Jim A. Beardsley is an independent archivist and historical research specialist in Los Angeles who began researching Newport '69 while pursuing his master's degree in history at Cal State Northridge.
This weekend marks the 40th Anniversary of the Newport '69 pop music festival that was held at the old Devonshire Downs in the San Fernando Valley. Seen as one of the culminating collisions of Southern California's 1960s suburban society, Newport '69 was the fusion of 1) an impractical concept projected to attract multitudes of the area's youth representing the era's counter-culture, with the 2) by-and-large naïve mainstream establishment of public officials, police and citizens. Looking back at the event after four decades, Newport '69 provides a considerable reflection of late-60s American history in Los Angeles.
The basis of this weekend in Northridge at the onset of summer was a remarkable exhibition of music and an extraordinary illustration of mayhem. The stories of the people involved, and of the places surrounding the occasion recreate a moment when Los Angeles and its environs blasted though a time of turmoil and exhilaration.
Newport '69 fits comfortably within the context of festivals that began with the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June, 1967. The genre attained a widespread popularity after Woodstock was staged in August, 1969, but fizzled in the early '70s for a variety of reasons. Fans discovered that large, outdoor venues were lousy places to hear music; promoters discovered that festivals typically became financial fiascoes; and local officials discovered that large-scale events such as Newport '69 were public disasters that would not be tolerated in their own back yards. It was the first and last staging of its kind on such a scale in Southern California.
The roots of Devonshire Downs can be traced back to 1943. Initial development on its original 40-acre parcel was facilitated through the construction of a dispatch depot and military supply warehouse. While the U.S. Army utilized the site during World War II, Sunday matinees featured horse racing and picnicking and made the place an increasingly popular local enclave for equestrian enthusiasts. In 1946, Devonshire Downs began a longstanding run as the locale of the San Fernando Valley Fair, and development was further enhanced by 1947 when facilities for 20,000 people and 4,000 vehicles were completed.
In addition to the featured horse racing and expositions, after 1948--when the State of California bought the site to house its 51st District Agricultural Association-- the Downs hosted an odd assortment of events. These included swap meets, rodeos, the Patsy Awards (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), the Scout Craft Fairs held in 1950s and 1960s by the Boy Scouts of America, an address by Richard Nixon to a group of Rotarians in 1962 and an Oral Roberts crusade in 1965.
In 1956, ground was broken for the Northridge campus of Los Angeles State College and, after becoming San Fernando Valley State College in 1958, the institution soon set its sights on acquiring the Devonshire Downs property. Following a long, drawn out process, Valley State eventually took over stewardship of Devonshire Downs and built a high-rise dormitory on adjacent property at the northwest corner of Lassen Street and Zelzah Avenue. By 1968, the Downs had become a modest operation and Southern California's only harness racing site, and by 1971 the last of the horses were removed from the facilities.
Various concerts at Devonshire Downs throughout the 1960s paved the way for Newport '69--events like the "Valley's first Annual All-Star Popular Music Spectacular" in 1961, and the "Fantasy Faire and Magic Music Festival" in July 1967. The latter affair included performances by Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Iron Butterfly, the Grassroots and Canned Heat while the venue was referred to as "Devonshire Meadows." A comparatively scant amount of attention has been given to this 1967 pre-cursor to Newport '69 which mimicked the festival that had been staged in Monterey the previous month, and, apparently, it was held without any major controversy and relatively few difficulties.
Then 24-year-old Mark Robinson was the man behind Newport '69 and the logistical challenges it created. In 1968, the Loyola High School alumnus and recent graduate of Stanford University had produced a problematical event that was staged in the parking lot of the Orange County Fairgrounds. Prior to Newport '69, he admitted to a reporter that the 1968 show "didn't come off exactly like we wanted it to" and believed facility matters such as sanitation and food concessions were the major obstacles to a more successful event.
Believing he could remedy a recurrence of 1968's unfulfilled expectations, Robinson planned, budgeted, hyped, and hoped his way through what became an even bigger fiasco. In order to make Devonshire Downs a little more attractive for a music festival, Robinson made plans to spend "$50,000 of our own on improvements, including putting in grass and trees," and aimed to recreate "the carnival-like atmosphere of the old county fair." Various promotions prior to the opening of Newport '69 boasted of the arrangements for arts and craft exhibits, fashion shows, vendors, rides, ice water trucks, an "ample variety of food and soft drinks and fresh fruit," a supply of "crepe, hospital-like slippers at the gate," shaded picnic areas, balloons, flowers, fireworks, and, strangely, archery, among other attractions besides the music.
