Monday, November 7, 2011

Yellow Springs in the '60s and '70s: Medicine Ball Caravan

by Chris Till

In August 1970, Van Morrison performed at the Antioch College golf course in Yellow Springs. That summer, Van was touring his Moondance album, featuring now-standards like "Into the Mystic," "Caravan," as well as the title song. The events at Antioch College just prior to the concert are featured in the 1971 film, Medicine Ball Caravan. Unfortunately, the Van Morrison concert itself is not in the film.

In one of her earliest Rolling Stone magazine photo assignments, renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed the Yellow Springs concert. Some of her photos, and photos of a very young Annie Leibovitz, appear in We Have Come for Your Daughters, a 1972 companion book about the Medicine Ball Caravan. From that book: "Yellow Springs is a woodsy town in Ohio, roughly half way between Cincinnati and Columbus. It's a picturesque location for Antioch College, a small but prestigious institution noted for its liberal administration, progressive curriculum and precocious students, a large percentage of whom come from New York."

Medicine Ball Caravan, launched in the wake of the Woodstock film's mammoth success, features a convoy of school buses populated by "hippies," travelling America from west to east, throwing festivals. The performers included Joni Mitchell (not in the film), B.B. King, Alice Cooper, and Van Morrison.

The mediocre film flopped, but does have several high points. One high point is the only known film of the wildly flamboyant, but ill-fated, "STP Family" of Boulder, Colorado, a primitive counterculture group who can be considered the inventors of the sartorial style later known as "gutter punk." The film shows the STP Family in fabulous leather and fur-clad drunken splendor, thrashing about in front of the stage. Another highpoint of the film depicts hippie and road life while the Youngbloods' wonderful studio version of "Hippie from Olema" plays.

A final highpoint is the Yellow Springs scene. Filmed just south of the Antioch College cafeteria, students, film crew, and protesters argue over whether the Medicine Ball Caravan is a crass exploitation of the counterculture.

A similar clash is featured in Festival Express, the documentary about another 1970 travelling festival tour (by train! through Canada!) featuring the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and The Band. In Festival Express, angry protesters demand to get into the festival for free because 'music for the people should be free for the people.'

Another similar clash is described in the 1972 book, The Age of Paranoia: How the Sixties Ended. In 1969, the "Up Against the Wall Motherf**kers," a rabble-rousing New York City "gang" of countercultural intellectuals and would-be street people, regularly protested against Bill Graham's Fillmore East for charging money (!) to see and hear 'the people's music.'

In the Yellow Springs scene of Medicine Ball Caravan, Tom Forcade and David Peel stage an anti-Medicine Ball Caravan rally on the Antioch College campus. Forcade, who later founded High Times magazine and the 1972 anti-Yippie "Zippie" movement, and Peel, a proto-punk musician who later famously palled around with John and Yoko, arrive on the Antioch College campus in a car painted with anti-capitalist graffiti like "CULTURE RIP-OFF" and "A HIP CAPITALIST IS A HIP PIG."

One Antioch College student tells the filmmakers, "You wanna know where America's at right now before the depression sets in very soon? Go to Dayton and shoot the hospital workers' strike! Go down to Cincinnati and shoot the chemical workers' strike! Do two minutes of it if you want, but that's more important than all the rock music!"

Another Antioch College student says, "Like, you know, we don't like the idea of somebody coming in here and making a movie about us. And making a lot of money from it. We feel, you know, that the film should be used to help the people."
Soon, a melee erupts. One of the film crew pulls a knife on Tom Forcade. Chaos ensues.

Several Yellow Springs kids are visible in that scene, sitting on the roof of Forcade's grattifi-ed car. They look about 12 year old. One wonders who they are? Do they still live amongst us? Were any of us at the local Van Morrison concert that fine summer day in the summer of 1970?


Unknown said...

Thanks for the nice retrospective.

Les Groby said...

One of those 12-year-olds—the one who blows bubbles at the camera—was Ben Maiden. His family left town a couple of years after that. I don't know where he is now.

Pageantiii said...

I'd like to see this -- however bad it might be -- but it looks like that's not possible short of buying a copy of the DVD? Anybody else interested?

Chris Till said...

I have both the book, and a low quality DVD of the movie. If you'd like, I will loan you the DVD. 767-2326, Chris Till

Uncle Sam said...

I was there ... and that's about all I remember.

Jerry said...

I was there and remember a six foot diameter bowl of jello in front of Kelly Hall that students took turns jumping in.

Les Groby said...

What I remember is that the students refused to jump in the jello, not wanting to participate in the "cultural ripoff", and so it ended up being film crew members and non-student onlookers doing the jello diving.

danc said...

From the NY Times Review:

"The caravan's real problems came not from middle America, which, according to the evidence on the screen, seemed downright chummy, but from the youthful political left, which, despite a certain amount of camouflage, saw Warner Brothers and smelled a rat. Along the way an activist named David Peel attached himself to the caravan with the purpose of exposing it, and at Antioch there occurred a series of misadventures leading to spur-of-the-moment guerrilla theater, a nontheatrical knife attack on Peel and much violent argument over the not so profitable question of who was bought and who had sold; between the movie company and the counter culture, who was ripping off whom.

In a case like this I would normally side against the movie company. The staged documentary is not on the whole an interesting form. But the concluding confrontations very nearly changed my mind, and after 30 seconds of listening to the ravings of an Antioch activist I was almost ready to love Warner Brothers."

"Medicine Ball Caravan - Medicine Ball Caravan' Bows : Free-Wheeling Bus Is Followed Across U.S."
by ROGER GREENSPUN, August 26, 1971

Anonymous said...

What was the actual date of the Yellow Springs concert? I've been trying to pinpoint this for years, and even have assigned the date as Tuesday August 18, 1970. Anyone know for sure?

Chris Till said...

The festival occurred Friday night August 21, 1970. This is according to the lead story, "Rock Festival Filmed at Antioch" in the August 26, 1970 "Yellow Springs News." Other tidbits from that story, written without byline, include: "Daily newspaper reporters attending the event claimed they smelled marijuana around the crowd at the concert;" "At an Antioch community meeting Thursday night protests were made against the filming of the concert and the motion picture makers agreed to lend a camera and film to an Antioch political activist group to film activities at a strike the group is supporting in Cincinnati; and the festival troupe "camped on the field east of the Route 343 entrace to Glen Helen." The photograph accompanying the story, by Jeff Posner, is unfortunately of the band Stoneground instead of the superior performers Van Morrison or Robert Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band.

Louisa (Johnson) Wise said...

I was there & saw the knife pulled--I thought it was a staged thing for the film. Nevertheless, I "freaked out" at the violence & screamed at them. My pic was on the front of the Antiochian after that looking very depressed!