You Can Check Out Any Time You Like
“Hey man, are you high?”
As the ‘60s progressed it seemed that one hellish nightmare landed atop another in rapid succession. A distant war that can be interpreted a dozen ways, ghetto blacks frustrated with having their civil rights denied (even after an act of Congress) and disaffected (mostly white) youth who, at least for the moment, had no intention of repeating their parent’s “mistakes.”
Eventually, it brought down Lyndon Johnson, who decided in ‘68 not to run for re-election. His ‘64 campaign slogan was “All The Way With LBJ.” Four years later, America clearly didn’t appreciate the trip.
There was a test of wills between the eat and west. So American troops burned villages rather than have them taken over by the Viet Cong. Destroy a village to save it. What a concept.
The U.S. sent military advisors to South Vietnam in 1958. Vietnam had been divided, like Korea, following the Second World War. North Vietnam was a communist and did have backing from both the Soviet Union and China - two very large and powerful nations. South Vietnam was a developing democracy (though corrupt to the core) and capitalist. However, the North Vietnamese were driven to re-unify the country, which they eventually did in 1975. But in 1965, the increasing number of military advisors going to Vietnam was beginning to attract attention. By the end of the year, more than 500-thousand U.S. troops were fighting in that country.
Should the U.S. have troops in South Vietnam?
Why are we there?
Politicians direly warned, lose here and all is lost in Southeast Asia. But what were the real motivations for U.S. involvement and eventual escalation. Was it really a classic battle between eat and west, between communism and capitalism/democracy? Or was this merely an attempt to secure Vietnam’s vast off-shore oil reserves? A war for oil - a charge that would taint later U.S. military adventures. If it was a war for oil the expenditures quickly wiped any potential profit.
Or maybe there was something more sinister going on. Was it in the best interest of the U.S. military industrial complex to keep Vietnam going? Wars need planes, guns, vehicles and bullets, production that was good for the economy. Also, an on-going struggle kept the Cold War top of mind so there would be little public support for cutting “defense” budgets. The war, or any war, allowed the military industrial complex to raise its profile and extend its reach into American life.
Decades after the war’s conclusion no one really knows for certain just what the hell was going on. Possibly it was all of the above. But it did seem that the U.S. motives were suspect and continued to rise through the decade, polarizing the nation.
Older Americans generally endorsed the war effort as a way to contain communism. Younger people were often opposed, seeing the situation as a civil war where the U.S. had no business. There was the feeling it was easy for "old men" to send young people off to war. Of course it wasn't. Also, a disproportionate number of African-Americans were sent overseas, unable to work the system to escape the draft – like oh say, a Bill Clinton or George Bush. Those two future presidents managed to bury, obfuscate or refuse to discuss another seminal ‘60s issue.
It’s virtually impossible to separate drugs from the ‘60s youth counter-culture. Everything was up for grabs in an age of experimentation and rebellion. The initial goal, if there was one at all, was to create a higher consciousness, open minds and ultimately create a better person. Being Americans taking a pill or some other quick fix was an appealing route to this nirvana.
In everything from clothing to art, vibrant colors, black lights, strobes and visual illusions were designed to facilitate an altered state.
While there was a vast array of drugs available two drugs reached prominence. Marijuana was a plant based drug known for providing a euphoric feeling. LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) was chemical based and unhinged the brain heightening perceptions and creating a separate reality. While that might sound appealing, LSD had a problem. Reality still existed. If a person thought you could fly on LSD and actually tried to, the probably got seriously injured or killed. The drug also had a slight side-effect: it often turned users brains into hamburger. LSD well deserved its nickname “acid.”
Marijuana had been around forever. It was famously used by Jazz musicians decades earlier and even spawned the unintentionally hilarious ‘30s flick “Reefer Madness.” Marijuana had been available in black communities as a way to keep folks from getting agitated and in their place. For those using the drug, it was a great relief from the trials of living everyday life in poverty. But in the late ‘50s marijuana started to seep into white society.
