– 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 carrying 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.