It should have been the biggest party Louisiana ever saw. The Celebration of Life in 1971 was to be a deep south version of Woodstock where the hippies, rednecks and Cajuns all beat their feet in unison on that sweet Point Coupee, Parish mud.
Instead it careered out of control with drownings, gunfire, and kids overdosing on methadone.
The Celebration of Life was produced by Lewis Weinstock of Newport Pop infamy. The California music festival was the first to ever draw over 100,000 fans many of whom ended up getting their skulls cracked open by police. The festival was further marked by overflowing portolets, vandals fanning out through the surrounding neighborhoods, and a culminating riot that saw 300 people injured in a closing evening melee.
Louisiana money man Steve Kapelow, a 29 year old MIT graduate, was the driving force behind the Point Coupee fest, and hired Weinstock to produce the affair.
Originally the concerts were scheduled to be held on an island in the Mississippi River where according to a festival brochure: “Four hundred yards of water, a swift and powerful current, a world-famous undertow and 25 patrolling speedboats will combine to insure that no swimmers or boaters will reach the island site…”
Gate-crashing had become a serious problem at large festivals.
Weinstock himself would be quoted as saying “I hope people will understand that the fate of all festivals is at stake.”
Steve Kapelow was flush with success. The scion of a wealthy New Orleans real estate family, he’d organized and promoted the New Orleans Pop Festival in 1969 which saw over 30,000 attendees cavort on the grounds of the Louisiana International Speedway in Prairieville, an hour north and west of the Crescent City. The affair was largely trouble-free and, even prompted one resident to remark, “these hippies were better behaved than many of our local residents.”
But as June 1971 unfolded, Kapelow’s newest venture began to take on water. First the state of Mississippi evicted the young promoter from a would-be venue in the community of Purvis after catching wind that the freak nation were going to be traveling from across the US to be in attendance.
Local media made hay of the proposed event with one local journalist commenting:
It is primarily an agricultural area of church-going, hard-working people who take a jaundiced view of the mod scene, and ‘new lifestyle.’ More than one youngster has been taken out behind the barn and convinced of the immediate need for a haircut. You see relatively few bellbottoms and a preponderance of overalls…
The 700 acre Cypress Pointe Plantation in McCrea, Louisiana ended up being the fall-back option. Rent came in at $20,000.
The party immediately drew concern from the state’s elders. Governor John McKeithen mentioned that he would have no problem personally evicting any “long haired dope group anarchists” who would dare to stage a celebration in Louisiana
Louisiana Public Safety Director William Dent feared the Pelican State’s youth might “…become exposed, perhaps for the first time, to marijuana and its accompanying permissiveness.”
50 years on that’s the same message being trumpeted by our state’s current decision makers.The Celebration of Life promised eight days of music from dusk til dawn but when the Monday June 21st kickoff time arrived chaos was the order of the day. Miles-long car queues were lined down country roads with some folks opting to just park their vehicles and bivouac in nearby ditches.
Meanwhile Kapelow and Weinstock were appearing before US District Court Judge E. Gordon West pleading their case in response to a Point Coupee Parish emergency order forbidding the festival.
The party would finally begin Thursday night. Yogi Bhajan gave the invocation.
Three New Orleans biker gangs provided security: the Galloping Gooses, the Vikings and the Wheelers. Since problems were few the gangs took to riding their hogs through the peaceniks and hippies’ camps at night where they cracked a few skulls for amusement. “Gangs Beat Longhairs At Festival” trumpeted one local headline.
Eventually shotgun-toting deputies rousted the Gooses biker gang and evicted them from the festival.
One young freak got a hold of some bad acid, commandeered a state trooper’s car and had to be roughed up a bit before he finally came to his senses.
“Everywhere you look, it’s uppers and downers and heroin. I’ve been to a number of festivals before but I’ve never seen anyone shooting in the open like here,” commented one attendee.
With hefty ticket sales being reported in local media the feds ended up filing 777k in liens against the promoters in the hopes of getting their fair share of the haul.
Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Frank Salter urged Governor John J. McKeithen to “…put a stop to this disgrace in our state.”
I’m not sure what business Salter had as Calcasieu Parish is clean on the other side of Louisiana.With temperatures soaring into the nineties, and little shade afforded to the concert-goers, folks made their way to the mighty Atchafalaya River, one of the fastest moving rivers in the country. Two attendees would end up drowning, 19-year-old Wayne Edward Green and 20-year-old Edwin Thomas Hardy Jr.
Drugs were plentiful with ounces of decent weed retailing at $10 apiece, and hard drugs so abundant that dealers made large, hand-painted signs such as “Cocaine Alley” and “Heroin Boulevard.”
The music would finally start on Thursday, June 24th with John Sebastian of the Loving Spoonful taking the stage. He was followed by Chuck Berry; the evening closed with Arkansas bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon.
Off-stage things were turning grim for the young hippies and freakniks who’d ventured into the wilds of Louisiana to party. There was little potable water, food was scarce, and if you were lucky enough to find it you were charged a small fortune by vendors who realized they had a captive audience.
A loaf of bread cost .60c.Meanwhile Louisiana State Police had set up roadblocks on roads leading into the site. Vital supplies of food, water and medicines were being turned away by troopers in hopes of stifling the festival.
The party lurched and stumbled along til finally on Saturday morning the promoters called it, and opened the gates to the ticketless hordes. Admission was now free. In spite of the largesse the party was in its death throes. Sunday night would be the final night of music with Steven Stills attempting to ride to the rescue.
It was something of a miracle that the promised eight day affair actually saw half of its obligation completed.
The day after the conclusion of the party local journalists conducted something of an exit poll to the departing festival-goers. They were curious as to why they would endure the scorching heat, lack of food, and general comforts of home for a few hours of music.
Nearly a 100 youth were queried and the majority simply replied “to do dope.”
Authorities claimed that between 100 and 200 arrests were made at the Celebration of Life with nearly all of them being for possession of drugs. The parish coffers were completely filled by the time the celebrants had bonded out of jail, and paid their relevant fines.
Steve Kapelow pronounced his event “a disaster” with the caveat that “there are a lot of factors responsible for the problems, some political.”
Time magazine, then an absolute powerhouse of journalism weighed in with, “last week’s festival, which lasted only four days instead of the announced eight, was an American nightmare.”
The Celebration of Life was to be Steve Kapelow’s swan song as a festival promoter. He returned to the family business of real estate and would die by his own hand in 2005
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McCrea 1971, a documentary on the festival, directed by Nick Brilleaux