Jimi Hendrix at Devonshire Downs, June 22, 1969. Photo courtesy of Steve Roth archive/Ventura Boulevard magazine
I've written several times about Newport '69, the rock festival in the middle of the San Fernando Valley that kicked off the LA summer of 1969. More than 100,000 people crammed into the Devonshire Downs fairgrounds and racetrack in Northridge to hear Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Jethro Tull, The Byrds, Marvin Gaye, Ike and Tina Turner and two dozen other bands and performers — many of them went on to Woodstock two months later. Today is the 44th anniversary of the opening Friday night when Hendrix played to a packed fairgrounds. His show went so poorly that he agreed to return on Sunday afternoon, leading to a jam session with Buddy Miles and others that's still talked about by rock fans (see video at bottom.)
But enough about all that. Newport '69 was organized and promoted by a 24-year-old Stanford graduate from Pasadena named Mark Robinson. This guy should have an honored place in the pop culture lore of Los Angeles. He put together what I have to believe remains the biggest and best live rock and roll show held within the city limits, Coliseum raves included. After the festival ended with crowds overrunning the suburb of Northridge and a fracas with the LAPD, Robinson was hauled before the authorities. He hasn't talked about it much in the years since — Robinson is a now a prominent lawyer in Newport Beach — but he recently did in a cover piece by Kirk Silsbee in Ventura Boulevard magazine. Excerpt:
“I was a nobody basically. I just loved music,” says Mark.... For Newport ’69, Mark booked 32 groups. “It was pretty simple. I made calls and got groups. I was a novice.”
Before long, the young producer had so many commitments, he had to turn some down, including a legendary band. “Grateful Dead wanted to get in, but I didn’t have room. They called several times. I felt bad. I just couldn’t squeeze them in. They made it big after that.”
Mark’s headliner was Jimi Hendrix—at the height of his career, and he agreed to pay him a whopping $100,000 (an unheard-of amount of money at the time.) He cut deals for between $2,000 to $25,000 for the rest.
Bands were paid from the ticket sales, while Mark funded upfront expenses with $35,000 of his own money and contributions from friends and family.
Despite Hendrix’s stellar performance, the killer line-up and the historic crowds, Newport ’69 is rarely mentioned in music history. Mark believes it’s simply a matter of being overshadowed by a better, bigger story.
“Woodstock was a free music festival where people camped out on a New York farm for days. It rained, and people stayed, and that aspect of it became a national news story,” he says....
"I was working throughout the festival. My 14-year-old brother probably saw more than I did!” He adds, “I may have a few old photos in some boxes, but I’d have to look for them.”
The month after Newport ‘69, Mark enrolled in Loyola Law School. Although he lost money on the endeavor, he insists he has no regrets.
Robinson disputes news reports at the time, and many accounts since, that say there was a lot of fence jumping by fans without tickets, scraps with overzealous security provided by the Los Angeles Street Racers car club and with the LAPD, and considerable damage to stores and front yards in the neighborhood. Sorry Mark, I've talked to too many people who remember all that more — copious drug use included, of course — and I have my own dim teenaged memories of the scene. But thanks for the great, great show.
From my post in 2009:
On June 20, 1969, a Friday, schools let out for the summer and tens of thousands of music fans — including this one — headed for the corner of Devonshire and Zelzah in Northridge, the location of the former horse racing track and fairgrounds called Devonshire Downs. Ike and Tina Turner opened the show Friday night, and by the time Jimi Hendrix jammed with Buddy Miles on Sunday afternoon in a session still bootlegged around the Internet, neighbors were calling the hippie invasion of the San Fernando Valley a "holocaust," cops and overdosed teens were in hospitals, and officials were looking to blame somebody.
Historian Jim Beardsley might be the only Newport '69 scholar around — he studied the festival for his graduate work at Cal State Northridge, which incidentally owned Devonshire Downs. He contributed a visiting blog post to LA Observed in 2009 that said Robinson talked at the time about ticket sales taking a beating: "Twenty thousand have sneaked in," he said of the opening night.
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 [Robinson put on] in Orange County in 1968, event organizers significantly underestimated the requirements for sanitation, concessions, and parking.....
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 [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...."
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....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.
Eight LAPD divisions spent the weekend on tactical alert as the crowds of young people swarmed to Northridge. A traffic 'Sig Alert' was issued. The owner of a gas station across Devonshire Street from the fairgrounds had to close after the business was trashed by crowds on Saturday. "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."
More YouTube video of Newport '69 continues to be added — from somewhere. Here's a 9-minute snippet of Jimi Hendrix' Sunday performance at Devonshire Downs.