Some 43 years ago, a much-hyped “youth” film was produced with intentions to capitalize on the success of “Woodstock”, Michael Waldleigh’s immensely popular (and Oscar-winning) documentary of the epoch-making rock festival. In the summer of 1970, Warner Brothers spent nearly a million dollars putting together the Medicine Ball Caravan, as 150 recruited hippies, accompanied by a French film crew, undertook a cross-country tour from San Francisco to D.C., promulgating the Aquarian lifestyle and staging a series of free concerts along the way. But when it was released to theaters in August of 1971, the youths stayed away in record numbers and Rolling Stone named it one of the ten worst films of the year. Fred Weintraub, the savvy New Yorker who had owned the star-making Bottom Line nightclub, got the gig as head of Warner’s youth market after taking a gamble on filming some three-day music show upstate that then turned out to be a decade-defining event. WB was eager for a follow up and Weintraub tried to conjure an event that would be a sort of Woodstock on wheels. The story of why “Medicine Ball Caravan” still barely qualifies as an afterthought in the history of rock documentaries says a lot about shifting cultural attitudes at the start of the Seventies, as well as to the potential pitfalls of filming pre-conceived “reality” events.
At the start of the film, as the viewer watches a telephoto view of the long line of buses, vans and trucks motoring over the Golden Gate Bridge, a real sense of possibility is felt. Soon after, “MBC” devolves into a series of caravan vignettes presented with little context. It’s really too bad. Organized by pioneering FM disk jockey Tom Donahue, the caravan could have surfed that last great cresting wave of the hippie ethos, a subject that still had strong innate appeal. The film was directed by Francois Reichenbach, fresh from winning his own documentary Oscar for “Arthur Rubinstein: Love of Life”. Reichenbach had been piling up awards and festival prizes since his filmmaking days started in the early Sixties but his winning streak ended here. “The truth requires not a cold witness but what I call a love witness,” the directed is quoted in John Grissim Jr.’s appealing 1972 book about the caravan called “We Have Come for Your Daughters” (the phrase was painted on the lead vehicle). But Reichenbach’s open-mindedness about longhair culture eventually showed itself as a lack of vision as to what the final work might look like. By 1971, random film scenes of hippie nudity, bus painting, reefer smoking and peace-sign flashing had passed into cliché and all are in abundance here. Matters were not helped by the many interview clips of inarticulate freaks held in front of their tie-dyed teepees.
B.B. King rocks the arroyo
There is a higher success rate with the musical sequences, what there are of them. The featured performers were literally airlifted to the makeshift concert sites. There’s twelve wonderful minutes of a top-form B.B. King, the nattily-attired blues great holding forth from a stage in a sun splashed arroyo somewhere north of Albuquerque. Cajun music icon Doug Kershaw crosses over to the festival crowd with his warp-speed fiddling and playful scat singing on “Battle of New Orleans”. Alice Cooper practically invents goth with a searing rendition of “Black Juju” which culminates in Mr. Furnier showering the front rows with chicken feathers. But that’s about it, not counting the rather undistinguished Stoneground, the traveling “house band” that would later be responsible for providing three-fourths of the lineup for Pablo Cruise. If the studio had snagged their first choice, a Warner-Reprise act called the Grateful Dead, “MBC” would likely not be so obscure.
Sal Valentino, formerly of Beau Brummels and then singer of Stoneground, does a solo number in this scene from MBC that also features some nice caravan footage.
It was generally believed that the studio execs, by sending this freak circus out into the land of the Silent Majority, were hoping for some sort of climatic cinematic confrontation. But most of the straights that Reichenbach shows are cordial if not supportive while any conflicts in the film emanate from within the caravan’s own demographic. There’s a tense run-in with the Manson-lite STP Family at the Boulder, Colorado show and chaotic confrontations on the campus of Ohio’s Antioch College before a proposed concert nearby. There had been grumblings all summer from the New Left that Medicine Ball was a Warner Brothers scam, a ploy to usurp the counterculture by getting naïve hedonists to play act a plastic version of it.
Despite the fact that caravaners were only being paid expenses and counted among their number such bona fides as Wavy Gravy, suspicions about this “sell out” were exploited by provocateurs-without-portfolio David Peel and Tom Forcade, the latter of whom had been nipping at the heels of Tom Donahue weeks before they reached Antioch. Humorless young campus radicals were whipped into hysteria over the notion that corporate suits (AKA “capitalist pigs”) would dare make a movie that may appeal to some in their age group. In the fracas that followed, these summer-program students (“kept in school by their parents to keep them away from home,” says one caravan wag) try to shut down the show, forcing the traveling troupe to stand up for themselves, and defend their efforts to work within the system to spread the peace-and-love message. Suddenly, “Medicine Ball Caravan” turns contentious and interesting, but by then it’s almost over.
