the state capital. At a news conference that evening, spokesman for the festival told the press that the Cypress Pointe Plantation, a five-hunderd acre plot of land situated in a lush, green, damp environment and surrounded on three sides by the Atchafalaya River, was leased for $20,000 for the week of June 21. The festival was on, and people would be permitted on the site beginning Sunday morning, June 20.
It was obvious that the festival would need much luck to succeed. No festival the size of the Celebration of Life had ever triumphed with only three days of site preparation; all one had to do was glance back to Altamont in December 1969. It took months and a budget of close to a million dollars to produce a successful festival of this size and scope.
The promoters had previously announced a hard-to-believe lineup that included 70 acts, many of which had never been contacted and certainly were not bound to perform by contractural agreements. The philosophy of the Celebration of Life, like that of many other festivals, was to hype the performer lineup and seel advance tickets by the sheer magnitude of it, and then assume production and talent fees as the ticket money rolled in. This technique afforded promoters an opportunity to spend a minimum ammount of time and money on a festival project; just in case the festival plans fell through, they would not be badly hurt. The ones who would bear the brunt of inconvenience and lose time and money would be the festivalgoers who bought advance tickets.
One of the reasons the promters settled on the Cypress Pointe Plantation as the site of the festival was due to a feeling that very litle opposition would be made against the event in such an out-of-the-way place. This turned out to be a faulty assumption. The festiavl chaos had been front-page news in Louisiana for the past week and the tide of resentment to rock fests had swept across even the smallest of townships. Not twenty-four hours after Cypress Points had been officially announced, the governing body of the Pointe Coupee Parish went into an emergency session and adopted an ordinance that banned the Celebration of Life. The ordinance, passed by unanimous approval, was based on an antirock festival law that gave Louisiana counties the power to issue permits for mass gatherings and regulate the events in the interest of public safety and health. This law was enacted when the Louisiana legislature sought to block a small rock festival in Livingston Parish in the summer of 1970. The festival, which attracted ten thousnad young people, was ultimately held, but the law went on the books to prevent future rock festivals.
The law required promoters to apply for a festival permit and to guarantee adquate water supplies and sanitary facilities. At the time officials sought to check on these things, workers at the plantation had not completed plans for either, since they had been on the festival site less than two days. Point Coupee authorities informed the promoters that because minimum health measures had not been insured, the ban on the festival would be enforced. They pointed out that the ordinance called for a maximum fine of $450 and a five-moth jail sentence for those disobeying the ordinance, and that this applied not only to the promoters, but also to festivalgoers who remained on the site. At a press conference the local officials of Pointe Coupee Parish asked the Governor and the National Guard for assistance in upholding the ordinance.
News of the ban came too late for many. By Saturdy afternoon, June 19, the roads leading to McCrea were jammed as cars and people were halted a few miles outside Cypress Pointe. Although Louisiana state police had set up roadblocks and told festivalgoers that the event was off, many had traveled long distances and were not swayed by these claims. Thousands of young people set up camp along the roadsides, waiting for a more definative statement concerning the premature death of the event.
The sultry, sticky temperature in the Atchafalaya River region had become unbearable when the sun swung directly overhead on the traffic jam and makeshift campsites. The humid conditions aggravated the boredom of those who had been patiently awaiting further word on the festival's future. Clothes irratatingly stuck to the skin, the beads of sweat never seemed to leave the forheads of those who were just sitting and waiting. Clothes were shed by many, but this time it was to escape the heat much more than it was to cary on the tradition of disrobing at rock festivals. Those who were brave enough to try swimming in the swift currents of the Atchafalaya River cooled off quicly as the fast-moving water brought body temperatures down to a tolerable level. Most, however, were content to wet their feet and sunbathe on the river's muddy banks.
*Lets take a break here and watch what seems to be the only video in circulation from the Celebration of Life, originally filmed on Silent Super 8 film. The audio track has been added in for those of you who can't sit and enjoy 3+ minutes of silence...
*Now back to our cozy little story...
For those not interested in either activity, there were a host of drugs to purchase to alleviate the boredom. It started to look like Powder Ridge all over again. The drug dealing was done covertly at first, as people feared being busted by undercover agents posing as hippies. But after it became evident that many of the police were reluctant to make any real show of force other than in traffic control and entry to the festival site, the dealing became more widespread and open.
The police had no desire to buck the intense heat and chase after dealers without a firm statement from upper levels that the festival was definately off. They wanted direct orders stating a plan of action before beginning any strict enforcing of the law. They seemed content to leave the policing of the campsites and river area to the various motorcycle gangs hired by the promoters to act as security personnel.
