Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Band from Dylanland: Big Pink in Quake City

“Big Pink in Quake City: Respite for the Restless”

SAN FRANCISCO — Darling Dolly Dane, a rachitic teenie waif from the wilds of Petaluma (“Egg Basket of the West”), was rattling off her semi-pro panhandler’s hype at the intersection of Post and Steiner, while up the block at Winterland, the reclusive band from Big Pink was making ready to strike up some sweet country funk, and rock mojo-domo Bill Graham, after his own emotionally hemophiliac fashion, was sidling up to the mound to strike o-u-t OUT.

“Don’t be a tacky cunt, hon,” Darling Dolly coaxed a sailor in the stream of ticket-holders pressing toward the entrance. “Do me some good with your spare change.”

Dear, darling Darlin Doll she wasn’t alone — the tribal rock hounds and stone guerrilla hippies of the Bay Area had turned out in force for the occasion. Flapping along the sidewalks, preening and shrilling, they soared into the cavernous recesses of the old ice-skating rink-turned-rock ballroom like flocks of bright, demented birds.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724030″ /]

The mood of expectancy ran high; “This will be a stoning thing,” a mustachioed kid from Berkeley promised his chick in sepulchral tones.

Promises, promises. From the outset, The Event that had been broadsided for weeks in advance as sure to hang heavy, heavy over our collective long-haired heads turned out to be — with a brief respite to be noted — merely onerous.

The spooky vibes began in the lobby. Poker-faced security guards — a lot of them, all looking like Tac Squad reservists — swarmed through the foyer and along the hall’s aisles, barking at people to move along, seemingly at whim. After being shooed away a couple of times, I managed to buy a coke at the refreshment stand and started working my way through the crush toward the stage, where the house sound system reared up out of the darkness like a massive and sinister radar installation. The Ace of Cups, a local all-femme group who occasionally generate an ambience of pure physical fun because they’re such fetching chicks to look at, played listlessly. The acoustical reference in the room was muddier than Vic and Sade on an Atwater-Kent table model.

I ran into one of the Family Dog people, an acquaintance from Texas, and we watched silently as the Sons of Champlin, another local group, set up onstage. They would play an overlong and uncharacteristically lackwit set. After the first couple of numbers, the crowd stirred restlessly; the smell of burning weed was stronger than a ten-minute egg.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722241″ /]

A kid in a smudgy, buttonless tunic, his face pocked with scabies pimples, wandered through the crowd, obviously stoned. He kept running his fingers through the flame of a lighted candle and mumbling what must have started out as a chant. A half-hour later, when I caught sight of him a second time, his hands were black and literally smoking.

My friend groaned; “Jesus, that dude must’ve been shooting up the Chronicle Sporting Green for days. He’s gonna wake up in the morning — some morning — and feel everything but good.”

After the Sons had bowed off to polite but disinterested applause, there was a lengthy delay of a type that telegraphed to the audience: Something Has Gone Stone Wrong. Then Bill Graham popped up at the mike, earnest, thin-skinned, a-stammer, attempting to apologize for the apology he was about to tender —

“Fuck you!” someone yelled distinctly from the balcony.

Graham winced as if he’d been slapped, but, gathering his aplomb about him with the equanimity of a wino wrapping up for the night in a bundle of Moral Rearmament pamphlets, he bore grimly on to relate that Robbie Robertson, the band’s lead guitarist, had been ill with the flu for two days, and was having a little trouble getting together, but if the audience would only be patient, the whole band’d be there, Graham guaranteed it —

“A 15 minute delay at the latest,” he promised, and scuttled off the stage into the shadows.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717029″ /]

Promises, promises. We waited — 30 minutes, an hour, ultimately an hour and a half. A few in the crowd waited merely for the chance to red-ass Graham when he worked up the nerve to reappear; others were determined to dig the young musical gunfighters from Woodstock at any cost, even if they had to invade Robertson’s hotel room and give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Finally, straggling onstage one by one, the members of the band assembled, Robertson assisted to his place by a man named Ralph Gleason later identified as the guitarists’s personal hypnotist. At last they were on.

