Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One From The Archives: 04/01-02-03/72 Mar y Sol Pop Festival @ Vega Baja, Puerto Rico

Original Mar y Sol Pop Festival ad from Rolling Stone - 03/30/72
(Image via NYCDreamin Archives)

Everyone knows all the stories about Woodstock and Altamont. But there were several other large-scale U.S. rock festivals that took place from the late 1960's - early 1970's. This was one of those festivals. To say it became a nightmare for many who attended is probably an understatement. Others seem to remember a much more satisfying experience.
Here is the story - click the links for more information.

Date: April 1 -3, 1972
Place: Vega Baja, Puerto Rico
Attendance: Approx. 30,000

Excerpts from:
"Aquarius Rising: The Rock Festival Years"
by Robert Santelli (1980) [p. 230 - 237]

In 1972, nearly two years after he had helped produce the second Atlanta Pop Festival, promoter Alex Cooley thought he had found the solution to at least the legal problems surrounding rock festivals. Why bother to fight the mass-gathering ordinances and other legal stickers designed to prevent the staging of festivals? Instead, he and his business partners came up with an idea that seemed to be a promoter's dream: simply hold the event where there weren't such legal hassels and stipulations. Someplace like Puerto Rico...

Vega Baja is located on the North coast of the Island of Puerto Rico. The oceanfront property was once a huge dairy farm of more than 420 acres of beautiful countryside. A stretch of sun-soaked, sandy white beach, the kind that locals and travel agencies love to boast about, seperates the farm from the sea. Cooley and his associates rented the land for Easter weekend. It was on that Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that Mar y Sol (Sun and Sea) Festival was to take place.

Promoters made arrangements with the airlines so that package deals were offered to festivalgoers flying out of the major East Coast cities. From New York City, for example, round-trip airfare plus a festival ticket cost approximately $152. Not cheap by any rock fan's standards, especially those who were accustomed to gate-crashing festivals. Mar y Sol promised to be a small, almost private event. The island and the beach atmosphere made the trip to Puerto Rico vacationlike, with the music being an added extra attraction. College kids lookingfor someplace to go besides Fort Lauderdale, Florida, found Mar y Sol the perfect substitute.

Cooley next contacted various bus lines in San Juan to transport the young people from the airport to the festival site, some thirty-five miles away. The deal was that a flat sum was to be paid to the transit companies to have their drivers waiting with their vehicles as the first load of kids stepped from the first plane. Cooley expected a crowd of twenty-five to fifty thousand. It was not an easy task to transport so many people arriving at virtually the same time. But the deal was concluded anyway. Things looked bright as the first weekend in April drew near.

Out on the festival site a commune called The Family had been hired by the promoters to construct the stage, erect sound and lighting towers, and generally ready the land for the influx of thousands of people. Living the good life, the deeply tanned comune members had been on the site since the beginning of the year. When they weren't working, they spent their time sunbathing, swimming, fishing, surfing, and playing the role of Robinson Crusoe in a 1972-ish sort of way. Somehow they managed to discipline themselves so that nearly all the work had been completed by the time the first festivalgoers began arriving in Vega Baja.

On the surface it appeared that Cooley and his Atlanta-based backers had held up their part of the bargain. It was the other partis involved who botched up the festival plans. Things turned sour a week before the festival, when a San Juan Superior Court judge issued a court injunction that barred any festival activities at Vega Baja because of the possible sale and use of illicit drugs by American hippies. When East Coast newspapers reported the decision of the court, stateside festivalgoers did not know whether to risk a trip to the Carribean island or get their money back by cancelling their plane reservations. Some chose the latter course...most however, decided to make the trip regardless of the injunction.

Festival lawyers worked frantically to get the injunction reversed, and miraculously accomplished their goal late Thursday afternoon. Due to backroom compromising the same judge abrogated his earlier decision and permitted the festival to proceed as scheduled. Planes filled with young people began arriving at the airport in San Juan early Friday morning. Once their baggage was secured they searched for the free busses that were to take them to the festival area. There were none. During the court-injunction confusion the transit company hired by the festival promoters had assumed the festival was cancelled and had not assigned any drivers or busses to the airport. When word reached the company that Mar y Sol would take place after all, officials sent all available taxi drivers to the airport to cover for the lack of busses.