Your ride is here
At least there was a film at all as “MBC” barely averted a post-production cancellation. According to eyewitness Grissim, many of the young French crew members partook of the caravan’s ample LSD supply and the result was a lot of mislabeled or blank film cans that could never be matched up with the related soundtrack as well as a lot of out-of-focus shooting and missed opportunities. Moreover, Reichenbach entrusted the first cut of his film to a handpicked editor back in France who did not understand English and had a bias against hippies. Warner Brothers were aghast at the desultory results and almost nixed the film when, at the eleventh hour, a young Martin Scorcese (who had also worked on “Woodstock”) was brought in to fashion a more upbeat 92-minute final cut. Some of the caravan’s spirit survives in Scorcese’s optimistic coda and the clear-eyed Grissim allows that at its best Medicine Ball “kick(ed) a lot of life into a wilted flower fantasy.” Both the documentary and the equally arcane “We Have Come for Your Daughters” probably deserved a better fate even if, as Grissim smartly predicted, the whole adventure was likely to “end up as a historical footnote (and) a small reminder that the Sixties did, after all, end on schedule.”
(I don’t believe “Medicine Ball Caravan” ever saw the light of day during the VHS era, probably being relegated to the very occasional screening in a college film-series setting. It is currently available on DVD from videobeat.com, the grey-market website for music and pop culture miscellany. A search for “We Have Come for Your Daughters” offered up a rare copy that would set you back a C-note. Try the library, especially if like me you live in an area where they are networked with ones from surrounding communities. I found one with little problem.)
My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available on Amazon and through my author page at BookLocker.com Please click on the book-cover image (or the link below) to access the 30-page excerpt at BookLocker.
I was there. From New Mexico to England. Oh yeah.
That must have been such a great experience, Jackie. I had forgotten about that final stop in England. Were you also a photographer back then? There still seems to be a lot of interest in Medicine Ball out there. It was my first post when I started this blog two years two years ago and still gets more views than anything else I put up since then!
Can foulest all the dates and shows of the Medicine Ball Caravan?
I was there from San Francisco to London…the whole trip. Tripped route 66 with the french film crew-what a hoot. Ended in London with WAR at Hyde Park. Shame -never saw the film because of it’s lack of completion.
1 of the 154–I was nicknamed “Gypsy”.
Originally met Milan Melvin, a radio star at the time working with Donahue.
An experience I will never forget!
You forgot to mention that Annie Liebowitz was the official photographer on the trip.The “house band” Stoneground had Sal Valentino of the Beau Brummels as the lead singer. He put out two cd’s in 2006-07 which are excellent “Dreamin Man” and “Every Now and Then” Check them out you wont be disappointed. The band was actually pretty good.
How do I know all of this? I was the “house attorney” along to defend those who got busted and there were several including Tom Donahue’s son who got busted at the Chaucer hotel in Canterbury for smoking weed.
Thank you for your message, Jules. That must have been quite a memorable experience! I did forget to mention Annie, she was in the MBC book but I didn’t recall her from the film. I recently saw Stoneground appearing in another film (they did two songs as a house party band in “Dracula AD 1972”) and really enjoyed them. I will check out Sal’s new work as well. Regards, Rick
Hey Jules, I’m looking to do a podcast about the Medicine Ball Caravan for a magazine. Would you be willing to speak with me about it? Send me an email if you’re interested. firstname.lastname@example.org
What a long strange trip that was …
I was along for the ride from NM to UK. Well, really, from Placitas, NM, near the “commune” called “Sun Farm” to Bishopbourne. I happened to know one of the local producer/fixers in Albuquerque. A fair sized complement actually went on to France, including that fixer that roped me into it, but I left in the UK and came back to NM.
I thought the strangest moment wasn’t at Antioch, but in Washington, DC. The caravan was in Manassas, VA, and our last act before moving on to NYC to fly out to the UK, was to dispose of a lot of stuff, food and other supplies, that Warner Bros had provisioned for us, at a house in WDC that was owned and operated by a black power group.
Wow, Paul, what a great experience that must have been! I wished the film crew had captured more of this adventure, like your experience in DC. Thanks for following, Rick
Do you have a list of the groups that performed on the Mall in Washington, DC? I was thinking part of the Jefferson Airplane was there (and more than Hot Tuna). My memory was that the musicians in multiple bands were too high to play well. Is that true in your memory. Is there any film footage of that concert? I seem to remember the show being near the Washington Monument.
I was a student at Antioch College and remember the encounter between many new left students and the film crew. The French film crew agreed to shoot film footage of the GM strike in Cincinnati which was being supported by the Maoist and Socialst Workers Party student groups. The French film crew was impressed by these unusual demands and sympathetic, mentioning May 68 in France. Wavy Gravy and members of Hog Farm commune were passing out frozen peyote buttons on Popsicle sticks. Van Morrison performed and other bands of the front lawn of the campus. He was angry he had to be there. I would love to see the film. Is it available to rent?
Thanks for writing. That sounds like an amazing experience! While the complete film is not available right now, there are several snippets and related MBC videos on YouTube. Try this link for a recent 8-minute piece about the making of the film. The last two minutes is mainly footage from Antioch… Take care, Rick Ouellette
Hey Gary, I’m looking to do a podcast about the Medicine Ball Caravan for a magazine. Would you be willing to speak with me about your what you remember about it at Antioch? Send me an email if you’re interested. email@example.com
I worked the UK Site – part of Jeff Dexter’s crew. It was all very last minute – and a public holiday so finding the necessary equipment was tricky. For cooking we ended up with a row of domestic, small, stoves. And I ended up doing the cooking r all the Caravaners – their chef never crossed the Atlantic.
