What's not being celebrated

Posted: Thursday, August 13, 2009

If the Americans who fought World War II are the Greatest Generation, their children are the Greatest Erasers. That's why all week long you're going to hear Joni Mitchell singing about bombers turning into butterflies over Woodstock, and not Mick Jagger warning that rape, murder, it's just a shot away at Altamont.

Altamont is the rock festival that self-congratulatory children of the 1960s don't want to remember, the one where Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones watched the Hell's Angels they'd hired as security guards beat, stab and kill audience members right in front of the stage.

Like Woodstock, Altamont celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. But, oddly, nobody speaks of the spirit of Altamont Nation living on. Nor, for that matter, that of the Manson Nation, which also reached its full dark bloom 40 years ago, with flower children creeping out of their desert commune to slaughter seven people - one of them an unborn baby - whose only crime was to have money.

Sometime in the future, when their grip on the levers of the media has loosened, somebody will write a real history of the 1960s and the political awakening of Baby Boomers that will acknowledge it was marked by arrogance, self-indulgence, irresponsibility and totalitarian impulses.

When it does, Woodstock and Altamont will be combined in a single chapter, for it was the delusions of one that led to the tragedy of the other. The three-day rock festival at Woodstock was, by any reasonable measure, a disaster: Hundreds of thousands of narcotized kids wallowing around in the mud, leaving behind so much sodden debris that more than one festival organizer compared the place to a Civil War battlefield.

Their idea of preparation for a three-day campout was to load up on drugs rather than food, water or medical supplies, and if military choppers hadn't bailed them out, Woodstock might have ended in the hippie apocalypse that a lot of people feared. The festival's real lesson was one already well known to America's parents: Kids, left without adult supervision, will make a mess.

But the kids made their own myth: that "the brothers and sisters could get it together if they just didn't have The Man messing with them," as journalist and filmmaker Michael Dolan put it. Leftist radical Abbie Hoffman even wrote a book about the festival that declared there were two Americas: the sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll crowd of Woodstock Nation, and everybody else, Pig Nation.

The-People-and-The Pigs dichotomy was a common one in 1960s radical politics, a literal dehumanization of political opponents even before Hoffman's tirade had already reached terrifying proportions. After Charles Manson's band of countercultural assassins butchered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and three houseguests with more than a hundred stab wounds, they smeared the word PIGS on the wall in blood. Across the country, Weather Underground bomber Bernadine Dorhn bubbled over with approval: "Dig it! First they killed those pigs and then they ate dinner in the same room with them and then they put a fork in pig Tate's belly. Wild!"

The logical corollary - that anybody who was against The Pigs must be with The People - was put to the test scarcely three months after Woodstock, when the Rolling Stones put on a free daylong concert near San Francisco at the Altamont Speedway. The Stones didn't even want the off-duty cops, carefully coached to ignore nudity and drug use, who had helped maintain what little order there was at Woodstock. Instead, Jagger gave several dozen Hell's Angels $500 worth of beer in return for providing security services.

It turned out that hatred for The Pigs (which the Angels certainly had in abundance) didn't necessarily translate to love for The People. All day long the Angels waded into the audience, savagely swinging weighted pool cues at anyone within reach.

A documentary film crew captured victims in front of the stage, tearfully gazing at Jagger and mouthing the word Why? He provided no answer - prudently, perhaps, since when Jefferson Airplane guitarist Marty Balin tried to intervene, the Angels beat him unconscious. Jagger just went on with his set, and as he broke into "Under My Thumb," the Angels stabbed and clubbed a teenager named Meredith Hunter to death. "I am not no peace creep by no stretch of the word," unrepentant Angels boss Sonny Barger sneered the next day.

The killing of Meredith Hunter didn't prove that rock festivals are deathtraps. What it did prove was that Woodstock, not Altamont, was the aberration; that rock 'n' roll was no more capable of creating the New Man than were the commissars in Moscow and Beijing and Havana. Joni Mitchell was wrong: The Baby Boomers were neither stardust nor golden.

Not that the flower children were incapable of remorse. After finishing his set at Altamont, Mick Jagger was helicoptered back to his hotel, where he begged his favorite groupies for a night of group sex. It would help heal his psychic wounds, he said. Please to meet you, hope you guessed my name.

• Glenn Garvin is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at ggarvinmiamiherald.com.

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