Marijuana could be smoked, chewed, baked (often in brownies, thereby creating and satisfying the “munchies” – something Betty Crocker failed to mention) or even made into a tea. But smoking it was the most common use. A joint gave the user a nice buzz. Groovy man. What’s wrong with that? It was kind of like alcohol but without the bloated feeling or the violent mood swings. On the downside, it tended to slow people down to a near inert state and left users with “cotton mouth,” a truly wretched taste lodged in the mouth and throat. It took some doing to get rid of. Maybe another joint.
LSD was originally created by the U.S. Army as a mind control drug. Unfortunately for the Army, LSD produced such wildly varying responses in test subjects that it was deemed unreliable. The Army needed predictable reactions and LSD didn’t do that. Between the time when the military abandoned research and the government made LSD’s possession and use illegal (1965), because it was deemed dangerous for public consumption, a couple civilians latched onto LSD as a part wonder cure mixed with a personal thrill ride.
Author Ken Kesey launched the Merry Pranksters, a drugged our road show. He documented their exploits in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which became a cult favorite, if not a best seller. But ultimately Kesey was a writer joy riding on LSD. Maybe somebody with a little more credibility was needed to endorse this new drug.
Dr. Timothy Leary, a psychologist, had taken hallucinogenic mushrooms while on vacation in Mexico. This experience literally changed his life. At Harvard in the early ‘60s, he began LSD experiments in an effort to combat alcoholism and deviant behavior. Well, wouldn’t you know it? Leary’s experiments raised a ruckus. Seemed parents weren’t pleased spending a fortune on tuition just so the facility could use their offspring as test subjects for a powerful hallucinogenic. In short order, Harvard cut Leary loose. Leary began forming theories on consciousness in an effort to create “a new paganism and a new dedication to life as art.” By the mid-60s, Leary had become the leading proponent becoming the LSD guru in the process. Concerns raged around the drug. LSD was thought to cause birth defects, suicides and mental illness. But then so does alcohol. But it was legal, LSD was not. The drug of choice seemed a generational preference.
For his efforts, Leary was immortalized in a couple songs. The Moody Blue’s song “Legend Of A Mind” has the fitting line “Timothy Leary is dead. No. No, he’s outside looking in.” The Who took a different and probably more accurate tact in “The Seeker.” The song is about seeking a universal truth. “I asked Timothy Leary, but he couldn’t help me either.” While the notion that a drug, any drug not just LSD, can raise spiritual consciousness seems laughable but at the time it was a real quest.
Leary’s drug advocacy and use eventually ran him afoul of the law. He went to prison but escaped. After an international manhunt he was returned to prison. In 1976, Leary was released from prison on the order of California governor Jerry Brown Jr, something of a space cadet himself.
Not everyone was looking for the universal truths in drugs. While The Beatles were filming Help!, George Harrison became intrigued with the sitar, and Indian stringed instrument, that was used as a prop. Seeking someone to teach him how to play it, Harrison came across sitar master Ravi Shankner. That relationship led to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Transcendental Meditation. TM had already established a foothold in the west when The Beatles ventured to a Maharishi seminar in England. It’s basic goal was to unchain the mind through meditation, allowing the conscious mind to realize its infinite potential. Wow. With The Beatles, Beach Boys, Donovan and Rolling Stone Brian Jones as patrons, the Maharishi was hot. The Beatles even headed a group of British musicians to India to hear the Maharishi’s teachings. Ringo didn’t like the food and went home early. Paul also drifted away. Only George and John stayed for the duration. But soon The Beatles had a falling out with the Maharishi. “He’s just a person, not a god,” John famously pointed out. He even wrote the cutting “Sexy Sadie” about the experience. The Maharishi continued but without The Beatles the whole TM movement went into steep decline.
First drugs and now eastern spiritualism had failed to show the way. The quest for enlightenment was damn difficult.
By any reckoning 1968 was a bad year. All the running debts were about to get cashed in. But just a year before, there was a ton of hope.
