Someone needs to move into Chip Monck’s house for a year and write his life story with him.
Someone needs to do that because this guy—this lighting guy, born in Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1939—has led one of the most exciting lives of anyone you’ll ever meet, and the interview you are about to read is barely the tip of the iceberg that is his memoirs.
Chip is best known as the master of ceremonies at Woodstock, 1969. If you’ve heard the album or watched the documentary of that festival, he’s the guy that warns the 400,000-strong audience to beware of the brown acid. That’s him. He’s that guy. But he’s so much more.
Chip lit Jimi Hendrix at Monterey Pop, The Stones at Altamont Speedway, the Ali/Forman ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ Pope John Paul at Dodgers Stadium, the US premiere of Rocky Horror, the opening and closing ceremonies at the ’84 Olympics, the birth of Christ…The list of productions Chip has had a hand in is insane. He was there when Hendrix set fire to his guitar. Read that sentence three times.
This interview with Chip was at least four times the size of what we have here, but it had to be mercilessly pruned down for space, which I must apologize for, both to you and Chip. Like I said, though, someone needs to move in with this guy and get it all down in a book. He’s had a wild ride.
As a lighting designer, you toured with Bob Dylan in the late 50s and early 60s?
Yes, I did most of the New York, Boston area with him, under the tutelage of Albert Grossman who was his management. I did both sound and light.
And Dylan wrote ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ on your typewriter?
Yes, he did.
How did that come about?
I was working for The Village Gate in the late 50s…
Sorry, what’s The Village Gate?
Oh, dear me…
Sorry, man. I wasn’t around back then.
That’s ok. The Village Gate was on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. It was a nightclub built into the ground floor and basement of The Mills Hotel, which was a flophouse.
Everyone played there: Odetta, Josh White, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, Peggy Lee, Lenny Bruce, Coltrane, Mingus, Brubeck, Miles Davis etcetera.
So, the Village Gate had extra space in the basement that wasn’t being used; it was the old kitchen. I asked the front desk, ‘Can I rent that space next to the Gate?’ They said, ‘Sure, hundred dollars month.’ Dylan was around at that time, and we were talking, and I said, ‘I just live next door; come take a peek.’ And he saw the typewriter and asked if he could use it. I said ‘Sure, but you can’t take it out of here because I need it. Why don’t I give you a set of keys and when I’m working at night?’ So, soundcheck would be at 4 pm–if you were lucky–and then the shows were starting at 7:30 or 8; and he would drift in at 8 and finish by 12. I’d finish up at 1 am, and that was that. I used to take his crumpled up discards out of the wastebasket and iron them and put them in a file folder.
Amazing. Have you still got those?
They were under my barn in Bridgehampton, New York, and, unfortunately, when the property changed hands, they took the barn down. I was on tour somewhere and Barbara, my wife, decided to sell it… so, that was the end of that
Let’s move onto you being arrested by the secret service.
I built a club for Trude Heller. Trude Heller was involved with a club called The Round Table which… oh dear… I think his name was Levy and he owned Roulette Records with Frank Sinatra. Anyway, Levy and Trude and Sinatra and Fat Tony and half the mob hung out at the Round Table on something like 56th Street, I think, and… what was the question…
You got arrested by the secret service.
Oh yeah, so, Trude was a member of that group and was given the Versailles, which was an exquisite restaurant in the 50s in New York; so, she decided she was going to open a Summer entertainment venue, very near Hyannis, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. And so, I was asked to come down and light it. I spent two weeks tidying it up. The opening act was Peter Paul and Mary, and I was mildly ahead of schedule, so I put the tanks and flippers on and went for a swim. Anyway, I came across this peculiar net, and there was Hole in it.
What kind of net?
Well, unbeknownst to me, it was a submarine net, and it was protecting Camelot, the Kennedy Compound. So, I swam through this hole, and I must’ve kicked the net with my flipper because about ten minutes after that there was a zodiac– you know those inflatable boats?
So, one of those shows up with the presidential seal on the bottom and a hand in the water motioning me up, right? And then two snub-nose 38’s are pointed down at me.
Jesus. What did you do?
I surfaced and was taken to the beach and sat in a chair.
Exactly. Then some lady came and asked, ‘Would you like something to drink?’ And I said, ‘I’d love a beer.’ She said, ‘No. You are swimming. You may have a cup of tea.’ So, I had a cup of tea, and I was interrogated. Eventually, when they realized I wasn’t a threat to national security, I said, ‘Why don’t you and Jack and the kids come to opening night and enjoy this new act–they’re called Peter, Paul and Mary…’
Wait, wait, wait. Were you talking to Jackie Onassis?
Anyway, she said, ‘Oh how wonderful!’ So, the kids and Jackie came, all dressed up in wigs and makeup so you couldn’t tell who they were. But Jack (John F. Kennedy) couldn’t come because the secret service wasn’t able to make a sweep fast enough to assure that the venue was safe.
Wow. Next question: you lit the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival where Jimmy Hendrix burned his guitar?
