SATAN AND THE ANGELS: PARADISE LOUSED
Altamont was the site of a dragstrip near Livermore in northern California. On December 6, 1969, it was the location of a free concert by the Rolling Stones meant to cap their triumphal American tour. Only four months after the mythic Woodstock festival in New York, Altamont was a disaster, creating in one day all the problems of the larger society in one place: congestion, exploitation, dehumanization, and finally violence and murder. The great 1970 documentary film by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter, chronicles the events of that fateful day, including the murder of a spectator by the Hell's Angels in front of the stage as the Stones are playing
As Philip Roth writes in his Pulitzer-prizewinning 1997 novel, American Pastoral, the utopian dreams of the American pastoral have a way of being transformed "into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral-into the indigenous American berserk." Altamont was the anti-Woodstock, the counterpastoral, an eruption of the American berserk which seemed to give the lie to the hopes and dreams of the youth counterculture, exposing it as infected with all the flaws of American culture at large.
I rode to the Altamont festival from Berkeley on a motorcycle and recorded some of it with a super-8 movie camera; I have since had the footage converted to video . I wrote the piece below soon after the events, in the winter of 1969-70, when I was 24. It appeared in an anthology, Altamont: Death of Innocence in Woodstock Nation, edited by Jonathan Eisen (NY: Avon, 1970). I owe Jonathan Eisen for his editorial suggestions. I have left it largely as I wrote it because it captures my disillusionment at the time.
PART I: THE FESTIVAL CULTURE
In the middle ages English rural villages held May games to welcome in the spring, harvest festivals at which wantonness was encouraged and the renewed fertility of nature celebrated. Woodstock is perhaps our equivalent event.
Another kind of celebration was led by a "Lord of Misrule," a jester appointed ruler for the day by the townspeople. He functioned as a captain of mischief who mocked majesty and offended the church. For one day, the Lord of Misrule led his followers through sacrilegious rites, deliberately disrupting the social order and mocking authority. The next day, everything would return to normal. In this way, the culture provided a sanctioned release for anarchic and satanic impulses. And you have Mick Jagger.
These two tendencies preside in popular music festivals which evolved in America in the sixties.
1. NEWPORT 1964: ETHNIC LAUDERDALE
My introduction to music festivals was the Newport Folk of 1964. We came cruising up the turnpike from New Jersey to Rhode Island in a palsied '50 Chevy, Kerouac style, lured by the chance to get away from the doldrums of summer school on the Rutgers campus, planning to get roaring drunk, or maybe catch a piece of tail. Oh yes, there was the music.
It was folk then, not rock, not even the timid hybrid' "pop." The music had to be ethnic, or at least sound ethnic: city boys hunched over their guitars like wizened old black balladeers on back porches in East Texas, high school students from Brooklyn honking their harmonicas and stomping their feet in time just like dusty hobos. I suppose it was a release from the frustrations of urban and suburban anonymity, an adolescent romanticization, or a pose that had the virtue of being our own discovered phoniness instead of adult fakery. "Folk" at least was emotionally real at its roots, not syrupy tunes written by middle-aged hacks pandering to their own fantasies about youthful taste.
1964 at Newport was not particularly outstanding, but it was representative of the old-style festival. Seventy thousand of us invaded the center of a hostile town, freaking out the burghers. Newport was a cultural event which the local chamber of commerce painfully endured--padlocked for the duration--turning over their young visitors to the welcome wagon of the police. Strip away the music, and you were left with an Easter vacation in Fort Lauderdale: wandering students with no place to stay, resting on the sidewalks, crowding the parks, bored and drinking beer, and then lining up at a gas station to use the only toilet for blocks. Newport was less gross than that pagan ritual because it was a gentler crowd, but it was similarly overpopulated and aimless.
All of it militated against any sense of community, despite our kindred spirit as folk buffs. We were undesirable aliens allowed grudging access to the town by the Establishment for a few days. We were aware that the local gendarmes could lock us out or boot us out at whim. So long as we were on our best behavior, they would indulgently permit us to sleep on their streets and their beaches.
Everyone was, of course, under twenty-one, and the climate was more sexually repressed, so the only release was beer purchased with fake i.d. The liquor store owner glared at you with an "Oh, yeah, sonny?" look, one hand clutching the cash register, the other, out of sight below the counter, perhaps gripping a shotgun.
