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Gimme Shelter: Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder

Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder

December 25, 1969

SAN FRANCISCO — “Is anybody besides me seriously worried about what the Hell’s Angels might do to us if they find out we’ve got footage of the killing?” Albert Maysles asked. “I mean, when that sequence is blown up, there’ll be a full-face picture of the actual slayer. Look, Stanley, if you were the particular guy in question … ”

“I’d kill your ass,” Stanley Goldstein shot back with a tart grin.

“I was never really sold on the idea of doing a straight tour film of the Stones,” David Maysles said. “What we actually have is a mystery story, you realize. A detective story, sort of.”

Last Thursday, I was awakened early by a phone call from David Maysles in New York. He explained that he and brother Albert, who had been authorized to film the gigantic free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, had just viewed a portion of their color footage showing the fatal encounter between Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black youth who was shown to be armed with a revolver, and a stocky, knife-wielding man dressed in a Hell’s Angels tunic. The two Maysles Brothers, along with a small technical crew, David said, planned to fly here that evening to resume filming and to confer with officials of Young American Enterprises, Inc., the company that claimed to represent the Stones during their American tour. Could I rent a limousine and hire somebody to handle their luggage, and meet them at the airport for a talk?

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I could, and I did. A jump-seated black Cadillac was secured from Gray Line Tours, and I engaged Greg Curtis, a young writer from Texas, to serve as chief baggage grip.

The TWA flight that night was late, and Greg and I were both a little antsy; in the course of our phone conversation, David had mentioned that his party would be traveling, at the insistence of the Stones’ management, under the protection of two armed bodyguards.

“The Stones’ mafia,” David had explained with a nervous laugh, and the pair of bodyguards lived up to the advance billing as they preceded the film crew off the plane; they were both big, tough-looking, taciturn men with coldly staring eyes and unmistakable bulges under their jackets.

The Maysles Brothers came out shooting,” with Albert, who resembles a kind of Mr. Peepers with character, manning a mammoth, shoulder-rig camera, and David, wearing head phones and a purple shirt with epaulettes, picking up the sound with a shotgun mike. David made the round of introductions. Others in his party included cameraman Ron Dorfman, all-around trouble-shooter Stanley Goldstein (one of the prime movers and shakers at the Woodstock Festival), and a freelance still photographer named Michael Alexander.

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After a series of stop-and-go camera takes, we all headed for the limousine. David, Albert, Stanley, and I rode in the lead Cadillac to the Hotel Mark Hopkins. A second car was hired to accommodate the bodyguards and the rest of the crew. Greg stayed behind to collect the luggage, most of which was scheduled to arrive on a later flight.

All the way to the Mark, which is located near the crest of Nob Hill, David and Albert plied me with questions about the after-effects of the Altamont debacle. I found the process of being “interviewed” somewhat bizarre and not a little bit disorienting; in the end, I felt something like a human out-take from “Medium Cool.”

Our appearance en masse in the sumptuous lobby of the ultra-staid Mark caused the night clerk to blanch. “I don’t think that cat appreciates us using his hotel as a movie set,” Ron Dorfman said, grinning lopsidedly and continuing to shoot away. Since there’d been no hostile welcome by the Angels, as had halfway been expected, the mood of the party quickly turned high carnival.

Somebody in the Young American organization — John James, Ronnie Schneider, or Michael Scotti — was supposed to have made reservations for the Maysles crew under the name “A. Hitchcock.” No reservations had been made. A doddering bellman let us into John James’s small apartment while the decision was made about what to do next. Albert wandered into the bedroom and came back out, laughing aloud: “Know what’s sitting on the table beside ole John’s beddy-poo? A can of Sof-Stroke. Do you suppose he’s trying to tell us something?” A call to the desk disclosed that Ronnie Schneider had turned in for the night: the desk clerk didn’t know where either James or Scotti were. Stanley — “Stanley G. Logistics,” as David called him — was dispatched downstairs to arrange for a suite. “Charge it to A. Hitchcock,” David called after him. “No, seriously, charge it to James — we’ve already sprung for the air fare out here.”

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Three stewardesses who had been on the TWA flight from New York knocked for admittance. “Let’s have a party,” they pealed in unison. The group crowded into the small room now numbered 10 people; there weren’t enough chairs to go around. After talking to somebody on the phone, Mike Alexander told David the crew had been invited to view some films the following evening. David frowned: “Well, thanks, but no thanks. I don’t like to watch films much any more, except what we’re actually working on. I don’t have any sense of the history of films, I guess.”

Everyone prepared to move to the suite Stanley had rented, two flights down on the 10th floor. “Oh, shit, man, what’re you doing?” Stanley roared at the bellman, who had removed all of John James’s clothes from the closet along with our coats. After the damage had been undone, we descended to the new quarters by the fire stairs to avoid waiting for the single elevator in operation.

“Yeah, this is much more like it,” David said, yawning and stretching out on the living room carpet. “Hey, I’m starving, though. Can we get a meal for everybody from room service?” ”It’s almost 2 o’clock, David — they’ll be closed up for the night,” Stanley said, shaking his shaggy head no. “Well, Christ, we can’t fast for the next six hours,” Albert complained. Mike Alexander volunteered to put together a movable feast at David’s Delicatessen. Stanley handed Mike $80 in bills: “Get enough food, beer, and soft drinks for 15, 16 people, okay?”

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Greg Curtis came in to report that 11 pieces of luggage had failed to arrive. “It may have been dropped off over in Oakland,” he suggested hopefully. “Shit, shit, shit,” Stanley raged, racing for the phone. “That’s most of our raw stock and equipment. We can’t function without that stuff.” Somebody began passing a small, elegant pipe around. “You may wonder why I’ve assembled you here at this unseemly hour,” David quipped, imitating Richard Burton. He followed up with an impression of Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden: “Well, all rot. New Yock Citeh. Far aht?” Somebody flipped on the color tv set; frequency patterns blipped up, up, and away.

Across the room, Stanley was attempting to place two long-distance calls at once. “Stan’s about to levitate,” Albert said, winking and grinning. Mike Alexander returned with two carts of food and $35 change. “Now just listen to me, man,” Stanley bawled into the phone, “If you don’t connect me with the flight operations officer in one minute, I’m going to call the fucking FAA.”

By now, it was early morning. Ron Dorfman was sprawled out asleep on the carpet, and one of the stewardesses periodically dozed off and snapped awake on the couch. After eating, I phoned for a cab. David suggested that I return to the hotel “around 9-ish” for the meeting with the Young American people. By the time I arrived home, that left me two hours to sleep.

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Nine-ish on Friday morning. Mike Alexander peered morosely out the window at the rain below. “It’s going to be a great day for shooting exteriors, Albert,” he muttered, scratching his bare belly. “All you’ll need to do is bounce your lights off of the sky and punch a hole in the reflector to let the rain pour through.”

Albert Maysles looked tousled and still half-asleep: “Has anybody seen my shoes? I can’t seem to find my shoes. Oh, well, I guess they’ll turn up. Listen Ron, maybe you’d better rouse Stanley, right? He’s going to have to get a move on after that lost luggage.”

Stanley was asleep on the couch. Gently, Ron tapped him on the shoulder: “Uh, Stanley old chap, could I talk to you about something? Could I talk to  you about getting your ass up?” Irritably, Stanley rolled over onto his stomach and growled, “Fuck off.” A couple of minutes later, groaning piteously, he sat up and began to dress.

“Listen, we’re going to have to hire a public stenographer sometime today,” David announced to the room at large. “Yeah, to prepare that contract,” Stanley answered. “Have we retained Mel Belli to represent us yet, by the way?” “Public stenos cost $75 a minute,” Ron joked. David grimaced: “By the way, what’re we paying for this suite a day? A hundred dollars, you think?” He turned to me, spreading his hands: “Christ, we’re doing all of this on spec, you know. It was the same thing with ‘Salesman’ — we put all our own bread into that film, too.”

After various delays, Stanley hustled off to the airport to check on the errant luggage and the rest of us trooped up to Ronnie Schneider’s suite on the 14th floor. Also present at the meeting were John James, a cheerful balloon of a man, Michael Scotti, who resembles the young George Raft, and the two bodyguards who had escorted the Maysles crew from New York. One of the men carried his pistol in his hip pocket, and both took pains to stay out of camera range. Two tables littered with a dozen plates of coagulating breakfast remains gave the room an eerie, beggar’s banquet flavor. The ambience of power present was as strong as an odor; you knew that these men had only to lift the phone and whatever was asked would be delivered by someone with his hand stretched out for a crinkly tip. But the Stones promoters also exuded another air, sadder, wearier, as if they existed nowhere except in the airless anonymity of hotel rooms. I was suddenly glad that I lived out in the section of the city a friend bad once derisively dubbed “the Queens of San Francisco.”

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John James started the conversation by announcing that his organization had settled property claims with “perhaps 90 per cent” of the Alameda County ranchers who had complained of damages in the wake of the concert. The sum paid out, he said, represented “about a tenth” of the $500,000 originally sought. “Those damn idiot farmers, some of them were complaining that their cows had swallowed beer bottles,” one of the bodyguards sneered. “Cows with beer bottles in their stomaches. Sheeit.”

Ronnie Schneider was asked what the Stones’ reaction to the slaying had been. Speaking in a hoarse, basso rasp, he said, carefully: “Grief, disgust … the Stones didn’t really know what had happened at first, couldn’t grasp what’d occurred.”

