Iron Leg Digital Trip #22 – Memories of a Not So Free Festival
Grand Funk Railroad – Inside Looking Out (Capitol)
US Sound – Toady Frog Clan (Trump)
Steppenwolf – Tighten Up Your Wig (Dunhill)
Rod Stewart – Street Fighting Man (Mercury)
Three Dog Night – Feelin’ Alright (Dunhill)
Milwaukee Freak Scene – Land of Plastic (SSM)
Offenbach – Moody Calvaire Moody (Barclay)
Country Joe & The Fish – Rock and Soul Music (Cotillion)
Leslie West – This Wheel’s On Fire (Windfall)
Natural Gas – What Do You Want From My Life (Firebird)
Rationals – Barefootin’ (Crewe)
Humble Pie – I Don’t Need No Doctor (A&M)
Not many people remember the Isle Royale Festival of Peace, especially not those that witnessed it firsthand.
It was the second annual rock festival to be held on the grounds of Isle Royale National Park, on an island in the middle of Lake Superior, a few short miles from the Canadian mainland.
That particular geographic fact is of little importance, until you realize that the very first Festival of Peace, held in August of 1970 was put on as what turned out to be a huge diversionary tactic by the publishers of a Duluth, Minnesota underground newspaper (Blown Wind). They had been informed, incorrectly as it turns out that Isle Royale was in fact within the borders of Canada – though the countless signs indicating that they were in a United States National Park should have been a tip off – and planned to send a busload of their compadres – draft resistors one and all – over the border to freedom.
As it was they all – the promoters included – ended up spending the next two years working in the prison laundry at Leavenworth.
No one is sure whose idea it was to bring the Festival of Peace back in 1971, nor why they did it in November. The first snows had fallen weeks before, and the grounds of the park, where the festival goers were expecting to camp, were, like the Wisconsin State Police, hard and unforgiving.
The line up of performers was surprisingly good, though in retrospect experts say this is more likely than not due to the fact that the US festival season was at a slow point, and there were a ton of bands hanging around with nothing to do. There are those who have surmised that had the Festival of Peace not come along, several major stars may have taken the opportunity to overdose, instead of participating in one of the signal debacles of rock and roll history.
Tickets to the festival were a surprisingly cheap fifteen dollars for all three days, which to the hordes of teenagers descending on the park seemed like a godsend. Unfortunately, the three-quarters of the performers who received little or no compensation for their work didn’t see it that way.
As the promoters from the first festival were in prison, their duties had been assumed by an ad hoc committee of Duluth’s underground, including the city’s last revolutionary, several members of the local motorcycle gang the Ape Hangers, and local AM radio personality Stash Wojchiehowicz who at the time was trying to reshape himself as a “progressive” (‘The Wojo with the Mojo’). What started out with the best of intentions went bad quickly, when the vast majority of pre-sale ticket revenues were diverted into the Ape Hangers’ beer fund, with little left over for hospitality, security or other expenses.
In the first volume of his autobiography, Humble Pie drummer Jerry Shirley remembered their shock when they arrived backstage only to discover that the specifics of their rider had been ignored and they – like all the other bands – had to survive on barrels of Kool-Aid and a huge, seemingly bottomless cauldron of (for the English) a strange dish that the locals described as “beans and weenies”.
Unfortunately for Humble Pie, and every other act at the Festival of Peace, unless they arrived in their own boat (which none of them – with the exception of the seafaring Mountain - were lucky enough to do), once they stepped off the helicopters, they were stuck there until the end of the three day period.
Friday morning November 10th, the lone park ranger on winter duty was surprised when he answered a knock in his door at 6AM, only to open the door and see a line of cars and pedestrians that stretched for miles. Though the promoters had in fact secured the proper permits, the park administrator had gone on vacation without passing along the information to his staff (that lone ranger).
Any sane person would have packed his car and run in the other direction, but Ranger Claude Westerveldt, following the model of farmer Max Yasgur two years before, decided that the kids had gotten a bad rap. Unfortunately he was wrong, and after the evening of Saturday, November 11th, he was never seen again, on the books as having abandoned his post, and widely assumed to either have gone over the border into the Ontario woods, or the victim of foul play.
In a tableaux reminiscent of the late night scenes at Altamont, the trucks carrying the stage, scaffolding and lights – after fighting their way through the traffic – managed to get to the festival site and set up by 2PM on the afternoon of the 10th. It was a few short hours later that the Grand Funk Railroad took the stage. Mark Farner had come in via Thunder Bay, and by the time the band plugged in he had consumed at least a case of Carling’s Black Label and was in rare form. The band played for the better part of two hours, performing their storming cover of the Animals ‘Inside Looking Out’. Years later, both Farner and Don Brewer both expressed wonder that they made it through the Festival at all.
The next band, the U.S. Sound were utterly obscure and unknown to everyone at the Festival, including the promoters, none of whom remembered booking them.
Steppenwolf took the stage around dusk, and played for the better part of the evening. They closed their set with the tune ‘Tighten Up Your Wig’, stolen almost note for note from the Junior Wells tune ‘Messin’ With the Kid’. Legend has it that Wells, who was set to play the following afternoon, heard the performance and was waiting for John Kay backstage where he greeted the unsuspecting singer with a cry of ‘Motherfucker!’ and proceeded to beat him senseless.
The fact that Rod Stewart was coming off a number one hit was apparently not taken into consideration, as he didn’t take the stage until almost midnight. When he did he was met with an ugly scene of forty thousand freezing fans, all huddling as close to possible to eleven trashcan fires. The beer had run out hours before and the audience had turned into a pulsing mass, interrupted by a floating fist-fight that seemed to pass back and forth at random, much the same as beach balls came to be used years later. The fact that Stewart opened his set with his cover of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fighting Man’ only served to make things worse. It was the only song he played that night.
