Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Story Goes... Woodstock and Altamont

As we move toward Woodstock's 50th anniversary, AM will, of course, explore the dynamics leading up to rock's greatest outing. R.J. Stowell's Miles From Nowhere, a novel with the concert as an important backdrop, will be released later this year and AM will share snippets here and there. The Story Goes segment has covered eight of rock's most influential moments and Woodstock certainly plays a role. It may be the single most significant celebration of our music, despite the lackluster performances that pervade the three days of peace and music.

But for Story Goes purposes, AM only touches on Woodstock in its juxtaposition to Altamonte. The two music festivals occurred within less than four months of each other, but they summoned wildly different images: the former, the apotheosis of the Flower Child generation; the latter, the death of the counterculture and the lost innocence of American youth.

Altamont, December 6, 1969, is remembered with infamy not only because four people died that day— people died at Woodstock, too — but because "the dream some of us had" was over. In the idyllic woods of Bethel, young people had staged their own peaceful happening. The biggest success of Woodstock was in showing that such an event could occur at all.

Hailed as "Woodstock West," Altamont would fail on every level. In explaining the volatile environment that produced one fatal stabbing, three accidental deaths, and 850 injuries, commentators have pointed to a myriad of reasons, from widespread drug use to the presence of the Hells Angels. But there were drugs (lots) and Hells Angels at Woodstock, too. Others will point to the surroundings themselves. In contrast to the green world in Bethel, New York that summer, the barren hills of Altamonte Speedway resembled something out of a dystopian novel. Spencer Dryden of the Jefferson Airplane said: "It was just a horrible, pink-sky Hieronymus Bosch dustbin, not a tree in sight, just a hellhole. It was the beginning of the end. No, not the beginning, it was the end."

The low stage design certainly didn't help, either. Whereas the natural amphitheater and high stage at Woodstock had protected the performers from the crowd, the stage at Altamont essentially invited the crowd to get past the Hells Angels and at the performers. In contrast to the Hog Farm's "please force," the scene at Altamont was policed by the Hell’s Angels. A lot of blame goes to the MC, but in retrospect, their blame is no more valid than that of the environment, the bad planning, the poorly designed stage or the odd and ominous atmosphere. Whereas Woodstock emcee Chip Monck delivered his famously gentle warnings about bad acid making the rounds, Stones road manager Sam Cutler, when he learned of similar warnings said, "Tough shit." Maybe that sums it up.

"You need people like the Angels to keep people in line," Grace Slick said on stage — moments before Marty Balin jumped into the pit to break up a fight and was knocked out by the Angels. The Bay area Angels had in other venues occupied the place around the tech equipment or generators and established a secure location just by their presence (often in exchange for beer). These outings of trippy San Francisco bands showed that the concept could work, but while bands like Jefferson Airplane and Santana shared the stage at Altamont, this instead was a Stones concert with a distinctly different bad boy vibe. Songs like "As Tears Go By" and "Ruby Tuesday" had given way to "Street Fighting Man" and "Sympathy for the Devil."

Bottom line: Angels and hippies and Stones and booze and pills densely packed in a setting that hinted at the end of the world was an obviously combustible setting that culminated in the stabbing of a concert-goer with a gun. That statement oversimplifies the events and makes it seem as if the victim of the stabbing was the cause of melee, but it only serves to suggest that the environment at Altamont was a toxic stew that signaled the end of Flower Power and the 60s.  

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