Today marks the year's true dash down the gauntlet of memory: December 6, a date that lives in infamy among connoisseurs of chaos not merely as Pearl Harbor's Eve but as the anniversary of a notorious concert at Altamont Speedway in Alameda County, California.
You remember Altamont--the time the Rolling Stones celebrated the close of their autumn 1969 U.S. tour by inviting 500,000 or so of their closest friends to a party chaperoned by the Hell's Angels, who kept the peace by beating on people with billiard cues and playing pin-the- Buck-knife-on-the-brother?
One good thing about Altamont: Even though it beats hell out of Woodstock as synecdoche for life in these United States circa 1969, nobody ever talks about Altamont Nation. Nobody bores you with a droning exegesis about how he almost went to Altamont, but had to work carrying Sheetrock. And now that the big day has arrived we probably won't see too many Altamont parties, either. Nostalgiacs tend to shy away from bloodstains, and rush to embrace the sweet ill-remembered.
Yeah, yeah. I know. At Woodstock, 400,000 groovy people sat around in the rain for three days and had babies, man, and shared their tofu and acid and didn't kill each other-- supposedly. In all that mud, who'd have known if someone did wind up buying six feet of Yasgur's farm?
Woodstock was a commercial event fervently intended to profit on the hipnoscenti's herding instinct. The young men with unlimited capital who organized the show did so with intent to commit capitalism; they just weren't too good at it, although they were among the first to realize a fellow could put on a musical event and get away with listing "music" last among the ingredients.
In contrast, Altamont was a free show from the start, and perhaps that's why it had far more to do with the mood of those apocalyptic days than Woodstock did--this summer's mediafest notwithstanding-- contemporaneously or in hindsight. And why, three months into nationhood, Woodstockians had to face certain hard truths about the price of getting something for nothing.
Blame it on the Stones, particularly Mick Jagger, who stands like Sweeney Agonistes astraddle the divide between hipness and yuphood. A karma chameleon whose ability to manipulate situations to his advantage makes Gordon Gekko look like a nickel-and-dime lizardling, Mick has never met a social compact he couldn't violate in some extravagantly self-aggrandizing way, be it public pissing or gender bending or stealing an old black preacher's blues lyric. You can take the boy out of the London School of Economics but you can't take the London School of Economics out of the boy. It's a good act, though, nearly bulletproof, especially stateside, where even the palest echo of a Sloane Square drawl has the colonials eating out of your hand.
Now Mick's a man of wealth and taste--chateau in the Loire, a couple of yards of prime-grade Texas blonde in the boudoir--wise enough to insulate himself from faux pas, save when he slips the leash held by guardian angel Keith and puts out a solo album. Then, he was a lot less wealthy--albeit rich enough to pull the rank-outsider routine as only an arriviste can--and far less circumspect.
The year before he'd successfully wrapped himself in the cloak of rebellion with Beggar's Banquet. On 1969's Let It Bleed, Jagger jacked the ante, casting himself not as the prince of darkness but as the midnight rambler, index finger (or was it a dagger?) jabbed skyward in the direction of all society's conventions. If a few years ago he'd been a twitching hobbledehoy, he was now king of the sansculottes, a murderous urchin baying at the palace gate, just a shot away shot away shot away-yay- yay-yay-yeah. It was Mick who idly mused about a free concert at a midtour press conference, and with that careless whisper set into motion a vast contrivance of wheels within wheels, many of them equipped with small, very sharp teeth.
Or blame it on the fans, and not merely the besotted masses who trudged out to the cold hillsides encircling the speedway, but all of us who clogged the era's aisles. If pop music promoters represent an evolution of the old smash-and-grab into a more genteel form of rapine, pop audiences represent a devolution of manners. Before Woodstock, people went to concerts to hear music; after Woodstock, they went to concerts to be at concerts. O Lord, how many geeks have we seen wander around wrapped in a quilt in 80-degree heat, or invade the orchestra without even the pretense of a ticket stub, always managing, like pigeon dung on a windshield, to be exactly where they shouldn't be? That's the genuine legacy of Woodstock: the audience as self-celebrating entity--barbaric yawper, singer of its own bloated body electric, crasher of the expensive seats, sasser of ushers, mouther of a million demands for encore upon encore, spurrer into being of Altamont. It was a perfectly balanced equation: If the Stones hadn't said they'd play, no one would have showed up; if no one had showed up, the Stones wouldn't have played.