The ride from the airport to Vega Baja took almost three hours due to the traffic. It was hot, sticky, and crowded in the taxis as people jammed into them, eager to be a part of the first wave arriving at the site. The music was scheduled to begin that evening, but it was obvious, from the chaos, that no live sounds would be heard from the stage until the following day. That gave people time to set up camp, do a little swiming in the warm, refreshing ocean, and get sunburned. Real sunburned. It was only April, and many were sunbathing for the first time that season. As a result, the strong tropical ultra-violet rays turned palish white backs, legs and chests into sizzling red flesh in a matter of hours.

By late Friday afternoon local Puerto Ricans had set up simple booths and concession stands and began selling at outrageous prices, food and other items. One of those "other items" later turned out to be fresh water. Some of the wells that had been drilled exclusively for use during the festival ran dry sooner than expected. Many gallons of precious water were also being used to keep the showers going. Locals kindly uttered "gracias" in a sinister tone as thirsty festivalgoers at first paid .25 and then at some stands, .75 and even a dollar for a glass of water.

When young male Puerto Ricans found out that American girls were using the open shower area, hundreds crowded about to catch glimpses, whistle, and shout signs of approval. They liked what they saw and they wanted the girls to know it. The relationship between locals and festivalgoers deteriorated rapidly. No policemen were on the site, security was spotty, and those carrying machetes knew they could do whatever they pleased. When a drunken bunch of locals tore down two American flags and raised the Puerto Rican colors in their place, numerous fights broke out. It was only a matter of time before disaster struck.

Late Friday evening, a sixteen-year-old boy from the island of St. Croix, who had been dealing coke during the day and [had] run into some problems with local dealers, slept peacefully in his sleeping-bag. Despite the hassels he had had a good day. Saturday would be even better because of the commencement of the music. The moon's light was constantly interrupted by passing cloud formations, and so no one saw a group of locals silently approach the boy. No one heard the sound of the machetes hitting bone or slicing through flesh. In a matter of seconds the body in the sleeping bag became a bloody, mangled mess. The moon and the stars and maybe one or two frightened young people who were deathly afraid to talk were the only witnesses.

Three other people lost their lives at Mar y Sol. A couple swam out past the breakers and were swept away by a fast moving current. They both drowned. Another young person, this one from New Jersey, attempted to surf where the ocean's floor was lined with jagged rocks. On his last wave he wiped out as the force of the water shot him downward. He cracked his head on a sharp rock and died on the way to the hospital.

There was a marijuana shortage at the festival, which prompted many to resort to powerful tranquelizers, barbituates, and various hallucinogens. Pot that normally sold for $15 to $20 an ounce on the East Coast was going for a minimum of $50. Surprisingly, however, the medical tent was filled more with sunburn and fight victims than people suffering from overdoses or bad trips.

*Click on links to hear live music from the Mar y Sol Festival LP.

The music got underway Saturday afternoon and helped ease tension somewhat between locals and festival participants. Nitzinger, Brownsville Station, and folksinger Jonathan Edwards performed enthusiastic sets, but the real energy did not begin flowing until late that evening, when B.B. King and the Allman Brothers played until dawn...

Sunday's billing was highlighted by the jazzy sounds of Herbie Mann and Dave Brubeck, to whom the crowd prefunctorily responded; Savoy Brown; and then Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Alice Cooper. But with the heat and the incessant worry over whether one's tent and personal supplies would be ripped off, the atmosphere at the stage area was not celebratory. Of the thirty thousand who showed up for the festival, only half were interested enough to sit and listen to the music in the afternoon. The remainder of the crowd were either hanging out at the camping area nervously protecting their belongings against theft or on the beach enjoying the warm weather rather than fighting it.

