For more than 300 years we have been listening to music from Johann Sebastian Bach and for approximately 200 years from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I predict the music I grew up with in the 1960s will endure just as long.
Even though the music is at least 50 years old, today’s teenagers still listen to that “good ole rock and roll.” I remember when I was a teenager myself, and my parents would say they so much enjoyed certain orchestral music until I told them it was Beatles melodies; they would frown and go very quiet, and I would laugh.
The decade of rock and roll music was from 1959 to 1969, and probably a few years before and beyond. 1959 marked the death of Buddy Holly in a Madison, Wisconsin, plane crash, and 1969 marked the two famous U.S. rock concerts at Woodstock and the Altamont Speedway. The enigmatic Don McLean song “American Pie” captures that musical era well, its triumphs and its failures.
Maybe not coincidentally, this also was an important decade of turmoil in American history. Buddy Holly’s music was influenced by older black rhythm and blues and jazz as it brought to white audiences music by Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others.
Elvis Presley, still called the “King of Rock and Roll,” probably started things off in 1954 with “Heartbreak Hotel,” taking music by Buddy Holly and friends in an important new direction. The new music really DID rock, and in fact TV cameras in those days were not allowed to show Elvis below the midriff.
And the new music was empowered by modern technology, particularly the electric guitar, the electronic keyboard and electronic “mixing.” But by the mid-1960s, rock and roll’s U.S. popularity was beginning to fade, and then came the British.
The British musical invasion of the United States, beginning in about 1964, revived U.S. rock and roll. British musical groups with powerful and continuing influence include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Mindbenders, the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, the Animals and the Yardbirds (list from Wikipedia).
Neither the Stones nor the Beatles were at the Woodstock Concert in August 1969, but the Stones were featured at the Altamont Speedway Concert in December. Woodstock was three days of music and mostly peace at Max Yasgur’s 600-acre farm, not far north of New York City. The concert remains famous for the mud, music and relative joy, in contrast to Altamont. Originally, Woodstock was conceived as a for-profit venture; advanced tickets sold well more than the capacity, but once word got out, even more folks came, about 500,000, overwhelming the region.
The successful aura of Woodstock was short lived, as Altamont changed everything; Altamont’s dark ending together with the rise of violence in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the emergence of the AIDS epidemic ended the American hippy era and later rock and roll, too.
The Altamont concert was conceived by the Rolling Stones as a free concert gift to California and America, originally intended to be on the other side of the San Francisco Bay (San Jose or Golden Gate Park or Sears Point); the details were arranged by San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli and Stones staff members. Its performers were, of course, also famous: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young and the Rolling Stones.
On Saturday, Dec. 6, 1969, I arrived at Altamont on my teal-green Honda 305 Scrambler motorcycle at approximately 10 a.m. despite a huge traffic jam on Interstate 580, but being on a motorcycle, I both went around and through the stopped cars. We parked in an open field near the stage, spread out a blanket (I wore a turtle neck and sport coat because of the cool 65-degree weather, and after all, a 22-year-old freshman medical student should look respectable) and broke out some beer, kindly donated by the next-door Hells Angels, who tossed beer from the tops and windows of their yellow school buses parked about 20 to 30 feet from us.
The Hells Angels were paid $500 plus expenses to provide security to the concert stage and to the Rolling Stones. And then we waited on the grass till about noon for warmups and finally the “real thing” at about 2 p.m. Grace Slick and Carlos Santana came out together, and then their bands played for several hours each. The Stones came and went several times in a helicopter and finally began playing at about 7 or 8 p.m. until almost midnight. The surrounding farmland was packed with about 300,000 people. Most of them were filled with beer or other suppressants or stimulants, and they were very raucous.
Even as Jefferson Airplane began to play about 4 p.m., the crowd rushed the stage to be driven back by the Angels and Grace Slick’s pleading. But it got worse. We approached the stage on foot as the Stones came in; we were in a group of people who even though only about 20 feet from the stage could hardly see in the early darkness and the swirl of the crowd.
And so, until we saw the next day's papers, we were totally unaware that Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death after pulling a gun to wound an Angel, even though it all “came down” just in front of us; the only clue, in retrospect, was Mick Jagger shouting, “Stay cool. Stay cool,” and then, “We need a doctor. We need a doctor.” Four people died that day at Altamont; four babies were born there that day.
Many years later, when the successful Rolling Stones movie “Gimme Shelter” was put on DVD, I realized that I might be on the disc, and indeed there I am, if you know what I looked like and exactly where to look and are very fast. One of the Stones’ photographers, Beth Sunflower, also captured me among her photos but refused to sell them, because they are on the DVD and in some of her other anthologies.
My guess is that even 50 more years from now, our great-grandchildren will still be listening to rock and roll music; Altamont will be long forgotten.