I was a great fan of Rod Stewart, h’d just joined The Small Faces and I had been helping them get gigs -including Canterbury. I’m still friends with Lydia Moreno, one of the Stoneground coterie of singers, and she talks often of a leisurely afternoon the three of us spent in one of the manor’s lush rooms.
I made such good and lasting friends on that adventure that within six months I had moved to San Francisco -and work on FM radio. Where I reside to this day.
Meanwhile, down on the farm. One day, back at my house in Takoma Park, MD, I received a phone call from a guy named Milan Melvin. Milan had been married to Mimi Farina, the sister of Joan Baez. He was a prominent figure in the West Coast counter-culture scene. (I didn’t know that at the time of the phone call). After introducing himself, Milan said, “We are looking for a farm near Washington, D.C. I understand that you manage a band that lives on a farm near Warrenton, Virginia.” I told him that was true and he said, “There are 165 of us travelling across the U.S.
“Our last stop before flying to Europe is Washington. There are several bands on the road with us including Hot Tuna and Alice Cooper. We’d love it if you would let us camp out on your farm for a few days before the D.C. concert. We call our roadshow the “Medicine Ball Caravan.”
Kind of as an afterthought, Milan said, “By the way, French director Francois Reichenbach will be with us filming the entire thing for Warner Brothers. Maybe a movie and a LP.”
I took the idea to the band and, thinking it would be fun, the band agreed to let the Medicine Ball Caravan camp out on the farm. I called Milan back and said that we would happily meet them at a nearby gas station and guide the Caravan to the farm. A date and approximate time was agreed on.
When the day came to meet them, we arrived at the gas station to find the Caravan already there. Milan Melvin was leading the Caravan on a chopped Harley Davidson. Milan and the motorcycle looked like they drove out of the movie “Easy Rider.” The Caravan consisted of multiple vehicles including a psychedelically painted bus that was flying Viet Cong flags and had a signed painted on the front that read, “We Have Come For Your Daughters.’
I thought to myself, “we’re in redneck country. This isn’t going to go well.” We proceeded to the farm where members of the Caravan pitched ten or eleven 20 to 30 foot tall tie dye teepees. The assistant to the director was a man named Martin Scorsese. The same Martin Scorsese who would go on to direct “Mean Streets,” “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and so many other great films.
Wavy Gravy (he of Woodstock, the Hog Farm, et al) was a member of the Caravan. Somewhere between 150 and 170 hippies led by Wavy Gravy and Milan Melvin plus a film crew were now camped out on the Amoeba farm. Lots of LSD was being taken, but the vibes seemed calm though a lot seemed staged for the film. At one point, while sitting around a bonfire and singing “Happy Birthday” to a member of the caravan, Francois Reichenbach yelled, “Cut! Let’s try that again.” My epiphany came at that moment. The only thing we (the Claude Jones band and myself) had in common with this large group of visitors was long hair, a love of music and the smoking of reefer.
Warner Brothers ended up releasing a Medicine Ball Caravan LP but was unhappy with the documentary film that was produced. They had Scorsese do some editing to the footage and eventually the film was released but I don’t think it ever made it to theaters. If you search the Internet, DVD copies are available. But my one word review of the movie is “DREADFUL.”
Hi, thanks for sharing your great memories! I’m sure they are a lot more rewarding than the film that eventually came out then quickly went away. Marty Scorsese salvaged what he could but like you said, it was still pretty bad. But what wild times!
Medicine Ball is one very short chapter in my book, “Fast Forward, Play and Rewind” which will be published by Backbeat Books sometime in 2020.
Michael, thanks for the heads up. Keep me informed and I will do a review for it here, Rick
Rick…My book has been released by Backbeat Books…ships on Oct. 15
Michael, Thanks for letting me know. I plan to get a copy soon and will do a review for my “Books that Rock” category.
Hey Rick, I’m looking to do a podcast about the Medicine Ball Caravan for a magazine. Would you be willing to speak with me about it? Send me an email if you’re interested. firstname.lastname@example.org
I was part of the UK production crew, ended up cooking for everyone, including free food for the audience. We had the (very tame British) Hells Angels keeping everyone in line. The first thing I heard after the Caravan folks arrived at the site was Annie Sampson’s voice soaring over the valley. I remember them well: Fred the Fed, Butch, Lou, Wavy, Tom Donohue, Mylon Melvin. Travus T.Hipp and Lynn Hughes, Lydia and Sal et al… These people are a big part of the reason I have lived in San Francisco pretty much ever since.
I’m so glad I was there.
Stoneground was a great live band with 6 singers. A shame their performance here was underwhelming. This film was shot (poorly) by a French crew, reason being they were mercilessly dosed thruout.
So true. A better glimpse of the whole Stoneground band, with all the singers, is in a party scene from the film “Dracula AD 1972.” They do two songs there and are pretty great.