Mar y Sol stretched over into Monday, since there had been no music on Friday evening as originally scheduled. The J. Geils Band, Cactus, Dr. John the Night Tripper, Bloodrock, and Rod Stewart played late into the night. [Additionally on Monday: the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The final band to play the festival, early Tuesday morning, was Osibisa.]

The inactivity on stage between the performers grew longer as the day wore on, and many in the crowd became restless and eager to return home. A number of bands scheduled to perform never showed, and a rumor circulated that yhere would be no transportation back to the airport.
That rumor turned into fact when one of the promoters nervously announced that here were no busses available to take people back to San Juan. The Transit company that had been hired now claimed that their contract was invalid. The boos and frustrated calls of "ripoff" echoed loud and clear, but after a few minutes a feeling of resignation permeated the festival grounds. The festival was a bummer. Period. The idea was to get off the island where the bad vibrations were so thick one could choke on them and get back to the mainland, where at least one could get a drink of water without having to beg for it.

But how to get to the airport? Panic spread through the crowd as the possibility of missing one's plane became very real and suddenly very frightening. Young people hastily broke camp and started out toward Route 2, the road that led to the airport. Most figured to walk the seven to ten miles to the main highway, and then thumb a ride. Thirty thousand people all had the same idea.

Picture the scene: long lines of young people, ragged, tired, sunburned, and avstly disappointed with what had transpired during the past three days. It was a refugee line if ever there was one. An occasional car or truck that inched it's way through the horde of people going in the direction of Route 2 had to fight off attempts of piracy. The situation was pathetic. Was this what a rock festival was all about?

Once again the locals stood to make a profit from the "heepies." When the young people finally reached Route 2 and began hitchhiking, cars recklessly swerved to the side of the road and motioned to the Americans to get in. Maybe the locals were okay after all. It was nice of them to stop and pick up hitchhikers and take them down the road a piece.

"Hi, how's it going?"
"Muy Bien, amigo."
"Are you going in the direction of the airport?"
"Can me and my friends get a lift with you?"
"Sure, amigo, twenty dollars each."
"Are you kidding?"
"Twenty dollars or else you walk, my friend."
"Look, man, all I have is twelve bucks and some change. That's all I got, I swear."
"Sorry, amigo. Adios."
"Hey, wait, okay, okay. I'll give you fifteen dollars. That's all I got, man. Really. That's no shit."
"Bueno, amigo. Get in."
(Heard from the backseat in a mumbled tone) "You son-of-a-bitch spic. You're a goddamned ripoff artist!"

Once at the airport, the problems continued for Mar y Sol participants. The terminal was jammed with other vacationers returning to the United States besides the festivalgoers waiting to catch their planes. And what a mess! It didn't matter that you had a ticket that was paid for in advance or a reservation on a specific flight. There were very few available seats on any planes goinganywhere in the United States. The place was chaos. National Guardsmen and Red Cross volunteers were sent to the airport. Two huge tents were set up to accomodate those who had no way of returning home in the immediate future. It took hours of standing in line to reach a phone booth. Information centers were inundated with angr customers. Those without any money began to panhandle...What the hell was going on?

No one knew for sure. Many young people spent two or more days at the airport waiting to secure a seat on a flight. The energy and spirit of those who had hoped that Mar y Sol would be some kind of superfestival had long been sapped from their systems. Cooley and the promoters left the island claiming they had lost $200,000 on the festival. No doubt hey were telling the truth. Puerto Rican government officials wanted them for tax evasion, but nothing was ever done to extradite the promoters. When "Rolling Stone" magazine interviewed Cooley, he stated that, despite the hassels, the festival was a success. A success? The only success that came from mar y Sol was that it effectively proved that rock festivals were not welcome "cultural activities" in Puerto Rico. It wa sthe first and last to be held on the island.

...and now that you made it through Santelli's version of the events at Mar y Sol, check out this beautifully done website:

Mar y Sol - Festival.com.

Here you will find lots of photos, interviews with people who attended the festival including some stories from some of the the musicians themselves, a great interview with promoter Alex Cooley, original newspaper reports of the festival, information on which bands ACTUALLY played and who did not....everything else you could ever want to know about the Mar y Sol Festival is up at this website.

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