Stones, Hendrix and Altamont
“Happy New Year’s, man….” Jimi Hendrix was playing with his new band at the east coast’s rock church the Fillmore East. It was New Year’s Eve 1969-1970. There was an ugliness in the air and the counterculture was not immune. From Charlie Manson to the December murder at the Altamont rock festival and from the Justice Department to Vietnam, the shit was hitting the fan. A group of eight counterculture guerrillas, antiwar activists, pacifists and even a Black Panther were on trial for conspiracy to riot in Chicago. Panther Fred Hampton was murdered in his bed by a government hit squad and the Weatherman unit had thrown a few Molotovs they would characterize as ineffectual. The Chicago Conspiracy verdict was less than two months away. The Beatles album Abbey Road was a great listen but the apple of their eye was rotting.
The Rolling Stones had pegged the entire emotion of the time with their song “Gimme Shelter” on the new album Let It Bleed. War and Killing was just a shot away and it was coming to white people’s hometowns. A bad moon really was rising…Reefer was in short supply, thanks to a lockdown at the Mexican border. Alcohol and harder stuff was filling in the blanks in people’s brains. Thank god for the Brotherhood of Eternal Love and their orange sunshine acid. At least something was still psychedelic. Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys played a handful of tunes in two separate sets that night. Buddy Miles song “The Changes” expressed a certain current underlying the decennial dissonance. “My mind is going through them changes/I keep going out of my mind….” Changes were certainly coming and lots of them weren’t going to be so great. The Fillmore was sold out that night. Filled with a wide assortment of counterculture freaks, wannabes and has-beens, it was rocking. Promoter Bill Graham was disappointed with the first show and convinced/inspired Hendrix to kick ass during the second one. He did. The first show wasn’t too shabby either.
The band was pretty new. Personality conflicts and other differences had finally broken up the Experience and Jimi’s new group was now all black. Supposedly, the racial makeup was also intentional. Hendrix had been under fire from certain black nationalists concerning his white band members and had been searching for suitable musicians to form a new band with. Billy Cox and Buddy Mile’s filled the bill nicely. Indeed, Hendrix and Cox had played together when both were in the US Army. An album was released a few months later that featured excerpts from the New Year’s Eve shows. As it turned out, the ensemble would last less than a month more. Four months later, Hendrix and another band that included Cox and Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell would play one of Hendrix’s last concerts in the United States.
This concert would be memorialized in the film Jimi Plays Berkeley. Barely a month after the US invasion of Cambodia, Hendrix played at the Berkeley Community Theater while thousands rioted and marched in the streets outside. Being Berkeley, the level of political rage had sustained the anger at the invasion and the subsequent murder of at least six students in the protests that followed well past protests in other cities and towns around the country. In addition, the fact that there were many who did not get into the show and felt they should have added to the sense of outrage. Hendrix and the band had little or no knowledge of the latter aspect of the riots outside, however.
The Grateful Dead, a band that served as unwilling spiritual leader and lyrical commentator on the infant counterculture was hard at work recording two albums that would define not only much of their 1970s outlook, but also the mixed message that had been coming down the psychedelic pike since that fateful and dramatic year 1968. If there was one message that had become clear during that traumatic annum, it was that the defenders of the status quo—with its wars, racial hatred and just plain unhipness—was not going to give up their rule without a big fight. The awareness of this was the reason for a good deal of debate throughout those attempting to change that world, culturally, politically or both. One result was a trend toward self-reflection. The politicos would call it self-criticism. Sometimes this phenomenon was nothing more than navel-gazing while at other times it seemed a genuine attempt to truly figure out how to move ahead.
An example of the latter can be found in Ed McClanahan’s essay on the Altamont concert. McClanahan, who was a friend and colleague of Ken Kesey, Robert Stone and a number of other writers who had joined together under the auspices of Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner Fellowship and had gone on to help create the San Francisco psychedelic scene from their bohemian Palo Alto neighborhood called Perry Lane, used the Grateful Dead song “New Speedway Boogie” for his essay. This song, with lyrics written by the Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, discussed the Altamont event in terms of the growing pains of a new culture.
Like the Chicago riots, the May 1968 French Rebellion and the 1968 Olympics were to politics, the December 1969 Altamont concert that featured the Rolling Stones as a headliner and resulted in the death of a black concertgoer by a few drunk and wasted Hell’s Angels was a bellwether event in the counterculture. The murder and general darkness surrounding the concert forced many in the counterculture to question where their Aquarian movement was truly heading. The Grateful Dead, fulfilling their role as both chronicles and philosophers of the culture, wrote not one but two songs about the events of that day.
What was the counterculture? To the casual observer it might be described thusly. It was a primarily white, originally middle-class, and relatively well-educated phenomenon that grew out of the “Beat movement.” Not nearly as dark as certain elements of the Beat culture, its naiveté was reflected in the bright colors worn by many of its adherents. Instead of speed and alcohol as drugs of choice, the new psychedelic drug LSD served as the Eucharist. Both enjoyed a fondness for marijuana. The desire to reject what the Beats called square remained, yet there seemed to be no intentional plan to replace it. Instead, what transpired was a frustrated attempt to create community while allowing individual expression. As it turned out, the community aspect diminished while the individualist aspect strengthened. In the hyper capitalist society that the US was becoming, this would be no surprise. Furthermore, the way things turned out in this regard exemplifies the hegemony of that system. In other words, those determined to establish and maintain oppositional communities were up against a societal context that denied the importance of those types of community in favor of the aforementioned hyperindividualism.
This is an excerpt from a book Ron is writing on the 1970s and the counterculture.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.