Thursday, April 24, 2014

Altamont Aftermath

And Death shall have no dominion.

The Grateful Dead bailed; and the Stones came late to their own party--delayed (we were told later) by the absent Bill Wyman, who missed the chopper flight and had to get to the site on his own. Bikers cleared a path for the band from chopper to star trailer. Then an hour and more dragged by as twilight gave way to full dark. The tension continued. More crowding, more scuffles, more restless motion, like a herd of cattle as a lightning storm rumbles closer.

The strangest vignette I saw was this: At some point the naked fat guy was standing near the Stones' trailer door, swaying in place. Suddenly the door opened part-way
and Mick Jagger stuck his head out like a turtle emerging bit by bit from his shell. He turned his head and froze at the sight of the bloodied man, the two of them--Jumping Jack Sprat and his stripped, blubbery brother-under-the-stretched-skin--staring uncomprehending at each other for a good twenty seconds. Then Mick pulled his head back in and firmly closed the door.

The rest of the story is sadly well documented, in the immediate newspaper write-ups, in the Maysles film Gimme Shelter, and in the history books with commentaries citing Altamont as the end of the hippie dream, the grave marker for the Sixties social revolution...

At any rate, the Speedway Fighting Men raged on when/while the Stones finally played--songs starting and stopping, Jagger weakly remonstrating with the unruly roiling mass, the drugged would-be stage-climbers and demon securitans rippling back and forth in time to "Sympathy for the Devil"... until one barely conscious fan, a Black man in a lime green suit, tried to clamber up on stage, was thrown back into the crowd, and then reappeared waving a gun. The bikers acted swiftly, grabbing the gun arm, forcing him to the ground, and at least one Angel stabbing him repeatedly. Again the music stopped while the latest victim was carried away. Then the band played on, though not for much longer.

From my spot backstage peering out at the black mass and floodlights, I could
perceive only movement. I could no more see that fatality than I did the others of the long day, from drug overdoses and a hit-and-run driver--four deaths in all, but with a couple of on-site births as well. I learned of these developments via portable and then car radio as we four writers, weary and subdued, trudged back to the car and then headed west in line with the other retreating traffic, down from that barren terrain.

I wrote a brief, bitter review of the whole sorry experience for Fusion, but signed it with a pseudonym, foolishly fearing retribution from the Hellboys. Meanwhile, Greil played a major role in the extensive Rolling Stone coverage that followed; and Darlington gave Altamont brief mention in a personal reminiscence he published later. I don't know what Winner did with his impressions of the day, but I believe we determined at the time that I was the
only one from our carpool who had spent extensive time out front viewing the on-going carnage as it happened.

Via post-event public perception the Maysles' documentary footage was instantly re-evaluated, transformed from tour-film puff piece to you-are-there cinema verite wonder, a supposedly hard-hitting expose showing the Stones as venal and befuddled, albeit unlucky: hapless hosts at the begging-for-trouble banquet. One Gimme Shelter cameraman did capture split-second glimpses of both the (not loaded) gun and murderously wielded blade, but the Angels were eventually cleared of major legal charges since they did after all function as the authorized security force, however over-zealous, protecting those performers from possible harm. Even so, the Speedway fiasco for 45 years has remained symbolic of stupid-youth drug culture and commonplace rock 'n' roll violence... probably a heavier burden than
that one dumb day truly merits. I'd say there've been way too many similar days and deaths since then, too many drugged celebrities and copycat fans, to blame it all on Altamont.

Besides revisiting the cultural history that Monterey Pop and Altamont represented, I admit I was also curious to see if I could spot myself in any of the crowd shots in either festival film... but no such luck. "Right place, wrong time," as they say.

Kinks leader Ray Davies has a song that goes, in part, "People take pictures of each other just to prove that they really have been there..."

Maybe I wasn't really there at all.

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