In the meantime the Celebration of Life promoters were busy appealing the local ordinance to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. On Tuesday, June 22, one day after the festival was to have begun, the federal court ruled that a lower court judge had acted wrongfully when he refused to listen to the pleas of the promoters in fighting the ordinance and health permits. According to the decision, the festival would be allowed to take place if basic health facilities were guaranteed. Kapelow and the other promoters agreed immediately to provide water, shower, medical and sanitary facilities for eighteen thousand festiavlgoers and to increase the facilities as the crowds grew throughout the week.
The festival construction crew worked feverishly to finish building the stage and mount the sound system on its supporting towers so that the music could begin on Thursday evening. Truckloads of lumber were piled up near where the thirty-foot stage was being erected. Due to the hastily devised construction plans and the quickened work pace, no one had bothered to check the ground on which the stage was being built. Instead of solid earth as expected, the ground under the top soil layer was wet and muddy from underground tributaries of the Atchafalaya River. Sound-system towers were constructed without safety clamping. All the edifices were shaky at best; but still the construction continued.
The rain of the past few days further hindered proper design and construction. Then, during a particularly bad midday thunderstorm, the stage scaffolding gave way and the structure collapsed. Wooden planks and metal tubing came tumbling down, trapping several workers. One young carpenter was severly injured when he was struck with a long metal pipe through his midsection. He was rushed to the nearby hospital, where hours of surgery saved his life.
The sound of the ambulance's siren whining through the crowd became a familiar one as the week passed by. Things began to get ugly as the commencement of the music was routinely postponed due to stage construction difficulties and problems getting the performers to the site. Many festivalgoers had been at the Cypress Pointe Plantation for over five days, and food, water and money were dwindling to critical levels. The limited number of concession stands had run out of most items by Thursday evening, and the town of McCrea, with its one grocery store, had been practically wiped clean. A forty-mile round trip to neighboring communities was the only way for most to get food if their own supplies had run out or had been stolen. The mood at the Celebration of Life was by no means congenial. Maybe it was the heat or the delay of the music, but Woodstock harmony was hard to find.
Without any form of entertainment until Thursday night, most people spent their time getting high, walking around the camping areas, and, after the steamy heat became too much,risking a dip in the river. The murky water offered respite from the heat, but not without a price. During the course of the festival, four young people drowned and countless others had to be rescued from the deceivingly swift current. On Thursday afternoon mass panic broke out when gunshots were heard in the trees and bullets ricocheted off the water's edge. Members of the Galloping Gooses, Louisiana's answer to the Hells Angels, strafed the river bank throughout the day. A motorcycle gang member told a reporter that "it was a bitch, man, watchin' the chicks scatter when they heard the shots. It was cool seein their boobies bounce as they ran for cover, ya' know what I mean?"
As the week went by, the Gooses and the other motorcycle gangs present at Cypress Pointe became a serious problem. They grew tired of acting like policemen , wanting instead to return to their more fractious ways. It started with the shooting at the river and led to the beating of festivalgoers and almost a dozen cases of reported rapes. As the drug trafficking became more intense and large sums of money changed hands, the bikers took a special interest in holding up the dealers and robbing them of their stash and their profits. With the police still busy clearing the roads and attending to emergcy situations, the motorcycle gang members acted pretty much the same way the Angels had at Altamont. Senseless beatings were frequent. No one offered much resistance, since most bikers were heavily armed. Many of them brazenly showed off shotguns and holstered Colt 45s in addition to machetes and large chains.
Things got so out of control at the festival site that both promoters and campers asked the police to come in and rid the area of the bikers. On Friday afternoon local and state police moved onto the grounds in storm-trooper fashion and began rounding up members of the Galloping Gooses, the Vikings, and the Wheelers. By three o'clock a large group of assorted gang members were stripped of their weapons and escorted out of the festival by police officers armed with shotguns of their own. They were taken to the county line and told that if they returned they would be arrested and confronted not only by police officers but by members of the National Guard as well. One hundred fifty guardsmen stood on alert in nearby New Roads waiting to assist in any evacuation plans that might be necessary at Cypress Pointe.
The police remained on the festival grounds to implement law and order, and one of the first things they began was a crackdown on the drug dealing. Only Powder Ridge could claim more rampant drug dealing and more drug-related casualties than this festival. On Saturday a young person died of an overdose of a combination of drugs on the way to the hospital, expanding the number of festival fatalities to five. Another youth that day was shot by a narcotics officer or someone in the crowd. The scene was like something out of a bad Hollywood movie.
An undercover police officer had been staking out a young couple who were trying to peddle their remaining drug cache to passersby. A young bearded man stopped and inspected the goods. The couple discussed prices with him and an exchange was made. Seconds after the deal was concluded and the bearded man had walked away with the stash of pills, the officer quickly approached the two, told them they were under arrest for selling and posessing drugs, and handcuffed them together. The couple resisted and began screaming into the crowd. "Get this pig off us, man! Kill this mother! We didn't do shit and he's busting us!" The girl struggled to get herself free and fell to the ground. Her handcuffed partner followed, and in the scuffle the officer also went down.
