Arcosanti '78: Music Under Fire
It's a 2-mile stretch between the off ramp on Interstate 17 North and the man-made/Earth-inspired desert project at Arcosanti. The car ride in is almost mischievously bumpy, challenging modern technology to consider the natural environment and its human coexistence. The rugged divide gives way to a communal living campus that devotes its endurance to ecology and architecture. It feels like a different world, by being in tune with the real world and the future world all at once.
Arcosanti is Italian architect Paolo Soleri's vision of environmental design with a population dedicated to the pursuit of education, innovative sustainability, and the arts (a self-proclaimed "urban laboratory.") The high desert experimental town about 50 miles southeast of Prescott has been under continuing construction since 1970 under the vision of Soleri, 92, one of the most distinguished architects of the 20th century (and counting).
The community that started with "one light bulb, a generator, no telephones," according to current Cosanti Foundation President Jeff Stein, who has served on staff since the '70s, expanded its arts by the end of the decade to annual weekend concert festivals which drew some of the biggest names in rock. Jackson Browne headlined the first two festivals, in 1976 and '77, followed by Stephen Stills, Todd Rundgren and Richie Havens in what would become the festival series' biggest, most implausible and last major weekend, 33 years ago this month in October of '78.
"(The festival) would bring together a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn't meet each other or be talking to each other," remembered Stein, who said promoters could rarely pay performers anything outside of travel expenses, and the events themselves were supported by ticket sales, corporate grants and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. "And so the Arcosanti festivals brought together thinkers and doers, philosophers, artists, performing artists ... and the '78 festival really did that."
Among those drawn was a young photographer named Mitchell Weinstock, living in Tempe at the time, who found himself helping a friend as technical lighting consultant for the '78 festival.
"I had vague notions that this guy was doing great things with underground cities and architecture and the arts community," Weinstock said of Soleri. "But, you know, I was pretty young then. I must've been 23 or something like that. It was just more like, 'Hey, there's a concert going on, and maybe there'll be a bunch of naked girls, who knows?' "
A music lover, Tim Van Schmidt had moved to Tucson to be close to his future wife after graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He'd spotted a poster for the '78 Arcosanti festival, added up the musicians he wanted to check out, and the couple headed north.
"I have a particular passion for live music," said Van Schmidt, who lives today in Fort Collins, Colo., and maintains a blog about all of his live concert experiences (kingkoncert.com) ever since his first, a Ten Years After show in Phoenix in the summer of 1970. "It's not just about the music in the concert setting; it's about the personalities of the performers and the audience, the conditions of the event and the possibility that just about anything could happen."
The '78 gathering also had a flair for the visual at Arcosanti, including work by pioneering laser artists like Rockne Krebs from the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, whose pieces had appeared at the Kennedy Space Center. Along with Chris Robinson from the University of South Carolina, Krebs set up a 9-watt green display of mirrors (whose entire contents had to be run through a pool to keep its temperature down) that bounced the laser around to visually enclose a geometric space before finally being set free to shine over I-17 to the west and die into a peak in the Bradshaw Mountains.
The festivals to that point were generally held in October. The desert weather was cooler by then, and monsoon rains had usually gone through. The beginnings of school years also timed well, and even the ASU School of Music integrated the event into its own calendar for music students, as they did for the '78 shows.
The festivals always drew on topical themes and included on-site workshops over the weekend in addition to the live music, and they grew incrementally. The 1976 weekend drew 5,000 people. Another few thousand returned in '77. But 1978 was different altogether. By Saturday, the audience numbered 15,000.
"It was very positive, very happy. The weather was perfect," Bruce Joseph, who served as the festival's director, recalled this past week. "People were coming from all over, and sort of really enjoying the spot. It's a wonderful place of Arizona, United States, on the face of the planet. This particular spot where we are is, well, really beautiful.
"In '78 it was a place where not many people had ever been, and to open it up to a large audience like that was pretty extraordinary for the audience itself, and so it felt really good in fact."
The two-day festival featured 25 performers, starting with Sea Cloud, a jazz-rock band from Phoenix, which opened the show Saturday. The bill included jazz combos, guitar instrumentalists, theater troupes and folk singers. Headliners closed out both days, with Stephen Stills & Friends playing Saturday night's finale prior to the laser light show, and with Todd Rundgren closing Sunday night.
