Music News & Reviews

Film looks back at 1974 Sedalia rock festival, a party of hot music that was a hot mess

Missouri State Fair kicks off in Sedalia

"Let's Talk Livestock," which turns the microphone over to youth exhibitors, is one thing that excites Fair director Mark Wolfe this year. The Missouri State Fair begins August 13 and runs through August 23, 2015, in Sedalia.
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"Let's Talk Livestock," which turns the microphone over to youth exhibitors, is one thing that excites Fair director Mark Wolfe this year. The Missouri State Fair begins August 13 and runs through August 23, 2015, in Sedalia.

Think Missouri State Fair — easy enough, it’s here in less than a month.

Now picture naked hippie chicks showering at the livestock washing stations while singing “California Dreamin’” —that’s harder, right?

Jeff Lujin may soon be able to help with that. In a cluttered Independence basement, he’s busy editing a documentary film about something that took place on those fairgrounds 41 years ago.

There’s no mention in all his footage of a blue ribbon watermelon, the latest kitchen miracle device, a draft horse, cattle — wait — there is a steer.

It was stolen from a farmer’s pasture, killed, butchered and cooked by a bunch of rock music fans who resorted to rustling when the town ran out of food.

The Ozark Music Festival of 1974 was three days of drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll in a land of jam judging, tractor pulls and 4-H lambs. The Woodstock generation throwing a final blowout in a small Missouri town.

“It was the last of the uncontrolled rock festivals — and something Sedalia didn’t want to talk about for years,” Lujin said.

Town officials were told by Kansas City promoters that the event might draw 50,000. They talked up bluegrass music, crafts and a Sunday morning worship service.

Instead, a crowd estimated at 150,000 to a quarter million people from all over the country flooded into a town of 23,000. Most of them stormed the gates. The main craft turned out to be joint rolling. Hundreds overdosed on harder drugs, and one person died. Business owners boarded up stores. The governor mobilized the National Guard.

Aerosmith, Bob Seger, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ted Nugent and REO Speedwagon stirred up a storm that Sedalia and the state of Missouri could hardly ride out.

Stories say the lead singer of a band from Hungary defected.

One promoter had a heart attack the first day. Another, Chris Fritz, had to sneak out of town when it was over, and the ground was so nasty that state officials ordered the topsoil removed.

“The Ozark Music Festival can only be described as a disaster,” a state Senate report concluded. “The scene made the degradation of Sodom and Gomorrah appear mild. Natural and unnatural sex acts became a spectator sport.”

Lujin grew up in Sedalia and was much too young to attend the 1974 festival. But seven years ago, a friend sent him a report prepared by undercover Highway Patrol officers. The report talks at length of long-hairs, widespread drug use and bare breasts.

Sold. Never mind that Lujin’s filmmaking experience to that point amounted to one college class and repeated viewings of “Citizen Kane.” He works at a gift shop on the Independence square, but he always wanted to make a movie.

Now he finds himself the arbiter of maybe the biggest thing that ever hit his hometown.

Was the Ozark Music Festival a disaster? Or was it simply the end-of-an-era party for a generation losing its lease — a gathering to clear the cupboard of the last of the excess?

“It was something different to everybody I talked to,” said Lujin, 44, who will discuss the project at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kansas City Central Library. “In the crowd, on stage, the police, people at home in Sedalia — it’s like they’re not talking about the same thing.”

Jim Mathewson, a Sedalia resident who served in both the Missouri House and Senate, appears in the film and has seen an early cut. He called it amazing and necessary. The town, he said, has never come to terms on a lasting legacy for the event.

Mathewson was there. He took a ride onto the grounds with the county sheriff. People jumped on the hood of the car.

“I went home and got the wife and kids out of town and loaded every gun I had in the house,” Mathewson said. “I didn’t know that they might try to take over the town, and they could have.

“Now, all these years later, I know that 90 percent of those kids just came for the music.”

No matter how “Sodom and Gomorrah in Sedalia: The 1974 Ozark Music Festival” turns out, Maxine Griggs probably won’t like it. Now almost 90, she stormed out of a recent early screening in Sedalia — and let Lujin know it.

Her family has long roots as concession operators at the fair, and when she learned about the festival coming to town, she pictured couples strolling to pretty music. She got a new ice cream machine.

“While I was setting up, I saw a woman coming down the street and she was naked,” Griggs said last week in her Sedalia home. “We had to close up because there were so many people. They were all doing drugs, and before it was over they used my ice cream booth for a toilet.”

Her daughter, Judy Bell, shares her mother’s disgust.

“I never saw so many naked people,” Bell said through teeth still clenched after 41 years.

In 1974, the 1960s were winding down in Missouri.

Late, yes, but things didn’t really get started until maybe 1967, so we got to go over, sort of like stoppage time in soccer.

The rest of the country had already seen Woodstock, Altamont and Watkins Glen.

“The term ‘rock concert’ is poison here,” Leigh Kimball, the Sedalia event’s media director, told a Star reporter before the event. “This is not going to be Woodstock or Watkins Glen.”

He called it a “youth fair” and said it wouldn’t be much different from the state fair.

Chris Goss figured differently. He was 15, he lived on the fairgrounds because his dad was a groundskeeper and he had seen an ad promoting the event in Rolling Stone.

Aerosmith, the Eagles, Blue Oyster Cult, Lynyrd Skynyrd. Bob Seger, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Joe Walsh, America, Charlie Daniels Band, REO, Ted Nugent, Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Tickets were $15 in advance or $20 at the gate for the three-day concert, hosted by Wolfman Jack.

