Friday, December 6, 2019

Reflections on December 6, 1969

The link at the bottom of this posting takes you to yet another “death of the sixties” article on the 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway that featured the Rolling Stones and other bands.  Over the last 50 years, I can’t count how many of these articles and documentaries I’ve seen – the documentary, Gimme Shelter is the most well-known.  All of them focus on part of the story to make a point – which is often to juxtapose Altamont with Woodstock that had happened a few months prior.  The general theme seems to be that Woodstock was Aquarius rising, the coming together of a generation, the embodiment of the age of peace, etc., and that Altamont signaled the end.

My first reaction is that it really does stretch reality to claim the rise and death of any social movement in the short 110 days that separated these two concerts.  Rather, neither event is emblematic of social change.  In truth, both are separate snapshots of America at a time of social change.  The elements of the experiences of Woodstock and Altamont co-existed throughout the era, a complexity that is true of any moment.  After all, don’t forget that San Francisco’s 1967 “summer of love” two years before Altamont and Woodstock was also the summer of race riots in Buffalo, Newark, and Detroit.  In a truthful history, multiple experiences and perspectives exist simultaneously.  Seeing either Altamont or Woodstock as each or jointly definitive misses the complexity of that era in an attempt to neatly categorize the time and people.  It’s a mistake to see these events as providing any more meaning than the snapshot moments that they are. 

I was at Altamont.  I went with three other people, and we were in the upper bowl of the field that sloped down to the stage – close enough to hear the music and far enough away to miss the violence and chaos that surrounded the performers.  As we arrived, people around me passed around one-gallon jugs of Red Mountain wine and joints, a young couple next to us zipped themselves into a sleeping bag and had sex (which at least seemed preferable to the ones who were okay with sex in a rocking sani-can), and folks just sat around on the grass or danced energetically whenever music played.  So the event began as just another outdoor music experience like the many that preceded and followed it.  I arrived expecting something akin to the free concerts in Golden Gate Park that I hitchhiked to see before and afterward; or the free concerts that the collective I was part of organized on the other side of the bay from San Francisco.  Music, dancing, and people getting high in the open air. 

As all of the documentaries and articles I’ve read over the years have noted, though, there was something different at Altamont.  The event quickly felt noticeably dissimilar from all the others.  My experience there and all of the articles and documentaries point to a clear reason:  disorganization.  Nothing worked.  You can read how the Grateful Dead refused to play after Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane got knocked out twice by the Hells Angels who were supposed to be guarding the stage, or the other security issues, or the poorly designed stage, or the lack of food, or long lines at the toilets.  For someone who attended, that disorganization was palpable, and it generated uneasiness in the crowd.  Pauses in the music are part of an outdoor concert, as bands set up and transition.  But Altamont’s pauses highlighted the incompetence of a hastily mismanaged event.  Rumors about who was going to play next and who wasn’t coming circulated with each pause.  It was unclear whether there would be a next act whenever one band finished.  By the late afternoon, people in the area where I watched began leaving.  The harmony that pervaded all of the other outdoor concerts I’d attended was gone by then.  Not knowing whether the concert would continue, the person who had driven my group suggested we leave, and we did before sunset, the disastrous Stones set, and the mayhem and murder that followed at the stage. 

The disorder of Altamont was followed by other, less-publicized concerts that were managed with more care.  I attended and helped to organize many open-air concerts over the next year, and nothing changed.  People came, danced, listened to music.  The failure of Altamont didn’t carry forward into those other events.  That’s not to suggest that these events were trouble free.  At one concert our group organized that following summer, we had over 20 people overdose when someone passed around pills that were laced with PCP, a hallucinogen that caused both mental and physical convulsions.  Overall, though, the concert “vibe” didn’t change at any other events I attended in the year after Altamont.  And, truthfully, nothing changed as a result of Woodstock, either. 