The onlooking crowd had now swelled to forty or fifty people. They closed in on the officer and the handcuffed dealers. "Let 'em go. Hey, pig, let 'em go!" "Death to all pigs!" Someone threw a beer can that hit the officer on the leg. A Frisbee caught the woman in the neck. Everyone in the mob began shouting and whistling. A riot was in the making. The officer, frightened and not knowing how to handle the situation, drew his gun. Someone in the crowd also had a gun and fired a shot in the air. More people rushed to the scene to see what was happening. The police officer retaliated with another warning shot from his own pistol.
Another shot was fired, but due to the commotion it was impossible to tell whether it came from the policeman's gun or the one in the crowd. A young man dropped to the ground clutching his leg. Blood dripped through his fingers. The bullet had caught him in the thigh. By this time the shots had alerted other police officers, who came to the scene. The crowd quickly dispersed and the wounded man was rushed to the hospital. The two dealers were rushed off to a police car still shouting, "Get the pigs! Kill the pigs!"
The Woodstock Spirit? Woodstock? Woodstock? Brotherhoodpeacelovehappinessbotherhoodpeacelovehappiness.
There was some music at Celebration of Life. On Thursday evening, after a fireworks display, John Sebastian, Chuck Berry, War and Jimmy Witherspoon managed to get in sets. On Friday, Stoneground, Bloodrock, the Amboy Dukes and a few others played to the gathered crowd. Rumors flew that the Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues were to play at the festival. Nonsense, of course. Only eight of the twenty-seven rock groups that were supposed to perform actually did. Almost none of the circus and specialty acts that had been announced showed up. On Saturday night the rains that had made such a muddy mess of things earlier inthe week returned in full force. By Sunday the festival was over.
The rain was a blessing. Celebration of Life had been nothing but a drawn-out failure and a colossal ripoff. More rain convinced adament festivalgoers that it was time to go home. They were dirty, wet, tired, hungry, broke, and disappointed. It was time to return to a saner environment.
Three days after the festival ended, tax liens totaling $700,000 were filed against the promoters by federal agents. It was estimated by Variety that at $28 per head, gate receipts hovered around the $1.5 million figure.
The Celebration of Life and Powder Ridge left a bitter taste with rock fans and festival participants. Many felt cheated and victimized by promoters, who only cared, it seemed, about the possibility of huge profits. A growing number of young people began to assume it was wiser not to buy advance tickets to future festivals. Why, the reasoned, shell out $20 or $25 and have it ripped off. It was smarter just to show up at a rock festival and capitalize on the inevitable confusion.
Celebration of Life - a black mark in rock-festival history.
Celebration Of Life News Item
by Chet Flippo
Rolling Stone Magazine - 07/22/71
The festival began Thursday night--three and one-half days late--with Yogi Bahjan taking the stage, chanting and saying, 'God bless you. Let us meditate for one minute for peace and brotherhood.' 'Fuck you. Let's boogie,' responded a member of the crowd.
A tractor pulling two flatbed trailers would come around, and six hired hands would jump off to collect endless piles of rotting watermelon rinds, empty wine bottles, discarded clothing and other assorted garbage.
A festival worker ODed backstage and crumpled to the floor as 'Sister Morphine' was being played over the P.A. system to an impatient audience.
Finally, there was dope, and it was plentiful. You had only to walk to the intersection of Cocaine Row and Smack Street (as the makeshift signs proclaimed) to find dealers hawking an estimated 30 varieties of mindbender, only two of which could be smoked. Plastic syringes, at $1 apiece, were selling briskly.
*Life Magazine featured a short piece and a few photos from the festival in their 07/09/71 issue. Click HERE to see it.
Sounds like a blast, right? Yeah...not so much. One can see why this festival is not celebrated much in the annals of rock music history, it was not much of a good time for most of those who attended by all accounts. But now, 40 years later, there are still some people out there who attended Celebration of Life, and they are sharing their stories and memories and photos on the internet.
*A Celebration of Life recap with several great photos and text from a 07/12/71 Time Magazine article can be found at Retro Rebith.com.
*Blueberry has a great, detailed story of her less than satisfactory experiences at Celebration Of Life, you can read "I Survived The Celebration Of Life 1971...Mostly." at her blog Texas Oasis. More details of anotherfestivalgoers experiences are to be found in the comments on her piece.
*A few memories from a Celebration of Life survivor named Chandler can be found HERE.
*More attendees have commented over at Tigerfan.Com and MomsClubofLafayette.org.
*A rather large collection of detailed stories from people who attended the Celebration Of Life can also be found on The Hip Forums.
*More Celebration of Life photos have been collected at Vaugn001.com.
*If you need more...you're on your own.
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