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Saturday, November 05, 2005

A book review
The Far Out Story of Vortex I
by Matt Love
(Nestucca Spit Press, Pacific City, Ore. 2004)

Portland, Oregon. Summer o' 1970.

President Nixon was about to speak at the American Legion convention. The FBI told governor Tom McCall he should expect 25,000 Legionnaires and 50,000 anti-war freaks to clash in the Rose City and make Chicago '68 look like a "tea party."

A few hippies proposed a rock festival to give peace a chance. They asked McCall, a Republican battling for re-election, for a place to hold it. He gave them a state park and told the cops to lay off. Did they ever.

"I've just committed political suicide," said McCall after approving the only state-sponsored rock festival in American history's name: Vortex I: A biodegradable Festival of Life.
--from the back cover

For someone interested in Portland history, especially the weirder side of Portland history, this book was a treat. It's hard to imagine something like this happening today. Although we do have a similar situation going on with a war somewhere over there (and the requisite anti-war groups), the combination of elements that made Vortex only could have happened in the late '60s/early 70's. One would be hard pressed to imagine current Gov. Kulongoski acting the way McCall did.

The American Legion had scheduled their annual convention for the weekend of Aug 30, 1970 in Portland, with the theme "Victory in Vietnam". The anti-war movement, in the aftermath of Kent State, decided to hold a protest against the Legionaires, and sent out the call for all heads to come to Portland that weekend. Dubbed "The People's Army Jamboree", local Portland activists and radicals started to organize. The problem, though, was at this point the Movement was starting to lose momentum. It was splitting up into squabbling factions, no doubt helped by undercover agents. Amidst arguments of "who owned the Jamboree" and what a $10,000 donation was actually spent for, a group of hippies came up with an idea: rather than do something negative (protest), they would do something positive: Create a festival that would show by example how the Movement was living.

As summer was waning and the threat of violent confrontation in the streets of Portland was in everyone's mind, the rag-tag group of hippies had audience with Gov. McCall and proposed their idea. McCall saw it as a "release valve"-give the expected thousands of youths who would show up in Portland somewhere to go away from the Legionaire's convention--somewhere FAR away. It was politically unorthodox, then as it is now, to do something like that, especially from a Republican! But the fear of a similar Chicago '68/Kent State scenario in PDX was too big, and McCall made the politically risky decision.

And the event went off. An estimated 50,000 showed up in McIver State Park outside of Estacada in Clackamas County--25 miles southeast of Portland, an appropriately safe distance. The park was surrounded by National Guard, Clackamas County sheriff's Dept, and the Oregon State Police, which were given strict orders: look but don't touch. Or, don't enter the park, let the freaks do all their drugs and run around naked. Yes, I'm serious! Could you imagine that now? Or counter that with Woodstock '69, when the festival organizers had to plead with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to not send the Guard into bust heads!

The event did the trick--the numbers for the People's Army Jamboree were only a couple thousand, the Jamboree itself limited to two marches. No violence in the streets. Vortex also had the bonus effect of canceling other rock festivals--the promoters of those events realized they couldn't compete with a free festival. And on top of it all, Nixon never showed for the Legionaire's convention.

It's an event unparalleled in American history, then why is it such a footnote? Why do so few people know about it? Author Love throws out various theories, but the most significant reason for Vortex hovering on the rim of the Great Dustbin Of History was The Music. Or lack thereof. Sure, there were bands, but no name bands. After the experience of Altamont, most major acts of the day did not want to participate in another festival (unless they were going to get paid a lot--the corporate rock 70's had just begun!) Pretty much all of the music was provided by local bands. Many hippies expecting the likes of the Dead or Santana left when they found that out. The only time the music was mentioned in the book, it was mentioned negatively--the poor quality of the sound system, and the mediocrity of the bands. The sound engineer promptly dumped the soundboard tapes after the festival--there would be no double live album to perpetuate the legend.

Also significant in Vortex's anonymity is how it relates to the legacy of McCall. He's remembered for things like the Bottle Bill and telling Californians to not move here, not for the festival. 1970 was his re-election year, and something like Vortex, especially if it went down bad, could have cost him. If he had lost, Vortex would be remembered as the thing that caused his downfall. But he won, and Vortex is mostly known to the Estacada residents and hippies that witnessed the spectacle, and Northwestern history geeks like myself.

The biggest losers of all this were the organizers of the People's Army Jamboree. Initially they expected the hordes to descend Portland and protest The War, The President, and The Legion. Instead they got only the most dedicated radicals, the ones who eschewed the bacchanalian debauchery at McIver for protesting downtown. Basically, the people who would have shown up no matter what. It exposed most of the Hippie Generation for what it was--not a group dedicated to changing the world as much as getting their kicks. It was a prelude for the unabashed hedonism of the Me Decade. The People's Army Jamboree is now probably remembered less than the guy who had a balloon on the end of his naked penis at Vortex. Jamboree organizer Weiskopf cynically comments in the book, "Maybe that's why the Vietnam War lasted for over a decade."

As for the writing itself, Author Love presents the information in an unusual way. Rather than a conventional third-person narrative, Love constructs more of a "written documentary": snippets of conversations and interviews, news clippings, press releases, several extensive passages from the on-site doctor's journal, police reports, Gov. McCall's speech, and plain ol' lists. Love's own voice is noticeably absent through much of the text, interjecting here and there to tie the threads together, or to add commentary. He lets the participants speak for themselves. In several spots he presents two divergent accounts of the same event (Were babies born at the Festival? Was the State Police actually giving out drugs to the crowd, culled from their evidence lockers?) with no conclusive evidence to which viewpoint is right; highlighting the very tenuous nature of History Itself. It feels less like a "History Book", more like the research for a History Book, much like the research I do for the Urban Adventure League--poring over reports at the Oregon Historical Society, scanning microfilm at the library. etc. Weeding through the overload of information to get what you need. Some people may not like this approach, but I do. Some of the bits of information in the book can easily be skipped (especially the endspiece, appropriately titled "For the Vortex I Junkies"), but most of it is worthwhile.

Any complaints? A couple minor ones. Some of the remarks the author interspersed in the text (especially the footnotes) can be a bit cloying. And although photo credits are included in the back as to who shot what, there is no explanation as to what the photos are. Obviously the majority of them are shot at Vortex (and knowing exactly where that naked guy was in the festival is beside the point), but what about the ones outside of it? Where exactly are those protestors depicted on page 196? But these are minor complaints. I heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in radical history, the Hippie Era, or Portland history.


  1. Wow! I was there at Vortex I. Now I'm 63 and living in Eastern Ontario (the Ontario in Canada, not the one in Eastern Oregon).
    Lotsa freaks and wannabe freaks at the festival. And, it was a real stroke of political genius on Tom McCall's part. It diffused the demonstrations in Portland and the Legionaire's convention went off without much of a hicup.
    - Grampacanuck

  2. I was also there! I'm 56 now. 4 of us hitchhiked from the SF Bay Area. Didn't know it was a State-sponsored thing, held to avoid confrontation in Portland proper. Lots of weed, halucinogens, nudity and feeding each other. It was the real thing with local music acts instead of big names who tended to avoid these kinds of things after Altamont. Long live the 60s!


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