“What happened, just happened,” James interjected. “There’s simply no infallible way to bring together 300,000 people without the possibility of violence arising. The Stones only wanted to thank their American friends for making their tour so successful. Every possible precaution was taken, given the hurry-up circumstances of having to move from the Sears Point raceway to the Altamont site at the last possible minute. I blame that development squarely on Filmways, Inc., which owns the Sears Point track. At the last minute, Filmways made exorbitant demands on the Stones for the use of the grounds, demands that were so outrageous they couldn’t be met. We did the best we could under the circumstances. Richard Carter, who owns the Altamont track, hired 100 uniformed security guards. We hired 100 more.”

What about Sonny Barger’s claim that the Angels had been hired as security guards for $500 worth of beer?

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“Nobody from any of the three organizations promoting the concert paid the Angels anything,” James snapped testily. “Maybe the Angels brought their own beer, who knows? But Sam Cutler, the Stones’ road manager, tried to get the whole bunch of them off the stage repeatedly throughout the day.”

“Look,” Schneider put in, “one lone guy pulled a gun, and in the ensuing confusion, he got himself killed. What if there had been regular city cops up on the bandstand? Five people might’ve been killed, see what I mean? The Stones paid out a quarter of a million dollars to put on an event for everybody to enjoy. Why shouldn’t the Stones get a film out of it to help repay some of their expenses?”

As the interview continued, a streak of stunning-looking girls paraded in and out of the room. “Our groupies in residence,” James snorted with a wry laugh. One of the bodyguards was clowning around with a woman’s red wig. “Let me know before you begin to shoot again,” he ordered Ron Dorfman, “so I can go and hide in the john or someplace. I mean it, I ain’t shittin’ you, kid.”

“You guys in the press,” Schneider said to me with a hint of metal in his voice, “you all say pretty much what you please, whatever we do or say. That’s why I — why all of us — rarely if ever give interviews. Hell, 17 or 18 different guys have tried to get through to us since we’ve been here, and we wouldn’t talk to any of them. You’re the first reporter we’ve seen, so I hope you’ll be fair and accurate about what’s being said here ”

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Scotti, who had remained silent until this point, asked to go off the record so he could freely discuss the legal and security problems the Maysles Brothers faced. After I agreed, David described the footage showing the slaying. James groaned: “Jesus, just having that sequence is like sitting on a powder keg.” David nodded: “Yes, I know. Death, we found out, is very quick.” “I saw the killing take place,” Albert mused moodily, “but I didn’t personally shoot it. It was so ugly, I just didn’t want to. The truth is, at this point, we don’t know precisely who did shoot the sequence. We had about 18 freelance cameramen working for us on the day of the concert.”

The off-the-record discussion followed. Concluding that simple possession of the film implicated the Maysles Brothers as material witnesses to a homicide, Scotti, looking pale and grim, called the Alameda County sheriff’s department, and within minutes two plainclothes detectives, Robert Donovan and J. N. Chisholm, arrived at the suite. Scotti described the footage to the officers in general terms, and then whisked his entire entourage, bodyguards and all, back to New York by plane. David made arrangements for his associate, Porter Bibb, to ship a copy of the sequence here from New York via air express.

“Wow — the old crud just hit the fan, didn’t it,” somebody murmured softly after the plainclothesmen had left.

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On Saturday afternoon, the footage was screened for the two officers and an Alameda County assistant district attorney at Francis Ford Coppola’s ultra-sophisticated new film facility, American Zoetrope. The sequence was shown repeatedly, frame by frame; it proved to be grisly, explicit, and harrowing to watch.

Afterward, David asked the detectives, “Can we film the grand jury, do you suppose? No? Damn, maybe we can get the foreman to talk outside the jury room, what do you think?”

Late in the afternoon, the officers left to take the film print to the Alameda County police lab for enlargement. When it was feasible, they said, the blown-up photos would be presented, along with any other evidence that had developed, to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment.

For the slayer of Meredith Hunter, the crud had indeed hit the fan.

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming 2

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming controversy



Stones & Angels: Viewing the Remains of Altamont

Stones & Angels: Viewing the Remains of a Mean Saturday
December 18, 1969

SAN FRANCISCO — On the morning of December 10, a scattering of friends and kin gathered in a foggy cemetery in the bedroom commuter community of Vallejo to bury Meredith Hunter, who had just turned 18. Hunter was the apparently drug-freaked young black man who’d been kicked and stabbed to death before thousands of impassive spectators during a brawl involving the Hell’s Angels at the mammoth free Rolling Stones concert in the Livermore Valley five days earlier.

Hunter’s murder took place, Lord save us, while the Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil.”* At press time, no arrests had been made in connection with the slaying, although it was reliably reported that the Maysles Brothers, who were authorized to film the concert by the Stones management, had shot the grisly episode in its entirety.

Similarly, the Alameda County sheriff’s department reported no leads in the search for the hit-and-run slayer of Mark Feiger and Richard Savolv, both 22 and both from New Jersey, via Berkeley. The two men were killed after the concert when an auto leaving Altamont Speedway plowed into their group, huddled around a campfire. Several other young people were critically injured in the accident.

Two days after the concert, Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland chapter of the Angels, called disc jockey Stefan Ponek at KSAN-FM, defending the Angels’ strong-arm tactics at Altamont. Barger’s statement was broadcast live:

“The Stones hired us to act as security for $500 worth of beer. That Mick Jagger, he used us for dupes. We were the biggest suckers of anybody. I’m not no peace creep by any sense of the word. I’m a violent cat when I gotta be, but I don’t really wanna be. I’m bum-kicked by the whole trip. I don’t like what happened… Some of those dudes out there, they started kicking and trying to destroy our bikes, and that made it personal. They got thumped. They got got. There ain’t nobody going to kick my bike. It’s my life and all I got. You love that thing better than anything in the world…”

Despite Barger’s flat claim that his group had been hired by the Stones personally, the report persisted that Rock Scully, ex-manager of the Grateful Dead and himself reputedly a former outlaw biker, had made the deal with the Angels. Another report named Emmett Grogan, founder of the now defunct Diggers and an advance man for the concert, as the principal negotiator of the arrangement.

Not with the intention of placing blame — Meredith Hunter was dead and buried, after all, and that couldn’t be undone by singling out the dolt who’d invited the wolves into the chicken house — but in a more or less plodding effort to string together the facts for the record, I settled down with the phone book close at hand and began asking the burning question of the week: who, exactly, had involved the Angels in the concert?

Jo Bergman, the Stones’ girl friday, was unavailable for comment. Perhaps she’d left town, I was informed, perhaps she hadn’t, who knew? Sam Cutler, the Stones’ Cockney road manager, who, curiously, had been left behind when the group flew back to London, was wherever Rock Scully was; in any event, neither was available for comment. Emmett Grogan was unavailable for anything.

The day following Hunter’s funeral, I managed to talk briefly with Chet Helms, top dog at the Family Dog rock ballroom on the Great Highway and one of the concert’s organizers. I asked Helms what formal connection he’d had with the event. “Victim,” he shot back tersely, “Just another victim.” And did he know who had engaged the Angels to serve as cut-rate rent-a-cops? Helms hesitated, then answered in a flat, weary voice: “I’d prefer not to make any comment on that. I don’t want to get into messing people’s lives around.”

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Following through on a tip from John Sagen, a member of the rock group West, I contacted Laurel Gonsalves, who works in the advertising department at Rolling Stone magazine. She said she’d worked for the Stones in early efforts to set up the concert, but had withdrawn when the project deteriorated in organization. She referred me to John Burks, Rolling Stone’s managing editor. In a windy, rambling monologue, Burks conceded that, yes, he knew who had hired the Angels, but he hadn’t yet decided what stance to take about releasing the information.

At the suggestion of Steve Pillster, who lives deep in the heart of the labyrinthine rock circus in Berkeley, I called the Grateful Dead’s headquarters in Marin County. The call was accepted by a girl named Susan, who went on to identify herself as a member of a “family” called Alembic, which manufactures rock sound equipment. She said that Alembic and the Dead, who share the same quarters, had held a joint meeting early in the week and unanimously agreed not to discuss the question of who had hired the Angels. At the mention of the Stones, Susan painted it emphatically black: “The Stones screwed us all over royally. The Dead paid all of their own expenses to fly to Altamont and back by helicopter, and then they weren’t allowed to play. They put out money that hasn’t been reimbursed, and now they’re flat broke. The Stones are just not nice people, you know? I guess you should expect shit like that from the Angels — they’re totally devoted to violence.… One of them, Terry the Tramp, was nice to those of us who were working on sound, but the majority of those dudes were just crumby animals. They felt righteous about what they were doing, I guess — sanctioned, sort of. The whole bunch of them stayed around the bandstand until 4 a.m., getting drunker and drunker and punching out anyone who got in their reach. They burned all the packing crates for our spotlights, and at one time they threatened to set fire to the stage, but I guess they got loaded and forgot about it. A great, great many people got hurt out there. Even though I had a pass, I was bodily thrown off the stage by the Angels twice in a row. I guess they were just feeling mean, and I was handy.”

Could she give me any specific details about the meeting between Alembic and the Dead?

“Well,” she faltered, “I guess you could say that Emmett Grogan defended the hiring of the Angels… and I guess Rock Scully did, too.”

After two days of incessant phoning, I developed an acute case of dialer’s cramp and decided to drop the burning question. Nothing — and far too much about the feverishly neurotic ambience of the Bay Area rock milieu — was revealed. In the end, three different people, all in a position to know, confirmed the identity of the person responsible for involving the Angels, but in all three instances they spoke off the record, not for attribution because of fear of retribution. The summer of love, it occurred to me, had taken place in another country, and besides, the old bitch was dead.

