An adapted excerpt from the as-yet-unpublished memoir:
1969: My Year with a San Francisco Drug Dealer
When we finally arrive at Altamont, we’re not even close. We walk and walk past hundreds, thousands of cars until we get to the great grassy knoll with the stage at the bottom, far away from us.
So many people. Too many. I don’t think I would have been a happy camper at Woodstock, that giant refugee camp sporting a fabulous sound system along with endless mud and mess and trash and people, people, people. But unlike a real refugee settlement, Woodstock closed after a long muddy weekend because everyone had somewhere else to go. So for those few precious days, it was a miracle of peace and love that all those people so close together for so long in such conditions never let things descend into mayhem and murder! Wow!
But wasn’t the peace in large part due to the planning, the infrastructure — sketchy but there (and totally nonexistent here at Altamont) — of doctors and volunteers who helped people through bad trips, birthings, bugs? And the Hog Farm-er’s free food tent?
And wasn’t the peace due to the far-fucking-out, never-before-never-again music, mesmerizing Siren songs sent out into the sodden green-going-brown world: Richie Havens calling out for “A Little Help From My Friends”; Arlo Guthrie’s “Amazing Grace”; Joan Baez lifting her voice to “Oh, Happy Day”; Canned Heat’s “Let’s Work Together”? And Jimi Hendrix ending it on a mud-covered Monday morning with the “Star Spangled Banner” of Star-Spangled-fucking-Banners? Music as an ecstatic inflammation of the soul, hot pulses burning tiger bright into each mud-spattered, starry-eyed head? A clarion call to ancient sleeping deities: oh, come out and play, ye gods of the rain and the clotted sky and goddesses of the meadow and the slippery earth, come and charge the air with your electric presence for a precious moment, this moment, so we can remember and reshape and rejoin and live in the everlasting hum of now and forever, each of us our own axis mundi joining heaven and earth with an undulating spine and a dance of oscillating joy?
Sisters and brothers, let us now join hands and change the world.
Okay, okay, so maybe Woodstock was a miracle of sorts, and had I been there, I may have stepped over some internal barbed-wire fence, let go of my need for individuality, for privacy, for all those precious Americanisms that keep us just free enough to choose which ruthless corporate interest we wish to be manipulated by, and I’d have become one with the slippery mass of blissed-out, music-drenched souls, letting the wet clinging mud and the guitars and drums and voices mold me into one of the People of the Clay, the People of the Song, the People of the Vast Churning Meadow of Mud.
But here at Altamont, even out in the hinterlands, perched high up on the lip of the bowl, we know we’re not in Oz anymore. Or Woodstock. No rainbow, no rain, dry as an old bone and the vibe seems dry, too, taut and torn, ragged, off-key. The big, cranky sound system goes dead for long stretches, severing the umbilical cord of music that sustains us. And instead of Wavy Gravy keeping the peace with “please don’t do this, please do that instead,” we have security courtesy of the Hell’s Angels, paid with $500 worth of beer.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young come on but seem tense, off their game. After they warble their last note, we’re in for a long, nerve-wracking wait.
Bring on the Dead!
We don’t know that the Grateful Dead have decided not to come out and play. We wait-wait-wait-wait-wait-wait, the crowd-buzz sounding more and more like cicadas gone mad, a guitar string about to snap, tension rising with the full moon that sneaks up behind the hillside like a grinning devil’s head. The super-stoned-out crowd is flirting with hysteria when lights blaze on the stage far, far away and a little silken figure, black on one side and red on the other, begins to prance around to the tune of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
His Satanic Majesty has commenced leaping and twitching, flapping like fire in the midst of the demon-choir of Angels that surrounds him, and the crowd stops holding its collective breath. Ahhh. Mick will take care of everything. The Stones are tough dudes. They are magic men. But during the third song, the music grinds to a halt. Mick’s manic gyrating call to name the evil one! stops dead, his silken wings go limp, and he’s on the microphone sounding nervous. Sounding whiny. Sounding like he’s not tough or magical, calling on his brothers and sisters to cool out over there, all right?
“Sympathy for the Devil” may have been satire, but when the Devil hears you singing an ode to him, maybe he doesn’t need to be invited twice. Maybe he thinks it’s “satyrical” — ha!
The Stones begin again, making it to song seven, “Under My Thumb,” before Mick has to call for a doctor, an ambulance. Miraculously, panic does not ensue. The music goes on. The music prevails, but the grand finale, “Street Fighting Man,” falls pretty falsely on our freaked-out ears. While rumors of violence and mayhem ripple through the night, we walk away under a full fat moon in Scorpio that floods the land with cold dead light, all of us save four: one killed by an Angel, three others in accidents.
Altamont is labeled the anti-Woodstock, the bad, sad end of the waning Summer of Love, the last crashing stop of the ‘60’s peace and love train. But maybe it’s not about peace and love at all. Maybe it’s about music. About music’s power to create realities, to connect us to what’s out there, and what’s in here. For better or worse.
Woodstock was a clarion call of one sort, and Altamont another entirely.
Jeanne Wilkinson is a Brooklyn artist and writer. Her writing has been on NPR’s Living on Earth and Leonard Lopate Show, and in Columbia Journal, Digging Through the Fat, and Raven’s Perch, and her experimental videos featured at BAM, the Greenpoint and New York Independent Film Festivals, and 13th St. Repertory Theater.
NOVEMBER 9, 2018 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #15 / MUSIC