Park life — and 3,000 guitars

Pub date October 20, 2009
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

MUSIC Golden Gate Park has once again become a nexus for huge music concerts. The massive scope of events such as Outside Lands can’t help but evoke the legacy of San Francisco in the 1960s, when musical gatherings were not only abundant, but a definite inspiration behind concerts elsewhere — especially Woodstock. With West Fest, organizer Boots Hughston and an extensive lineup of musicians and participants are paying tribute to Woodstock’s 40th anniversary. But they’re also bringing a sense of living history to a place where new generations of music lovers — some of whom knowingly or unknowingly admire contemporary acts influenced by the Woodstock era — regularly congregate.

Politically speaking, it’s especially important to bridge a sense of then and now. One person who will be doing exactly that is David Hilliard, former chief of staff in the Black Panther Party, author of many books, and current-day teacher. "Our purpose was always to ensure that art was part of our revolutionary political process," says Hilliard. "I dispatched members of our chapter to Woodstock ’69 as a gesture of solidarity to the counterculture movement. We were the comrades of the hippies and yippies and Peace and Freedom Party. We had the support of people like John Lennon — that was our constituency. It makes sense that we should be included in a celebration of this momentous event."

Hilliard has no problem connecting his message to the present — especially because the present includes some tell-tale problems. "I have to talk about the contemporary issue of millions of people who have lost their homes to foreclosure," he says, when asked about the subjects of his West Fest speech. "And isn’t it ironic that universal health care is the chief issue of the day, because we were devoted to free health care — it was central to our program."

Hilliard isn’t especially inspired by contemporary hip-hop, aside from Talib Kweli and a few other conscious artists. When asked whether the music of the moment approaches the political intensity of hip-hop’s Public Enemy era, he answers with a "hell no" that is as strong as it is quick, adding, "The whole industry has been reduced to a few artists who make it because they come up with songs about the latest dance."

This doesn’t mean that Hilliard and his contemporaries don’t have a hand in politicizing popular culture and youth culture in ways big and small. Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas currently has a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and Hilliard takes part in projects like the South L.A. Road to College, which teaches South Central L.A. youth about the Panthers and their history while preparing them for college. HBO is developing a six-hour series on the Panthers based on Hilliard’s 1993 book This Side of Glory and Elaine Brown’s 1992 autobiography A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story. "We are proud to be working with Carl Franklin," Hilliard says, referring to the series’ director, whose undersung 1992 classic One False Move renders in truly disturbing human terms the kind of drug violence that 1994’s Pulp Fiction treats as entertainment. "We need a year to tell this story [in a series], but we’ll take six hours and hope that it will inspire people to tell the story more often."

West Fest’s wildest musical element has to be an attempt to outdo the Guinness World Book of Records‘ current entry for Largest Guitar Ensemble via a 3,000-or-more-guitar rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s "Purple Haze." A chief force leading this effort, the producer and musician Narada Michael Walden, is also performing a set in honor of Hendrix later in the day. "Jimi Hendrix was the highest-paid performer at Woodstock, the most sought-after at the time," Walden points out from his base at Tarpan Studios in San Rafael. "A lot of the music he played at the festival — "Jam Back at the House," "Villanova Junction," "Isabella," "Fire" — is in obscurity because we only hear "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady." I wanted a chance to play some of the songs Jimi played at Woodstock that we don’t get to hear."

Moreover, working with musicians such as Vernon Ice Black, Hendrix’s bassist Billy Cox, and some special guests, Walden hopes to tap into the political subtext of Hendrix’s music at West Fest. "He didn’t just want white fans or black fans, he wanted to reach everybody," Walden says. "He tried his hardest by doing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in a way in which you heard the bombs exploding. He’d been a paratrooper jumping out of airplanes, and he wanted our nation to wake up to what we were doing, all the needless killing in Vietnam."

If anyone can corral 3,000-plus guitarists into making something musical, it’s the energetic Walden. He’s the producer behind the hits that made Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey into stars, and before that, the gorgeous pop R&B songs by teenage Stacey Lattisaw ("Let Me Be Your Angel," "My Love") that no doubt inspired those divas-to-be to work with him. "My first solo album [Garden of Love Light] in 1976 was produced with Tommy [Tom] Dowd," he remembers, when another legendary musical force who turned away from the U.S. military is mentioned. "I spent months and months recording with him and learned first-hand from him. He was really here to do what he did — only a few people understood how to compress music for radio in a way that it could still live and breathe. He knew how to take the queen of soul, Aretha, and give her a Southern sound with a vibrancy that allowed all people everywhere to feel it. That’s the genius — not just the musical side but the scientific side — of Tom Dowd."

The life stories of men such as Hendrix and Dowd — who abandoned atomic work on the Manhattan Project for the studios of Atlantic Records — are still applicable today. After all, this is an era in which Barack Obama calls for more troops in Afghanistan and wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Amid the potential and contradictions invoked by such a circumstance, Walden’s Hendrix-inspired endeavors and Hilliard’s speech at West Fest are worth hearing.


Sun/25, 9 a.m.–6 p.m., free

Golden Gate Park, SF