“I was just a kid, but I knew something was coming to town that people here had never seen before,” Goss said last week.

He worked at a restaurant across from the fairgrounds, and he saw cars, hippie vans and motorcycles start to pull into town two days before the gates opened. The crowd couldn’t get in and raised hell. Police arrested three on drug charges.

“The officer said angry youths threw stones and damaged five patrol cars,” The Star reported on July 17.

Over the next 24 hours, traffic clogged U.S. 50 and U.S. 65 for miles in all directions. People abandoned vehicles and walked. Concertgoers set up camp in people’s yards and used garden hoses for drinks and showers. A farmer complained of hippies picking his field corn.

“And there were reports they roasted some of his pigs,” Pettis County Sheriff Emmett Fairfax told a Star reporter.

Goss and his friends saw it all from their bikes.

“People were smoking marijuana everywhere, and after a while we didn’t even pay attention to a woman without her top on — that’s how crazy it was,” Goss said.

All three days topped 100 degrees. A building across from the grandstand was turned into an emergency clinic.

Some reports had a local band kicking off the music on Friday, July 19, followed by Bob Seger. The evening also brought an impromptu jam session outside the sheep barn.

The crowd went over 100,000. Kansas City police sent over an armored personnel carrier.

The undercover Highway Patrol officers wrote in their report: “As dusk turned to night, the crowd grew larger and more emotional as the music got into full swing and the drugs became more effective.

“On Saturday at approximately 7:45 a.m., a male subject entered our camp site and offered us each a ‘toke’ (to smoke) from his electric marijuana pipe. We declined.”

A man died from an overdose that day. Sedalia Police Chief William Miller publicly chastised promoters for their talk of bluegrass and church services. Businesses closed, and water pressure dropped to a drip.

By then, promoter Bob Shaw had suffered a heart attack and left town. Fritz laid low as the town’s outrage rose with the temperature.

The Star, July 20: An electrician who came out the main gate said: “I don’t know why all these people would come here. Beats the hell out of me. Unless they just like to look at naked girls taking showers. But I’m too old for that.”

Through the madness, however, was the music.

“That part was amazing,” Joe Maceda, the event’s production manager, said last week from England. “It was a great show.”

A highlight: Glenn Frey of the Eagles dedicating “Already Gone” to Richard Nixon, who would resign the presidency three weeks later.

Danny Gooch from Norborne, Mo., heard it was a heck of a show, but he and his friends missed it because they couldn’t get anywhere near the stage.

“So many people you couldn’t walk,” he said. “We could hear it, but mostly we just drank beer and watched ’em skinny-dip in the lagoon.”

Promoters paid the bands a total of $190,000.

“Today that lineup would cost $25 million,” Fritz said.

He owns up to everything that went wrong. Organizers didn’t pay enough attention to food, water, trash and camping. Security was mostly kids with T-shirts and whistles.

“We lost control about 8 o’clock Friday morning — before it even started,” Fritz remembered. “And we couldn’t get it back. It was too hot and there were too many people.”

Maceda sensed trouble early.

“I knew chaos had descended when they started cooking cows and setting the toilets on fire,” he said. “All that Saturday I’m on the phone with a National Guard colonel and he wants to come in and I’m fighting him off because all I can think of is Kent State.”

The next day, as the event was winding to a merciful close, organizers brought in some factory workers to protect the stage and equipment. One offered Maceda a gun.

“No matter what goes wrong these days,” Maceda said, “I can always say, ‘Well, at least this isn’t Sedalia. Nobody’s trying to give me a gun and the toilets aren’t on fire.’”

When it was finally over, Fritz fled. Someone had told him, “There’s a lynch mob and you’d better get out of town.”

He says he was banned from the fairgrounds for years.

The following weeks brought grand jury probes, hearings, indictments and lawsuits. The state changed its rules about use of the fairgrounds. And promoters settled up, including paying a farmer for two head of cattle, a half dozen feeder pigs and 15 acres of corn.

“Hey, want to see a clip?” Lujin said one day last week in his basement.

Charles Love and Harry Williams of a black Kansas City R&B group called Bloodstone appeared on his computer screen.

“They thought we were a white group from England,” said a chuckling Williams.

“We were pelted,” Love added. “Everyone was stoned and half of them didn’t have clothes on.”

Lujin would have met with them again if Love were still around, but he has since died. That’s just one setback for this project.

He wanted the film done in time for the 40th anniversary. Now he’s hoping for 2016.

The biggest problem was that the original film of the festival could not be found. He ran out of money, sold a farm, got divorced, ran out of money again. Some people still don’t want to talk about the concert. Six people he’s interviewed have died. Every piece of music has to be cleared for copyright.

But now a lot of the old film he’s scavenged is in New York being transformed to HD quality. Maceda is involved and says Lujin has done an amazing job in finding people.

Such as “the hook man,” an outlaw biker with a prosthetic arm who was accused of roughing up a hippie during the concert.

“When he fell,” the man explained to Lujin, “my hook got caught in his nose and ripped it some.”

Lujin has talked to Jeff Hanna and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He’s talked to Joe Walsh. He’s still working on others.

Some might not remember being there. It was a long time ago and the area has all been changed. Last week, workers were sprucing up the grounds for another state fair.

There can’t be another Ozark Music Festival, not like that one anyway.

The times, they have changed.