Arcosanti, which was then and continues to be a nonprofit, had to appeal to artists willing to trek out to an experimental town for a show in the remote Arizona desert for virtually no pay.
"It was always a challenge to try and interest the artists directly as much as possible about the project and what Soleri was doing," Joseph said. "In some cases, the initial time that I contacted them, it could have been a couple years till they actually were able to do an event."
Folk hero Richie Havens played Saturday, and singer Tom Rush, at the forefront of the early '70s singer/songwriters, played just before Rundgren's set with his band Utopia on Sunday.
"It was a great vibe," Weinstock said. "It was like a mini-Woodstock, to tell you the truth. It was a lot of fun. It was very well-managed."
Unlike the previous year, which included three concertgoers arrested on gun-related charges during Jackson Browne's set, the '78 crowd embodied the spirit of the mellow environment.
"I think that the sheriff's department at the time had a big presence where everyone knew you're not going to do anything and get away with it," Weinstock said. "But on the other hand, nobody really wanted to get away with anything. I never felt uncomfortable around the crowds. Nobody was really creepy. Everybody was nice to each other. And they were good to the performers."
The well-known pop musicians shared the bill with some of the finest jazz players in the world.
"Pat Metheny had left the Gary Burton group and had been replaced by a trumpet player," Van Schmidt remembered. "Richie Havens was as expected - a ball of energy, whereas I remember Stephen Stills taking the time to put his glasses on to read some new song lyrics he wanted to share during his solo set. But the music really connected for me, particularly with dramatic jazz pianist Sam Rivers on the main stage."
Influential acoustic guitar marvel Ralph Towner was playing a solo set on the main stage's natural amphitheater on Saturday afternoon. The stage was far from the overflow parking on some of Arcosanti's 860 acres which primarily, by design, designates only six or seven acres to the campus itself and leaves the rest of the landscape to the undisturbed natural elements.
Those in the parking lot had a different view.
Stein: "The cars were going off like bombs."
Joseph: "It's 30-some years ago, but I can see it like it was yesterday."
Lost to history is any official record of the fire on Oct. 7, 1978. Neither the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, Mayer Fire Department, the Central Yavapai Fire District or the State Fire Marshal's Office has anything on it. According to newspaper reports at the time, volunteer fire departments from Mayer and Black Canyon City responded.
Witnesses say that one car went up in flames in a sudden explosion. Then another. Then many, many more. An early estimate at the time put the number at 126 cars; a later estimate ballooned to as many as 180 cars. Stein more recently said it was 55.
The general consensus was that one car went up first and spread, and that, possibly, that car's catalytic converter had overheated in the sun and exploded.
"I was with the Phoenix Fire Department at that time, and I do remember some of the details of the fire and what had happened," said Bob Barger, Arizona State Fire Marshal and a Phoenix native. "If I remember correctly, the main cause was the grass and the brush where they parked was not cut down and it was actually the advent of the catalytic converters and how hot those things get. And if I believe correctly, it was a catalytic converter on a car that parked on top of the grass that started that fire."
Eyewitnesses confirm the account.
"There was a brush fire that started from a car that had a hot catalytic converter parked in the area," Weinstock remembered. "It caught on fire, and when the gas tank exploded it did the same thing to all the cars. ... It went right down the line, and people were trying to figure out how they could save their cars."
The overflow parking lot had bumper-high weeds, adding to the fire fuel, not to mention the cars' fuel. Plastic gas lines ignited and blew up. All down the line, one after another.
"I would order lots of equipment - request mutual aid," prescribed Mayer Battalion Chief Mike McGhee, cogitating this past week on procedures the conditions might have posed the crews that afternoon. McGhee is the longest current tenured on staff at Mayer Fire, at 13 years. "It looks like it was a big fire. Looks like it probably took two days to get it taken care of."
Meanwhile, Joseph, the festival director, had the inevitable task of halting the show and keeping calm.
"I could see the smoke coming up and unfortunately I had to interrupt (Towner's) performance. And this is a guy who, I love his music to this day, I hated to interrupt. But I said, 'Hey, I'm sure you can see the smoke. There's a fire. We're dealing with it. Please stay seated, and the music will continue,'" Joseph said. "And then I asked some of the musicians to just keep the music going to try to keep people focused on the stage."
Deputies and firefighters reportedly had to hold back crowds of festivalgoers who were scrambling to see if their cars were OK. Flames engulfed dozens of cars, leading to exploding tires and radiators and, according to one report, to some cars that contained ammunition.