Further hyperbole included various declarations announcing that Newport '69 was designed to be "the greatest musical fair ever," a "giant convergence of humanity for music," a "Summer Solstice Fantasia," and "Wholesome Too."
Notable among the expenses Robinson budgeted for the event was the $31,000-or-so fee to be paid for use of the Downs facilities. It's plausible that Bob Deem-- manager of the Valley State-owned property at the time--figured he had set up a windfall for the self-supporting, cash-strapped operation, but really hadn't an inkling of what he and his College superiors were in for. Additional pre-event budgeting was reported to include $282,000 for the performers, $123,000 for advertising, and a total of $37,000 for fencing, ground covering, shade trees, portable toilets, water trucks, and helicopters. Advance ticket sales reportedly topped the $250,000 mark, and just days before the event Robinson stated to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that he felt "there's a good chance we'll gross over a million."
However, in the last few days leading up to the festival, all the preparation that Robinson had diligently managed began to unravel. The preliminary prospect of "27 acres of controlled overnight camp grounds" didn't materialize after local officials revoked their permit. A Superior Court injunction was issued ordering Robinson to disclaim any connection with the well-known Newport Jazz Festival that been held annually for several years in Rhode Island. A shorthanded private security force that Robinson patched together to patrol inside the grounds was cautioned to "play it cool," while Captain Al Lembke of the LAPD's Devonshire Division didn't anticipate any "confrontations outside the gates."
Publicized directions to the event proved inadequate, and signage in the area of the venue was practically non-existent.Ticket prices were seen as fairly outrageous, and claims that the weekend event was blatantly oversold were most likely valid. One of the biggest planning errors regarded the lack of any provisions for re-entry to the grounds by those who tolerated the admission cost then chose to leave the grounds while the event was in progress. Finally, in a re-run of problems that hounded the much smaller event held in Orange County in 1968, event organizers significantly underestimated the requirements for sanitation, concessions, and parking.
In June of 1969, Mark Whaley was a self-described 20 year-old "hippy carny" traveling the music festival circuit and sleeping "on the ground weeks before the shows would kick off." For the Newport '69 event, Whaley gained employment as the stage manager and--when asked by Mark Robinson for assistance in including some lesser known but potentially intense acts--was also responsible for adding Jethro Tull to the schedule of performers. Whaley and his crew would have their hands full trying to deal with the "McCune" sound equipment, the "Thomas Edison" lighting system, the throngs of performers, entourages, strangers, and press that would soon be crowded onto the immense performance platform, as well as with various over-enthused spectators who would decide to climb up the front of the lofty stage or onto the speaker towers.
Weather forecasts for the San Fernando Valley on Friday, June 20, 1969 called for typical late night and early morning low clouds and fog followed by hazy sunshine and highs of 78 to 85. Scores of Valley youngsters whom had completed school that week headed for Devonshire Downs. Some, like a 13 year-old girl who had just graduated from Junior High School the day before, were in for what she would later refer to as "the hippest day Northridge ever experienced." Others, like the comatose, nude young woman who would be passed over-head through the crowd, would have perhaps less thrilling recollections. Gates were promised to be opened at 3:00 p.m., and one can imagine there were any number of final details and snags to address as the stage was finally set. Many of the performers were ushered onto the grounds via helicopter, and hosted in a large secured compound of trailers and equipment behind the stage.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue kicked off Friday's show. They had their act down tight, and were locally familiar having played clubs such as Gazzari's Hollywood A Go Go, Cero's Le Disc, and The Galaxy earlier in the 60s. The set featured Tina Turner's rendition of "River Deep Mountain High"--a single that had been recently co-written and produced by Phil Spector. Additional performers on Friday included the 64 year-old bandleader Don Ellis and his featured vocalist, Patty Allen, (who ended up singing in the audience before the set was finished), blues musician Taj Mahal, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. At the the time, Hawkins and his gospel choir had one of the biggest hits of 1969 going with "Oh Happy Day," and an extended version of the popular single was reportedly pretty well-received by the Devonshire Downs crowd.
Inside the grounds, Friday night's show rolled on despite lineup changes, delays due to technical difficulties, and inadequate security measures. In addition to the abysmal acoustics all large-scale, open-air concerts offered, Newport '69 featured the continuous noise and spotlights of several law enforcement helicopters which made hearing the performances even more difficult, if not impossible. Outside the gates, a huge crowd had amassed, and the scene illustrated that the organizers of Newport '69 were losing control. Referring to Friday's events, producer Robinson claimed: "We are really taking a beating. Twenty thousand have sneaked in." Eight divisions of the L.A.P.D. were put on a tactical alert that continued throughout the weekend, and a 'Sig Alert' was issued for traffic in the vicinity of Devonshire Downs.