1967 had the “Summer Of Love” where it seemed peace and love would carry the day and end the misery in Vietnam- and provide a truer, better existence, one not bent on chasing the almighty dollar. A place where drugs would open the mind and expand consciousness, not create a hoard of cripples. The “Summer Of Love” kicked off with the release of The Beatles’ mind-blowing album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.” Critically praised, the album broke from traditional song subjects and musical arrangements. The opening track, a mock-live performance touting a fictional band, segued into a song by a fictional singer (Billy Shears - actually Ringo). There was song about “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (LSD you know, or so some said) and one about a meter maid (“Lovely Rita”). How many songs in all of music are about a meter maid? The reprise brought back Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to say goodbye before the album wrapped up with the crescendos of “A Day In The Life” (with separate sections written by John and Paul). The Beatles broke the mold with stunning success.
If The Beatles, having been around for four years were old news, there was plenty of new stuff. A brooding L.A. band called the Doors had the summer’s biggest hit, “Light My Fire” (edited from seven minutes to an acceptable three for AM radio).
The sun had set on the Beach Boys’ California. In L.A., The Doors, with SoCal immigrants Jim Morrison (born in Florida), Ray Manzarek (a Chicago native) and two local boys John Densmore and Robby Krieger penetrated the city’s dark side. They had no use for the “peace-love hippie world.” The Doors, occupied with sex and alcohol hallucinations, only occasionally dealt with politics and, as one might expect, they fell to the anti-war left. Most notably, they scored with “The Unknown Soldier,” a damning view of not only the war but American life. In the video (yes, video, both Morrison and Manzarek had been UCLA film students), Morrison is tied to a Santa Monica pier and executed. Huh? Well, everyone saw it as an anti-war statement, albeit a low budget one.
“Light My Fire” started with an organ riff that sounded like carnival music on acid. The chorus rode a ethereal A-minor, F-sharp minor chord progression before giving way to a rather standard Rock chorus. The lyrics rhymed “fire,” “liar,” mire” and “pyre.” This was different than the standard California oriented Rock song. No blondes, cars or surf - just troubled sexuality that hinted at destruction. The original version featured a percussive organ solo that gave way to a fluid, airy guitar with occasional flourishes. The song was perfect for lying on the floor, with the lights out, and trippin’. The whirling rush was perfect for the times as the Doors’ self-titled debut album was second only to “Sgt. Peppers” in sales.
The Monterey Pop Festival later that summer saw the dramatic arrival of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Big Brother & the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin). After years of struggling, The Who finally established themselves as a major act at Monterey. The event’s success caused Eric Burdon & the Animals, who also performed during the festival, to write a song about it. “Monterey” became a hit.
But the big happening was just up the coast from Monterey. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district was ground-zero for the youth counter-culture. The so-called “hippies” (the term an update of the ‘50s “hipster”) roamed the streets, living a communal life, and surviving on handouts and by selling trinkets on the street. Given the hippies’ utilitarian nature free concerts became “the thing.” The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane earned all sorts of positive karma for playing numerous free shows in Golden Gate Park and other local venues. Young people from around the world beat a path to the San Francisco utopia. So influential was this movement that Eric Burdon & the Animals wrote a song about it. “San Francisco Nights” was another huge hit.
Even if San Francisco was the center of the “Summer Of Love” universe, the scene was in real trouble. Heaven on earth had turned into a grubby mess. Bus tours were conducted through Haight-Ashbury so folks from Boston, Cleveland and even Birmingham (U.K. or U.S. - didn’t matter) paid mightily, at least four bucks, to view the human zoo. See braless women with unshaven legs! See the man with the foot long beard! Look at the hair! Is it a man or woman? Only there mother knows and she’s not even sure. Hippies. Hippies. See your dirty drug addled hippies. The show never ends.
The whole thing was reduced to a freak show. San Francisco hippies buried the whole thing with a grand procession but the people kept coming. There was even a limit to how much money the tourists would spend on hippie photos and trinkets. But as the “Summer Of Love” concluded nobody had any idea that all hell was going to break loose in just a few months.
One of the most strident groups in its political/anti-war beliefs was Steppenwolf - a collection of Canadians with an East German lead singer (John Kay) who bounced between L.A. and San Francisco before making it big with “Born To Be Wild. Among the group’s many political statements was the title track from their fourth album “Monster.” While it might seem foolhardy to set American history to music that’s just what vocalist John Kay attempted in this extended piece. But the underlining theme was that America had lost its way - if in fact, it was ever on track. The album also contained “Draft Resister” to drive home the point.
During this time several group’s made pro-drug songs including Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’. Alcohol (one of the most lethal drugs) fueled Jim Morrison’s visions as he sang “Break On Through (To The Other Side). Steppenwolf was unique in that they seemed to have their own, well thought out (or based on experience) drug policy. The songs “Magic Carpet Ride” and “Don’t Step On The Grass, Sam” gave tacit approval to psychedelics and marijuana but “The Pusher” and later, “Snowblind Friend” condemned heroin and cocaine use.
The Brits not willing to lose their hard won place in the Rock n’ Roll world ditched their long love of the Blues for psychedelic. But it took an American to lead the way. Figures.
Seattle born guitarist, Jimi Hendrix, traveled to London to make a name for himself. He played louder, with undeniable flare and incredibly faster than mere morals thought possible.
In England, Jimi’s skin color, stud reputation (deserved or not) and flamboyant dress drew immediate attention in the white dominated U.K. In other words, he was a master at playing the race card. That he was one of the two or three best guitarists that ever lived didn’t hurt.
While Hendrix was an import, England was able to develop some home grown heroes like Cream.
Cream amped it up and were fueled by Peter Brown’s (laughably) psychedelic lyrics. Countless British bands followed suit. While the U.S. was occupied with civil rights, draft resisters, social and political troubles, the British were unrelenting. They were not about to lose the American market.
“Strange days have found us, strange days have tracked us down.” Strange Days, The Doors
1968 started ominously when North Korean patrol boats seized the USS Pueblo, a Navy intelligence gathering vessel, within the country’s twelve-mile territorial waters (the U.S. only recognized three mile territorial limits). The crew is tortured and paraded around for propaganda purposes for eleven months before finally being released. Bad as that was the next event was lethal.
The Vietnam War had been escalating through the ‘60s. This was the year when it all came to a head. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese army practiced hit and run, gorilla warfare. With fluid or non-existent battle lines it was extremely difficult to measure the war’s progress. So the ever resourceful military developed the “body count” concept. Success was measured by the number of the enemy killed verses the number of U.S. troops. Each week the numbers were tallied and generally the enemies death toll exceeded the U.S. troops by four to five times . So, on paper at least, the U.S. and South Vietnamese government were winning. That illusion was wiped away on January 31st as 70,000 North Vietnamese troops launched the “Tet Offensive.” The battle moved from the jungles to the cities as the U.S. embassy in Saigon was captured and held for over six hours. Though the invading armies were eventually dislodged, the attack changed attitudes on whether the war was winnable. But there was more. On the second day of the battle, South Vietnamese security official, General Nguygen Ngoc Loan, was photographed putting a revolver to the head of a Viet Cong prisoner and pulling the trigger. The image flew around the world and fueled anti-war protests. Later reports that the prisoner was accused of killing a Saigon policeman and his family did little to quell the storm. As the first week came to a close there was a raging battle in the South Vietnam city of Ben Tre. During the battle a U.S. major is quoted “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” War is not pretty, nor is it a John Wayne movie. Daily war footage on the 6 O’ Clock News was making Americans uncomfortable, and not just young people.
Stateside senator Gene McCartney (Democrat- Minnesota) was mobilizing young people, a so-called “Children’s Crusade,” to win his party’s nomination, and become president, so he could end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Under the best of circumstances running against an incumbent president is a difficult task but taking on a president, in the same party, in the primaries, is political suicide. Though McCarthy lost the New Hampshire primary he came within a few hundred votes of the president, dangerously close to winning. A short time later Johnson, seeing the writing on the wall (he’d lost his party’s support) went on national T.V. to announce “I will not seek, not accept another term as your president.” Now the race was wide open. That led former attorney general and New York senator Robert Kennedy to enter the fray. The younger brother of the fallen president was seen reclaiming his family’s legacy.
As high the high drama played out in U.S. politics, Vietnam just wouldn’t go away. U.S. troops slaughter over 100 civilians in the hamlet of My Lai. Lt. William Calley was later convicted of war crimes and spent a few months under house arrest. The incident was yet another nail in the coffin of the war’s morality and righteousness.
The Civil Rights Movement which began haltingly in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was now gaining some real traction with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. But there was still more that needed to be done. There were those in black communities who felt the best thing was to arm themselves to fight off white oppression. The Black Panthers were one of the more obvious proponents of this position. While this view found favor, it was not the majority’s view. Reverend Martin Luther King, using marches and peaceful protests appeared the best route for racial equality. On April 4th, King visited Memphis to meet with local leaders regarding a planned Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. later that month. While greeting people arriving at the Lorraine Hotel, King was fatally shot. Though there were calls for “calm” coming from everyone from James Brown to Robert Kennedy, riots broke out in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark and Washington D.C. In the end, 46 people were killed.
In black communities King’s death was a lightening rod. A disproportionate number of blacks were being drafted and many of those that weren’t saw the army - and the military as a way to escape the ghetto. Of course, it might get them killed in the process. For those that stayed “home” life was difficult. Can’t get a job, mom got laid off from her hospital job and your kid brother is constantly hassled by the cops. Why? Because he’s black. Institutional racism for generation after generation. Finally it boiled over. How long can people be oppressed? Burn baby burn. Cities across America were torched.
Escaped convict, James Earl Ray was captured, in England (of all places) and returned to the U.S. to stand trial for killing Dr. King. How does a con get the money to buy the rifle used to kill King, flee to Toronto and then take a flight to England? Conspiracy? Sure, why not? Southern crackers had been plotting to kill King for years. But Ray was passed off as another “lone gunman” nut.
Having won California’s June 4th presidential primary, beating out McCarthy and vice-president Hubert Humphrey, Kennedy told his audience, at L.A’s Ambassador Hotel, “Let’s go on to Chicago and let’s win there!” The next stop was the Democratic convention in the windy city. It all seemed within reach. There were rousing cheers as Kennedy exited the hotel through the kitchen.
Reportedly upset by Kennedy’s pro-Israel comments, Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian living in L.A. fatally shot Kennedy in the head. In less than five years, two Kennedys had given their lives. In England, the Rolling Stones were working on “Sympathy For The Devil.” Upon hearing of Robert Kennedy’s death, Mick Jagger added the line “Who killed the Kennedys, well after all it was you and me.”
In August, with relative calm, the Republican Party nominated Richard Nixon in plush Miami Beach. The “new” Nixon beat our New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and California governor Ronald Reagan. The former vice-president was sold as a warmer, more compassionate version of his former self. Nice PR move. He even appeared on the popular comedy show Laugh-In where he uttered the show’s catch line “Sock it to me.” But Nixon’s main calling card was a “secret plan to end the war” in Vietnam. When quizzed, Nixon declined comment saying if he talked about the plan it wouldn’t be a secret. And it it’s own roundabout logic it made sense. Another nice PR move. In a nutshell, the plan was to bomb the hell out of North Vietnam and expand the war by invading neighboring counties, Laos and Cambodia, whose boarder regions had been a sanctuary for North Vietnamese troops. It didn’t work and only increased the suffering. But a nation tried of the war was grasping for straws. Now it was the Democrats turn to name their standard bearer.
The kinder, gentler hippies were now being eclipsed by the more confrontational Yippies (Youth International Party) led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They, and their followers, headed to Chicago for a showdown at the Democrat’s convention.
There was relative calm (protest marches, chants but not much else) until the convention picked Humphrey as its nominee. Chicago, in the summer, is just about unbearable. The heat and mugginess can shorten anyone’s temper. The situation fell apart two nights later when the Chicago police took unwarranted action against the protesters. It quickly devolved into a street fight with the “whole world watching” (the protester’s chant).
The year wrapped up with Nixon winning the presidential election with a whopping 43 percent of the popular vote beating Humphrey by a mere 500,000 votes out of 70 million cast. Alabama governor George Wallace, a former Democrat running as an independent. took 13 percent. The best any indie candidate had even done. His state’s rights message had resonated. Let each state make their own policies (on integration, schools, busing and whatever else came down the pike) and not be dictated to by the federal government. If nothing else, Wallace was consistent. Earlier in the decade, he stood baring blacks from an Alabama school. It had taken president Kennedy nationalizing the Alabama National Guard to get him to step aside.
By the late ‘60s it seemed as though everything the U.S. stood for was a bald face lie. One of the more interesting sidebars of the late ‘60s was the intense interest in the Kennedy assassination. Whether you believed the president’s murder was the act of a lone, deranged gunman or the result of a conspiracy was a litmus test on whether you trusted the U.S. government or not.
President Johnson created an eight member commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to investigate Kennedy’s murder. The Warren Commission re-enacted the crime, interviewed witnesses in what was claimed to be an exhaustive study. The final report did chew up a lot of paper. The commission concluded that Oswald was the lone gunman. Those are the facts but hardly the whole story.
By mid ‘60s, people were questioning the validity of the Warren Report. Interestingly, comedians Dick Gregory and Mort Saul were championing conspiracy theories. Even standup comedian Woody Allen told an audience that he was tired have just flown in from Hollywood where he’d been working on a movie script. “It’s a non-fiction version of the Warren Report.” The audience roared with knowing laughter.
1969 began like a re-hash of the previous year. Now, free speech was on the block. The vice just got tighter. The satirical “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was cancelled by CBS. Tom and Dick Smothers had started as Folk singers (just as the genre was dying). While reasonably talented, they found greater success inserting comedy routines into their songs. Elder brother Tom would make a mistake or misjudgement and younger brother Dick would attempt to correct him. Then sibling rivalry would kick in - for laughs. It was a pretty funny act. But when the duo started doing jokes that criticized the government polices, they’d gone too far. It’s just too much controversy for the network to handle. Besides, there were unhappy advertisers. Amazingly, no one could find the First Amendment. Funny how that happens.
In July, Nixon announced the Nixon Doctrine which expected Asian allies to take care of themselves. This leads to the “Vietnamization” of the war. A cut and run strategy? Not quite. Nixon goes to Vietnam and secret peace talks that had begun, in the waning months of the Johnson administration, resume (but fail).
During a November televised address, Nixon appeals to the “silent majority” to support the Vietnam War effort and other policies. His message is simple. Americans have heard from the protesters and nay-sayers - they are on the fringe. It’s time for mainstream Americans to take back their country. That message had some punch to it - especially in light of two events that had happened just a few months earlier.
Charles Manson was a would-be Rock N’ Roll star. He may not have had the musical talent to pull it off but he had charisma. Manson began a cult or family, living hippie-style off society’s scraps, holed up in abandoned movie sets outside L.A. This group might have eventually dissipated were it not for Manson’s revenge scheme. He had submitted a tape of his music to Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day, and producer of Paul Revere & The Raiders and Byrds, among others. Over time, nothing happened and Manson began to suspect that Melcher was leading him on. Manson wasn’t the type of person that you said “no” to so Melcher probably figured he’d just hang until Manson lost interest or went elsewhere. Problem was, Manson didn’t and decided Melcher should pay the price. Manson sent his cult to Melcher’s house but Melcher wasn’t there. In fact, he’d rented his house to up and coming actress Sharon Tate. She, along with Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger were brutally murdered.
Realizing his mistake and needing to cover his tracks Manson ordered another murder. Make it all look like the work of a serial killer. Rosemary and Leno La Bianca paid the price.
Despite Manson’s efforts the police were able to track him and his cult down. The subsequent trial made headlines as people wondered what the hell was going on with young people these days. While some cult members were released, one, Squeaky Fromm, famously took a shot at president Gerald Ford, Manson remained behind bars.