We spent the night on the beach at Newport, finishing the last of the beer and wine before we crawled into our sleeping bags. I was shocked awake with a flashlight in the face. Three policemen ordered me to stand and I froze like a deer trapped in the headlights of an oncoming car. They shook my sleeping bag and six empty beer cans rolled out, followed by two bottles of cheap port.
"Is that all you. got, kid?" they demanded in disgust.
"Why, yes," I answered, surprised, as if that wasn't enough to convict me and send me up the river for life.
"Don't you have any other stuff, kid?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know--hard stuff."
I said no. Then they asked if I knew anybody who had some Scotch, so I pointed vaguely down the beach, and the flashlight squad passed on. They couldn't lock up all seventy thousand students overnight, so they were out to confiscate the best of the illicit supply for themselves.
The only memorable incident of the concert came at the end of the appearance of Joan Baez. She paused to welcome onstage "a man who needs no introduction: you all know--George Washington." Then Bob Dylan walked on with his guitar, his hair a huge bowl of tossed salad. He was indeed a George Washington, a kind of father to his country, and five years later he was patron saint in absentia of Woodstock.
2. THE GATHERING OF THE TRIBES, 1967: WE'RE IT
Newport never was a festival in the true sense. Ideally, the festival provides a necessary catharsis, a release of spirits. For a limited time, and in an isolated and protected context, it allows a relaxation of restraints, so that the energy usually occupied in day-to-day repression is freed for celebration.
It remained for events such as the San Francisco Trips Festival and the Human Be-In to return us to the ancient and true meaning of festival. When I arrived at the First Human Be-In (also called the Gathering of the Tribes) in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in January, 1967, I was at first bewildered. I looked toward the stage as the natural focus of attention, a boxlike shape in which a platform and the performers created one side and the audience the other three. The shape here was circular instead of rectangular. There were twenty thousand people moving around, most of them gloriously stoned in the sunshine, some ignoring entirely the activity onstage, and others using it only as a pretext for creating their own spontaneous dances.
I looked at the apparent confusion of thousands of people on this grassy mall, and asked a friend, "Is this all there is?"
He answered, "We're it."
Then I began to understand: it wasn't so important that the Grateful Dead was here, it was not necessary for us to sit passively in chairs and absorb the music, but we were it, participating, creating, each adding his energies to the spirit of the celebration. We were here to groove on being ourselves and to realize our kinship with all the other new-born freaks. For the first time in our lives, we were on stage center. Not we as our families wanted us to be, not as the schools wanted us to be, but only as we wished ourselves into being. I was passed a joint, then someone grabbed my hand and I was swept into the dance.
3. CHICAGO, 1968: FESTIVAL IN THE STREETS
The Democratic Convention, Chicago, 1968, a scene the whole world was watching. The events of that traumatic August were an attempt to translate into political terms the implications of the participatory cultural festival realized at the Human Be-In. That is, if you are bored with what your society is doing, if you find it sterile and restrictive, then free your energies, free yourself from the repression through celebration. If you don't like the news, go out and make your own.
Jerry Rubin had been at the Be-In, he had made a speech there in his Old Left tie, his usual Marxist rap of those days, and the speech was a drag, a flop because the audience did not respond to his canned rhetoric but went on doing its thing. The crushed Rubin realized that his politics were dead. A politician must serve the needs of his constituency, and Rubin"s constituency is the young. Soon he dropped a lot of acid, saw the light, and still the strategist decided to make political capital of this revolutionary new form.
Thus Chicago was announced as a Festival of Life, along the lines of the San Francisco Gathering. The Festival of the Counter Culture was intended to expose by contrast the aridity and irrelevance of the Festival of Death occurring simultaneously inside the convention hall. The original conception was transformed into something else because a festival can only take place in an isolated and protected context, not in a hostile city. Once again, we were undesirable aliens, a foreign culture, but this time we were not on our best behavior, and the welcoming police were out on behalf of the populace. No more indulgence and no more confiscating the goods. They were out to teach us never to misbehave again. So each club that fell upon each head fell with the righteous wrath of thousands of Americans strengthening the policeman's arm.
The invasion of youth entered Chicago like an alien substance injected into the bloodstream, with the resultant physical shock and convulsions. We were pushed over the edge into conviction, at least those of us who were ready to be convinced.
4. WOODSTOCK, 1969, OR BABES IN THE WOODS
Chicago succeeded, not as a festival but as a political demonstration. The proper festival has no outside reference; it demonstrates nothing except itself. Woodstock, one year after Chicago, fits this definition. More than that, it stands as the apex of the festival milieu in the sixties, the historical summation. Woodstock extends the festival into a way of life. Perhaps now, after Altamont, we can look on Woodstock as the beginning of the decline and fall. In any case, it serves to crystallize certain images.