Despite the really poor acoustics, Joe Cocker took advantage of a prime-time slot Friday evening and delivered a rousing set that demonstrated he was at the top of the list of live performance rockers. Writing a week later for the Los Angeles Free Press, reporter John Carpenter explained that "Joe Cocker walked away with the Friday night show. There wasn't even a close second....The audience was stunned, screamed, stomped on the ground, and was cheering everything he did." In the Los Angeles Times the following November, Robert Hilburn confirmed Carpenter's earlier assessment: "Though he was not well known at the time, Cocker's appearance last summer at the Devonshire Downs Pop Festival upstaged virtually every other act, including Jimi Hendrix."
Sandwiched between the sets by Joe Cocker and his Grease Band and Jimi Hendrix and his Experience, Randy California led the band Spirit through an excellent live performance that had the crowd singing along to a single entitled Fresh Garbage. An innovative group with a loyal following, besides Randy--who had been labeled 'California' by Jimi Hendrix--Spirit included veteran jazz drummer Ed Cassidy and vocalist Jay Ferguson.
Hendrix's headlining act fell victim to the show's long delays, and by the time he and his Experience band mates took the stage it seemed that most everyone--the crowd, the musicians, and the helicopter pilots--had had enough for one day and night. Hendrix, who was just about at the apex of his performance career, reacted poorly with the crowd and cut short his set for which he allegedly was paid $100,000. He'd return on Sunday afternoon for an improvised set that was fairly well received, and pretty much satisfied the promoter's and Hendrix fans' expectations.
Friday's festivities wrapped up early Saturday morning, well past the scheduled midnight closing time. Concert-goers looking to stick around for the remainder of Newport '69 weekend had but little choice than to crash out wherever they could find space. The grounds at the Downs were off limits and were thoroughly trashed anyways, and the portable heads had been wasted by the end of Friday's events. People found places to sleep on the nearby Valley State College campus, and on the property of some of the surrounding apartment buildings and residences. A local paper reported: "Many spent their nights in sleeping bags or merely in blankets tossed onto fields and street corners surrounding the former fairgrounds." Dr. Lincoln Riley, as president of a Northridge homeowners group, later recorded that some residents were disturbed after they had "to look across the street and see nude hippies copulating in a vacant field."
Others slept in their cars, and an enterprising resident accommodated hundreds of vehicles on his property at a rate of a dollar each per night. Another resident, an apartment owner who confronted visitors seeking sleeping spaces or swimming pools, claimed that "he stayed up all weekend just to keep longhairs out of my building."
As the gates to Newport '69 weren't scheduled to reopen on Saturday the 21st until noon, there was plenty of time for some serious shenanigans in Northridge. Unverified reports claimed all the hardware stores in the area sold out their entire inventories of wire cutters. Downs Market near the intersection of Devonshire Street and Zelzah Avenue opened at 9:00 a.m. and was soon totally swamped with both paying customers and some people that simply helped themselves to whatever they could get their hands on such as milk, doughnuts, beer, and wine. Bob Broman, one of the store's owners, had made it through Friday with little or no trouble but had closed up shop by noon on Saturday on account of a few "animals--older, professional type hippies."
Across the street, Texaco service station proprietor Jack Cunningham was compelled to close his business after the restrooms had been trashed, the gas pumps had been vandalized, and some tools and a cigarette machine were stolen. His take on the scene included the following perspective: "I had the Hell's Angels, Satan's Slaves, and War Lords in here [before]... They might have looked dirty but they cleaned up after themselves and threw their trash in the receptacles. The hippies were neat too, but it was the kids from the well-to-do families who were the ones who tore up the place, as far as I'm concerned." Once again, the lines between the mainstream and the counter-culture had been blurred as the chaotic nature of Newport '69 kicked into gear.
The relatively peaceful atmosphere that had prevailed within Devonshire Downs on Friday pretty much continued throughout Saturday during performances by, among others, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Love, Steppenwolf, the Womb, Friends of Distinction, Charity, Cat Mother, Jethro Tull, Credence Clearwater Revival, Eric Burdon, and Sweetwater. While areas around the stage and backstage were mostly disorganized and frenzied, the crowd seemed generally mellow as they sat, stood, or wandered around the grounds. A fellow leading around a sheep on a leash was witnessed, drink flowed, and scents of marijuana were definitely in the air.
