Sunday, August 19, 2012

Not My Generation

When John Lennon was killed, it brought a swift end to the speculation that had lasted a decade that there would be a reunion of The Beatles. However you look at it, or at whatever value you place their music, I think it was a good thing the Lads from Liverpool never had a chance to reunite. Just look at the bands that never broke up, or broke up only to reunite - men now in their sixties or seventies, with dyed hair and replaced hips, patiently mouthing the words of songs that they wrote when they were kids, as if they were singing something meaningful instead of the same tired old rock songs of rebellion.

The Who, formed in 1964, lost their drummer, Keith Moon in 1978, and eventually their bassist John Entwistle in 2002. It didn't stop them from touring with replacements. Pink Floyd, formed in 1963, has dissolved and re-formed several times. Led Zeppelin lost their drummer, John Bonham, in 1980, and broke up - only to reunite with Bonham's son in 2007 for one concert.

Upon learning last month of the 50th anniversary of the formation of The Rolling Stones, I yawned - an involuntary reflex to raise the oxygen level in my lungs. The news didn't make me "feel my age". I was 4 when the band was formed. Though contemporaries, I have never felt in the least contemporaneous with The Stones.

Roger Daltrey, of The Who, once famously remarked that "if you remember the Sixties, you weren't there." The Stones were there, and if they remember any of it it's only thanks to all the now-valuable mementos lying around them. I choose to remember them from a concert that took place on December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. I wasn't at that particular concert (I was only 11), but the whole disastrous show was immortalized, if that is the word, by the Albert and David Maysles documentary, Gimme Shelter. Certain scenes from the concert became evidence in a murder investigation involving a man, Meredith Hunter, who had come to the concert with his girlfriend (and a concealed pistol) high on methamphetamine, and Alan Passaro, a member of The Stones' hired security team, who was also a member of the Hell's Angels biker gang. Sam Cutler, road manager for The Stones, had hired the gang, their agreement was that they be paid in beer and do nothing but sit on the stage and prevent any rapes or murders in the crowd. They might as well have hired the Manson Family.

Since the concert was general admission, there was a constant crush of people in front of the stage. The Hell's Angels members drank their beer (reportedly $500 worth) and got drunk, while the crowd got high on LSD and meth. Predictably, the mood of the crowd degenerated. While Mick Jagger pranced around the stage like a popinjay, singing songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under My Thumb", there were people being beaten and one of them, Meredith Hunter, lost his temper. Alan Passaro intercepted him as he was heading toward the stage, the pistol appeared (as the footage showed) and Passaro stabbed him in the head, killing him on the spot. He was 18.

It was just a few months since Woodstock had set a misleading standard for such outdoor concerts. Altamont was a heavy dose of reality that taught promoters to take better precautions. Coming as it did at the very end of the Sixties, the concert was a chilling end to the "Summer of Love".

Many years and many tours later, I can't watch The Stones perform without recalling Altamont. All the while they played their hits to the crowd, the Hell's Angels were simply living up their reputation, jostling and beating anyone who approached the stage. Mick only objected to the violence when it was too late.

Who could forget the tough language of some of The Stones songs, their straining so hard at a raw, bad boy image and sound, while the real bad boys punched and knifed their way through their fans? I always knew that their music was watered down blues, that their cultivated image as bad boys was nothing but a pose. Mick and Keith Richards were college students when they met, not unemployed street kids. If it was their intention to sound slovenly and rough-edged and clumsily literate, they succeeded. Altamont showed me how much The Rolling Stones wasn't much more than a Boy Band. Happy birthday, Old Boys.

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