The respite mentioned earlier lasted 35 minutes. The band from Dylan Country played only seven songs, only two of these new, but it’s not inconceivable to me that during that brief session, a few hearts and heads and lives might have been turned around for the better. The band’s sound and stance were flawless. From the strength of their personal decency and dedication, the musicians summoned up an oceanic passion, a commitment to the true experience of their materials that short-circuited the hair on the back of one’s neck. For a little better than a half-hour, the band didn’t redeem the morbid vibes that had been going down all evening, but simply transcended them.

Then, in a wink, the players were gone, and the howl for an encore went up. “Come back to the raft a’gin, Huck honey!” a male voice boomed from the floor. A volley of boos greeted Graham as he worked his way back to the mike. He stood visibly shaken in the rain of catcalls and curses until the yelling and stomping gradually subsided.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717799″ /]

“Well,” he drawled pouty, “there must be a lot of tourists here tonight, because San Francisco people just don’t act that way —”

The crowd groaned in unison, a long-drawn-out wail of derision and contempt that must have chilled Graham’s deep soul, for he stepped back from the mike, his mouth working silently. “TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, GRAHAM!” somebody cried from the press of bodies at the edge of the bandstand.

In small eddies and surges, the audience began to disperse. “The band got it together,” I heard a college girl saying philosophically, “but Bill Graham kind of bombed, didn’t he.” Outside Darling Dolly Dane collared my friend and me at the corner. “Don’t be a tacky cunt,” she began, but he put a quarter in her palm and gently closed her palm and gently closed her bony little fingers around it in a ball. “Take a load off, Fanny,” he told her gravely, and we strolled on, somewhat armed against the night’s chill.  ■

Categories
From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Showtime! The Theater of Politics

SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday, July 12, 7 a.m. Arrived from Newark three hours ago. I should be thinking about politics as theater. Again? Is it three hours earlier or 15 years ago? Did I ever believe the medium was the message? Consider spectacle (authoritarian, hierar­chical, scripted) versus spontaneous show (free spirited, multifocus, improvisatory). Consider Nuremburg rallies and fascist total theater. May Day rallies and Stalin­ist total theater? Jet lag is turning me into a Sontagite: aesthetically correct but no good. Yippies casting dollar bills into the Stock Exchange? Still no good, that was for the media. Everything is for the media? Back to sleep and troubled dreams of Wagner and Abbie Hoffman, Reagan and Jane Fonda.

My press credentials neatly clarified matters: for the “perimeter” only. The fringe, the outside, the spectator’s seat. The front-of-the-book men ferret out and analyze issues; Munk watches demos and parades. Base and superstructure, slight­ly muddled by the fact that the serious stuff is a performance, and the sideshows are serious.

At noon the National March for Lesbi­an and Gay Rights held a press confer­ence in City Hall directed at Jerry Fal­well’s descent on the city with his two-day training conference for the Moral Majority leadership. It was pious, proper, and moving. Harry Britt, the gay socialist member of the Board of Super­visors, denounced Falwell as a man whose words are spiritual but whose content is hate and divisiveness; the other speak­ers — Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyteri­an religious, city officials, a gay father, the president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — talk about hospital­ity, tolerance, St. Francis, God’s family, the Family, and the-values-that-made-­this-country-great. The scripts were tac­tically sound, maybe a bit obvious, yet right and true. One speaker, Miriam Ben-­Shalom, hit another note, demanding to talk to Falwell, outraged, using impolite words.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726415″ /]

I wondered what tone the Sunday pa­rade would stress, made an appointment to talk with Britt, walked back down Market Street past a raucous picket line in front of Macy’s, another in front of the Emporium. Union Square was filled with gaggles of people yelling at each other, sectarians selling newspapers, a couple of punk types telling the sectarians that Hitler was your typical socialist, delegates and tourists walking purposefully looking, so to speak, neither left nor right.