Outside, and on the perimeter of the Downs, it was another story. Don Burns worked on a crew charged with repairing fence after it had been damaged by would-be spectators attempting to gain entry by any means possible. Burns recollected that he had "two or three Hells Angels riding on his pick-up" and "they loved to bust heads." Several creative gate-crashers got in by huddling around limousines that were ushering performers through the crowded areas, and others took advantage of their numbers and simply rushed the gates.
Also on Saturday, it became blatantly clear that the hodgepodge effort to enforce a sort-of convoluted 'order' at Newport '69 was an exercise in futility. Ron Allen, who was allegedly paid $11,000 to oversee the festival's security, managed to retain about 250 denim-clad members of the Street Racers gang who promptly armed themselves with "anything they could find" after their weapons of choice--lead pipes--got confiscated. Added to Allen's mix of hired hands "to protect our property and gate receipts" were some forty members of the Hells Angels, and dozens of student athletes reportedly from USC, UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Bakersfield. Todd Everett of Canoga Park applauded Allen's private security efforts at the festival: "Let me say that I was there, in a concession booth, for the entire three days. During that time, the motorcycle "gangs" performed their duties (chiefly crowd control) most admirably, and in a more calm and restricted manner than that of LAPD, in many cases." Captain Lembke of the LAPD stated that "They really helped considerably with solving our problems."
By Saturday night, Mark Robinson's dream of "the greatest musical fair ever" was on its way to rapidly disintegrating—even though there was still a lot of great music going on. Led by a 24 year-old John Fogerty, Credence Clearwater Revival took the stage after a terrific appearance by Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. Starting their set with their hit single, Proud Mary, Credence generated what was, by all accounts, a giant sing-along. "The group got the loudest and most prolonged reaction of the festival (with the exception of Janis and her 'Hi there')," said one report. Unlike Friday's practically cheerless conclusion, when the lights went out on Saturday after an abbreviated set by the Los Angeles-based band Sweetwater and its lead vocalist Nancy Nevins, many in the crowd were still clamoring for more music.
Sunday, June 22nd was the make or break day for Newport '69. If the last day at Devonshire Downs had been--as it had been idealized by its promoter--just "a place to gather outdoors and have fun together," the entire event might have been recorded from vastly different perspectives. Instead, the whole enchilada fell apart. The venue was utterly trashed. The neighborhood around the Downs was a mess, and a lot residents were in a tizzy. Mrs. Broman at the Downs Market exclaimed "I have never seen so many crummy people in my life" and a repairman who'd come to fix her door reported that he had seen "people laying all over the fields, many of them nude. The sight was just filthy." One of the area's long-time residents, Mrs. Thomas Fleming of Romar Street, was even more panicked: "We were the first house here, and if I would expect this thing to ever happen again, I'd want to sell and move."
Compared to all the turmoil in Northridge and outside the grounds at Devonshire Downs on Sunday, anything that happened onstage was secondary. Mrs. Fleming reported seeing people "drinking wine by the gallon." Jeff Sherwood, a reporter for the Van Nuys News, wrote: "Just sitting on the grounds trying to enjoy the performers, I was approached by several persons offering to sell me marijuana, LSD and various other drugs. I saw people sitting all around me smoking marijuana and drinking alcoholic beverages." Dr. Robert Caper, a physician at UCLA who volunteered his services at the festival, told reporters that "at least 11 were treated for 'bad trips' from hallucinatory drugs."
Jimi Hendrix returned to the Devonshire Downs stage without his regular band. A jam session featuring Hendrix and Buddy Miles was hailed as an especially moving moment for those fortunate enough to hear the music over the din of the crowd and helicopters. Also included on the slate of those scheduled to perform Sunday were the Flock, the Grassroots, Marvin Gaye, Mother Earth, the Byrds, Poco, Booker T and the MG's, and Johnny Winter. Summing up his review of Sunday's performances, John Carpenter reported the musical highlights of the fair's final day were "Three Dog Night stopping the festival cold when the audience demanded an encore and the Chambers Brothers ending their set with 'Time.'" After the Rascals closed Sunday's show, the musical components of Newport '69 had concluded, but the repercussions of the festival had only just begun.
About 400 police officers were deployed during the course of Newport '69. Assessments of their effectiveness ranged greatly depending on sources. Homeowner Lincoln Riley assailed "the lack of attention that was given to the excellence of the Los Angeles Police Department during the holocaust that occurred." The Los Angeles Free Press had a different tone, saying that on Sunday "Captain Lembke ordered his Tac Squad to make a sweep of the area surrounding their compound. As the line of police proceeded to clear the area, five pigs broke ranks and began swinging their clubs over their heads. Several bystanders were injured in the brutal action. It was the action of these five pigs that precipitated a barrage of missiles."
