Saturday, October 8, 2016

Things Went Down: Joel Selvin’s Altamont

Things went down we don’t understand, but I think in time we will.
– The Grateful Dead, “New Speedway Boogie”

It’s been 47 years: were The Dead right, wrong, or both? There are different kinds of understanding – factual, emotional, metaphorical – but even combined, they will never add up to any final understanding, any state of Zen, when it comes to certain things. The Altamont concert of December 6, 1969 – the free show that climaxed the Rolling Stones’ autumn tour of the United States – was a day-long cataclysm which the evidence suggests was, for the vast majority in attendance, a uniquely dumb and ugly experience. But it may also have been, as Joel Selvin calls it in the subtitle of his new book, “rock’s darkest day.” It was certainly, as has been pointed out many times, a gruesomely apt metaphor. It illustrated contradictions that were intrinsic to the era, to the people, and to the style of music which brought 300,000 to a racetrack in the windy voids near Livermore, California, to see Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead (who didn’t play), and The Rolling Stones. Like a knife, a metaphor needs its absolute edge, its implacable point. At Altamont, that point was the stabbing, as The Stones played “Under My Thumb,” of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old from Berkeley who happened to be black and flashing a gun, by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, a 22-year-old from San Jose who happened to be white and wielding a knife. Other, mostly unidentified Angels finished the lynching Passaro had begun, and Hunter was dead before the ambulance came. “A young black man murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music”: thus did Greil Marcus summarize the metaphor, the knife point of the event.

Altamont has inspired some of the strongest rock writing that exists, and not at all mystifyingly, it comes from firsthand witnesses. Marcus’s brief memoir, published in the anthology The Sixties (1977), speaks laconically, with Raymond Chandler’s precision if not, understandably, his humor, and reserves its judgment for closing paragraphs that are both disgusted and resigned. Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones – a great book, New Journalism with the inner and outer reach of an epic novel, whose major disfigurement is a racism no more tolerable for being hip or ironic in a Sixties fashion – uses Altamont the way Beowulf uses Grendel: as a mutant presence, an “unnatural birth,” the monster lying in wait. Rolling Stone gave most of its January 21, 1970, issue to a lengthy investigative article written and researched by a team that included Marcus, and it was a classic piece of motivated journalism, outraged and horrified but insistent on the fact. A paperback published by Avon in mid-1970, called simply Altamont and composed of morning-after dispatches in prose and poetry, is a sustained recrimination of the selfishness that led the counterculture to create such a perversion of itself. The authors write as if standing at the lip of a smoking crater, having only just gotten out alive, but unable to walk away.

Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones' US tour, 1969.
Though Joel Selvin, author of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell's Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, is a veteran San Francisco rock critic and historian, he can’t boast the impressionistic authority of writers who were there. But he has written the definitive historical account of this fatal botch, this “free” concert meant to outdo Woodstock, this hubristic grab for cash and cachet. Selvin takes vague stories that have always been around and makes them specific. Altamont began when Rock Scully, manager of The Grateful Dead, met Keith Richards in London, and the two envisioned an outdoor event in San Francisco that would give each man’s band something it wanted. The Dead, then in financial straits despite a growing fan base, were in it for the money, while The Stones sought the hip credentials evoked by words like “festival,” “free,” and “San Francisco.” “The Stones wanted to be cool,” Selvin writes.

They were also keen, as their US tour proceeded, to counteract a backlash in the alternative press and hip community. It was generally known not only that The Stones’ ticket prices were scandalously high (Madison Square Garden seats started at $3.50!), but that the band had contractually demanded up-front cash guarantees from each city’s promoter. Selvin theorizes, reasonably, that the negative perception of The Stones as dollar-driven pirates made the San Francisco love-fest, with its appearance of generosity and unity, an ego obsession of Mick Jagger’s. Meanwhile, patterning the mixed motives and irreconcilable agendas that defined Altamont, The Stones made a deal with documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles to create a theatrical movie about the tour, which promised a huge payday partly on the back of the free event.

Jagger and Co. would headline the concert, and The Dead, second-billed, would deliver some heavy local talent in support. But the initial location, Golden Gate Park, fell through: a Dead intermediary was brokering the necessary permits when one Jon Jaymes – a sketchy New Yorker who claimed to represent Chrysler and had infiltrated The Stones’ tour with promises of free transportation – began to throw around the band’s unsavory name, thus queering the deal with city fathers. The concert had to be moved, four days before the announced date, to Sears Point Raceway near Sonoma, which Selvin reckons would have been an ideal site for its topographic features and existing security operation. But that venue was owned by a company called Filmways, which, learning of The Stones’ side deal with the Maysles, demanded $100,000 and distribution rights on the film – and The Stones, specifically Jagger, “would not give up a nickel of the film’s profits.” Thus was forced the final move, a mere 36 hours before starting time, to the Altamont Speedway, a small, scrubby, desolate spot just off the freeway, singularly ill-fitted to the event it would be asked to host.

Altamont is a useful – one might even say essential – adjunct to Gimme Shelter (1970), the resultant documentary, which shows backstage dealings without always troubling to explain who people are or what they’re talking about. Selvin probably knows everything there is to know about Altamont: people, places, processes. He knows the velocity of the winds whistling through Altamont Pass. He knows, and attempts to comprehend, a large cast of characters: Rock Scully, the Marin County naïf gobbled up by an event that got away from him; Bill Graham, the abrasive rock impresario, whose involvement was typically knotty and volatile; Tony Funches, the enormous Stones bodyguard in purple tie-dye, familiar from the Maysles film; Jon Jaymes, pure confidence man, ever elusive despite his girth; Ronnie Schneider, The Stones’ US representative, trying manfully to preserve his ethics, his dignity, and his job; Joan Churchill, a camerawoman who, inadvertently doped on bad acid, spent most of the concert cowering beneath the stage but recovered in time to capture an image unforgettable to anyone who has seen Gimme Shelter. There’s even someone calling himself “Goldfinger,” an international drug dealer with a hook for a hand who shows up at unpredicted intervals. To that and more, add the Hell’s Angels, whom Selvin doesn’t treat monolithically but as temperamentally distinct, morally culpable individuals; and The Rolling Stones, who in terms of this story are pretty much incarnated in Mick Jagger.

Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden (in shades, left) watches as Hell’s Angels do the stomp. (Photo by Beth Bagby)

There’s relatively little new material on the concert itself, or on Passaro’s subsequent murder trial. (For both, Selvin leans heavily on the contemporary Rolling Stone reportage.) What is new is a richness of detail and context on the story’s background and underground. What would become, largely thanks to The Stones, a latter-day cliché – the major rock tour as multi-million-dollar, corporation-sponsored spectacle – is seen here in its embryonic stage: the Los Angeles Forum, where The Stones played, “couldn’t produce an accurate seating map. Speaker placement blocked the view of more than two hundred seats . . . [and] the National Hockey League already had a game scheduled for the Forum on the same date.” As for the Hell’s Angels, no rock writer has gotten this close to, in Selvin’s words, “the strange, fragile relationship between [them] and the counterculture.” Hunter S. Thompson, in the 1966 Hell’s Angels, caught the biker gang’s private culture, its indecipherable madness; but Selvin applies that awareness to the rock phenomenon generally, and to Altamont in particular. He lays out, for instance, the gang’s nuanced relationships to San Francisco hippies on one hand and Berkeley protesters on the other, as well as the jurisdictional differences between SF and outer-Bay Angels that contributed to Altamont’s most dangerous variable. (The book’s single most astonishing fact may be that, according to police, probably no more than 40 Angels were present that day. Most of us always assumed there had to have been a couple of hundred.)

Selvin proceeds patiently, with a fine feel for drama which renders even his corniest touches effective. (“The moon was in Scorpio – the forecast was heavy days, evil tidings, acts of violence. From the beginning, there was blood on the ground.”) Once darkness has settled over the speedway and over the book, all he has to do is tell the story. You begin reading more slowly, stopping and starting to fix each image in your mind. Jefferson Airplane, escaping by helicopter as The Stones play, look down on the melee: “They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. . . . They watched the crowd swirl and foam like a tidepool and flew into the night. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter.” The book’s structural masterstroke comes at the end of Part 2, with the reappearance of a person introduced earlier, who was then lost in the intervening freakouts and tidepools. With surpassing skill, and with a confidence earned by his groundwork, Selvin pulls the string on the person and on the reader, bringing home all that was malefic, random, and terrifying in that day. You may need to set the book aside and walk around a while before going on.

Altamont is not the great book one wishes it had been, something both self-possessed and other-possessed, both definitive chronicle and hellish vision. (A tall order, but wishes usually are.) Aspects of both fact and vision are compromised in the book by choices that might have been made differently. In the interest of narrative flow, Selvin abjures any citation apparatus or contextual attribution of source, which means you usually don’t know if specific information is coming from personal interview or published account, official record or anecdotal recollection. He has a tiresome tendency to repeat established details, as if the reader’s memory has been wiped every 10 pages: do we need to be reminded, halfway through the book, that Bill Graham was a “San Francisco concert promoter,” when he has already been mentioned a dozen times and had his career discussed at length? And Selvin is remarkably bland when writing about music qua music. Straight cliché, most of his descriptions read as if meant to hold space for later inspiration that never came. “Santana kicked the concert into gear with ‘Savor,’ a high-energy Latin drive with organist Gregg Rolie pumping fat chords into churning rhythm and guitarist Carlos Santana spraying the top with his machine-gun riffs.” “Jagger sang his ass off. . . . Richards burnished the searing six-minute performance with bristling, piercing guitar lines.” (Dave Marsh must be kicking himself.)

Fans watch Jagger at Altamont, moments before disaster. (Photo by Beth Bagby)

The wrap-up is terse, eloquent, satisfying without being smug. “In a single day,” Selvin writes, “the innocence of a generation was shattered. If Woodstock had been rock’s Promised Land, Altamont was its Hell.” As if we haven’t heard that one before. Is he going to rehearse the cliché or upend it? Neither, exactly – he is going somewhere else, a place both more affirming and more damning. Affirming of whatever loose and indefinable, nebulous and contradictory, but nonetheless inspiriting essence that was and still is characterizable as “the Sixties”: “Altamont was not the end of anything.   . . . All the ideas and aspirations for the evolution of consciousness that were at the heart of the movement still remain. That dream never died.” And damning of those who deserve it. There can be no novelty at this late date, no pretense of a “fresh perspective,” in naming the bands, bikers, and back-room grifters as the villains of Altamont. But that is what Selvin does, and there is nothing else he should do. Sifting these cold ashes, he cannot resort to the relativist cop-out that there was “enough blame to go around.” He assigns responsibility proportionally to people, groups, and poisonous acid, but places the last and most determinative portion where he believes it belongs. Suffice to say that many fans won’t be happy with the conclusion – but only through delusions of Trumpian scale will they be able to deny it. Time has borne out the verdict reached by Rolling Stone just weeks after December 6 had been laid in the ground, along with four bodies and countless illusions: “Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.”

Example: no one would authorize The Stones’ private chopper to be used to evacuate Meredith Hunter to the nearest hospital. He wouldn’t have survived. But that’s hardly the point.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is devinmckinney.com.

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