Midnight arrived as the crowd was returning to their tents and vans. There were reports that dozens of festival goers spent the night wandering the frigid beaches of the island looking for the hotel they’d read about, oblivious to the fact (as were the promoters) that t had burned down in 1947.
It didn’t help that the ferry to the mainland was on a winter schedule and stopped running after 5PM. Isle Royale had become, in 24 short hours, the largest city in Wisconsin, and a federally declared disaster area. There was little food, the supply of running water in the park was rusty and filled with bacteria (a problem that would test the park’s limited bathroom facilities the next day).
As the sun peeked up over the horizon the next morning, the hundreds of freezing hippies that had foolishly camped on the beach (it had been reported that some of them had tried to build rafts and float back to the mainland) awoke to the surreal sight of several dozen World War Two landing craft arriving on the beach, with hundreds of Wisconsin National Guardsmen – and tons of supplies – spilling out onto the beach.
There were rumors that an angry Tiny Tim (smelling of lavender) elbowed his way to the front of the line demanding C-rations, cigarettes and beer, but there are no (living) witnesses and this story is now generally understood (or hoped) to be apocryphal.
Either way, by mid-morning the National Guard had already treated most of the frostbite and exposure cases and State Commandant Earl Cressley had taken the stage to announce “breakfast in bed for all you stinking hippies.”
The crowd was too hungry and tired to be insulted – many of them were sure that they were in fact hallucinating – and proceeded to the newly erected tent city where they were greeted with steaming plated of cream chipped beef on toast (a completely alien dish to most of the crowd). Interestingly enough, this event was the impetus for the creation of Sunflower Leibowitz’ Cream Chipped Beef-a-torium, which has been a Sault Saint Marie landmark for the last 37 years.
Following breakfast, Three Dog Night took the stage and played for close to two hours. They were originally scheduled to close the festival, but once they arrived and surveyed the carnage they insisted that they be allowed to perform (and leave) in the morning.
They were followed by local Wisconsin band the Milwaukee Freak Scene, French Canadian heavies Offenbach, and Woodstock alums Mountain and Country Joe & the Fish.
The second evening came to a close with a set from another Canadian band, Natural Gas, working a maple syrup infused angle on the Blood Sweat and Tears vibe. Their set was cut short by a near riot as the Ape Hangers started beating everyone in sight when their bikes started to sink in the wet sand. Eventually they had to stop hitting people so that they could devote their energy to shoveling sand with their bare hands.
Ultimately they were unable to do anything, and as the tide came in the motorcycles sank deeper and deeper. The toughest bike club in Minnesota was shattered in one fell swoop as every single one of their bikes was swallowed by the beach at Isle Royale, where they have reappeared intermittently over the years, usually after a particularly strong storm.
There was a particularly telling photograph, published in a Look magazine article about the festival, in which the entire Ape Hangers club – all suddenly pedestrians – are huddled together in the corner of the Isle Royale ferry, shivering, glassy eyed and lost. Upon their return to the mainland, they discovered that news of their misfortune had preceded them, and their main rivals, the Visigoths club out of Minneapolis had swooped down on and ransacked their clubhouse. They were left with nothing, and those that didn’t return immediately to lives of petty crime were scattered to the four winds, though there are rumors that the club president resurfaced years later – with a new name and considerably shorter hair – as the Republican representative from a certain northern Minnesota congressional district.
The morning of the third and final day of the Isle Royale Festival of Peace looked like an instant replay tape of the final morning of Woodstock. The already sparse crowd had thinned considerably, the frozen ground was covered with garbage, abandoned sleeping bags and what were initially assumed to be corpses, but were in fact abandoned sleeping bags filled with frozen garbage.
There was some discussion about whether or not the festival would continue, but oddly enough the promoters weren’t involved, since they had vanished sometime after the conclusion of the previous day, along with all the money, the last two cases of beer and a duffel bag filled with beans and weenies.
Members of the Rationals and Humble Pie, who had spent the previous night huddled together for warmth decided that as long as the electricity was still on (and it was, provided by a single extension cord reaching into the park office), the festival would continue – and at the end of Humble Pie’s set – conclude, which (mercifully) it did.
What followed – at least as captured in photos in the rare coffee table book about the Festival of Peace, published in the 80s – resembled nothing less than a very hairy, acid drenched version of the WW2 evacuation of Dunkirk. Dozens of local boats, everything from fishing trawlers, to pleasure cruisers, to rowboats were pressed into service to transport the remaining festivalgoers, performers and their equipment back to the mainland.
In the two hour documentary film broadcast last year on Minnesota Public Television, several festival attendees, as well as performers like Leslie West, Peter Frampton and Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night were interviewed about the Isle Royale Festival of Peace. Not surprisingly, not a single person had fond memories of the experience, and West – who was apparently traumatized – could not recall it at all until placed under hypnosis by a psychiatrist.
The word last year was that there was a small movement afoot to erect a monument of some kind on the park grounds, but an unpleasant combination of lack of interest, and an angry letter from the National Park Service (in which they denied any knowledge that the festival had ever occurred) put an end to that.
The only sonic evidence of the fiasco – considered by those in the know to be the “Altamont of Wisconsin” – is a two LP bootleg, much of which appears in this mix.
As always, I hope you dig it, and that you raise a glass (or something else) to the memory of a not so free festival.