Liberation News Service ran an article that stated: "Thousands attempted to storm the gates, some threw rocks and bottles at the police; the police responded with violent beatings and arrests." Reporter John Carpenter saw a "red freak get hit on the side of the side head hard enough to make a sickeningly loud noise." The Van Nuys News reported that among the injured officers "J. Harvie suffered internal injuries when he was attacked and beaten by several persons," and that M.F. Butler received abrasions of the back and a possible broken thumb during an altercation."
Issues of security, public safety, and the enforcement of law and order definitely outweighed the promotional hype that Newport '69 would be "a convergence of humanity for music." An article in the Los Angeles Free Press echoed a sadly consistent opinion: "Newport '69 Pop Festival wasn't. It wasn't Newport; it wasn't Pop; it wasn't even a Festival. It was a sham, a hype, and most of all, a burn."
In one of the better known contemporary reviews of the event, Pete Johnson wrote: "it seems as if 1969 and Southern California are neither the time nor the place to make such an enterprise pleasant or entertaining." He concluded that "the musical and sociological results of that gathering have no kinship with the word festival. I hope this is the festival to end local festivals."
Robert Wilkinson, a Los Angeles City Councilman representing Northridge, led the call for immediate inquiries to determine "what can the city do to prevent another disgraceful melee such as occurred outside Devonshire Downs last week." The event's promoter, Mark Robinson, along with his attorney--who happened to be his father, Mark Robinson, Sr.--were hauled into an emergency session of the police commission, as was Robert Deem, the Downs manager, and Captain Al Lembke. The community was outraged, and determined that this sort of debacle wouldn't happen again. Talk of law suits against Valley State College seeking liability for property damage was bandied about, and, eventually, an ordinance was presented to the City Council that sought greater authority to "control such events as the Devonshire Downs Newport '69 Pop Music Festival."
Even columnist Art Seidenbaum of the Los Angeles Times weighed in on the event and offered a bit of sound wisdom: "The fiasco of Devonshire Downs never should of happened in the first place. The appreciation of music has no place in a pasture for mooing, where tens of thousand of wayward delinquents can stampede and gather at the gate. Bad behavior should be no more surprising than bad planning and production. If the promoters haven't learned that lesson, then the public must."
In February 1970, in a direct response to Newport '69, Los Angeles officials approved new city regulations that placed stricter controls around event bonding, liability insurance, hours of activity, employees, sanitation, parking, and seating facilities. In the unlikely event that another music festival would ever be staged again in Los Angeles, someone would be held accountable and have to pay if it all went awry.
A few concerts and variety of minor events continued to be held at Devonshire Downs throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, including dune buggy races and a series of punk rock shows. After the last horses had been removed in 1971, Devonshire Field, a provisional facility for the Valley State football team, replaced the old race track and pavilion. Over the following three decades, numerous attempts at improving the football facilities were made and the site became known as North Campus Stadium. During that time, CSUN officials engaged in a series of unsuccessful efforts aimed at significantly redeveloping the site including a failed bid to have a world-class velodrome built there for the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.
A few modern facilities that have been constructed on the 100-acre North Campus site include a CSUN housing project, a cell phone relay tower, and the manufacturing facilities and offices of a surgical supply company. The CSUN football team played their last home game at the old Devonshire Downs site on November 3, 2001 before the sport was discontinued at the University. One of the barns from the horse racing days that had been remodeled into football locker rooms in 1981 was probably the last remaining vestige of Devonshire Downs. It has since been removed.
In the forty years since Newport '69 was staged, the people who made it happen have moved on in many of the ways lives and time usually pass and progress. No mention of the numbers of people involved has been made in this retrospect because contemporary estimates were no better then the crowd estimates we get today. Suffice it to say there were thousands, and each surely had a story to tell. The demise of the show's headliner, Jimi Hendrix, has been well publicized. Mark Robinson got a degree from Loyola Law School and has been a successful attorney in Orange County for years. Mark Whaley is a realtor in Sedona, Arizona. Randy California drowned tragically in Hawaii in 1997. Robert Deem died in 1990 at the age of 61. Ian Anderson is still making music and touring, and is set to perform at the Wiltern on November 6. Nancy Nevins was the victim of a drunk driver a few months after her appearance at Devonshire Downs in 1969, and was seriously injured.
And on it goes. It's a pretty good bet there will never be a another Devonshire Downs in Los Angeles, and there most certainly will never again be a weekend quite like Newport '69.