Vortex I: A Strange Oregon Trip

Vortex Music Magazine

Matt Love, the resident historian of our namesake festival, looks back in time to the only state-sponsored rock festival in American history and offers new, never-before-published anecdotes and insights into the Biodegradable Festival of Life that drew some 100,000 hippies to McIver Park in August 1970 and away from a scheduled address from President Richard Nixon in Portland.

“So that what you have in effect is a Charlie Manson-Jerry Rubin-Angela Davis-Johnathan Jackson-Bernardine Dohrn-Huey Newton-Timothy Leary-Rolling Stones-monster heading directly for downtown Portland where the American Legion is planning this year’s Victory in Vietnam Parade.”


Some freak wrote that in a San Francisco underground newspaper. It was 1970, a few months after the May shootings at Kent State University and later that August President Richard Nixon was scheduled to address the annual gathering of the American Legion in Portland. The FBI told Oregon Governor Tom McCall he should expect 25,000 Legionnaires and 50,000 anti-war protesters connected to the People’s Army Jamboree to clash in the streets. The ensuing mayhem would make the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago “look like a tea party,” said the FBI.

Click to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Lee MeierClick to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Lee MeierTo keep peace in the Rose City, McCall and a group of hippies collaborated to stage the only state-sponsored rock festival in American history. Four young activists approached McCall’s staff with the unprecedented idea of holding a music festival to help draw potential protesters away from the city. They asked McCall for a state park. He gave them one. They asked him to waive the park’s prohibition of camping and to keep the cops out. McCall complied.

The free festival, Vortex I: A Biodegradable Festival of Life, was held the last weekend in August of 1970, and for the 100,000 people who attended this event held at McIver Park outside of Estacada, it was a short, strange Oregon trip indeed.

HOW STRANGE?

Click to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Lee MeierClick to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Lee Meier▶ McCall, a Republican, was facing a tough a re-election vote later that fall. When he approved the festival, he said, “I’ve just committed political suicide.” He won a second term by a landslide and became an Oregon legend for his visionary leadership.

▶ The Portland Red Cross as well as state and local law enforcement agencies gave away illegal drugs inside McIver Park to keep people there. McIver Park was chosen because “there was one way in and one way out,” according to Ed Westerdahl, McCall’s chief of staff. If festival-goers became unruly, they could be “corralled” there.

▶ One tall black man wore nothing but a red balloon around his penis. He was a hot dog vendor.

▶ Not one nationally prominent musical act performed at Vortex I, although organizers spread rumors that big-name bands like Santana and Strawberry Alarm Clock would show up, thereby enticing people to remain in the park.

▶ A couple of bands from San Francisco—including a three-piece jazz rock trio called Fox—trekked north to play, but Portland-area bands dominated the lineup. Some of the acts that performed included Jacob’s Ladder, Portland Zoo, the Firemen, Brown Sugar and Wings of Freedom. One 17-yearold musician from Los Angeles had an indelible experience at Vortex I:

I performed on Saturday night just as it was getting dark and under the name David James because I was a runaway and there was a warrant out for my arrest in California. My real name is David Glasband.

I remember just before I went on standing on the stage with the emcee and his asking the crowd to prepare to light either a match or a lighter on his countdown. All I could see was the first hundred rows of people as the light reflected off the stage into the crowd. When he counted down, “3, 2, 1—light ‘em,” it looked like the sea of Troy.

I was beyond stage fright because someone spiked a one-quart bottle of Red Mountain wine with three tabs of Orange Sunshine LSD, and I asked him (without knowing what he’d put inside) for a swig due to my nervousness about 30 minutes before I went on. I came on to the acid right while I was on stage with the emcee.

Click to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Gerry LewinClick to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Gerry Lewin▶ The doctor supervising Vortex I’s medical center, Dr. Cameron Bangs, set a world record for treating sunburned penises and LSD overdoses in a single time period, all while keeping a 25,000-word diary of his experiences. It is perhaps the greatest in-the-moment observation of the counterculture era that exists in American history.

▶ No one person died at Vortex I.

▶ Not one permit was issued to stage the festival, nor did the state take out any liability insurance.

▶ Oregon State Parks’ employees and the festival’s hippie administrators worked in perfect concord despite, or because, the latter was under the influence of peyote.

▶ The Oregon Air National Guard was instructed to drop rose petals on potential rioters in Portland or at McIver Park as a signal to disperse or tear gas would follow.

▶ The traffic jam heading out to McIver Park was an estimated 22 miles long—the longest in Oregon history.

▶ Someone brought a pet cougar on a leash. Someone else’s pet anaconda got loose in the park.

▶ To feed the thousands of festival-goers, volunteers prepared a vegetarian mush that was cooked in large pots heated by a boiler from a salvaged battleship.

▶ The state’s most powerful corporate executive of that era, the Cascade Corporation’s Robert Warren, drove a pickup truck full of licorice out to the park.

▶ Several Oregon National guardsmen stationed around the park stripped off their uniforms and swam across the Clackamas River to join the party.

▶ Undercover agents snapped hundreds of festival photographs, mostly of nude women.

Click to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Lee MeierClick to see a full photo gallery of scenes from Vortex I at McIver Park in August 1970: Photo by Lee Meier▶ Vortex I’s famous cast of characters, in the flesh and at the edges of the story, include: Spiro Agnew, the Rainbow Family, Matt Groening, John Kerry, Donald Rumsfeld, a mysterious potato chip heiress, a secret FBI informant, and perhaps even Hunter S. Thompson.

▶ At the festival’s end, McCall visited the park, hugged some hippies, and then joined them holding hands in a circle. They chanted “oms” for a few minutes and then recited the Lord’s Prayer and a few lines from William Blake.

And the stories, the thousands of far-out stories that unfolded that weekend are simply some of the more far-out ones that the 1960s and ‘70s produced. For example, here’s what happened to John Briggs:

I was working for a company called Kady Decorating. We designed parade floats. The American Legion Convention hired us to make one for the parade. It was covered in flags and banners and was extremely patriotic. The company was closing down after this last project, so I was one of the only ones left of the crew to drive the dock tractor that the float was built on.

I came into town after being at Vortex for four days. I had intended to only go for an afternoon with some friends to check it out, but because I had this truck with a boom and welding equipment, I got enlisted to help build the stage. While working, I tried mescaline and acid for the first time.

I did this one last job for Kady Decorating. I was stoned out of my mind on LSD, among other things, as I got into the float. The last thing I was told was that they had added a trap door in case a bomb was thrown in by the hippies during the parade. As I was driving up Broadway, I passed the main grandstands where all these officers covered with medals and gold braids saluted me as I passed. It was quite the high. After driving the float, I went back to Vortex. I have never left.

There never was a Vortex II. How could there be?

Watch OPB's documentary on the gathering below, plus find more documentary footage here.

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