Saturday, March 6, 2010

Saturday Night at the Speedway

The final paper for Reading Popular Culture is something of a magna opus for me. I wrote this, and the following two final papers for my other English course over the span of about nine hours (fairly continuous span with breaks for a bit of food, more coffee, and less-than-healthy amount of breaks for stretches and peeing; such is the life I signed up for in doing this— I've been in the real world, this stuff is easy).

I'm still waiting to do my paper on musical hijacking of popular culture circa 1990-92, but like that one, the idea for this one has long been germinating.

The date it was due was precisely the fortieth anniversary of the concert.


ENG 384
December 6, 2009
Final Essay

Saturday Night at the Speedway

Exposing Altamont in a Textural Analysis of
the Grateful Dead's "New Speedway Boogie"

"Some things aren't true even if they did happen,"
Ken Kesey once said.
Altamont is like that.
―Ralph J. Gleason

"New Speedway Boogie" was written and recorded by the Grateful Dead two months after the Altamont Free Concert, and appeared in June 1970 on the album Workingman's Dead. Robert Hunter, lyricist and non-performing member of the band, penned the song in in direct response to a series of articles that had been written over the course of the previous summer by the music critic Ralph J. Gleason in the San Francisco Chronicle. It was in the column "On the Town" where Gleason first challenged the Rolling Stones to perform a free concert in the Bay Area of California and months later, after they did so, condemned most everyone involved with the event (never acknowledging his own role in antagonizing the Rolling Stones to stage the concert). In this context, "New Speedway Boogie" offers unflinching yet cryptic views of Altamont and—more importantly—the blameful aftermath of it.

Please don't dominate the rap Jack,
if you've got nothing new to say
If you please don't back up the track
this train has got to run today.

In the opening lines, Robert Hunter directly addresses us as listeners, using a proper name in a generic sense, calling us "Jack" just as if we might be called "son" or "friend." But with this use of Jack, Hunter cites Ralph J. Gleason by name, even if it is not his commonly used moniker, and suggests he not continue to use his words to fuel any more fires, unless he has something more useful to impart.

I spent a little time on the mountain,
I spent a little time on the hill
Like some say you better run away,
others say you better stand still.

The mountain, in this case, can be equated with the source of wisdom and understanding, a mythic place of retreat where one can rest a while to accumulate balance and objectivity. But just as quickly as we have ascended that mountain, we are sitting on a hillside, showing that our narrative guide isn't claiming superiority for having been to that mountain where wisdom may be found. In the lore of rock lyric analysis, the Marxist and/or Freudian baseline of measurement can be equated to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, it is difficult to make references to a hill and not come around to Lennon and McCartney's "Fool on the Hill." In this case, Altamont was a hill seated with 300,000 fools.

Now I don't know, but I been told
it's hard to run with the weight of gold
On the other hand I heard it said
it's just as hard with the weight of lead.

Once more—in a recurring theme not only to this song, but in much of Robert Hunter's repertoire—our story-teller assures us that they are not the authoritative voice on the subject, but they might know a thing or two nonetheless. The narrator has never done so, but has heard that being burdened with gold (ill-gotten or freely acquired) makes it difficult to move very quickly. However, a burden carried is still a burden no matter what the substance may be.
With Altamont, there was plenty of blame to go around and yet no one seemed to step forward and pick up any share of it. While it may be true that no one involved toted away sacks of money from Altamont, what weighed on the conscience of anyone who had been there was, in some respects, far heavier than lead.

Who can deny, who can deny,
it's not just a change in style?
One step gone and another's begun
and I wonder how many miles?

These lines offer a pair of rhetorical questions and express uncertainty about purpose and distance to reach what is needed or intended. Both of these factors—viewed with the benefit of hindsight—are easily placed upon the era in which Altamont took place. Following the success of the Woodstock Festival, the counter-culture of the late sixties felt they had achieved what few other cultures had in history, that of staging a libertarian ideal society—albeit, for only a few days in a relatively small location. Altamont would prove to be the undoing of any naïve considerations that such a congregation could be staged at will.

During the summer of 1969, Gleason used his column in the San Francisco Chronicle to harangue the Rolling Stones about exorbitant ticket prices and accused them of having contempt for their audience. Since they had given a free concert in London's Hyde Park in early July, Gleason antagonistically baited the band into offering a free concert in San Francisco. The band responded with plans to perform in Golden Gate Park at the end of their tour.

Logistics and city ordinances prevented Golden Gate Park from being the site of their planned show, and, after a location at the Sears Point Raceway fell through, a last-minute—literally two days before the event was scheduled—the Altamont Speedway was offered as a suitable site for the concert. Even amidst the planning of the concert, Gleason kept his antagonistic attitude in print, "Are the Rolling Stones seriously going to appear next weekend? Your guess is as good as mine" (Gleason, "A Few Guesses").