A Falwell man said, “We will lose cer­tain freedoms by allowing homosexuality. If I have total freedom I can do anything to anybody. Roman society fell apart …” That’s their public style. A gay man proclaimed to the air, “Why, he’s Jerry Falwell’s husband!” An amoe­ba-faced suited man shouted, “Make it a felony,” but the Falwell fellow came back right away with “I don’t believe in that.” No one believed him.

I got press credentials at the Falwell conference and moseyed around the “New Traditional Woman” panel. Chil­dren sleeping on laps, on the floor. Speaker believes men should be true heads of household, women should have jobs if they must, but not careers they love. Everything was low-key, slow, bor­ing. Down in the lobby everyone peered out at a little demo and debated whether to go watch it. “I was on the other side in the ’60s, man, I don’t have to go see them.” “I hate confrontation, I’m a paci­fist at heart.” “I know a fellow who makes little bumper stickers saying ‘kill the gays’ and sells them. I mean, if you start talking like that …”

When I got back to Union Square, it was filled. No arguing. The crowd looked orderly, but then I could hardly see it through the masses of cops lined up like Rockettes, gripping their nightsticks, maneuvering skittishly on horseback.

The slogans moved from “women unite to fight the right” to “the only good pig is a dead pig.” Time warp. The cops moved from their rigid, fixed-face lineups, push­ing the horses right into the crowd on the sidewalk. Piles of garbage covered an in­tersection: looked like debris from a car­rot-juice maker, squeezed-out half or­anges, vegetable matter from a health food store. “It’s Chicago!” “It’s Buffalo, ’63, stupid.” I wanted to know what on earth happened in Buffalo, ’63, but some­one started setting off earsplitting fire­crackers. “What’s happening?” said a lady tourist to a lady cop. “It’s the moral majority versus the unmoral majority.” Of the latter, seven were arrested, at least one beaten, and the nurse who tried to help her was clubbed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726423″ /]

I walked through Chinatown to North Beach, where I lived more than 20 years ago, and stood for a while in front of the old house on Powell. It looked the same. The rest of the neighborhood has gone neon tacky or genteel. Back near Union Square a circle of candles had been set up on a sidewalk by religious gays, men and women, singing Christian and Jewish hymns. One woman quarreled politely with me because my colleague Nat Hen­toff was going to address the Falwell con­vention tomorrow. When I walked back to my hotel, the cops were quietly trot­ting their horses toward their stables.

Friday, July 13. Called Britt’s office at nine to confirm interview. When I told him I wanted to discuss the class, gender, and race issues that are left in the gay community after gross discrimination had been eliminated by power in local politics, he said he’d give me half an hour. Ten minutes later, just as I was leaving, the phone rang. “I’m not willing to be part of a story on the splits and divisions in the gay community when you guys aren’t doing the job about us. Sorry about that.” Slam.

I walked off, muttering gloomily about the end of dialogue, to the Falwell confer­ence, to see what Nat was telling them about medical ethics. He was being intro­duced: “Nat Hentoff, who fancies himself an atheist …” Nat recapitulated his ar­guments (you’ve read them in the Voice) about infanticide and euthanasia. He had some good digs at Reagan and at profes­sional omertá, some friendly self-deprecation (“I’m the handy, ubiquitous athe­ist in this matter”), and an argument, which would have been fine had the seamlessness started a few months far­ther along the way.

Midspeech, two young women, neatly dressed like Moral Majoritarians, stood up in the audience and embraced each other. First like friends meeting after a long absence, then sexily. The spectators were appalled, in a repressed kind of way, murmuring and shifting. After a minute or so, the pair was quietly escorted out, chanting, “We are everywhere. We are your daughters and your sisters. Our daughters will be here and our daughter’s daughters.” Nat waxed sarcastic, “Today?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”719221″ /]

Maybe the women should have been more to the point and brought a poor, single mother with a severely handicapped child. Still, Nat wooed the audi­ence back to himself at the women’s expense. I was too angry to concentrate on the rest of the talk; my mind was on the company he keeps. So I left this confer­ence on “Being My Brother’s Keeper,” and went back to Union Square.

