Sunday, May 14, 2017

End of Days

By Altamont, the American hippies were a very different breed than the Swingin' London set. Despite a shared musical sensibility, there was a definitive rift in ideology between the hippies in the crowd at Altamont, and the English rockers onstage, for whom the hippie-trippy way of life was hard to swallow. Four months prior, Pete Townsend left Woodstock in disgust. "All those hippies wandering about thinking the world was going to be different from that day on. As a cynical English arsehole, I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them." Country Joe countered with his personal recollection of Townshend at Woodstock. "I saw Townshend pull up in his limo, then do his set, and leave. That's the sum total of his experience of Woodstock. He played at it but he wasn’t really part of it." Despite the hype and mythology, and the delightfully misleading documentary, it wasn't all joy in Mudville

Where Monterey had excelled was in its planning, and despite its postponement a week prior, Monterey Pop went off without a hitch. Though the model for Woodstock, the events at Yasgur's Farm lacked the planning, the vision, and the experience that prevailed in Monterey. To paraphrase Chad and Jeremy, Monterey "was yesterday, and yesterday's gone." The Woodstock approach was, just do it.

Hendrix at Woodstock
When Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld met venture-capitalists John Roberts and Joel Rosenman (none older than 27), the idea of a retreat-like outdoor music and arts festival was born. Roberts and Rosenman leased Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, NY for $10,000, though quickly an ordinance was passed by the town board requiring a permit for gatherings over 5000. This left the partnership, Woodstock Ventures, to hastily relocate. A month prior to the event, the company met in Bethel, New York with Elliot Tiber and Max Yasgur, a middling entrepreneur possessing a permit for his annual music festival and a local dairy farmer who agreed to let the venture host Woodstock on his 600 acre farm fifty miles northeast of Wallkill. When the weekend of the concert arose, what was thought to be an affair of 50,000 rose to half a million, a crowd that left sanitation, first aid, food and water sorely lacking, not to mention the torrential rains or the infamous brown acid.  Despite itself, the congregation at Woodstock rallied in peace and gaiety in a collaborative partnership. The success drew overdue attention to the harmonic hippie counterculture and produced an historic microcosm of freedom and music. Four months later, “Woodstock West” was, instead, a disaster.

Hells Angel, Mick, Keith - "Under My Thumb"
Organized and headlined by The Rolling Stones to conclude their U.S. tour, the Altamont Free Concert was touted as the west coast equivalent to Woodstock or the Stones' Hyde Park performance earlier that year. Largely improvised in its production, the exhibition lacked a venue after being denied use of Golden Gate Park and Sears Point Raceway over film distribution rights. The concert was hastily relocated to Altamont Speedway, and two days later, December 6, 1969, 300,000 people converged to see a stellar lineup of bands from Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young to The Grateful Dead (who would refuse to perform due to the escalating chaos and violence, including Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane being knocked unconscious). Used to the non-combative nature of their concerts abroad, The Stones' and the production officials sorely underestimated the variables, particularly the use of the notorious Hells Angels as their security force. Anyone can do the math: cultural miscommunication plus hasty planning multiplied by a security team of miscreants = disaster. During the concert, four deaths transpired; among them the fatal stabbing of 18 year old Meredith Hunter* during "Under My Thumb" by one of the Hells Angels, quashing the generation-defining Woodstock example and the acceptance that young people could gather peacefully in a chaotic environment.

David Dalton of Rolling Stone described the scene at Altamont as "apocalyptic" and "unimaginably appalling, a mini Vietnam of garbage and old car wrecks." The geography of Sears Point would have allowed the audience to congregate around the base of a hilltop stage with a multifaceted view. The switch to Altamont placed the stage low in the neck of a valley. Woodstock, similarly, was at the bottom of a natural amphitheater featuring Filippini Pond as a natural backdrop (and beloved skinny-dipping site), yet unlike Altamont, Woodstock's stage was massive. Because Altamont's was low and accessible (nearly inviting fans to crowd up front to evade security and get up onstage), concert producers placed Hells Angels directly in front with their bikes as fortification. Near anarchy ensued as Hells Angels clashed with fans, often beating them back with pool cues and beer bottles.

The ambiance of the festivals, as well, was affected not only by the environment, but by the genres of music. Woodstock was folky and psychedelic and tempered with hallucinogens and cannabis. Conversely, the populace of Altamont convened mostly at the prospect of watching blues-rock band, The Rolling Stones. Contrary to the trippy, rustic milieu at Woodstock, the intoxicant of choice at Altamont was alcohol, the ambiance one, not of a festival, but of a drunken brawl. Sean O’Hagan in London's The Guardian stated: "It is still unclear how the Hells Angels were invited to provide security for the Rolling Stones' free concert. The infamous biker gang was a fixture at rock gigs on the West Coast and often assumed the role of guardian angels, having forged an uneasy alliance with groups including the Grateful Dead and Steppenwolf, as well as Ken Kesey's traveling troupe of fabled peaceniks, the Merry Pranksters. The Hells Angels were not peaceniks, though, nor pranksters. In his history of the Grateful Dead, A Long Strange Trip, Dennis McNally describes a meeting between Sam Cutler, the Stones’ tour manager, and two Bay Area Hells Angels, Sweet William and Frisco Pete, in which the fateful contract was drawn up between the world's 'baddest' band and the world's 'baddest' biker gang. 'We don’t police things,' Sweet William said. 'We’re not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun.' Cutler asked, 'Well, what about helping people out – giving directions and things?' Sweet William responded, 'Sure, we can do that.' When Sam asked how they might be paid, Sweet William replied, 'We like beer.' The deal, McNally wrote, was done for 100 cases." End result: four dead, many more injured and a sense that Woodstock was merely an illusion.

The 60's were famous for social, musical, and sexual revolution, all of which were depicted in Woodstock's historic weekend, but Altamont portrayed the decade in which simultaneously existed the Vietnam War, segregation, the Days of Rage, People's Park, and the Stonewall Riots - the underside of the spiritual, psychedelic liberation.

When all is said and done, AM is about the music and Monterey Pop is your best choice. Though each set is short, the complete concert defines the sixties more than any other gig; the performances repeated at Woodstock pale in comparison with little exception. Woodstock is the more impressive visually, but this again is due to the unbalanced and glowing approach of the filmmakers. Altamont is a catastrophe, a concert mess, a social pariah. Gimme Shelter unravels everything that the legend of Woodstock so unwittingly created. Well worth one's time, but a sad reflection of rock's most influential period. 

*To be clear, Meredeth Hunter is captured on film clearly brandishing a pistol, at which time, Angel, Alan Passaro, grabs the hand wielding the weapon, turns Hunter around and stabs him twice in the back. Despite the events, The Stones continued their set, replaying "Under My Thumb" in its entirety followed by eight additional songs, the band seemingly unaware of the events that transpired.