As the week wore on, the casualty list mounted in the aftermath of the mass gathering at Altamont. Belatedly, it was revealed that Mick Jagger himself had been assaulted by a shaggy blond kid when the Stones arrived by helicopter at the race track. “I hate you, I hate you,” the unidentified boy reportedly screamed, lunging at Jagger and clouting him on the head. Flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, as it developed, had also been roughed up by an Angel near the bandstand, and Denise Jewkes, a singer with the all-girl rock group, the Ace of Cups, had suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a thrown beer bottle near the performance area. Denise was four months pregnant, but her doctors were hopeful that she wouldn’t lose her baby.

Inevitably, threats of litigation surfaced. An irate group of ranchers from the Altamont area, led by a spokesman with the ironic name C.W. Tripp, estimated damage to their properties in excess of $500,000. Tripp told newsmen that the group planned to file damage suits “all the way up the line as far as we have to go… and that means the Rolling Stones and their managers.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors also leapt into the fray, moving to revoke the use permit granted to Richard Carter for the operation of Altamont Speedway and threatening damage claims against the concert’s promoters to recoup more than $100,000 the board had to pay to county law enforcement personnel for overtime duties during the weekend of the concert. Carter, who had managed a faltering operation until the Stones event put his shabby drag strip on the map, outlined grandiose plans for staging future rock festivals at the race track. “I think if we do another festival,” he beamed confidently at a press conference, “the first day of spring would be fine. That would give us time to make some preparations.”

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On Friday, blindly following an impulse, I drove back to Altamont to view what can only be called the remains. At the 80-acre site, a few volunteer scavengers, stick figures in the hazy distance, were still picking up the tons of garbage littering the bald brown hills. Vast expanses of the scrubby slopes were scorched black where bonfires had been lit. Neighboring fences sagged and gaped under a dismal, overcast sky.

Surveying the empty amphitheater from a trash-strewn hilltop, I tried to comprehend exactly what had happened on that now bloodied ground below me a week before. The event sired by the Stones had been vaster than the mind could readily grasp, garishly colorful, mostly peaceable, frequently frightening, and perhaps well-intended. The end result was a mountain of litter, scores of injuries, a sea of stolen cars abandoned on the access roads to the track, thousands of bad drug trips, extensive damage to surrounding property, and four violent and senseless deaths.

Driving back to the city in a hammering rain, I couldn’t help recalling what somebody had remarked to Ralph Gleason early in the week: “There was no love, no joy at Altamont. It wasn’t just the Angels. It was everybody. In 24 hours, we created all the problems of our society in one confined area — congestion, violence, dehumanization.”

* Editor’s Note, December 6, 2019:
Half-a-century on we know that Voice contributor Grover Lewis got a few facts wrong, a major one being that Hunter’s murder occurred not, as he reported, during “Sympathy for the Devil,” but while the Stones were playing “Under My Thumb.” Still, we can cut Lewis some slack because he was working in that age before the easy recording of damn near everything on one’s iPhone. Back in those days, when reporters saw things just once, in real time, maybe with a tape recorder handy but generally with nothing more than a steno pad and pencils, “Sympathy” made more sense as a murder soundtrack than “Under My Thumb,” that beat-heavy paean to unbalanced relationships. Even Rolling Stone magazine, more than six weeks after the fact, in its January 21, 1970, issue (aptly headlined, “Let It Bleed”), still didn’t get it right, offering a blow-by-blow account of each song in the concert:

“Sympathy for the Devil”:
They stopped in the middle. A skirmish had broken out at stage left. This was the knifing/stomping of Meredith Hunter, perhaps 25 feet from where Jagger pranced and sang, then stopped. To one observer 20 feet to Jagger’s rear, the glint of the long knives was clearly visible. So, if the Stones were looking, they saw it too. The same observer spoke with several others who were onstage (as did Rolling Stone), and none, except for the onstage Angels, claim to have seen a gun.

The Maysles brothers’ documentary, Gimme Shelter, which clearly revealed the exact moment of the killing, was released on December 6, 1970, but commentators continued to make the same mistake, reiterating the myth that “Sympathy” had killed the Sixties. In 2010, the Voice ran Lewis’s article again, online, without noting the fact-check error. When we produced the last print edition of the paper, in September 2017, we finally ran a correction on the Contents page: “The Village Voice regrets the error. And the hyperbole.” —R.C. Baker

Report from Altamont Rolling stones Concert

Report from Altamont Rolling stones Concert 2


The Rolling Stones at Altamont: Day of the Angels

Day of the Angels: Let It Bleed!
December 11, 1969

ALTAMONT SPEEDWAY, Alameda County, California — All across the scalded brown hills looming above this seedy, out-at-the-elbows drag strip located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco in the monotonous, sepia-tone wastes of the Livermore Valley, there hung in the already polluted air the mingled odors of burning grass and patchouli oil, that heady, almost suffocating body scent so favored among the now nameless nomads who used to be called the hippies.

In the course of the day — last Saturday — four babies were born in the midst of the multitudes assembled here, and an undetermined number of expectant mothers suffered miscarriages.

That evening, four people from the throng died violently, three of them by violent accident. The fourth, a still-nameless black man, was kicked and stabbed to death in full or partial view of a crowd that various professional head-counters put at between 300,000 and 500,000 people — quite possibly the largest throng ever assembled for a rock music event anywhere in the nation, including Woodstock.

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The immense crowd had come together, on less than a full day’s notice, for the long-promised and often-canceled free Rolling Stones concert, first planned for Golden Gate Park, then scheduled at another equally remote racing strip in Sonoma County on the coast. On again, off again, it seesawed for a time, and here comes your 19th nervous breakdown.

As soon as the Altamont site was selected on Friday, the hordes began to arrive by the tens of thousands, virtually in tandem with the fleet of rented trucks ferrying in electronic equipment for the sound system and raw lumber for the stage. Early arrivals staked out choice vantage points in the parched grass near where the stage was being frantically erected in the natural amphitheater adjacent to the race track stands. The overnight campers found (1) no public water supply, (2) no stable food concession, and (3) scanty sanitation facilities. On Saturday, I saw men and boys by the score urinating against a fence near the long queues leading to the line of portable johns.

With some friends, I arrived at the mingle, mangle, and jam of the amphitheater well before noon. We’d had to walk four miles after a grinning California highway patrolman directed us into a parking space on a feeder road off U.S. 580 with the good-natured crack, “Rock festival to your right. It’s outasite.” Along the march route to the performance area, dope of all shapes, sizes, and colors was being openly dropped, smoked, bartered, and sold. The only police in sight were the far-too-few highway patrolmen, who were concentrating exclusively on directing the nightmarishly snarled traffic. Over a squad car radio came the report that a nude man had leapt into the line of traffic from an overpass on the highway, and required ambulance assistance. “I’m Mick Jagger’s brother — ball me,” a stoned kid bawled, groping at a passing girl’s breasts. With a panicky look, she shoved him away and hurried on.

In the crush of the amphitheater, my friends and I found a place to sit perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the bandstand. I scanned the crowd with zoom-lens binoculars. The sheer magnitude of the gathering was awesome and, as the day progressed, not a little disquieting. In the main, the audience struck me as benign, passive, and unutterably stoned. But more than once, I had the troubling feeling that if the mammoth crowd was itself capable of feeling anything on a mass gut level, the mass gut immediately devoured its own feeling, swallowed up by its very enormity. It wasn’t a good feeling to feel.

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Sam Cutler, the Stones’ Cockney road manager, took the mike a few minutes before noon to plead access for a truck attempting to deliver music equipment. “If all the cowboys will get off the Hertz van, please…” A cluster of kids clung to the sides of the truck in order to get into the already perilously packed area near the stage; only a scattering of the easy riders dropped off as requested. Cutler shrugged and said, “All right, then, let’s all have a party.”

The speed-oriented rock band Santana opened the program. During the group’s second number, which sounded depressingly like its first, someone hurled an empty wine bottle at the stage. Slivers of glass rained across the platform. The band’s guitarist broke off playing and savagely cursed the heckler. An unidentified stage functionary took the mike to request that the Hell’s Angels come onstage to serve as a security force. The Angels didn’t hesitate; strutting and preening in their colors, lugging cases of beer with them, they swarmed onto the platform in a cadre 40-odd strong. At that precise instant, nobody — Sam Cutler included — could have had any way of knowing it, but the “party” was already well on the way to being over.

After a characteristically lengthy delay, the Jefferson Airplane followed Santana. Nothing, but nothing, went right for them. To begin with, they sounded maddeningly off-key. Then, just as they were beginning to pick up a little altitude, a nude black man, obviously freaked out, somehow managed to clamber up on the apron of the stage. An Angel braced him, and the black man clumsily threw a punch that didn’t connect. Four Angels kicked and beat the man to his knees and, still flailing at him, dragged him off stage. There was ominous surging and shoving in the tight-packed throng near the platform. Grace Slick crooned over and over, “Please sit down, people, please sit down.” The band continued to play a mechanical semblance of “The Other Side of This Life,” with Grace lividly improvising: “Find yourself someone to love, but don’t fuck him around.” At the song’s conclusion — it just sort of went away after a while — Jack Casady, trembling with emotion snapped caustically, “Will the Angels please note that when somebody’s freaking out, you don’t help him by kicking the shit out of him. I’d also like to announce that Marty Balin was punched unconscious in that little comic number you just saw staged and I’d like to say—”

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At the rebuke, the Angels charged bullishly into the band. It was a sick, scary moment as fists flew and bodies blurred in a confused tangle. When the pandemonium ended, only Grace was left untouched. Sam Cutler grabbed an open mike and requested that all “unauthorized people” — meaning the Angels — leave the stage immediately. The Angels defiantly stood their ground. Somehow the Airplane managed to get through “Volunteers of America” — dedicated “to all those people who wouldn’t let us play in Golden Gate Park” — before abandoning the stage.

