(click to enlarge photos)
Without a crashing piano, there would have been no Sky River Rock Festival over Labor Day weekend 1968 on Betty Nelson’s raspberry farm. Or was it strawberries? Certainly, there were no oranges.
Four months before that weekend, about 2,000 people paid to enjoy the surreal thrill of watching an old, tightly strung piano fall from a rented helicopter scarcely powerful enough to lift it. The exceedingly hip Berkeley, Calif., band, Country Joe and the Fish, provided the music. They had played at the Eagles Auditorium the two nights before, and donated their services for The Drop.
By our request, the pilot aimed to release the 500-pound, swaying instrument from an altitude of more than 100 feet above a large woodpile. A mix of antsy and artsy celebrants had packed into a grand horseshoe around the pile. Using Country Joe’s microphone, I pleaded with them (but with little faith) to step back.
As the piano fell, my heart took hold of my stomach, and both leapt to my throat. Fortunately, the renta-pilot missed. The piano plopped onto mud that pop doctrine ever-after believed was earlier divinely tamped between the woodpile and the half-built Duvall home of our host and fellow conspirator, Larry Van Over. All flesh was saved from woodpile shrapnel, and only a few piano strings were broken with the crash.
A half-century later, the salvaged piano was given to me by the wife of the recently passed strong man who, on the afternoon of The Piano Drop, had lifted the piano into his pickup and driven away. Now, the still-sturdy relic is silently and secretly kept in a locked garage.
The resounding but mud-muted success of The Piano Drop inspired us to do something bigger, longer and sometimes louder. A notice in the weekly tabloid Helix (we were the editors) searched for a farm or field on which to stage a three-day music festival.
Betty Nelson promptly answered with an invitation to use her fruit farm. We thought that appropriate. Betty’s available acres were suitably inclined on a sloping open grade next to the Skykomish River, about 3 miles south of Sultan. That summer on Betty’s farm, we rapidly squeezed out a campground facing a grand stage with light towers. Skilled volunteers prepared lighted rows for porta-potties, a food circus, space for arts and crafts, and a light-show projection booth.
We gathered four months later with about two dozen bands, including Country Joe and the Fish; Santana; The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band; and, for the last act, the Grateful Dead. The benefactors — aka ticket-buyers — gave “for American Indians and Black People.”
Attendance reached many thousands more than for The Piano Drop. However, we have no ticket count, for the long farm fence between the festival and the highway soon gave way to freeloaders who, no doubt, thought they were entitled to hear “their music” while also helping us lift the sky at the Sky River Rock Festival and Lighter Than Air Fair.
The price was $6 for three days of round-the-clock music, theater and comedy. (My stage contribution included setting the microphone for comedian Richard Pryor, about whom I then knew nothing.)
The Sultan-based Sky River Festival, the first of three annual events, all on different pastures, has often been extolled as the first multiday outdoor music festival on a rural site, ordinarily on a converted farm, that was prepared for it.
The first Sky River was staged and played a year before Woodstock. Within three years, there were about a dozen more multiday rock-jazz-folk festivals in the Northwest alone. Worldwide, wherever hippies hitchhiked, there were probably hundreds more.
I remember well the evening meeting in a Wallingford home when we easily chose the nearly self-evident name, “Sky River Rock,” for the historical festival. The Lighter Than Air part was a kind of a payoff to Van Over, The Piano Drop host, who hoped to fill the sky with tethered balloons lifting riders above the festival. As one of the larger riders in his hopeful balloon, I easily demonstrated its failings. I was too heavy to lift.
The photographs collected here are all from that first festival, the first Sky River. In the shot with the two fashion plates, the uncombed fellow in the saffron Buddhist robe is me. I remember thinking that the first Sky River would be an appropriate opportunity to abdicate my ordinarily nondescript dress for something eccentric. By the end of the day I had somehow lost the robe — probably intentionally.
Standing with me is my friend — now for more than half a century — novelist Tom Robbins. In 1968, we were both in our prime, already beginning our slide into somatic decline. I first met Tom in 1966, five years before the publication of his first novel, “Another Roadside Attraction.” (I suspect and/or hope that most of our readers have followed its whimsical search of the historical Jesus.)
We first met during a Free University course in experimental drama for which Tom staged a “happening” with the help of George, a nearly retired high school art instructor, who carefully covered a spotlighted dining table with a white tablecloth pressed flat for an elaborate setting of dinnerware for six. The happening’s climax came with Tom’s attempt to pull the tablecloth free from the table without upsetting the china. Of course, he failed. However, with Tom’s North Carolinian splash, it was an elegant crash. Above the scattered glass on the floor there stood a comic genius.
Tom remembers the morning this portrait of the two of us was recorded. After spending most of that summer night writing at the Post-Intelligencer, he visited the Dog House, then the newspaper neighborhood’s most popular all-night greasy spoon, before driving to the Sky River encampment for its second day.
While wearing my saffron Buddhist smock, it was easy to be both found and avoided. Obviously, Tom found me, although I do not know whether he was looking for me.
Anything to add, Paul?
Yes Jean. Here’s another of Tom, and Inger and I and several other friends taken by the same (now a half-century later) forgotten photographer. May he or she will come forward – if they can still walk. Gary Eagle, far lefdt, was one of the most productive and gifted on the artists that helped illustrated Helix. Far right is Stretch. We lived together first during my Artist in Residency at Fairhaven College in 1969 and then in a fisherman’s cottage on the west shore of Lummi Island. I am embarrassed that I no longer remember the name of the woman sitting to Randy’s right, although I SAW her as recently as my 70th Birthday party. As you can see I am still in my buddhist robe in the photo below, but I am also reaching for what might be a shirt or light coat. The person standing to my left was Randy’s “girl friend” at the time. She later moved to Colorado to study Buddhism and changed her name because of it. (And so I have not named her here.) Only now It occurs to me that she may have taken my robe for which she will have long ago asked forgiveness of the Buddha and I grant it as well.