What Woodstock and Altamont highlight for me is some of the diversity of my generation that gets lost in the attempts to make these two events emblems of anything.  The 58,220 American soldiers who were killed in Vietnam were mostly from that generation, as were the members of the Black Panther Party who fed hungry children and stood up to police violence against the Black community in Oakland.  The Hell’s Angels who were given the freedom to terrorize musicians and concert goers at Altamont were of that generation, as were the trust-fund-backed financiers who paid the bills at Woodstock.  I, a politically active, high school senior at the time, was there with a college-attending acquaintance and that friend’s brother, who worked in business.  Music brought us together for that moment, but the three of us were, and I imagine still are, very different people in our outlooks and perspectives.  People who attended Altamont with me were socially connected by the music, but radically different in the cultures that really defined us.  To say that that event signaled a cultural shift is to assume that we were all of the same culture, and that’s just not accurate.

I understand that it makes a good story to write about, or make a documentary about, how events are symbolic.  But the resulting images that comprise such a story are typically caricatures.  In order to highlight the story’s moral, it typically becomes a mixture of stock characters and readily accessible plot points organized to make a statement.  That’s what has happened with the Altamont story:  The evil Hells Angels destroyed peace-loving flower children and signaled the end of that era.  Such a simplified reduction of any story always misses what’s really happening.  On the surface, the “tribe” of my generation came together at Altamont and failed to have the experience it had before.  In reality, there wasn’t one “tribe,” and the event wasn’t anything more than the failure of promoters to organize – while ceding power and control to a group of bikers who didn’t have any interest in anything more than having a good time themselves.

Everybody’s heard a Hammond organ playing, even if they don’t know what they’re hearing.  A Hammond “tone wheel” organ is an amazing piece of technology that has driven the music of R&B, jazz, blues, and the sanctified church since the 1940s.  It’s not the organ you hear at high mass in a cathedral.  It’s the one you hear as you walk by a Pentecostal holiness church.  Or a blues club.  You’ve heard that sound.  It’s immediately recognizable for its pleading emotion.  If you play one, you know something about it that other people may not:  Each key on the keyboard can produce more than one note.  By pulling out any of nine drawbars, the player adds an additional note to the note being pressed.  If you ever have a chance to sit at a Hammond and hear this, you’ll be amazed.  Press any key (black or white) and then pull out one drawbar.  Pulling that drawbar while pressing the key will add a second note to the first.  Pull a second drawbar, and you’ll have the original note and two additional notes; and so on – up to nine, harmonious notes from one key on the keyboard.  A player develops a style where the drawbars are pulled in combinations to make the sounds that sing to heavenly angels or cry from the pain of mistreatment. 

The stories of the Altamont concert seem like a parallel to what most people hear when listening to a Hammond organ.  People hear a note, but they’re unaware that each single note can include up to nine notes, and each chord is made up of notes that use sophisticated combinations to produce a unique sound.  Similarly, a simplistic analysis of any one event like the Altamont concert cannot declaim the status of a generation of people, a movement, or a societal shift.  Besides, evidence that refutes “the death of the sixties” is overwhelming.  People of that era who tried to build harmony like people experienced at most outdoor music events went on to build social movements that spread across the country that range from Cooperative Homecare Associates in New York to Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon.  Those who were involved in political action, continued that action.  Those who fought against injustice continued their lives fighting injustice.  I know this because I’ve had the privilege to work in the trenches with people like this for over 50 years.  Their idealism didn’t die because of a poorly managed concert; it’s only deepened and become pragmatically stronger.  That idealism evolved into action which pervaded our social systems, our religious organizations, and even our businesses. 

What these documentaries and articles on the Altamont concert highlight to me is the folly of any simplification of the past which ignores the diversity of experiences that comprise any history.  Exploring complexities and the diversity of experiences are critical lenses to use in assessing the stories we tell about the past.  So let’s start by remembering:  Altamont was a poorly organized event that led to the deaths of four people.  No movement was born or died there.  And history is far too complex to be compartmentalized into a neat package.  Full stop.