"When we heard the announcement from the stage that there was a fire in the parking lot, of course, the first urge was to go check it out," Van Schmidt said. "But promoters were encouraging patrons to stay in their seats, so there was this kind of tension going on between wondering what the hell was happening out in the parking lot and what was happening on stage."
Amazingly, no one had been hurt seriously. According to a Prescott Courier news story at the time, the only reported injury was to a fireman who was slightly burned while battling the blaze. Crews extinguished the fire by 7 o'clock that night, but some areas were still too hot for rescue personnel to search for anyone who might have been in a burning car during the blaze. Soleri summed it up that night by calling the whole scene "very unfortunate."
Festivalgoers, promoters and even the artists weren't too sure about Sunday's status by the time everyone went to bed Saturday night. Those with destroyed cars couldn't leave even if they wanted to, and almost everyone had stored camping gear in what were now charred cars.
"Fortunately, our little Chevy Nova was in one of the unburned parking lots, but right on the edge of one that did burn," Van Schmidt said. "It was a spooky, smoky place that night when we climbed into the car to try to get some sleep."
The little festival that once upon a time took years to get artists to commit to was now the biggest news story in the state, and even the Southwest, when the sun rose Sunday. Helicopters were taking pictures from above.
"(The experience of the fire) didn't make its way into the performances themselves, but it was like a singularity. Nobody had ever done a concert before that that had ever happened at," Stein said laughing. "And so after the events were done for the day, there was a lot of talk. It was sort of a wild thing."
Sunday presented weighty conditions for promoters to consider. The cleanup was under way, musicians were still scheduled, and faithful fans were weary. "You know," Weinstock said, "they lost their cars, they had no way to get home, they were covered in muck and (were having) smoke inhalation problems."
But they were staying. And so was the show.
"I said, 'Absolutely, everything is going forward.' And it did," Joseph said. "But it was quite a spectacle. The irony wasn't lost on many people that here's this (Arcosanti) project that is intended to not have cars and so forth, and then there was a fire where all these cars ended up getting incinerated."
The show went on that weekend, but not beyond.
From an attendance standpoint, the '78 show was the biggest Arcosanti would ever host, as promoters purposefully downsized future event planning. "We had an unfortunate experience last year with the fire and we're not prepared to have a full-scale festival this year," Colly Soleri, Paolo's wife, said in September 1979. Gatherings continued in 1980 and '81, as the weekends' topical themes turned less toward music and more toward educational and even theological issues dealing with city building and life on Earth. The annual big arts events came to an end by the mid-1980s.
"It became clear to us," Stein said, before letting out a chuckle, "we figured this out, that we weren't going to be making money on these things. And the amount of energy and effort it took to bring all these people together at this spot was significant, and it took our attention off the major work here, which is construction, and so we scaled back."
A series of comparatively smaller but equally dedicated music events continue annually at Arcosanti these days. This past week, nine electronic musicians from around the world ensconced for the entire week in the campus's East Crescent Theater, where they composed together. Their results went on display with an extraordinary concert on an autumnal Saturday night in the desert. It's an annual event that the musicians call "different skies," because they come from diverse university campuses and the likes of Norway and Great Britain or Los Angeles and are bewitched by Arcosanti's outdoor environment.
It's an environment that neither music nor a fire could upstage.
"While the concert itself had been plenty entertaining and the parking lot fire had been exciting indeed, I didn't get a sense of Arcosanti as a place until the day after the fire," Van Schmidt said. "We had camped out in the parking lot - just a few hundred feet from the burned-out heaps of cars - and took advantage of a tour of various Arcosanti facilities in the morning. The architectural ideas were presented along with a friendly kind of communal vibe that explained why top-shelf musicians would converge on the desert to help out. It was very cool and left an indelible impression as a truly alternative place."
The concert promoters helped arrange rides for the stranded festival-goers by Sunday's end, and Arcosanti's insurance worked for months to recover the losses of cars for the owners.
"I had some nightmares over it I think for quite a while," Joseph laughed. "When I first came to Los Angeles to work in the music business back then, I remember going around with my portfolio and clippings and things for job interviews, and people would say, 'Oh, well, what you have you done?,' and I would say Arcosanti festival and other things I had done. Right away people would say, 'Oh yeah! Was that the place with the fire?' I had to try to explain, 'yes we had the fire, but....'"