One image is the juxtaposition of electricity and mud: the musicians, small figures in the center of a tangle of ,wires and a mountain of equipment which amplifies them to the proportions of demigods, and the tribe, all being subjected simultaneously to the same complex musical stimuli as they stomp their feet, all four hundred thousand in the mud. It is the incarnation of McLuhanism.
It is also the fulfillment of a new conception of nature and man's role. For some, nature is still that hostile force which must be totally subdued, overcome by Protestant Ethic, symbolized by the desire to defoliate Vietnam, reduce it to rubble and pave it over as a parking lot. San Francisco poet Richard Brautigan gives the view-point of the counter culture when he writes: "I like to think /(it has to be!) /of a cybernetic ecology /where we are free of our labors/and joined back to nature,/returned to our mammal /brothers and sisters, /and all watched over/by machines of loving grace." Mario Savio elucidated the same philosophy, in a speech on People's Park, given at Berkeley the summer of 1969. Savio claimed that we are a post-scarcity, post-indus trial generation, carried beyond the division of labor, the first generation with time on our hands. We are beyond the need, he said, to seize the means of production; the need now is to use our own spare time to create a social revolution, to "seize the means of leisure." It is no longer a utopian viewpoint, it is feasible. If automation has freed us from labor, then the liberated time created. should be used for a return to nature and free creation. Ironically, the proliferation of technology, which has divorced man from nature, can also be the instrument to return him to a harmonious balance with it.
I see this as one implication of Woodstock. Half a million young people, with free time on their hands because of technology, appropriated what was originally a profit-making venture. They got in for free, tore down the fences, and temporarily earned for themselves control of a piece of earth, like Berkeley's short-lived People's Park. Overnight they founded a new form of society, a "Woodstock Nation," as Abbie Hoffman called it. They did it simply by the force of numbers, for it is undeniable, as Jim Morrison chants, that "we got the numbers." The event was not programmed beforehand as a revolution or a demonstration of anything, just a rock festival. The crowd was, in fact, apolitical, as Hoffman found when he tried to rouse them to action over the fate of John Sinclair, an organizer busted for possession of two joints. Hoffman couldn't get across to them, just as Rubin failed to communicate at the San Francisco Be-In.
They were in the wrong context, because the philosophy of festivals is simply doing your own thing, as long as you do not lay a heavy trip on someone else. There is no time for reflection on the political implications of what you are about.
The crowd at Woodstock was not aware of the consequences of what they were doing; they were just doing what came naturally. A lot more people showed up than anyone expected, and they unintentionally proved something, which was simply that an alternative life style worked, that we could survive on our own terms, democratically en masse (for three days, anyway), survive without a program and without killing one another off. The "system" was not God-ordained, and it was not the only one possible. We could exist,"with a little help from our friends." Even the grass helped, for as the anthropologist Margaret Mead pointed out, what would have happened to 400,000 young people bombed on Scotch?
There is also that tremendous image which remains in my mind of a monstrous jam-up of automobiles, strangulated in traffic, and then cheerfully abandoned where they halted, everyone just walking away from the car into the countryside. It was Godard's Weekend without the barbarism.
Woodstock was a return to the pastoral, and in that idyllic context, nudity and sensuality were once again natural, free, and innocent, which they could never be in city streets.
The media, in their schizophrenic way, at once idealized and denounced rock festivals, fulfilling the contradictory desires of a schizophrenic public. It was like 1967 in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury all over again; for a time, festivals became sensational news, worthy of the ultimate American canonization: time on Walter Cronkite and space in Life magazine. They were rapidly overexposed, perhaps killed, by overexposure. Like the Haight, festivals were something glamorous, romantic, and new, meeting America's need for youth worship. At the same time, they were an easy target for attack, because along with American worship of the youthful image goes the fear of adolescents, the need to bottle them up and suppress their sexuality, which is viewed as a threat.
In the figure of Miss America, a sex idol who is yet chaste, pure, and untouchable, an image frozen in time, because each year's model is replaced by a new one who looks precisely the same as the outgoing one, America has created a sexual Sleeping Beauty, a "still unravished bride of quietness" who expresses perfectly the contradictory desires for a sex goddess, perpetually youthful, along with the desire to repress adolescent sexuality. She is the perpetually substitutible Barbie doll mechanical bride.
