In December of 1969, we—along with 300,000 other people—descended on the Altamont Speedway for the giant outdoor free concert that was to be the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock, featuring the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Santana. I was a hippie-baby at Altamont, about fourteen months old at the time.
When I was growing up, my mother would often retell the story of the woman who wanted to hold me at Altamont and next thing they knew she had wandered off with me.
“There we were stoned immaculate when your father realized she was trying to take you.”
I have this image of my father sprinting after the woman, dodging all the drunk and stoned hippies sprawled on blankets.
Years later, my father would insist in a letter to me, "I was not stoned—on anything—I was watching her every move."
In one photo of me, there’s a giant wine jug situated at my feet. Everybody at Altamont can be seen swilling from these massive jugs and passing them around.
We were way far back from the stage like most everyone else, unaware until the next day of Meredith Hunter, the Black teenager who had been stabbed to death by two Hell’s Angels. The Dead had hired a bunch of Bay Area Hell’s Angels to run security at the event. Up by the stage, the Angels had been hostile and brutal. Not the kind of peace and love people were used to. Even Mick Jagger couldn’t get things under control, as you can see in theRolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter, which chronicled the whole debacle.
The footage also shows people completely tripped out of their minds in a display of debauchery that even makes me feel a bit uptight. One clip shows a naked woman, totally tripped out of her mind, being led by the hand by two guys on either side of her. Equally disturbing are scenes of people having bad acid trips and being whacked out in general, behaving like the freaks the previous generation must've perceived them to be.
It’s like being the only sober person in the room watching everybody get embarrassingly drunk and stupid. You just wanna flee. Any romanticized view I previously held of Altamont went out when I watched that movie again after many years. (Though I'm still glad it's on my life experience résumé.)
Ultimately, there would be four deaths at Altamont (not all related to the Angels) and a clear signal that something had shifted. Rob Kirkpatrick, author of 1969: The Year Everything Changed, writes:
Left on its own at the end of the decade and seemingly gathered at world’s end, the Altamont congregation straddled the line between freedom and anarchy and experienced the ugly underside of a generation’s collective dream.”
I’ve never been sure if it’s my own imagination and “created” memories of being out West at that time, but internally, soulfully, I have always felt the weight of it, a bygone disappointment weighing down on our little triad as though the end of the era signaled the end of us, and we were so unbearably entangled in music and hippie culture and a certain time and place that there was nothing left to do with the relationship. Like it had run its course. ⏤ excerpt from Letters from East of Nowhere, a memoir due out Father's Day 2022