The Peace, Love and Understanding Festival was the brainchild of early ‘70s concert promoter D.J. Hugh. (Many incorrectly thought he sported a nickname derived from an unremarkable stint as a radio disk jockey in Los Angeles in the early ‘60s. In fact, Hugh was born Dalibor Jiří Hubálek in Moravia in 1938; the family emigrated to the United States following the Second World War, and an indifferent immigration official lazily selected what he thought was a more concise surname for them. Once enrolled in New York public school, Dalibor found it far more expedient to simply use his initials, which stuck.)
In 1966, Hugh was managing a dry cleaning store in Union City, California. Although he was slightly older, he fell in with the young crowds flocking to the San Francisco scene and developed a passion for the new musical sounds that were being generated. Soon, he was moonlighting as a stage tech at various concerts and outdoor music festivals. (He was not actually on the staff at any of the events, but his enthusiastic efforts to tape down microphone cables and to haul speakers were appreciated.) By 1968, he had ditched the square gig and was pursuing his passion, finding and promoting new musical talent and putting on shows featuring the acts. By mid-1970, he was third on the list of go-to guys in the Bay Area for both hungry bands and established artists looking to promote their music through live performances. (Hugh’s short-lived record company, Brno Records, only had one hit single—Madison Glider’s psychedelic “Ivory Pika”).
Hugh’s biggest concert concept was something he planned to call the Peace, Love and Understanding Festival (“PLUS Fest” for short). His idea was to showcase a dozen or more bands over the course of two days in a scenic outdoor venue. (He wasn’t the first concert promoter to have this idea, see Yasgur’s Farm.) While scouting around the state, he stumbled upon what he realized would be the perfect location: an abandoned radio telescope in the desert near San Bartolomeo on the Nevada border. He envisioned turning the massive bowl-shaped structure (call sign RT4980) into a groovy outdoor amphitheater. He leased RT4980 and the surrounding acreage for three months from the astronomy department at U. Cal. Berkeley, deciding to call the temporary venue—befittingly—the “Astral Palace.” (Unbeknownst to Hugh, the university affiliation was only a cover; the telescope had not been used for space exploration but rather to track Soviet satellites and missile launches. It was decommissioned by NORAD in 1968 after three very problematic “bogey misidentifications” that nearly started World War III.)
For the event, Hugh succeeded in booking some of the hottest touring acts at the time, as well as several new groups getting buzz (and a couple of re-formed older acts). For headliners, he selected New York folk-gone-electric band Ghosts of Electricity and Southern California psych-groove band Secret Alphabets. Other notable acts included Desmond Jones (then referred to as the British Johnny Cash), singer-songwriter duo Streetlamp Halos, New York art-rockers Geranium Kiss, blues-rock quintet Ribbons of Euphoria, sultry Texan Loretta Martin, NYC "junk" rockers Junkyard Angels and Welsh power trio Tired Starlings (which had broken up in 1968 but reconstituted just for the gig). The bill was rounded out by acts like avant-garde space rocker Tom Major and acoustic folk-rockers Catch the Sparrow.
The fest commenced on Friday, February 19, 1971. The ‘scope itself was sold out, and an overflow crowd lounged around the perimeter, listening to the action into the early morning and the next day. (Dawn on February 20 featured Ribbons’ now classic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”) By the end, over 35,000 people had seen (or at least heard) 18 musical acts, including iconic performances by Bonaparte Mask (whose lead guitarist, Pam Strawberry, unexpectedly lit bassist B.D. Lyte’s axe on fire in the middle of the encore) and Turquoise Army (a seven-piece rock-jazz orchestra whose eclectic and complex original songs and arrangements were later revealed to be intentionally gross mistranscriptions of Jimi Hendrix tunes, resulting in a decade of litigation).
PLUS Fest was a hit, and Hugh looked forward to the next big concert event. Unfortunately, this story does not have a happy ending. On Monday, February 22, 1971, Hugh found himself alone in the center of the ‘scope, taking in the scene one last time after the stage had been dismantled, the temporary seating had been removed, and the site had been restored to its original condition. It was eerily silent. It even made the hairs stand up on the back of Hugh’s neck. But it turns out it wasn’t the quietude or the poignant memories of the show that caused such a physical reaction.
Authorities were not certain, but the best they could determine was that a technician had overlooked a junction box when unhooking the site’s restored electrical connection (which had provided power for the concert lights and amplification). The junction box turned out to be an automatic timer, designed to trigger a transformer (also not disconnected) to send out a strong, high-frequency electromagnetic pulse for seven seconds every 14 days. Hugh literally was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. At 9 GHz, he was essentially vaporized.
And so D.J. Hugh resides in the astral palace, along with the cacophony of notes spreading across the universe from the PLUS Fest.
(Details on the "poster" here.)