Thus Woodstock threatened America's stability, a stability dependent upon insanity. It upset the balance of mechanical sex. They passed ordinances to ban festivals, claiming that they were trying to protect their children's morals, when their children were actually beyond their control. They were only trying to protect themselves, unable to admit their obsession, their fascination and repulsion about sex, dope, and anarchy. Who canonized the Hells's Angels except the mass media, and what was the media doing in devoting endless space to reports about the Angels, fantasies about the Angels, movies about the Angels, except serving the needs of the public?
5. ALTAMONT: LORD OF MISRULE
There were negative elements at Woodstock, not of course in the exaggerated fears of the cheap, overexposed media image, but in factors that the young chose to overlook in the haste and need for self-affirmation, and for a legend to embody collective hopes and aspirations. There are hints of the negativity in Abbie Hoffman's acid bummer at the event. Patricia Kenneally, editor of Jazz and Pop magazine, reported of Woodstock, "Yes, the kids are beautiful. . . . But also I saw thousands upon thousands of the walking wounded of this Revolution we all talk so much about: kids who haven't got faces yet, filled up with drugs they don't know how to make proper use of and only because the Scene makes it easy . . . maybe we who are older and supposed to know better did this to them be-fore they were ready for it . . . the kids that try to hitch a ride in your car with a V-sign, then snarl viciousness at you when you tiredly explain you have a full cart and can't take any more passengers, the kids who have all the right hip clothes and know all the right words, but whose heads haven't been affected in the slightest. . . the kids who have come to this festival and are going to consume vibes and dope and music but what are they going to take home with them? Just as importantly, what have they brought?"
If the Woodstock myth is akin to the pastoral vision of Huckleberry Finn, then Altamont is our Lord of the Flies. "Kill the pig!" is the cry of Lord of the Flies, and "Kill the pig!" seems to have become our rallying cry. We fail to recognize the pig in ourselves, the childish, egotistical, selfish irresponsibility.
It took only four months to go from Woodstock to Altamont; only four months to sell out a myth. The myths become shorter and shorter-lived as history accelerates. Now we have an instinctive distrust of massive rock festivals, for we fear that the terror of Altamont may be the wave of the future.
PART II SATAN AND THE ANGELS AT ALTAMONT
". . . headlong sent,
With his industrious crew, to build in Hell.
Meanwhile the winged Heralds, by command
Of sovran power, with awful ceremony
And trumpets' sound, throughout the host proclaim
A solemn council forthwith to be held
At Pandemonium, the high capital
Of Satan and his peers. Their summons called
From every band and squared regiment
By place or choice the worthiest they anon
With hundreds and with thousands trooping came
Attended. All access was thronged . .
So numberless were those bad Angels seen."
John Milton, Paradise Lost
I'm floating down the freeway out of Berkeley, on my way to Altamont. Oh yeah, Woodstock West. Fresh California morning breeze in my face, just a trace of smog, funky old motorcycle farting underneath me.
Nobody else wanted to go with me. They were sure of the world's worst traffic jam for the fabled free Stones concert, their "holiday gift" to American fans, a gathering concocted for some inscrutable ego reasons. There were statements that the money from film and record rights was all to go to Vietnamese war orphans, and later that the Stones had yet to specify the charity, then that the owners of the site wanted the film rights, then that the Stones were the Vietnamese war orphans. In any case, the group earned front page newspaper copy and radio hype all week long. For a week, it was like the original Woodstock, and we heard rumors and counter-rumors: the concert's on, no it's off, no it's not, it's north of San Francisco at Sears Point, and yes, finally, 4 PM the day before, it's on at Altamont, forty miles east of San Francisco in Alameda county. Nobody had ever heard of Altamont Speedway before; it was nowhere, a scene for automobile destruction derbies. "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you might find, you get what you need." Now it was on the map for all time, like Waterloo.
Within twenty hours, the Stones crew, with volunteers, broke down the scaffolding and sound equipment, portable toilets and other junk, trucked and helicoptered it to some hilly slopes adjoining Altamont Speedway, and set it up in an overnight fury. Their accomplishment was mammoth, and they beat the deadline, but it may have had unfortunate side effects, intensifying the tone of hectic and high-pressure vibrations at the one-day happening. Speedway, yes.
So,"wheels on fire, rolling down the road," expectations high for a festival of peace, love, music, and good vibes, I cruise toward Altamont Saturday morning, zipping past the exit for the Sheriff's department at Santa Rita, where the prisoners from People's Park were forced to lie face down in the gravel all day, and zooming through a lot of ugly California landscape toward Livermore, where the University of California has its famous laboratories dedicated to building better arsenals and irradiating the entire world.
Abruptly, I find myself surrounded, swept into the center of a host of plastic Hell's Angels, called the Oakland Stompers or the Daly City Vipers, something like that. They are a horde of hungry metal locusts chewing up the road, a formidable crew, like one of the twelve plagues of Egypt. As rapidly as they have come, they disappear, leaving me vibrating in their wake.
I smile and wave at the passengers in their overloaded VW buses, the staff car of the armies of the night. We're all headed the same way, drawn by the power of the Woodstock myth. Gotta make it to that historic get-together. Altamont! The magic hits me: it's like Shangri La, Xanadu.
Soon the buses are backed up, ten miles of the faithful crawling toward the Ganges, subjecting themselves to this slow torture so they might be worthy to baptize themselves in that holy river of music. Even an ambulance couldn't get through here. I make it on the motorcycle, weaving through lanes and following the shoulder of the road. No Highway Patrol hinders me; I suppose they have given up. Someone along the roadside handed me a leaflet, which I presumed was a program, and I crumpled it in my pocket. A week after the concert was over, I emptied out my pockets and read it for the first time. It accused the Stones of collusion with the forces of Lucifer: chaos, anarchy, and revolution. It was signed, "Christian World Liberation Front."
Finally, "I pull into Nazareth, feeling about half-past dead." I park in desolation row, where miles of unfinished freeway have been converted into a parking lot, like a scene from Godard's Weekend. Nothing in view but rows of parked cars on the asphalt, and dirt slopes by the side of the road. The dead-end kids slouch down the highway underneath a metal sign with arrows reading: MODESTO/LOS ANGELES Interstate 580. Nobody knows where it all ends. My enthusiasm is still high, but the mood of the processional seems flat and dispirited. "What is happening in their heads?" I wish I knew.
The weary pilgrims have trudged for miles through this automobile graveyard, and now they file past a spaced-out chick who has stripped off most of her clothes and is sitting vacantly by a yellow roadblock that says CAUTION, ignored by most, but being avidly taken in by the glassy eyes of photographers. The Stones will never give their money to this war orphan.
Further down the road squats a young grinning gargoyle with a Chico Marx hairdo, alternately flashing the V-sign to the crowd with both hands, then the finger. His hands flicker back and forth in schizophrenic sign-language: Peace; Up Yours; Peace; Up Yours.
Evidently the destination is just ahead; someone is pointing it out. From the top of a hill, I look out on a large fenced-in valley and slopes. The site is bleak: dirt, pot-holes, burrs and straw, nothing growing, no trees and no shade. The field looks like it had been strip-mined years before, then abandoned. A sea of people have taken it over, like ants swarming over stale birthday cake.
The place is packed, and thousands more keep streaming in. What the hell is all this, some vast P.O.W. compound? I had been to the November Antiwar Moratorium in Golden Gate Park, estimated a hundred and fifty thousand, and they could slip that whole gathering into a small corner of this field. Were there a quarter of a million in that human parking lot at Altamont? Half a million? Forget the numbers, just picture some barren California hills flooded with as many young Americans as there are US troops in Vietnam. And Mick Jagger there to entertain the troops.
It's 1 1:30 AM, and the music hasn't started yet. I maneuver through the mobs and slip onto the stage fairly easily. Nobody seems to be controlling it. The sea of people stretches to the horizons, an undifferentiated mass, and this platform four feet off the ground is the nexus of all the vibrations. The stage is littered with equipment, newsmen, crew, some scabrous, syphilitic Hell's Angels, and a few luscious random teenie chiclets, with a hipper-than-thou look. And not a smile in a carload; we're there to consume, to get a closeup on the free show.
"What are the Angels doing here?" I ask, and a camera-man replies, "I think the Angels are guarding the Dead." Well, why not, I think, they've been there at other concerts to guard the equipment, and it was cool. Sure they're dangerous, unpredictable and violent, but to the middle-class hip young they have the status appeal of being proletarian and funky. Romantic anarchists! Groovy! Stones, Dead, Angels; a heavy mixture: noise, gasoline, electronic power, celebrity, arrogance, and violence. The worst and the best of the culture.
I thought some more and said you could make a poem of it: "The angels are guarding the dead." No one appreciated the thought.
Sam Cutler, the Stones' manager, pleads with the crowd in London accents to let a Hertz truck through with some equipment so they can get started. He sounds tired and frustrated. Well, they've been working all night. He has to plead again; the kids hang onto the truck for a free ride.
Things start about noon, and he wishes everyone a good time and a great party, but still it sounds like the plea of a weary, dispirited man. I think of the smashed and mutilated, grotesque party cake on the back cover of the Stones' album "Let it Bleed. "
Santana is first, jingling and chanting "jingo-bah" or .words to that order. The music doesn't interest me; and I circle the stage and look at the people.
My introduction to such scenes was the first Human Be-In, January 1967 in Golden Gate Park, the same location where the Stones had initially hoped to give their free concert. That original gathering of the tribes was the celebration of the birth of a new culture, conceived in liberty, and filled with the holy spirit of new-found camaraderie. Now, three years later, an entire war and many trips, tabs, and tokes later, the followers, the pilgrim urchins numbered in the millions, a so-called "counter culture." They were war orphans, separated forever from their parents, troops of war orphans dressed in ragged army surplus. Some of them were even begging on the street corners now or hustling black market goods, little stoned Dondis nobody was going to adopt, little orphan Annies who had told Daddy Warbucks to cram it.
Now the decade of the 1960s was coming to an end. Could this be their New Year's party? I looked, and I saw they were no longer joining hands and dancing together in spontaneous joy, as at the first gathering of the tribes. The movement was mass, but had its original energy become diverted, diluted, and enervated? I saw isolated people bobbing up from the passive, packed crowd, shaking their bodies to solitary dance while the rest of the thousands sat on their collective ass. There was no room to move. I felt lonely among those hundreds of thousands, as though the event was being delivered to each person on his own separate TV.
"One's-self I sing, a simple separate person. Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse." Walt Whitman said that a hundred years ago, celebrating the way it had to be. That naked girl in the stream of people, that stoned war orphan: could he have understood her loneliness?
I was still on the stage, feigning nonchalance and failing to connect. This is the supposed center of the action, and it's empty, as though waiting for some energy to fill it. At this point, a few people decide that they ought to be in charge of the stage, so they hustle everyone else to the corners. The stage is the only decent vantage point for me to take films, and the crush on the ground looks unpromising, so I evade the strongarm men until I am unceremoniously pushed down the stairs. The stage was to fill up again later, with far more lethal results. I wasn't happy to be thrown off, but then I was not one of the privileged.
I find myself in a dirt quadrangle behind the stage, hemmed in by trucks and fences on all sides, so I stayed there most of the day, since moving around seemed pointless. The crowd was impassable, the overpopulation fierce. It was like Jones Beach on the fourth of July: you staked out your plot, and you dug in. I can't see the stage, and the hum of the generators behind me drowns out the music, which is amplified in any case with all the fidelity of a transistor radio.
Besides not being able to see or hear, there wasn't much to do. A family of three sat on a blanket. Mother and father passes joint after joint; little kid sat bored. Instant festival. Jones Beach.
People gawked as the fallen were carried off, scores knocked out, on bum trips, who knows? I recall the day as a procession of passed-out bodies being carted off.
There was nothing to eat or drink, unless you had the foresight to bring your own, but there was a lot of grass to smoke. A marijuana smog blanketed the field. Down at the lineup for the johns, the dealers were muttering their messages, hawking their wares to this captive audience. The queue looked like the line for World Series tickets, and grass, mescaline, and acid were going like peanuts, popcorn, and crackerjacks. I couldn't hack the lines, so I used mother nature's privy instead, behind several parked trucks. It was a relief to be away from the crowd, if only for a moment. I looked at the dusty field with its chuckholes and fences, and realized for the first time that this was scrub pasture-land, intended for horses and cattle.
"Hey, look up on the roof of that truck" someone shouts.
"What for?" I ask.
"It's John Lennon,"they tell me, letting me in on the big secret, "take his picture."
I look, and it's no more Lennon than I am, just a guy with a beard and glasses wearing a red blanket.
"It's Lennon," they insist. "It really is." I look at their faces now, and they are utterly sincere and utterly stoned.