So, you’re the guy that had the spotlight trained on Jimmy Hendrix at that show?
No, I directed six operators and ran the board; the lighting board was maybe 35-40 circuits on stage.
But you saw that happen with your own two eyes.
You’ve worked with the Doors.
What was Jim Morrison like?
Pretty easy to work with. The only time there was a problem was the time he was about to take his clothes off. I walked out on stage and put my arm around him and told him ‘there’s a contingent of police out back waiting to take you to jail if you do this, so I’m going walk you off stage and, if I have to, I’ll drag you.’ He came, and we just sat in the dressing room and had a short and unimportant chat to keep him from doing what he felt like doing.
Please tell the Crosby, Stills and Nash Rolls Royce story.
David (Stills) didn’t think that a Sat Nav—or what was called an A-Z (street atlas) back then—was helpful. So, he would hire a taxi to guide him to where he wanted to go.
And just follow the taxi in his Rolls.
It might’ve been a Bentley, but yeah. If you’ve got that sort of money, you have fun with it, or do whatever’s easiest, or what looks best…
The thing that you’re most famous for is MCing Woodstock. How did that come about? Your company was lighting the gig?
Yes, lighting and half-production management with Chris Langhart. All the lines of the demarcation were discarded because anyone that said they could do this or do that–didn’t. Anyone that promised you something didn’t come through because they’d rather go off behind a bush and get high.
So, the festival was chaotic from the get-go.
Oh, by all means. We’re moving site, and we have ten to 12 days to build. Impossible.
Woodstock was never meant to be in Woodstock, right?
Never in Woodstock.
Originally Wallkill, New York?
Yeah, but it could never happen in Wallkill because the city fathers decided that rapists, gangsters, drug dealers, and hippies were not what they wanted on their site. So, Michael (Lang) and the crew finally found Yasgur’s farm. They went and spoke to Max (Yasgur), and Max made a deal for 65 grand: here’s the land, do with it what you wish, I’ll move my cows, but not the cow shit. And that’s the way it went. Michael tapped me on the shoulder Friday morning and said, ‘We need a little help. We’ve forgotten to hire an MC, so… you’re it. And the first thing we want you to do is to get them (the audience) to move back a bit; they’re too close to the front of the stage.’
So, you jumped on the mic.
Right. And I said, ‘Okay, folks, I’m terribly sorry, but you need to move back, otherwise when the rest of the audience arrive, you will be pushed right up against the front of the stage and you will spend three days with your nose against the plywood. So, pick yourselves up and we’re going to take ten giant steps backwards.’ And everyone started to do what I asked.
How’d that feel?
Well, it could have been a little easier had my knees stopped shaking.
You were really good. I’ve seen the documentary a bunch, and you did a really good job MC’ing that thing; great energy, very calming….
Well, thank you.
You said earlier that everyone walked away from Woodstock with something of value. What did you walk away with?
Right, because right after Woodstock you and Michael Lang (Woodstock producer) got to work on the notorious Altamont Speedway gig, which, for many people, was the end of the 60s.
It ended it. That was it. The end of the Summer of Love and all the rest of that shit.
How clear are your memories of that night?
Oh, very clear. Thank God, the lamps were left in the wooden packing crates underneath the towers. They were worth about six grand apiece. They didn’t get put up because the union refused to come–they saw (the gig) as nothing but a firestorm. The crates got pulled apart for firewood, but they left the lamps sitting in the dirt.
You lost some teeth to a pool cue, is that right?
Yeah. They (the Hells Angels) tried to take the stage rug. They rolled it up and put one end on the top of a pick-up truck and the other end on the tailgate, which was open. And then they put two choppers one on either side of the rug, so as the pickup started to leave the ground, I grabbed a hold of the ass-end of the rug, and as the pickup went forward, the rug came off. But, unfortunately, so did the two choppers.
Oh God no.
So, I paid moderately dearly for that. I managed to hold them at bay and explain that ownership did mean something, and this rug belonged to the production company and I had to return it. So, it was a long negotiation, but I got the rug back.
Insane. And that kid was murdered.
Yeah. Meredith Hunter. It took me two years to get to his mother without having a cup of tea thrown in my face. But I eventually said I’m sorry, on behalf of the people that killed your son.
Yeah. We had two deaths at Woodstock (both accidents). There were two births and two deaths.
Wow. How many people were at Woodstock?
456,000, by my pin count. I worked with a photograph that was about 8 x 8 feet, and I used about 150 boxes of pins. But the people that were underneath the trees couldn’t be counted.
You printed up a photo of Woodstock and counted people with pins?
Yeah, like you put pins in a map.
Most of the things that I do are not the most logical. But, for all intents and purposes, they turn out quite well.
What advice can you give the kids at festivals these days, regarding how to have a good time and ensure it’s a success for everyone?
Just remember that it’s not all about you. It’s also about the guy left and right of you, front and back. Take a moment to think about the fact that you are just as equal as he or she.
That’s good advice.
Just realise you’re only a pinprick on a map.
And avoid the brown acid.