In the audience, a rusty-haired kid from Fresno shrugged fatalistically: “The Angels are just red freaks, that’s all. Those dudes used to be heavy, man, but nowadays they’re stone geeks. That’s what reds’ll do to you.”

While the Flying Burrito Brothers rousingly jammed the kicks out of “Six Days on the Road,” the nude black man reappeared at the border of the stage. The Angels made a half-hearted grab at him, but this time some friendly longhairs led him off in the direction of the medical tent.

Since I’d promised to call in a report on the day’s doings to Howard Smith at WABC-FM, I went searching for a phone. I found one — exactly one telephone for perhaps a half million people — in the firm grip of a local radio newsman who explained that he couldn’t relinquish it for a minute because, in addition to his own news chores, he was coordinating the helicopter flights landing and evacuating the performing rock groups. “Sorry pal,” he smiled wanly, and for a lingering moment I almost felt sorry for him.

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In the medical tent, I talked to the physician in charge of the volunteer first-aid operation, Dr. Richard Baldwin. A pleasant, round-faced man who looked close to exhaustion, he estimated that his staff had treated 300 bad-trip patients by the middle of the afternoon. “But the concert’s not over, you know,” he added in a soft, rueful tone. At the flap of the tent, a volunteer medic shook his head in wonder: “There’s enough bad dope changing hands in this field to paint and paper the whole Haight-Ashbury. Even bummer brownies. Who the hell ever heard of bummer brownies before?”

On stage, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young began their set unannounced. By now the platform was aswarm with more Angels than ever, despite Sam Cutler’s earlier warning that the bandstand might collapse under their weight. At times, the swaggering bikers and their old ladies obscured the performers from view. Inching my way back to where I’d been sitting in the crowd, I took a quick personal inventory of myself; I was wind-chapped and sunburned and shaken by the fracas onstage and more than a little pissed off that I’d have to drive all the way to Tracey, a ranching town 15 miles away, just to make a simple phone call.

The concert’s organizers had promised to conclude the program before dark, but the sun went down about 4:30 and there was no sign of the Stones. The crowd began to thin out, but not in large numbers. The Angels stood in a solid phalanx across the front of the stage, arms akimbo, glowering at the audience. Cutler announced, “The Stones positively won’t come out to perform while the stage is in its present state.” “Get off the stage, get off the stage,” a sizable portion of the crowd began to howl. None of the Angels budged, and the cry soon faded away.

After another tense delay, Cutler reappeared and surveyed the audience for a long, grave moment before saying simply, “I’d like to introduce your friends, the Rolling Stones.”

It was full dark now, scores of bonfires were flickering on the trash-strewn slopes, everybody present was standing and craning and suddenly the Stones were before us in a dazzling burst of noise and lights, Mick Jagger bumping and grinding in exquisite nastiness and rasping out “Jumping Jack Flash.” For the first time, the day seemed to have some significance. A frail young girl in wire-rimmed glasses standing near me in the crowd sang and danced in near-delirium: “Oh, Mick, I love you — you make me so excited. Everybody in the whole world is watching us — even God.”

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After the song, an Angel attempted to block Jagger’s path to the edge of the stage. Jagger stepped around him. “There’s so many of you,” he said, admiringly to the audience. “Stay cool now, and try not to move around too much.”

The prelude to the final trouble came a third of the way through “Sympathy for the Devil.” Apparently angered by hecklers in the first few rows, a half-dozen Angels swan-dived off the stage into the audience and began whipping heads. The music stopped abruptly. In a pleading voice, Jagger, who was wearing a long red robe, cried: “Everybody, brothers and sisters, cool out, listen to me, please cool out.… Is anybody hurt? Who’s fighting, and what for? We’ve got to stop this trouble right now.” After a few confused moments, the music resumed.

At that point, my friends and I gladly left the amphitheater so I could make my phone call in Tracey, which I did, which in turn threw us back into the heart of the post-concert bumper-to-bumper turtle derby headed toward Livermore and the city two hours later. It took us three hours to travel 25 miles. On the radio, we heard that the freaked-out black man the Angels had stomped had made his third and final appearance at the concert stage. The poor bastard had gone off somewhere and gotten himself a piece, and then he’d gone back and gotten himself kicked and cut to death for his trouble.

When we reached the Alameda county line, about a mile north of the amphitheater, I spotted a teenage girl wrapped in a poncho sitting alone on the shoulder of the highway. Something about her posture made me get out of the barely moving car to see if she needed a ride. She didn’t raise her head at the question. “Mister, I don’t need a ride,” she said in a thick, stoned slur, “I need to go to a hospital.” Involuntarily, her hand twitched out from under her poncho. Apparently she’d lit a cigarette some time back, and then forgotten about it. Her fingers were on fire.



Robert Johnson: The Sound and the Fury

An early member of the 27 Club, blues master Robert Johnson has been an object of veneration among such rock luminaries as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards since 16 of the roughly three dozen recordings he made in makeshift studios in the 1930s appeared on a 1961 compilation album, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. “Poor Bob” — as the singer, guitarist, and harmonica player referred to himself on “Cross Road Blues” — has also been the subject of numerous biographies, of which Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil is the latest.

Looking to get past the tale of Johnson (1911–1938) selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to master the guitar, the authors have tracked down birth certificates, land deeds, medical records, and other documentation of the musician’s actual life. They recount interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries and family members, and dive into all manner of books and articles to convey the poverty and racism through which Johnson persevered to become a performer whose dynamic guitar playing and beguiling vocals could make a juke joint jump or turn a house party solemn. The authors give a sense of Johnson’s power with a quote from an occasional collaborator, Johnny Shines: “One time in Saint Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying — both men and women.”

Jimmy Page once said, “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams.” In the winter of 1986, Village Voice contributor Greil Marcus related his own first encounter with the legendary musician: “Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.”

If Conforth and Wardlow’s book looks to sculpt an accurate portrait out of a fog of poorly kept records and embellished memories, Marcus, in his essay below, gets at the poetry of pain, grace, and joy that has kept Robert Johnson alive long after his one-score-and-seven years on this Earth had ended. —R.C. Baker

When You Walk in the Room

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in late November 1936, a 25- year-old blues singer from Mississippi made his first records in San Antonio, Tex­as: among them “Terraplane Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” In January 1970, just a month after Altamont, the all-day Rolling Stones rock festival, where I’d witnessed the worst violence I’d ever seen in the flesh, I walked into a record store, not looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to buy a record. I flipped through the blues rack and saw the name Rob­ert Johnson. It didn’t mean much to me; I’d noticed it as a songwriting credit on Cream LPs, for tunes called “Crossroads” and “Four Until Late.” The previous fall, I’d watched the Rolling Stones play a pristine version of “Love in Vain,” a track on their then new Let It Bleed, but I hadn’t known it was Johnson’s — for rea­sons I’ve never figured out, they credited it to someone called “Woody Payne.”

I was just starting out as a rock critic, though after Altamont I felt a hundred years old; I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers. It was one of those moments when you get your life changed — like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love. I took the record home and put it on: I knew nothing about country blues. I knew almost nothing about the Deep South in the ’30s — I’d never even read Faulkner. All I had were memories of Life magazine photos of lynchings, Richard Wright’s autobiography, the autobi­ography of one of the Scottsboro Boys (both mediated through the ever-chang­ing Communist Party line on the “race question”). All I had, really, was a liberal upbringing, a lot of socialist realism. I brought virtually no context to the record. I simply took it home, put it on, and had my life changed.

I heard a sound I’d never heard before, but which, for some reason, I connected to. It was what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition” — and for me, the “shock” has always been the realiza­tion that you have recognized something nothing could have led you to expect to recognize. The question turns out to be not what-makes-the-music-great, but why you recognized its greatness when, all things considered, you shouldn’t have understood it at all, or even stumbled upon it in the first place. I’ve been mar­ried for 20 years; sometimes, like anyone married that long, I wonder what my life would have been like if, on a certain meaningless day, I hadn’t walked into a certain meaningless room. Sometimes I think my life would be more or less the same; sometimes I think I wouldn’t have a life at all. I feel the same way about Robert Johnson. And it’s this sort of con­nection I want to talk about.

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Predictably, playing the Robert John­son album, I didn’t like his 1936 version of “Crossroads” as much as Cream’s 1968 version. Cream’s version was a firestorm; this was too quiet. As the album played, I read the liner notes. This is how they began: “Robert Johnson is little, very lit­tle more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”

Those lines were poetry to me. I still think the cadence of the prose is pure poetry — the movement from “little, very little” to “no longer exists.” I turned the record over and stopped dead with “Stones in My Passway”; my nice living room was suddenly invaded by absolute terror. To get away from what was hap­pening, I read on: “Robert Johnson ap­peared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.” This wasn’t po­etry — it was corny — but it reminded me of the cover of Camus’s The Rebel, a picture that has stayed with me with far greater force than almost anything in the book itself. The cover showed a sheet of newspaper, with headlines in half a dozen languages, all carrying reports of revolution, upheaval, blowing down the street to nowhere. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Berlin revolution of 1918, Barcelona in 1936 — all events expelled from history by those with the power to get history written, published, taught, and censored, the incidents appearing, when they ap­peared in the record at all, like a list of perversions in a sex manual about healthy married life. What I’m trying to say is that I experienced those words on the Robert Johnson album, and Robert Johnson’s music, as an invasion of a world I had taken for granted — of an ur­ban, modern, white, middle-class, educat­ed reality I had taken as complete and finished, as a natural fact.

Robert Johnson‘s music was a rent in that reality, a violent rip, a negation, a no. I suddenly realized that I was sick of rock ’n’ roll; sick, after Altamont, of what it could do and what it had already produced. Altamont showed me blood, and death. I’d seen people beaten to the ground with lead-weighted sticks, seen naked people with their teeth knocked out, and I’d left the place only to hear on the radio that, as I’d stood behind the stage on top of a van to hear the Rolling Stones, a young black man had been knifed, kicked, and bludgeoned to death. There was death in Robert Johnson’s songs — but it always stopped short, stopped short at the point of choice. As I listened, full of ugly memories, Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.

Now, this was not socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson’s music wasn’t just a rent in the bourgeois life I’d lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who’d fought against that life, who reached their high point in the ’30s, at the very moment Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn’t count; the socialist realist view of the world said that he’d been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he’d made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible will of the people — in other words, as sociology; as an individ­ual, he didn’t even exist. But this wasn’t what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray’s comments on Bessie Smith — he said, more or less, that writers have tried to tie the expressive power of Bessie Smith’s music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why, if this were so, 400 years of slavery and oppression, of pain and suffering, had not produced another Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black writer, was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist re­alism; he was trying to grant her the subjectivity, the autonomy, that in the Unit­ed States is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius. And, as Freud said, everyone knows genius is incomprehensible. Com­ing from the premier 20th century advo­cate of rationalism, that is saying something.

I wasn’t ready to deal with this — this sort of autonomy. Instead I tried to un­derstand the form — the genre, the sociol­ogy. I became obsessed with Mississippi Delta country blues — primitive blues, it was called in the notes to the Robert Johnson album. I learned a lot about it. I bought everything I could find. I learned about the first country blues performers to record, men much older than Robert Johnson: Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Garfield Akers. I heard a music that was rich, fierce, funny, and bitter. But I kept lis­tening to Robert Johnson, and what I learned still didn’t touch what he was doing.

I learned that blues had come into be­ing — was invented, was discovered, I don’t know the right word — around 1900, probably in the Mississippi Delta; wher­ever it came from, the sound was soon heard across the South. Everyone, black and white, who heard this new sound — ­all those with enough education to write down their thoughts on what they heard — said the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was some benevolent rich white woman or W.C. Handy of Mem­phis, who later named himself “the Fa­ther of the Blues.” They all had the same reaction, used the same words: “Weird.” “Strange.” “Eerie.” “Unearthly.” “Devil­ish.” “Terrifying.” “Not of this world.”

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The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music had made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues had made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, gospel music, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B and B leads to C, and who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there is what counts — and what those who were there said was that they’d nev­er heard anything like this before, and they weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear it again. A white woman heard her teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry — whatever the song was about, if it was a song, it wasn’t about laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men sat down beside him and began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.

What was this? Robert Johnson at­tracted international attention in his life­time; Melody Maker ran a short item about him, bemoaning the fact that his record company wasn’t known for en­couraging protest songs. Obviously, blues was full of pain and suffering; therefore at its heart it had to be a protest against white oppression. On the page, that wasn’t hard to understand — why was the sound so hard to understand?

It was hard to understand because blues was not music born of oppres­sion, but of freedom. It was not a protest against “conditions” — ­against racism, lynching, sharecrop­ping, and worse — it was, like The Sound and the Fury, a protest against life.

Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves — to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Dan­iel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life. They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of home­town, home plantation, family, church — and, most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back — and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.

A whole new, common language grew up around that negation, that affirma­tion — “No, I do what I like.” It was a shared language of guitar riffs and lyric phrases (“My black mama’s face shines like the sun,” “The sun gonna shine in my back door someday,” “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem just like days”), a set of fragments reaching for some all-encompassing blues parable that every blues singer presented in pieces. You could say, as Peter Guralnick has, that the tradition itself, not the individual artist, was the poet, and the tradition grew up as a poetic opposition to playing by the rules. In that sense, of course, blues was a protest, but blues singers didn’t see it that way. They considered themselves free men, as good as anybody, better than most — if not better than most, freer than most. Their music was made out of a conviction that, like all Americans, they were masters of their own lives — or should be. When they ran into the limits of that mastery — the in­ability to hold a woman, to keep a dollar in hand, to live without fear — they found themselves face-to-face not merely with the particular racial, economic, or social conditions of the Deep South in the ’20s or ’30s, but with the facts of life. Those facts could be summed up in one: men and women are not at home in this world. It was the same fact that Herman Mel­ville had discovered in Moby Dick, that Faulkner was raging against in The Sound and the Fury, that the writers of Greek tragedies had chewed over more than 2000 years before. That was why, to those who heard it around 1900, the sound was strange, scary, confusing: the new blues singers were singing about things people had never wanted to talk about. For the first time, they were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.

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It took me a long time to understand this — or to believe it. For a long time, what I heard in Mississippi country blues, and always most intensely in Rob­ert Johnson, was a contradiction: the mu­sic reached me directly, went straight to the heart, seemed to call forth responses from the blood; but at the same time that music was impossibly distant, odd, and old. For black people in the ’20s and ’30s the Mississippi Delta was full of horses and wagons and ruled by peonage. There weren’t any telephones and there weren’t any toilets. No one was allowed to vote, and most couldn’t even dream of learning to read and write. The first contact most of these people would have with a world outside the one into which they were born was when their sons were drafted to fight in World War II — and many of their sons were given farm deferments, arranged by white landowners partly to in­sure that they never would see a world outside the one into which they were born.

But I’ve fallen back into sociology — the opposite of what I’m trying to talk about. I’m trying to talk about a different sort of distance, a different sort of oldness, a different sort of oddness. I was raised on The Twilight Zone TV show — Mississip­pi blues was twilight zone stuff. The sing­ers, recorded in their twenties and thir­ties, seemed in their voices to have been old before they were born. Robert John­son was a ghost — out of a past I had never expected to confront, he was years ahead of me every time I listened to his music, waiting for me to catch up.

I am writing about Robert Johnson be­cause if any of the things I have been saying are true, they are overwhelmingly, titanically more true of him and his mu­sic than they are of any other Mississippi blues singer one might mention. Once one has been through the tradition, many of the great singers and most of the countless minor ones — and scores of black men made records in the South in the ’20s and ’30s — recede into that tradi­tion: the tradition speaks for them: this means they become sociological. Their music makes sense sociologically — and after that, it may not make any other kind of sense, or, more important, make non-sense out of whatever preconcep­tions a listener might bring to it. Charlie Patton, considered the founder of Missis­sippi Delta blues, sounds like a founder. Son House sounds like an exponent. Skip James and Tommy Johnson, both of them with highly developed individual styles, sound like eccentrics, like isolates within a tradition itself isolated from the American mainstream, be it political or artistic, where history is supposedly made.

Now, compared to Skip James or Tom­my Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. Com­pared to them, he sounds very tradition­al — and also as if the tradition, this par­ticular social/economic/religious/aesthetic happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was try­ing to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line — or for that matter into the momentum of a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep, and then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that the concepts of speech, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.

Robert Johnson, his music says, worked and lived with a deeper autono­my than any other bluesman, all of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that au­tonomy, limits he discovered and made real, and he did so with more ferocity, and more tenderness, than any other bluesman, all of whom encountered simi­lar limits. The difference is this: all the other bluesmen dealt with that problem within the bounds of the tradition, within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common lan­guage. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their life, they ac­cepted the limited power of the tradition to deal with those limits, to make sense of them.

Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself — a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to pro­test it. It’s said that when he started out he was a pest, a teenager making noise at houseparties and juke joints, a complete incompetent on the guitar, a joke. Then he went away, and a year later came back, still demanding that Son House and Willie Brown give him a chance to play in public. They laughed at him and left the room; he started to play. They turned around — and what they heard sounded as strange to them as the first blues had sounded decades before. It was like Vasily Rozanov’s metaphor for nihil­ism: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round… No more coats and no more home.” Right there, in the heart of the tradition, in the sociology of its everyday life, no one knew what was going on.

Blues was Robert Johnson’s lan­guage. It’s unclear whether he could read or write, but if he could, it was at a rudimentary level; blues was his only chance at self-expression, or making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly dif­ferent than he had found it. He mastered the tradition — he formally extended its guitar language, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delica­cy. Yet he also found the tradition inade­quate — and you can hear this in his greatest songs, in “Stones in My Pass­way,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Traveling River­side Blues.” The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can allow explodes the tradition. “Stones in My Passway” and “Hellhound” do not sound like any other blues. It doesn’t matter how well any musicologist can trace their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emo­tional, aesthetic fact: sociology can ex­plain the Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than 400 years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.

Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be explod­ed — to be taken to a critical mass of pos­sibility and desire and then be destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings — and, in a way, there weren’t. Nothing new; just refine­ments, revivals, footnotes. Many of Johnson’s more conventional compositions­ — “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Dust My Broom,” “Crossroads” — became blues and then rock ’n’ roll standards in the years and decades after Robert Johnson’s death; it’s interesting that almost no one has even tried to make a new version of “Stones in My Passway” or “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Once it’s really heard, Robert John­son’s music takes shape as a mystery — and, confronted with a mystery, the hu­man impulse is to try and solve it. Robert Johnson is no longer a name on an index card; since King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers was released, 25 years ago, almost every fact one might care to know about him has been discovered. There are enough facts for a full biography; not long ago there was mostly legend, tall tales, superstition. And yet Robert John­son’s music has not been reduced, has not been contained, has not been made sense of, not one bit. You hear a man going farther than he could ever have been ex­pected to go — even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear a man fall back violent­ly before them. What you hear is a strug­gle more extreme, and more fully shaped, than you can accept. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? What would it mean to lose that much?

Carlos Fuentes once spoke about the difference between literature that can be contained within the bounds of sociology and ethnography and literature that can­not. “Perhaps Babbitt and Main Street could only have been written by a per­fectly determined North American writer born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in the year of grace 1885,” Fuentes said of Sin­clair Lewis. “But Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury could, in their mythic essence, have been told by a wise savage in central Africa, an ancient guardian of memory in the Himalayas, an amnesiac demon, or a re­morseful god.” Sam Charters, one of the first to write in detail about Mississippi blues, once wrote that only a black man living in the Mississippi Delta in the first third of the century could possibly un­derstand what Son House meant when he sang, “My black mama’s face shines like the sun.” Maybe that is true, in the same way that Fuentes’s words about Sinclair Lewis may be true. But nothing similar could ever be true about Robert Johnson, just as one does not have to be anything like Faulkner to understand what he wrote.

For all this, Robert Johnson remains a figure in a story that, as it is usually told, is already completed: that is, he is a so­ciological exemplar of an ethnographic cultural incident that makes complete sense within the bounds of American so­ciocultural ethnography. No one talks about Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson (or even D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Howard Hawks) this way. They are discussed as people who took on the world and, for whatever reasons, made some­thing of it; what they made of it is what gets discussed, and discussed in the most wide-ranging way, connected to and informing anything that might connect to or inform it. Such talk makes their work richer, and the world richer, more inter­esting. But there are few American black artists discussed in these terms, and no blues singers. Formal objections are easy — how can you compare a handful of two-and-a-half-minute songs to Mel­ville’s books, or just Moby Dick? Can you actually say that there is a labyrinth as deep, as complex, in “Stones in My Pass­way” as in The Sound and the Fury? Maybe not. But one can say that Robert Johnson went as far, went far enough that the question becomes not how he got there, but what goes on there. ■


Altamont, the Rolling Stones, and the Death of the Sixties Dream

In the nearly fifty years since the Rolling Stones played a free outdoor concert at a racetrack in Alameda County, California, the word “Altamont” has become synonymous with the end of the 1960s, and the death of the hippie dream. On December 6, 1969, the Stones played for a crowd of over 300,000 people, with the Hells Angels serving as an ad hoc security team at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead — who would end up so cowed by the bikers’ overzealous tactics that they left the grounds without playing. The concert had been hastily arranged, and the location chosen at the very last minute; the lack of planning or foresight, combined with a deeply misguided trust in the Angels as counterculture allies, resulted in an infamously disastrous show that culminated in the death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, an African American concertgoer who had traveled to Altamont from the Bay Area with his girlfriend and a couple of friends. He would never make it back.

The chaotic day was recorded by a camera crew led by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and the footage edited by Charlotte Zwerin, for what would become the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. Now, Brooklyn author Saul Austerlitz revisits Altamont, and pays tribute not just to Hunter’s death, but his short life, in Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. The Voice spoke to Austerlitz about researching the events of the day, placing Hunter and his family at the center of the story of Altamont, and bursting the romanticized bubble of the 1960s.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969

I don’t want to go to Coachella, let alone Altamont, so a lot of what you describe in this book sounds like a nightmare to me. How did you set about re-creating the scene?

I ended up talking to about 75 people. There were some challenges in asking people about one day of their lives that was almost fifty years ago. Above and beyond that, a lot of the people are drinking or doing drugs that day, so their memories, which would be hazy no matter what, are even hazier.

I spoke to a filmmaker named Joan Churchill, who was one of the cinematographers there and has gone on to bigger and better things. Her account of being at the site the night before and dealing with the cold and misery of not being able to sleep and having nowhere to go, and then ending up getting dosed with LSD basically the second the event started, was really intense. It helped me understand what it might have felt like to be a part of it, and also to be, not a victim of it, but someone who endured it.

The book is not just about the festival itself, but the shaping of the story of Altamont as this cultural touchstone.

I was really interested in how it was covered journalistically, and one of the things that was striking to me was how misguided some of the early coverage was. One of the things I talk about in the book is that the guy who ended up writing what served as the early account that went out over the AP wire, he could only stay at the concert until about noon that day, because of deadlines. He did the best he could, obviously, but he was only present for two or three hours. The early report that went out across the country was like, “This concert was great, just like Woodstock, maybe even better. There were a few minor kerfuffles at the beginning but then everything got ironed out.” It ended up being Rolling Stone that did the major work of pushing back against that narrative, and telling a counterculture audience — an audience that wouldn’t instinctively trust the AP’s account of what happened — actually, it was totally different from what you’ve heard.

[related_posts post_id_1=”689528″ /]

The whole hippie idea of “personal bliss,” as you write at one point, feels to me like the inverse of the right-wing obsession with “personal responsibility” over collective action. I wonder if you saw this concert as a particularly damning event for the way that the left has romanticized its role in the Sixties.

I think so, yeah. A bunch of people that I spoke to who are among the more politically oriented, there was this sense that things were just going to keep getting bigger and better. We’ve had these anti-Vietnam protests, we’ve had these big gatherings like the Human Be-In, or Woodstock, which was earlier that summer, and all of them were great. This was sort of the party line — all of them were these amazing moments where we gathered together and it was wonderful, and the war was going to stop, and the youth were going to take over the country, and things would be permanently better. And concomitant with that was this sense of, we’re all on the same page. We all agree that we want to have a nice time and a nice event; we don’t really need to worry about anything. Woodstock went fine, this will also be fine. We don’t need to have plans for boring shit like, where am I going to go to the bathroom, how am I going to eat lunch while I’m there, who’s going to protect me in case anything goes wrong? Altamont was a kind of wake-up call in that fashion, to say, there are ways in which the adult world that you’re rejecting has notions that are still valuable, like planning ahead.

The counterculture understood itself to be this gathering force that was going to oppose and eventually undo the establishment. In coming to that conclusion, they ended up seeing themselves allied with people whom they very much were not allied with. It was interesting to me to learn about the ways that the counterculture had thought of the Hells Angels. The counterculture looked at them and said, “Hey, we don’t like the police, you don’t like the police, let’s be friends.” The counterculture liked to think of the Hells Angels as hippies, but they ride motorcycles. And the Hells Angels said, “Well, we like the bands, we like the drugs, we like the general lifestyle that you guys live, so we can get along.”

A still from the documentary film “Gimme Shelter” showing Hells Angels beating an audience member

It strikes me that the people making those decisions, and later, telling the story of that era, were almost all white men — not women or minorities, who probably weren’t having as much of a blast during the concert, or the Sixties in general.

It was helpful for me to understand how small the circle of pleasure was, in a way — how many people were having a really fun time, and how many people weren’t.

Reading the book, it was hard not to notice all the parallels between then and now — even your description of this feeling like, “What could go wrong,” sounds a lot like the attitude on the left in the year or two leading up to the 2016 election.

Most of the work on this book happened in early-to-mid-2016. I’d be working on the book and switch over to to see what was happening in the world, and the parallels between Altamont and Trump rallies were kind of overwhelming — this sense of, we’re going to unleash chaos in a mass gathering, and it’s going to feel really cathartic. That was one aspect of it. In retrospect, after the election, I’ve come to realize the ways in which, for myself and for a lot of people I know, we’re kind of the outdated version of the Sixties hippie radical. I also had a mistaken belief that things would keep getting better, we’re going to keep winning, don’t need to worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and getting blindsided by reality. That feels, unfortunately, very resonant right now.

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It’s kind of amazing that Altamont didn’t ruin the Stones’ reputation forever. This episode probably even worked in their favor; like the residual darkness of that day only added to their mystique. Did writing and researching this book change your feelings toward the band?

One of the interesting aspects for me was how much even the darkest aspects of that mythologizing worked to benefit the groups involved. The Hells Angels would only see themselves as having benefited from being at Altamont; it established their bona fides. There was a sense that the Rolling Stones had this dark majesty — that they were actually summoning some sort of malign influences. Which is so strange to my ears, but it came up multiple times [while researching the book]. I thought it was really telling that people kept misremembering what song had been playing when Meredith Hunter was killed. People kept thinking it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” and at the time there was this sense that “Sympathy for the Devil” was somehow the devil’s song. That was kind of telling, and speaks to what you’re saying — it benefited the Stones in some ways. That was the band that was playing when someone got killed.

I don’t have anything good to say about the Stones’ behavior in the aftermath of the concert. In terms of the concert itself, they went out onstage and they tried to cool things down, which I give them credit for, because the Grateful Dead didn’t do it. While it’s understandable, it was probably not the right decision. In the aftermath it’s just puzzling to me, and unacceptable to me, that the Stones never apologize. They don’t apologize to Meredith Hunter’s family, and they also don’t apologize to any of the fans. Even if, for some convoluted reason, they decided they couldn’t get involved with Meredith Hunter and his family, there were hundreds of other fans who were assaulted or manhandled or mistreated at the concert. The idea that they didn’t say anything about that is puzzling. Even if you feel like Meredith Hunter’s death is ultimately not your fault, how do you not say something, at some point, about it?

Did you try to get an interview with any of the band members?

I did, yeah. They were not interested. It’s telling if you look at Keith Richards’ memoir, which is a very enjoyable book — it’s seven hundred pages long and there’s I think three pages devoted to Altamont. He knew that he had to cover it, but it’s also the absolute bare minimum of what he could possibly say.

Meredith Hunter

You had the challenge of writing about an event that’s been written about over and over in the years since it happened. Was there anything you discovered in researching this book that really surprised you?

A lot of it surprised me. The Sixties have been combed over ad nauseam, and yet it was interesting for me to understand what people were thinking at the time. It helped me to understand how everyone got to this place where this specific event could happen.

The most surprising thing for me was talking to Meredith Hunter’s family and learning more about his family history. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to sort of reorient some of the story, which I think is always about fans and rock music and hippies and Sixties culture, and had to be more of a story about race and racism and how that impacts a person and a family. I entered into this project wanting to tell Meredith Hunter’s story, because I felt like he was kind of the absence at the center of the story, but I don’t think I fully understood the ways in which his story and his family’s story tie into this larger picture of this still very unfortunate relationship with race in America.

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Was it hard to get his family to talk to you?

It required some convincing to agree to speak with me, and understandably so. [Hunter’s sister] Dixie and her daughter Taammi Parker both very graciously agreed to talk to me, and talk about some really difficult things. But I got the sense that they definitely were concerned that their story would again not be told properly.

Have they read the book?

I’ve sent them the book. I believe they’ve read some of it. I don’t know much more about their response.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

For the people who feel like they know the story already, I’d like for them to take away the part of the story that’s about Meredith Hunter and his family, and incorporate that into their mental framework of what this concert was about and what the late Sixties were about. And in a larger sense, just to think about some of the resonances that this moment that I’m writing about, and this moment that we’re living through, seem to have with each other. Which is definitely a source of pessimism but is potentially a source of optimism as well. All this energy, which sometimes is misplaced or misguided, can also be hopefully funneled towards something powerful.

Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont
By Saul Austerlitz
Thomas Dunne Books
336 pp.


Songs of Free Love and Hate

Somewhere, it’s the witching hour, and a sad sack is holding on for dear life while Leonard Cohen, with his brooding, monochromatic voice, sings, “Well I stepped into an avalanche/It covered up my soul”—the opening line on “Avalanche,” the opening track on the masochistically delightful Songs of Love and Hate. Released in 1970, the lyric can be interpreted as a post-Altamont statement of lost innocence, but more likely it was a far more personal cry from a man disillusioned by his fledgling career as a singer-songwriter.

Three years prior, on the heels of the Summer of Love, Cohen released his debut,
Songs of Leonard Cohen
. He was 33, a late age to come to the game, though it was—not so ironically, for a religious zealot who in ’96 was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk—Christ’s age at passing. But Cohen’s nouveau folk, which bucked the genre’s trend of earnest protest, benefited from his maturity. The album also introduced Cohen’s long line of lady friends living out the repercussions of “free love.”

It was followed, in ’68, by Songs From a Room. Cohen’s tune had changed from casual to political. Songs like “A Bunch of Lonesome Heroes” and “The Old Revolution” were obvious admonishments of the Vietnam War. But it took a deep thinker like Anthony DeCurtis, who wrote the liner notes to these three reissues, to draw parallels between Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” and Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited.”

A celebrated poet and novelist in his native Canada even before he released his first album, Cohen’s subsequent musing on avalanches was probably a reaction to the commercial reception—or lack thereof—of his first two albums. Come to think of it, “reactionary” is the perfect theme for these reissues, since the majority of these songs are thinly veiled indictments of the ’60s. Other than the liners, what’s new here are five previously unreleased songs, including less morbid versions of “Bird on the Wire” (originally called “Like a Bird”) and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” But only “Store Room,” a perky (for Cohen) number about the Man take, take, taking without consequence, proves a real breakthrough. Beyond that, it’s all packaging—a curious homage to the antithesis of superficiality.


‘Following Sean’

In the thick of the free-loving freak show that was Haight Ashbury in 1969, a four-year-old boy named Sean offhandedly confessed to filmmaking student Ralph Arlyck and his movie camera that he liked to “smoke grass.” Knowing good material when he saw it, Arlyck edited his footage of the pot-smoking tot into a 15-minute short that became, along with Altamont and the Manson murders, a grim herald of the short-circuiting ’60s. Thirty years later, the filmmaker tracks down his subject, wondering whether he’s become a speed freak or a Wall Street banker, and is surprised to find a smart and sober electrician with a wry sense of humor. But the film, contrary to its bland title, isn’t merely about Sean; Arlyck, like fellow essayist Ross McElwee, prefers to work from the inside out, seamlessly weaving together his own story with Sean’s. Arlyck’s compulsion is to our great fortune. Patient and elegant, his film is a quietly devastating meditation on family, work, and the unrelenting passage of time.


Girls, Boys, DJs, Bands, Girls, Boys, Palms, Ferns, Fish!

Over a month ago the new L.E.S. bar the Delancey got off to an almost Altamont-like debut—overzealous security started throwing down on patrons, leaving the new club with an instant bad reputation. The negative PR has since subsided, and the Delancey’s now a downtown favorite. It resembles Williamsburg bar Red and Black; the same owners utilized a similar design: tall black walls, a fireplace, sleek glass-and-metal lighting fixtures, and low-lit ambience. What makes it different are several off-to-the-side lounge areas, three floors with plenty of room to boogie, and a relaxing rooftop oasis: An exotic koi pond with frog fountains is surrounded by potted ferns and palms and a great view of the Willy-B Bridge. DJs play most nights to a sea of wall-to-wall hipsters (of the young, fashionista, and indie-rock variety), who make it difficult to get around. Bands take over on Monday nights, attracting large crowds as well. On a recent mellow Tuesday night, the place was quite chill, hosted by a friendly and perky bartender who was suggesting we check out her Fruit Roll-Up drink ($7)—a sweet-and-sour concoction of mango rum, cranberry juice, and Rose’s lime juice. It’s a great vibe when the place is not too packed, but mellow is not what draws the kiddies.


Eviction Notice

Operators of a state-funded Brooklyn home for the mentally disabled that was allowed to fall into debt and disrepair signed a contract to sell their property days before ordering residents to leave.

Records obtained by the Voice show that Reverend Clarence Norman Sr., The home’s politically connected director, executed a contract of sale on June 14 with an Albany-based nonprofit group to sell them the facility.

Under the terms of Norman’s deal, all residents would be relocated from the Bedford Stuyvesant facility known as Pacific House. In addition, the sale price to the Altamont Program in Albany would cover all outstanding judgments and liens on the property, an amount that could be as much as $1 million, according to two state officials familiar with the property.

Eight days after the sale contract was signed, residents of Pacific House were called by administrators to an emergency meeting, where they were told that lights and water would be shut off if they didn’t leave by the end of the month.

The order panicked many residents who have lived in the home for years. Under an earlier agreement signed by Norman with the state Department of Health, he had pledged to keep the facility open until at least the end of July and to help relocate residents to appropriate facilities.

Residents alerted lawyers from a nonprofit legal aid organization, who were able to obtain a court order to keep the facility open until July 26.

The contract, signed by Reverend Norman and Father Peter Young, head of the Altamont Program and a chaplain for the state senate, indicates that formal closing of the sale of Pacific House will take place on September 1.

In a separate arrangement, the Altamont Program has also been allocated $1 million in special funding by the state legislature. State budget officials said the funding was allocated at the request of the Democratic majority in the assembly, where Reverend Norman’s son is a powerful figure.

Clarence Norman Jr., who is both a state assemblyman and chairman of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, said he has had no involvement with Pacific House other than to ask his law partner to represent his father.

A lawyer for the Altamont Program confirmed that negotiations are ongoing with Reverend Norman to acquire the property, which would be turned into temporary housing for homeless adults.

“We are still trying to get a firm figure,” said Raul Tabora, a lawyer representing the Altamont Program. He said that Altamont specializes in programs that serve as “stepping-stones to independence” for former convicts and the homeless.

Pacific House was also supposed to be a stepping-stone, serving homeless individuals suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. But in nine years of operation, the facility racked up a dismal record of unsanitary conditions and unpaid bills while ignoring repeated orders to install basic safety features for residents (see “A Ministry of Neglect,” July 4).

Reverend Norman has refused to discuss Pacific House, but an attorney for the home said that the program was long plagued by debts. “There was never enough funding for this facility,” said Ravi Batra, a law partner of Norman Jr.

This winter Batra was criticized by other Brooklyn lawyers for allegedly receiving court patronage assignments because of his ties to Norman Jr. He has denied benefiting from any influence or favoritism.

But on June 30, Batra represented Pacific House at an informal hearing before Supreme Court justice Richard Huttner, one of the judges who has appointed him in the past.

Huttner signed an order requested by attorneys from MFY Legal Services that Pacific House remain open until July 26 so that residents can be “appropriately” relocated. He also complied with Batra’s suggestion that the legal services lawyers, not Reverend Norman, negotiate with Con Edison over an unpaid $50,000 utility bill.


A Ministry of Neglect

Armed with more than $4 million in city and state funds, one of Brooklyn’s most prominent ministers pledged in 1991 to create a new home for the most vulnerable of the city’s homeless, those with mental disabilities.

Pacific House, an 80-room facility constructed from a renovated Bedford Stuyvesant apartment house, would end the hopeless cycle of streets, shelters, and hospitals for its residents, said founder Reverend Clarence Norman Sr. Counseling, therapy, recreation, and training would steer them back into society.

But nine years later, state officials have ruled that the health and well-being of Pacific House’s residents is best served by closing the institution.

The move follows a lengthy history of massive health and safety violations at the facility.

Records show that, starting in 1993, inspectors cited Pacific House for having cracked floor tiles, roach and rodent infestations, filthy bathrooms, and overflowing trash cans.

Pacific House

Although their building was filled with easily confused residents, administrators ignored state orders—for six years in a row—to comply with a city law requiring at least one staff member to have a certificate of fire safety.

Inspectors also faulted how residents were evaluated and treated. Medications were often mismanaged and records frequently incomplete and sometimes contradictory. One resident was listed in a 1997 file as an active drug abuser whose adjustment to the supposedly drug-free home was “good.”

In 1999, state inspectors found a complete lack of supervision, with residents “wandering aimlessly” into and out of the building.

Year after year, inspectors invoked ever harsher language to describe the facility, warning that it faced fines and license revocation if violations weren’t fixed immediately.

But little changed and no fines were imposed. For three years running, records show, Reverend Norman failed to respond to the reports.

The order to close the facility didn’t come until after a group of residents themselves sought legal help. Using their own cameras to record conditions, the residents helped attorneys file suit to compel Reverend Norman to clean and repair the building, or find someone who would.

Instead, the state Department of Health decided to shut it down.


Records show that, starting in 1993, inspectors cited Pacific House for having cracked floor tiles, roach and rodent infestations, filthy bathrooms, and overflowing trash cans.

All this month, vans have been removing residents and their slim belongings from the four-story building at 1140 Pacific Street, taking them to facilities as far away as the Rockaways. The move has left many fearful and confused. Others are bitter.

“I think now Pacific House should never have been built,” said Igan Potts, 30, who lived there for seven years. “All it is, is a place to get cash out of the government.”

Potts and other residents blamed staff indifference at Pacific House for contributing to the recent deaths of two women.

One of them, a woman in her sixties named Martha Curlett, suffering from diabetes and often incontinent, spent her days sitting in a nightgown on the house’s crumbling steps, begging for change, they said.

“She’d be sitting there, in all kinds of weather, pissy wet, saying, ‘Mommy . . . Poppy? Gotta quarter? Gotta cigarette?’ ” said resident Clara Taylor.

George Gitlitz, an organizer for the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled who visited the home regularly, said he recalled seeing Curlett “sitting with holes in her shoes” on the stoop shortly before Christmas.

“I gave her a dollar,” he said. “I think she died a week or so later.”

The state’s independent Commission on the Quality of Care said it is investigating Curlett’s death and that of Rhonda Tucker, who died last year.

James Frederick, Pacific House’s current administrator, declined to comment specifically about the deaths. “A person is diabetic, they shouldn’t eat those rich foods, soda. We can’t control the residents,” he said, leaning against a van parked in front of the building, where several residents had spent the past hour pacing back and forth on the stoop.

“This isn’t a happy process for anybody,” he said.

In a signed stipulation agreeing to close the facility, Norman, 70, blamed “insufficient cash flow” for the violations.

But the project’s financial status is unclear. The program has never been audited, state officials said. There are also no recent financial statements to review because the nonprofit organization has failed to file required annual reports since 1995, according to the state attorney general.

But a steady flow of money went into the building. In addition to city and state loans of about $4.6 million, Pacific House collected $830 a month in rent from each resident’s federal disability check.

Still, bills went unpaid. City officials say that since 1992 Reverend Norman has failed to make payments on a $2.3 million loan. State tax officials have filed more than $200,000 in liens against Pacific House for not paying payroll and other taxes. And federal tax authorities have placed a $68,000 lien against Reverend Norman personally, records show.

Myra Gibson served on a residents’ council to improve conditions.


Whatever their source, Pacific House’s problems were not caused by a lack of political clout. Reverend Norman, the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Crown Heights, is the father of Assemblyman Clarence Norman Jr., the powerful chairman of the Kings County Democratic Committee.

Norman Jr. is also chairman of the assembly’s Task Force on Homelessness, but said he played no role with Pacific House.

“Not my program, not my district, not me. I went to the groundbreaking, that was it,” he said. His sole involvement, the assemblyman said, was to ask his law partner, Ravi Batra, to represent Reverend Norman in talks with state officials. Reverend Norman failed to return numerous calls.

Gitlitz, whose group aids residents at dozens of adult homes, described Pacific House as “a disaster.” At a meeting of the state’s Residential Advisory Committee, he asked about enforcement there. “An official told me, ‘It’s politics with a capital P,’ ” said Gitlitz.

But state health officials insisted that political influence never affected how they monitored Pacific House. “We would never place political connections over the health and safety of the residents,” said Rob Kenny, a state health department spokesman.

Kenny said that the state’s Department of Social Services began proceedings in 1996 to revoke Pacific House’s license. But that was put on hold after an Albany-based drug detox group called the Altamont Program sought in 1998 to take over the home’s management.

In September 1999, however, Altamont changed its mind, citing the home’s poor condition. A devastating 1999 inspection of Pacific House “was the last straw,” Kenny said. Shortly thereafter, state officials began lengthy negotiations with Reverend Norman, ultimately reaching an agreement on May 25. The deal calls for Pacific House to close its doors by July 25.

“The bottom line here is these residents need to be safe. We have been on top of the situation and are moving with appropriate speed,” said Kenny.

But the picture that emerges from state records and interviews with residents and lawyers is of a facility filled with frail individuals spiraling into a steady, slow-motion collapse.

Instead of pulling its residents out of a mire of despair and poverty, it was Pacific House itself that descended into disrepair and disorder.

One former state official, who declined to be named, said it was clear early on that Pacific House was headed for trouble. “Reverend Norman really didn’t have the depth of organization to handle it,” he said.

Norman apparently realized it as well. In 1995, he approached Dr. Peter Campanelli, head of the Institute for Community Living, and asked him to take over Pacific House.

“He was having operational and financial difficulties and honestly I think he realized he needed someone else to do it,” said Campanelli, who said bureaucratic snags and the home’s financial woes prevented him from taking over.

The keenest observers of the breakdown at Pacific House may have been a handful of residents who, despite their own admitted disabilities, were quick to spot problems.

Igan Potts arrived at Pacific House in February 1993 after spending two years bouncing in and out of shelters and hospital mental wards. At first he was elated to be admitted to the program.

“Everything was sweet and serene,” he said. But he soon encountered drugs, prostitution, and theft. When he reported one resident’s chronic drug use to an administrator he was bluntly rebuffed. “She said: ‘What are you, a snitch?’ ”

In an effort to learn his rights as a resident, he traveled to local libraries. “I was looking for organizations that could help better the house,” he said. Fearful that staff would take away his notes and booklets if they knew what he was doing, he “covered his tracks” by hiding them in art books he checked out of the library.


The program has never been audited, state officials said. There are also no recent financial statements to review because the nonprofit organization has failed to file required annual reports since 1995, according to the state attorney general.

Clara Taylor also confronted the administration over conditions. Taylor, 49, had been homeless for 10 years when she arrived at Pacific House in the summer of 1997.

“I applied and they got me in,” she said. “It seemed like my God had guided me there.”

But Taylor said her hopes were dashed when she saw the home’s dirty bathrooms. “They were always filthy, clogged up, no toilet paper, no towels. There were roaches and mouses running through the halls,” she said.

The promised recreation, she said, turned out to be occasional group trips to Manhattan to sit in the studio audience for TV shows like Jenny Jones and Ricki Lake. “And a lot of bingo. All the time, bingo,” said Taylor.

Several residents were severely disturbed, Taylor said, often wandering about covered in their own excrement. Staff did nothing, she claimed.

“Those people weren’t supposed to be there,” said Taylor. “But they wouldn’t move them out because they didn’t want to lose their [rent payments],” she said.

Myra Gibson, 38, who has lived at Pacific House for eight years, said she rarely saw Reverend Norman there. When he did show up one day, she decided to confront him. “I told him, ‘You’re not paying your bills, but you’re taking our money,’ ” she said. “He just laughed.”

At one point, Gibson, Taylor, Potts, and other residents who became active in a council that Gitlitz helped form circulated a petition calling on Reverend Norman to improve conditions. Fifty-eight people signed it, and Norman agreed to attend his first-ever meeting with residents.

“I said to him, ‘I don’t want to take you to court, but you all are robbing me. We need better treatment,’ ” Taylor said. She said Norman voiced sympathy but said he lacked funds to carry out major improvements.

Shortly after the meeting, Taylor and other residents contacted MFY Legal Services, a Manhattan organization that assists low-income New Yorkers. Attorneys visited the site and were shocked at what they found.

“There were pieces falling from the ceiling,” said attorney Lisa Green. “There was no security, roaches and mice running rampant. Bathrooms were disgusting, such that no human being should have to live with.”

“We considered this insitution to have some of the worst environmental conditions we’ve seen,” said Jeanette Zelhof, MFY’s managing attorney.

MFY filed suit in late 1998 on behalf of Taylor and five other residents. A few months later the lawyers won a judge’s order to compel Reverend Norman to make repairs. Still, the facility balked. It was while the lawyers were threatening to seek a contempt judgment that the state commenced negotiations to close the facility.

Reverend Norman’s agreement with the state calls for “appropriate placement” of residents in an adult home or nursing facility.

But according to Gitlitz and the attorneys from MFY, Pacific House is pressuring residents to leave immediately. “They were told that if they are not gone by June 30, they will be turning off the lights and the water. People are terrified,” said Gitlitz.

State health department officials declined to comment about Pacific House’s future once it is empty. But Assemblyman Norman said the decision has been made to turn the building over to the Albany-based Altamont Program, headed by Father Peter Young, who is a longtime chaplain of the state senate.

Young said the plan evolved from his earlier attempt to take over the existing program. “I was heartbroken we couldn’t work it out there, but ultimately we felt we weren’t equipped to run an adult home,” he said. He is currently negotiating with Reverend Norman to acquire the property, although he said he didn’t know how much his organization would pay for it.

But Young said that the state’s Dormitory Authority has already given him a list of needed repairs to the building and that the Altamont Program is slated to receive at least $400,000 in state money for the renovation.

Meanwhile, the closing of Pacific House, despite its problems, is wrenching to many residents. Michael Virgo, 36, a somber man who has spent four years there, said he would rather stay where he is now.

“The state came so many times here and gave them warnings. Still, nothing changed. They could’ve fixed the place up, gotten good staff. Now we all have to leave. It’s not the residents’ faults. I wished I could stay and make it better here.”

photographs by Brian Finke