The scene was gross, desolate, and joyless. A fat girl kept conspicuously stripping off her clothes and then putting them on, and an ever fatter man wandered around, letting it all hang out. His pallid, obese body had developed breasts. There was a tattoo on his arm: OSCAR. The two of them were a mute, pathetic, and loveless display. Later the Hell's Angels bloodied Oscar's face, and he continued to stumble around, clutching his naked body and wincing in pain, the blood caking his face. "Let it bleed."
The Angels got started early in the day, warming up on beer and wine, reds and acid, slugging it out with each other as the passive crowd spread out to give them room. One Angel moved to smash my camera. The Altamont destruction derby had officially opened. The sad, fat naked girl tried to separate the fighting Angels, but in vain. They were out for blood.
I stood on top of a truck, watching Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, the second group to perform, valiantly singing "We Should Be Together." As they began "Another Side to This Life," a wild melee began onstage. The disturbance was not easily visible, and certainly incomprehensible from where I was situated. I could imagine the bewilderment of the thousands far away from the stage, unaware that the Angels were just doing their thing. The song stops. Then I see a young black man come flying out from between two trucks, kicked off the stage, shirtless, staggering and splitting blood, fighting to stay on his feet, like a punch-drunk boxer about to go down for the count, leaning in a daze against a truck as frightened people stare, until someone hands him his peacoat and he stumbles off. And there I am on top of a truck with a camera, feeling medium-cool and helpless.
The Airplane tried again, and it wasn't "We Should Be Together" but "Do Away With People" that they sang, and it was impossible for them to do a decent job under the circumstances. The day was off to an ominous start. The vacuum that I had sensed earlier was filled by the fury of the Angels. It continued to be vast crawling boredom for the rest of the day, punctuated by episodes of senseless violence, like a combat zone in Vietnam. The vibrations spread in waves from the stage, and the tension and fear were amplified by drugs.
The Stones were holed up in a trailer a hundred yards behind the stage. Jagger sauntered out casually a few times, dressed in red ruffles like a young prince, surrounded by guards, attendant Angels, and hired cops, causing temporary pandemonium as he paraded by. God is dead; long live Mick Jagger! The other Stones were more reticent. I begin to intensely dislike this guarded, teasing, superstar setup. None of the other groups there needed it. Jagger seems to relish the whole scene as he is surrounded by ravenous cameras and microphones; but then, maybe I would dig it too. People thrust albums at him to sign, and a few stray draft cards. I pass over mine, # 1 18 on the government shitlist. I should have burned the bloody thing years ago, and I wonder how many years they can give you for defacing it with the devil's signature. Maybe it will even bring me luck. It doesn't reach him. ( In the spring of 1970, after the invasion of Cambodia and the killings at Kent State University, I was to return my draft card to the government with a polite note saying, "Thank you, but I no longer wish to subscribe to your service.")
Mobs of the curious start arriving, attracted by the knot of people. "Are you with the press?" asks a girl about. fourteen, watching me film the scene.
"So am I!" she exclaims, "Tell me what's happening."
"It's Mick Jagger," I tell her. (Yes, and I'm John Lennon).
When the groupies descend, you begin to wonder about your own motives for being there.
In the center of the crowd watching Jagger was fat Oscar, still naked, with the blood now dried on his mustache. To his right was a young mother, her hair beautyparlored to death, dragging a little boy in hand, who stared bewildered up at the immense naked hips. In front of Oscar were two weeping teenies, throwbacks to an earlier era. An overhead microphone dipped down to catch their sobbing.
It was a high concentration of camp culture.
To Oscar's left was a beautiful slim street chick, "a neon-light baby" from Berkeley, elegant, slightly manic, perhaps accelerated on speed, her nipples pushing forward her loose white blouse, with a gold star pasted underneath her left eye. The kind they award you in first grade for neatness, punctuality, and brushing your teeth. Star-eyes was an ideal groupie, and a war orphan: "nobody's child, and the law can't touch her at all."
Perched on the roof of a nearby trailer, like a sovereign Puck appraising the foolishness of all these mortals, a boy about thirteen puffed on a joint.
The bands started at noon and stopped at four. Don't ask me what they were playing, I couldn't hear a thing. It was the Stones everyone was there for, and they kept us waiting till past five so they could make a dramatic entrance at dusk and use all the elaborate lighting setup for their act as the darkness descended. The people in front of me left at 4:30, saying, "We're fed up with Mick Jagger. He's rude." But I know this is part of the Stones routine, getting the crowd ripe, making them wait, and I stayed, still one of the faithful. The day had been a bummer thus far; this had to make up for it.