I spent a little time on the mountain,
I spent a little time on the hill
I saw things getting out of hand,
I guess they always will.

At some point in the process, the Hells Angels were hired to act as security at the concert. The decision to use the Hells Angels remains a source of contention among all parties involved. The Angels had often been present at Grateful Dead concerts around the Bay Area, and having been involved with Ken Kesey's Acid Tests, were considered to be the "noble savages" of the counter-culture movement in California. But Altamont was no Grateful Dead concert, and Ken Kesey's workingman's charisma was far closer to the Angels disposition than the androgyne prancing and preening of Mick Jagger. In the Maysles' film Gimme Shelter, Angel Sonny Barger can be seen glaring at Jagger with an unstoned look that would make contempt and disgust seem serenely pleasant.

In a diatribe heard the day after Altamont on KSAN radio station, Barger claimed that the Angels were asked to sit on the edge of the stage and keep people away from equipment and performers. But Barger also claimed that at one point in the evening he held a gun to Keith Richards' head and told him to keep playing or he'd be killed—a claim that has no corroborating witnesses. Various other stories hold that the Angels were given $500 in beer to police the event, or, as Gleason reported afterwards, a "truckload." Whatever specific arrangements were made between organizers and the Hells Angels, as the day progressed, and beer and other substances were consumed, the Angels seemed less like a security force and more like domineering vigilantes; like outlaw bikers. The pool cues they wielded—as ubiquitously seen in the film Gimme Shelter—were pre-loaded with lead weights, brought along with obvious intention on using them.

In a brief essay written for the Criterion Films release of Gimme Shelter, Stanley Booth shares a first hand opinion of the day. "The violence at Altamont, being completely unexpected, came afterward to seem inevitable." That sentiment is shared by many, regardless of their proximity to the event itself. Forty years later Robert Hughes quotes, "'It was a day that was oppressive and dark,' recalls Chris Hillman, whose Flying Burrito Brothers shared the bill, 'and the ending was the worst scenario you could imagine.'"

Even before mid-afternoon, there was something menacing in the air. "The Stones arrived by helicopter and walked, flanked by their mysterious New York musicians guards, through the crowd, when a long-haired youth ran at Jagger screaming, 'I'm gonna kill you! I hate you!' He slugged Jagger in the face. Jagger wasn't hurt, only bruised; but it was an ill omen for the day" (Gleason, "Aquarius Wept").

During the Jefferson Airplane's performance, singer Marty Balin jumped off the stage into a melee of Angels and audience members in an attempt to break up the fight. As Gleason recounts, "One of the Angels decked Balin and when Thompson [the Airplane's manager] asked, 'What did you do that for?' replied, 'He spoke disrespectful to a brother Angel.' Paul Kantner, still onstage, asked, 'What's going on? They're beating up on my lead singer!'" (Gleason, "Aquarius Wept"). Upon their arrival, Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead were told about the Hells Angels beating up Marty Balin and that the scene was rapidly deteriorating—had gone from terrible to horrid. The Grateful Dead elected not to perform and quickly departed. But they would not remain silent about the event for long.

Now I don't know, but I been told
in the heat of the sun a man died of cold
Do we keep on coming or just stand and wait
with the sun so dark and the hour so late?

Once again citing an unauthoritative stance, our narrative guide offers up another paradox, this time in almost strictly folklore terms, of someone freezing to death as they feel the warmth of sunshine. It calls to mind a line in "Oh Susannah"—"the sun's so hot I froze to death, Susannah don't you cry."

We are also given another question, and even if it is rhetorical, it is asked with a sense of urgency as to what might happen if the question isn't at least addressed, if not answered outright.

Altamont is often cited as being the death of the sixties—the expiration of the ideal that seemed to have reached its epoch with the Woodstock Festival a few months earlier. In this light, the question asked by our nameless story-teller in "New Speedway Boogie" could be just that. Was Altamont the end of an era? Or was it just as likely that it exposed an era for what it really was—stripping away the Day-Glo paint and psychedelic visions for something cold and festering that lurks in the shadows the places sometimes better left unseen? Ethan A. Russell wrote, "Mick Taylor [of the Rolling Stones] responded when asked if he thought Altamont was the end of the '60s, 'Well, it was the end of the sixties, wasn't it? It was December 1969.'"

If, as Wavy Gravy stated numerous times about Woodstock, for a few days a cow pasture became a little piece of heaven (and Jimi Hendrix became the Celestial Gypsy at the summit of the psychedelic era), then for a few hours one dark evening, Altamont became a smoldering pit of hell (with Mick Jagger cast as Lucifer in brimstone).

