Sunday, December 6, 2009

Altamont, Rock and Roll, and the December Curse

Ever notice how the worst moments in rock and roll always seem to happen in December?
Think about it. It's been the month in which all sorts of disasters have occurred - John Lennon's murder, the trampled fans at that Who concert in Cincinnati, the Montreux entertainment complex fire that occurred while Frank Zappa was performing there and Deep Purple were recording there (which Deep People immortalized in "Smoke On the Water"), Frank Zappa's death, Roy Orbison's death, Rick Nelson's fatal plane crash. . . . Obviously, not everything bad that happened in the "rock era" of popular music happened in December, but that's a pretty nasty list right there.
What is it about December being a bad month for rock and roll? Something makes rock and roll hit the skids in the last month of the year . . . or the decade. December 1979 saw Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer's awful duet record, Styx's "Babe," and Rupert Holmes's stupid song about piƱa coladas all hit number one on the Billboard singles charts. Not a good way to close out the seventies, although that's obviously an innocuous example. And of course, I haven't mentioned the greatest December disaster in the history of rock and roll . . . Altamont, the rock festival headlined and sponsored by the Rolling Stones, which took place in California forty years ago today.
The Rolling Stones had ushered in a new era of rock concerts with their 1969 U.S. tour by playing arenas, a standard that would last for big-name acts for decades. At the time, arena concerts were seen as money-grubbing shows to get as many people to attend a concert as possible, with little regard to the ambiance or intimacy necessary to make the music work. Advances in sound equipment made it possible for a rock band to give a pretty decent show in such a large space, but the Stones were still viewed as going for the money at the expense of their own audience. With their free concert in London's Hyde Park having gone off without much trouble, the Rolling Stones attempted an act of good faith by deciding to stage a free show in California. The Altamont Speedway was the third choice after proposals for employing one of two other venues - Kezar Stadium in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and another Bay Area speedway - fell through.
Soon, California rock acts such as Santana, the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and the Jefferson Airplane were invited to perform there as well, with the Rolling Stones as the final act, in the interest of turning Altamont into "Woodstock West." The hope was that the good vibes of peace and love would permeate through the show and create a magical experience as had happened in upstate New York four months earlier. There was just one hitch. The Stones didn't represent the spirit of peace and love; they represented the dark, violent, sexual underbelly of rock and roll. Their most recent album of the time, Let It Bleed (notice the title?), had references to knifings in two - two - of its songs. Much of the crowd that gathered to see the Rolling Stones were not like the flower children who followed the Dead. They were young punks who scoffed at "peace and love" values and were turned on by rebellion. At a free concert, such attitudes could cause a ruckus. When the Stones decided to hire a local Hell's Angels chapter to provide security on the basis of the Stones having used a British Hell's Angels chapter at Hyde Park, something more than a ruckus was guaranteed. Rock critic Greil Marcus, who was there, picked up the negative vibe immediately. When Marcus offered a piece of his sandwich to a fellow concertgoer, the fan slapped the food out of Marcus's hand and snapped, "I don't want your f---ing food, you a--hole."
It got worse from that moment on. Unlike the British Hell's Angels chapter from Hyde Park, the American bikers were a much less malleable bunch, and after getting paid in five hundred dollars worth of beer, they proceeded to drink on the job. Some of them were reportedly stoned on barbiturates, while concertgoers were reportedly stoned on LSD and amphetamines. The mood was peaceful at first, but as the bands played their sets, the crowd got more restless and more violent, and the Hell's Angels started beating people up. The Grateful Dead bowed out entirely, refusing to play when Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious by a Hell's Angel.
When the Stones arrived, by helicopter, Mick Jagger actually got punched by a fan. The Stones began their set at sundown, and while performing "Sympathy For the Devil," the third song in their set, nearly five thousand people jammed the edge of the stage and some tried to climb on it. The band had to briefly stop their set to appeal for calm. Later, Meredith Hunter, a black Rolling Stones fan, tried to get on the stage, and a Hell's Angel grabbed his head and punched him. Hunter returned to the stage, where he pulled out a gun, and another Hell's Angel repeatedly stabbed him to death. The Stones, then performing "Under My Thumb," were unaware of the killing, and according to one other Hell's Angel, they were ready to abandon the show until he held a gun to Keith Richards and threatened him with his life to play their set.
The idealistic spirit of the sixties rolled over and died at Altamont, and rock and roll was no longer seen as a rebellious voice for social change. The seventies, while producing some great rock music, were a more cynical age, during which society in Britain and America became rougher and more disillusioning. The decade culminated in the burnout of the punk movement meant to reinvigorate rock and roll, giving way to an era of mindless self-interest that was signaled by Margaret Thatcher's assumption of the British prime ministership in 1979 and Ronald Reagan's election to the U.S. presidency a year later. The great racial divide in popular music began with Altamont, Meredith Hunter's killing an apparent sign that black people weren't welcome at white-dominated rock concerts. (This became clear when Prince opened for the Stones in 1981 and had garbage thrown at him.) In the early eighties, the late Michael Jackson was applauded for his crossover appeal; in the sixties, racial crossovers had been par for the course.
Altamont cast a pall on rock and roll, which continued to manifest itself in the ugliness of the Montreux and Cincinnati disasters referred to earlier, as well as Woodstock '99. In fact, the December curse began with Altamont; before 1969, the worst thing to happen to rock and roll in December was the Beatles's Magical Mystery Tour film. Now whenever the year winds down, I wonder what disaster awaits rock next . . . and hide in the comfort of holiday music.
The December curse lives, forty years after Altamont.
Let it bleed.

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