Jagger and group finally show, like the entire House of Lords, surrounded by their entourage. Thousands surge forward to the stage, some scrambling onto the trucks backstage, but others, either guarding the trucks or guarding their coveted positions, scream at them to get off, so they slide down, and they climb the scaffolding to get a better view, as Jagger yells out with diabolic glee, "Really great to see y"all here!"
I realize that all this--the rumors for a month, the teasing off-again, on-again news, the front-page publicity all week long, the groups playing all day, the entrance strategically delayed until the right moment in dramatic darkness-all this had been appetizers to assure their reception at this moment before hundreds of thousands of fans, a counter-Woodstock to climax their American tour. The cameras grind away, and we are all unpaid extras in a colossal film spectacular starring the Rolling Stones.
I miss the first few songs, circling. around to the side of the stage to see what is happening, and that's it--I'm trapped, squeezed in the crush of several hundred thousand bodies standing up, packed together as tightly as rush-hour passengers on the IRT. I think of the mob of cannibalistic Hollywood fans at the end of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust, who panic at a movie premiere, trying to reach the stars, to devour the creatures they have elevated to fame. I wonder about getting trampled.
Little kids and girlfriends are hoisted onto shoulders to catch a glimpse of the stage, and some of the girls dance from that height, writhing and undulating in ecstatic communion with the music. As I stand on tiptoe, I can see a formation of surly Hell's Angels, still appointed guardians of the stage, glaring in the light, and I can just see Mick Jagger, wearing tight pants and a flowing robe, half red and half black, high priest and jester, revolution and anarchy, prancing in a red spotlight.
He was just starting, "Please allow me to introduce myself," when the Angels, showing their own sympathy for the devil, busted up the act and started stomping a fan who had climbed onstage. A murmur of horror--or was it merely annoyance?--ran through the crowd in the valley and the surrounding hillsides.
This was too much, You couldn't be sure exactly what had happened--whether it was a minor disturbance or a catastrophe--but if the Angels were involved, you knew it had to be bad. To be trapped in a recurrent bad dream, to be condemned to watching the instant replay of assassinations forever, was this our special doom? "I didn't know you had to pay to get out of going through these things twice."
After stopping the song, Jagger pleaded with the audience, "Brothers and sisters! Brothers and sisters! C'mon, just cool out a minute!" and "Why are we fighting? Why are we fighting?" It was a strange schizophrenia, the celebrity stepping out of the framework of his art, songs powered on sadistic aggression, dropping the diabolic pose to become the prophet of peace, like the boy flashing hand signals: fuck you/peace.
He only further confused the crowd: we weren't fighting, we were only watching the show. Could we be responsible for the actions of a lone crazed individual and a crew of sadistic Angels? Some yelled at the stage, pissed at the interruption, "We came to see the Stones, not the Angels!" We wanted illusion and we were getting reality. No one understood what was happening, certainly not Jagger.
Meanwhile, another Stone chided the crowd as though they were naughty infants, warning, "If you don't behave yourself, you won't hear any music," and antagonizing people more.
Someone was dying off stage, only we didn't know that.
Mick Jagger was losing control. His only power was in his music, so he started "Sympathy for the Devil" again, this time finishing it, then "Stray Cat Blues," about a liaison with a thirteen-year-old groupie: "it"s no capital crime."
As he sang "Love in Vain," I saw an opening in the crowd, so I left, bone-tired and sick at heart. I loved their music, but it wasn't worth this. Perhaps it seemed peaceful to those at a distance, but up close I had seen too much ugliness and too much violence. Like America at large, there was nothing you could do to control it; you were just subjected to it. And it was truly an All-American show: the news came later that Meredith Hunter, an eighteen-year-old black man, perhaps the same one I had seen ejected earlier from the stage, had been stabbed to death as the Stones played, blood sacrifice to some emptiness in the crowd.
The day had been cursed by guardian angels, and the decade was coming to a close with a bummer of Miltonic proportions, a paradise lost.
On my way out, I stumbled over a cable and went sprawling. Although the Stones had reputedly spent tens of thousands on the affair, and set up elaborate stage lights for their act, there were no lights on the field, so you exited into pitch blackness. I lay on the ground momentarily as Mick Jagger sang, the prince of darkness leading his black mass, and people filed past me. Nobody offered a hand. When my wind returned, I picked myself up, brushed myself off, and walked back down the highway in the dark. I strapped the camera onto the back of the motorcycle and drove home the same way I came: alone.