By Johnny Allen as told to Graham Askey
It’s hard to imagine now but in 1970 there were really only two established rock venues in Sydney. The commercial Bondi Lifesaver and the alternative Arts Factory run by Johnny Allen. Every now and again Johnny would close the inner city venue. ‘This weekend Nutwood Rug and Dharma will be playing at Danny Dopell’s farm at Ourimbah. Come and join us and bring all your friends.’ These small, informal, and free events were Australia’s first ‘rock festivals’.
Graeme Dunstan knew all about my ‘mini-Woodstocks’ and he wrote them up in a uni rag as an alternative to the traditional University Arts Festivals. The Australian Union of Students (AUS) must have taken note because we both landed jobs to run their next festival in 1973. The dynamic duo of ‘Superfest’ and ‘Kaptain Kulture’ were ready to change the world.
We were coming from somewhat different places. Graeme had a background of radical student politics while my view was that you’d get more people on side if you celebrate rather than demonstrate – but mostly we saw eye to eye, so we soon put together an Aquarius Festival Manifesto. In a nutshell it was Whole Earth Catalog meets Arts Factory and goes off for a lost weekend up the coast at a healthy lifestyle camping ground to get into some spontaneous cultural intercourse. We thought we’d leave the proportions of the different elements in that recipe entirely up to the tribes of people who chose to participate.
In the latter part 1972 Graeme and I made several forays to the north coast searching for our Yasgur’s Farm to hold the festival. We couldn’t find it. We’d been rebuffed in Main Arm and by the end of November, and running out of time I made one last desperate recce to area. This time Col James, from the Sydney University School of Architecture, joined the hunt. I don’t remember exactly how we lucked on Nimbin but when we pulled into Cullen Street we both said, ‘Eureka, let’s recycle this sleepy village.’
We cobbled together a plan. It had to work because there was no plan B. We sought permission firstly from the Bundjalung elders and then from the township. We received the blessing from Lyle Roberts and backing from the local bluey Bob Marsh and from Show Society president Kevin Soward. The locals didn’t need all that much persuading because at a large town meeting on 13 Februrary 1973 they not only agreed, almost unanimously, to allow the festival but pitched in with plans of their own to contribute to the festival. These included a ‘Back to Nimbin’ reunion for early settlers and a tug of war featuring the World Champion Nimbin team.
With all lights green Graeme and I could now get on with preparing for the festival itself. As the cultural director of the festival without a program I had it easy. ‘You don’t want anybody? Just try and keep us away’. Philippe Petit, Dollar Brand, Blerta, and the Bauls of Bengal made plans to come from overseas. Local bands like Captain Matchbox and the Bushwackers found room on their calendars. Poor Graeme was all on his own with more than a hundred volunteers. He established the old RSL as headquarters, the Rainbow as the workers’ kitchen and published the first Nimbin Good Times. Graham Cathcart set up a co-op where food could be bartered with good vibes.
Then the lights flashed red. We heard that the ‘backroom boys’ were planning to abort the festival with a motion of no confidence in us on the floor of the AUS Annual Conference. We knew we couldn’t beat these future professional pollies at their own game, so we ambushed the debate by strolling into a deliberately darkened conference hall bearing a large cake ablaze with sparklers and invited all the delegates outside for a pre-Aquarian birthday party. They couldn’t resist and the motion failed for lack of a quorum. So on a sunny 12th of May the baby Aquarius was delivered alive and well in Nimbin.
Everything went according to our lack of plan. The architectural students had created amazing domes, tepees and little grass shacks as shelters. From the Kooris, the Hares and Paul Joseph, competing chants crisscrossed the site. There were unisex dunnies, mixed-sex saunas, free sex from Domain debater Webster and sexagenarian early settlers wide-eyed in the streets. We were circled by circuses, performance circles, talking circles, healing circles, magic circles and joints circling. The absence of laundries was filled with nudity – nude mummies, nude daddies, nude birthing, nude babies, and nude swimming. Like Pepperland in the Yellow Submarine movie, the festival was a kaleidoscope of colour. Then on the fourth day the Blue Meanies dropped in uninvited.
Word of smack dealing had been passed onto the police so they swooped on the campsite and arrested five suspects. The mob reacted by surrounding the divi-van. The prisoners were released and an officer’s pistol went missing. Within hours the 21st Division arrived from Sydney. The riot squad made the crowd even more restless and heavy clouds of paranoia threatened our autumn of love. Eventually sanity prevailed, but the incident made me determined to finish the festival on a high note. The Bauls of Bengal had been reaching out across the ocean with a friendly joint but they were held up by Immigration. I flew to Canberra to see our highest-placed contact, Dr H C Coombs. We didn’t know it then but Nugget must have already been primed by a friend. He wasted no time. ‘I know who you are – what do you want?’ The visas were stamped and the Bauls boarded a plane for Brisbane. Still another obstacle awaited them. Bearing a traditional gift of hashish, one of the Bauls was busted at the airport. I had to bring a thousand bucks to bail the blocked Baul from the Bjelkeland boob.
They gave their first concert in Australia on the last night of the festival, under a full moon and to rapturous applause. The love was restored, the Nimbin spirit revived and Pepperland repainted with all the colours of the rainbow. It really was a night for us all to remember. After the festival ended in Nimbin the Aquarius adventure was continued for a while with a nationwide tour by the Bauls, including a thankyou visit to Mt Tambourine to meet the poet Judith Wright.
Since 1973 life has been a neverending festival for Johnny Allen. His day job has been directing, or advising, events across Australia and around the world. These days he is passing on his skills to the next generation of festival makers at the University of Technology in Sydney. From those amateurish beginnings at Ourimbah has grown a significant industry. Four decades on in Australia, you could, if you had the stamina, attend a festival every day of the year and still not see them all. Volunteering at events as a way of belonging has become the norm. Joni Mitchell’s hit song may have been about Woodstock in 1969 but her words turned out to be an accurate prophecy for Aquarius in Nimbin 1973.
• This is the final story in The Echo’s series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival.