Sunday, July 08, 2007

a ROCKIN' reminiscence on events in '69






(above) Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia (l), Phil Lesh (r)





(above) German single (1970); note photo was
taken by poster artist Stanley Mouse for the LP cover
(above) French single (1970)
(above) Dutch single (1970)
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1969 was my Summer of Love. I didn't make Woodstock, but I sure came close--about a hundred miles away. It was my senior year in high school; I'd just graduated, and was a counselor at Camp Regis (where Bonnie Raitt and her brothers went), near Saranac Lake (close to Lake Placid up in New York State) and of course I heard all about the outrageous goings-on. Just a few weeks before, I'd hitchhiked into town to see a movie--any movie. As fate would have it, what was playing was MONTEREY POP. I walked in to the theater one kind of person, and walked out having seen my people for the first time. And, I was headed to Stanford, on the West Coast.
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When I arrived, one of the first things I noticed was that the freshman football players were listening to a brand new LP--the Grateful Dead's LIVE DEAD. Within weeks, I'd see the Dead at Bill Graham's Fillmore West dance-concert hall on Market Street in San Francisco. In fact, I was there the night before Altamont, dancing to the Dead, on December 5, 1969.
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I didn't go to Altamont on December 6. I was an editor at the Stanford Daily, going to two, sometimes three concerts a week, and valiantly trying to keep my academic scene intact. While the spectacle-to-be sure was intriguing, I just didn't have the resources to make my way over to the East Bay, thru Livermore, and up into the hills where Altamont Speedway was. As things turned out, probably it was for the best.
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Altamont was not the Stones' first choice for their post-Woodstock free concert. They couldn't get the permits for a site in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, and negotiations with Sears Point Raceway in Marin County broke down. So Altamont was a last- minute set-up and the lack of preparation was obvious, all the way to a rickety, too-close-to-the ground concert stage. And then there was the Stones' choice of security (allegedly at the recommendation of the Dead) to be handled by the pool cue-wielding Hells Angels, who were paid off in alcohol. Bad acid trips, bodily injuries and even death resulted.
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A lot of my buddies went and most everyone came back bummed. Sound was horrible, insufficient for what turned out to be 300,000 fans. The magic of Woodstock was just not there.The experience was well chronicled by the landmark film GIMME SHELTER, which focused on the Stones epic year of 1969, including their NYC Madison Square Garden concert where GET YER YA YA'S OUT was recorded (with the all-time inspired shout from the audience, "Paint it Black, you devils!!!").
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Maybe Altamont was a major turning point in rock & roll, and in pop culture in general. But I say maybe, even though I'm a rock historian and know the big picture involved. See, for me, my best years as a young rocker were still ahead, particularly as I grew with the Grateful Dead, absorbing some of their best work in the 1970s and '80s--ultimately leading to my co-authoring GRATEFUL DEAD BOOK OF THE DEAD HEADS, my first book, in 1983.
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For the Dead, Altamont was most definitely a major bummer--an in-yer-face scene of horrifying serendipity. They never played that day or night, although they were scheduled to follow the Stones. But they absorbed a lot of flack. In fact on Dec. 8, famed columnist Ralph J. Gleason, who had celebrated the rise of San Francisco-style psychedelic rock beginning in 1965 and was a huge champion of the Dead, the Airplane, Quicksilver, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, wrote scathing commentary about the planning of and the lingering effects of Altamont in the San Francisco Chronicle. Reading those alternately sad, bewildered, and angry musings, The Dead's lyricist, Robert Hunter, responded with "New Speedway Boogie" (excerpts below):
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"Spent a little time on the mountain
Spent a little time on the hill
Heard some say better run away
Others say you better stand still
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Now I don't know but I been told
It's hard to run with the weight of gold
Other hand, I heard it said
It's just as hard with the weight of lead
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You can't overlook the lack, Jack,
Of any other highway to ride
It's got no signs or dividing lines
And very few rules to guide
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Now I don't know but I been told
If the horse don't pull you got to carry the load
I don't know whose back's that strong
Maybe find out before too long
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One way or another . . ."
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This was the beginning of the Dead's semi-acoustic period, when they released WORKINGMAN'S DEAD and AMERICAN BEAUTY in June and November, 1970. "New Speedway Boogie" was a B-side single off WORKINGMANS. In the recent auction conducted by www.ItsOnlyRocknRoll.com, I snagged three rare European singles of "Uncle John's Band" (the signature piece for the band in that era) backed by "New Speedway Boogie", all shown above. These are what brought back my memories.
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The Dead played "NSB" 4 times in late 1969, 21 times in 1970, and then did not play the song again until 1991. Looking at DEADBASE, I also note that the Dead played these venues:
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04-67: Speedway Meadows, Golden Gate Park (SF)
(actually numerous free gigs there, that spring and summer)
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12-28-69: International Speedway, Hollywood, FL
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7-28-73: Grand Prix Racecourse, Watkins Glen, NY
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9-3-77: Raceway Park, Englishtown, NJ
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WORKINGMANS DEAD was the fourth studio album by the Dead. In 1970, the readers of Rolling Stone magazine voted it the best album of 1970, in front of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's DEJA VU, and Van Morrison's MOONDANCE. In 2003, the album was ranked number 262 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
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"New Speedway Boogie" excerpted lyrics reprinted with the permission of Ice Nine Publishing, all rights reserved. Thanks much to Alan Trist.
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some useful sources:
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3 comments:

Dave Lifton said...

I always wondered if Paul Kantner was serious when he said, "I'd like to thank the Hell's Angels for punching Marty Balin in the face."

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