You can't overlook the lack Jack,
of any other highway you ride
It's got no signs, no dividing lines,
and there's very few rules to guide.
I spent a little time on the mountain,
I spent a little time on the hill
Things went down we don't understand
but I think in time we will.

Regardless of medium—film, essay, radio rant, song—Altamont seemed doomed from the moment it was pressured into conception. It would be easy to formulate the situation as being one of a rape victim giving birth. Ralph Gleason, in this scenario, would be the rapist, the Rolling Stones a willing, if slightly reluctant, accomplice, and Altamont the unwanted child born. The victim would be not only Meredith Hunter, but also everyone who participated, even with the best of intentions. But, since we are discuss myth and folklore, it is fitting to cite the proverb about those intentions—that this road with no signs nor lines to guide, is smoothly paved en route to some infernal place up ahead in the unknown darkness, The experience at Altamont scarred the psyche of people who were there, the era which spawned it, and the history and mythology of rock and roll itself. What "went down we don't understand" and even forty years later, we struggle with the questions it has left us.

"Perhaps Ralph J. Gleason was responsible for Altamont," Norma Coates wrote in an lengthy essay about the event. She doesn't shy away from indicting numerous participants: "Or Mick Jagger? Sonny Barger? Woodstock? All or none of the above? After all, one could, based on the evidence, argue that it was the venerable San Francisco Chronicle music critic [...] who goaded the Rolling Stones into performing a free concert at the Altamont Speedway..." From these cutting remarks, Coates lapses into the dialogue of folklore, and strays from the evidence she so recently cited. "As the story goes, the Stones danced a little too close to the devil, in the form of the Hells Angels, that fateful day. The Angels beat up a lot of people and then killed a young black man, while Mick Jagger callously sang and danced along to 'Sympathy for the Devil'. Thus, the 1960s ended, along with the utopian promise of that decade and the youth counterculture."

Coates condemns Gleason, Jagger, and the Angels, but misses the tiny fact that Meredith Hunter came to the foot of the stage armed with a pistol, which he fired shortly before his grotesque demise. Perhaps that day was fated to be the taint of an era? As was previous quoted, "The violence ... seem[ed] inevitable" (Stanley Booth); "A day ... oppressive and dark" (Chris Hillman); and from Gleason himself: "Jagger wasn't hurt, only bruised; but it was an ill omen for the day."

Now I don't know, but I been told
if the horse don't pull you got to carry that load
I don't know whose back's that strong
but we'll maybe find out before too long...

If a pack animal—or, in modern terms, a motorized vehicle—ceases to haul what it should, the only immediate option is to pick up what is needed and move forward as best as is able. Concerning Altamont, the load to be shouldered is that of responsibility. But as Russell considers, "No one ever really took responsibility for what happened at Altamont. Not the Angels, not the people in the crowd, not the Rolling Stones. Each person involved seemed to conclude, each with their own reason, that somehow what happened had nothing [...] to do with them."

But even as no one wants the responsibility for the collision of cultural history with musical folklore at the foot of the stage in the Altamont Speedway the night of December 6, 1969, more than a few would like to offer their opinions on how it all went wrong and who should take the blame.

In a July 1972 Newsday article, Robert Christgau famously wrote, "Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended." But a paragraph later, Christgau gives us more than an apt summation of our interest in the complex metaphor of Altamont, instead of genuine facts in the transpiring of events, he lays a powerful cornerstone in musical folklore—that apocryphal rock and roll history that perhaps should have been but wasn't. "Denouement:" Christgau tells us, "An Afro-American bohemian is murdered by a lower-class white Hells Angel while the Englishmen do a song called 'Sympathy for the Devil.'"

Not that actuality survives long in the midst of rock and roll mythology, but fact of the matter was, when Meredith Hunter was murdered, the Rolling Stones were playing "Under My Thumb." But doesn't the story sounds better—more gruesome and grim; more dire and bleak—if the song being performed was "Sympathy for the Devil"?

When Stanley Booth commented that the violence at Altamont later seemed inevitable, we can place in the confluence of events up to Altamont—and the lingering bitterness of its blameful aftermath—something else that seems more metaphoric than real. In February 1969 the Rolling Stones recorded the song "Gimme Shelter" in which Jagger sings—
Rape, murder, it's just a shot away‚ it's just a shot away . . .
—it's seems only appropriately poetic a year later to hear the Grateful Dead reply in the last lines of "New Speedway Boogie":
One way or another
One way or another
One way or another, this darkness has got to give.

Which brings us back to Ralph Gleason's quote of Ken Kesey. "Some things aren't true even if they did happen."

Even a cursory glance at the matter shows that Altamont was just that.

It happened. But it can't possibly be true.


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