Right on the heals of the Manson Family crimes came Woodstock. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Rent out a large farm in upstate New York, have an outdoor ferstival with some of the biggest names in Rock and watch, oh say, 30,000 to 50,000 paying kids show up. Only two things wrong with the plan. Instead of 30,000 kids, 300,000 showed up, many crashing the gates (“it’s a free concert from now on”). And it rained for most of the three days turning Yasgur’s farm into a loud mud pit. But despite this, the festival went off about as well as could be expected. Some overdoses, some injuries, but everyone left in one piece, if a little worse for wear. Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival and even Sha-Na-Na performed. Closing the show, Hendrix performed his explosive take on the “Star Spangled Banner.” For three days a communal spirit prospered. And everyone walked away with a good vibe. But it didn’t last.
After a three year lay-off from touring, due more to legal troubles resulting from Mick, Keith and Brian’s drug busts, than a search for greater artistic _expression, the Rolling Stones were back on the road with a new, and younger guitarist, Mick Taylor, taking over from Jones, who’d left the group before mysteriously drowning in the pool at his house. The Stones had missed Woodstock but were determined to have their own free festival, out on the west coast. San Francisco looked good. As the Stones toured the U.S. it appeared that a San Francisco venue wouldn’t be available. Finally, after much wrangling, the Stones were granted permission to have their concert at the Altamont Speedway outside of San Francisco – in December. San Francisco is in northern California and the winters are cold. But turned out to be a minor glitch.
Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Grateful Dead, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and the Flying Burrito Brothers opened for the Stones. But among the plans for the show, the group made a fatal mistake. The Stones first gig with Taylor was a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. They hired the English version of Hell’s Angels to provide security. That seemed to work OK. But English motorcycle hoodlums were a weak tea compared to the real thing. The Stones hired Bay Area Angels for Altamont. Bad move.
The Angels, being cocky bastards, parked their bikes in front of the stage, then proceeded to beat senseless, with pool cues, anyone who so much as touched one their bikes. Of course, with a massive crowd pushing from behind it was virtually impossible for anyone near the stage to avoid those precious bikes. Retribution from the Angels was swift and sure.
The concert started ominously with violence breaking out during the Santana set. But there was more. Jefferson Airplane’s Mary Balin was knocked out during a scuffle near the stage. Fellow Airplaner Paul Kantner grabbed the microphone and began telling the audience what the Angel’s were doing – namely pummeling the audience. It looked as though the Angels were going to stomp Kantner but he was pulled away and the situation defused. From the stage Grace Slick, the group’s other vocalist, told the audience “we’d like to do another song but somebody knocked out my singer.” When the Rolling Stones arrived by helicopter a youth attacked Mick screaming “I hate you! I hate you!” Though startled, Jagger was not injured.
The Stones took the stage after night fall. But the significant temperature drop did little to cool heads. From the stage Mick implored the audience to chill out. But the audience was fine, it’s the Angels who have run amok. Mick threatens to stop performing but nobody is listening. Finally, the group launches into “Sympathy For The Devil.” It’s during this song that Angels knife and beat to death a young black name Meredith Hunter. The Stones soon fled by helicopter but not even that ended the carnage. One person drowned and two others were run over while still in their sleeping bags. Altamont was truly the concert from hell. Woodstock was looking like one of those weird apparitions that could never be duplicated.
“Tin Soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own.” Neil Young “Ohio.”
Unfortunately, the ‘60s didn’t really end with Altamont nor even on December 31st, 1969. In May of ’70 an anti-war protest at Kent State University in Ohio ends with the death of four students when National Guard soldiers open fire on the crowd. A picture of a woman screaming for help as she kneels over a fallen friend is seen around the world. Meanwhile out in L.A. Crosby, Still, Nash and Young are recording. So enraged by the Kent State reports he’s seen, Neil Young writes one of the most hard-edged anti-war/anti-government songs of the era. He enters the studio the next day and insists the group immediately record his song, which they do. “Ohio” was released in a matter of days.
The whole sad mess continued, arguably, until Nixon’s re-election in November of ’72. In a landslide victory over South Dakota senator and peace candidate, George McGovern, Nixon’s “silent majority” voiced their approval.
It hardly made sense that a person could be old enough to serve his country but not to vote. So beginning with this election the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18. But those new voters generally voted the same as their parents. So much for the “youth vote” changing the world.