Where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — six men in giddily S/M nun drag — were exorcising Jerry Falwell. Sis­ter Boom-Boom (who, as Jack Fertig, ran for supervisor in 1982 and got 23,000 votes), sang “Your son will come out tomorrow,” and made terrible jokes. “The Moral Majority is here with Hell n’ Damnation! Hi Helen!” Falwell was stripped down to a black merry widow and stockings, and got it on with Jesus, in a Counter-Reformation loin cloth. There was something odd about an anti-Fein­stein song which seemed to say that her problem was female machismo, and something odder about a purification rite for Phyllis Schlafly by holding her down and tearing a rubber snake from under her dress. But what the hell.

A couple of hours later I went to Glide Churches’ “Celebrating the Poor” festi­val. Here the only question was whether the Reverend Cecil Williams was just putting on a show or doing good works and putting on a show. The church is a short walk and a different world from Union Square. An enormous line — 3000 people in the course of the evening­ — waited for food. I talked to a young woman out of work who said the food’s not just for the convention-time cameras; there’s a special meal once a week, and all the food’s better than the other soup kitchens. Williams gave the press lots of rhetoric while people with trays of food jostled around. At one point he stopped for a minute and yelled, “I wanna ask you, everybody, is anything better than Reagan?” And everyone shouted, “Yes.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724444″ /]

Upstairs in the church proper, a multi­colored disco wheel turned among the stained glass windows, while the Glide Memorial Gospel Singers sat on the altar steps. The press milled around, waiting for a senator, a supervisor, a delegate, a Lefty, Godot (sorry). Vietnam vet Ron Kovick and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown came, Harold Washington and Dianne Feinstein didn’t show. I had to go see some theater. On a stage.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater was doing a “convention special” — apparent­ly the only topical work among the estab­lished theater groups. They promised it would be biting satire, sharp, strong, political. Maybe a Dying Pet Sale — “the misfortunes of my pets mean a bargain for you” — or the Piece and Pizza Coali­tion, or “Shop Without Guilt, Vote Without Fear,” are funny. They are as funny as it got. I left plunged in gloom, striding again through the wreck of my old haunts.

Saturday, July 14. Every community organization, union local, sect, countersect, and groupuscle was huddled in doors planning for the big parades tomor­row, so I walked around Golden Gate Park. A sign pointed me to Peacequake ’84: a rock band was playing in a dell for a smallish, friendly, stoned crowd that seemed frozen in time. Who’s Afraid of Thomas Woolf?

The San Francisco Mime Thoupe was doing their new show, based on A Christ­mas Carole, and propagandizing for voter registration. I don’t recall the SFMT ever taking a stand for the Democratic party before. I’ve seen a lot of Revolutionary Commmunist posters around town urging the People not to vote, and perhaps they represent a chunk of the radical commu­nity, but it was hard to believe that this nice young audience, mostly white and not particularly militant looking, was dis­affected from the electoral process.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721487″ /]

The plot concerns Ebeneezer Jones, an extremely upwardly mobile black lawyer in his thirties who’s too cynical to vote. Nixon appears, untwining tapes from his bulging pockets and shows Ebeneezer’s past (college radicalism), the present (Marcos, Pinochet), and the future — not a nuclear one, but the Supreme Court, convicting Jessie Jackson of terrorism and proclaiming that “Freedom Is Security.”

Some of this was funny, but it seemed a little flat and heavy-handed and with­out much physical pizzazz, though the music was good. I hope the Mime Thoupe hasn’t lost it’s dramaturgical verve by adopting sensible politics.

Spent the evening at a spectacularly catered party on a spectacular hill, a fundraiser for the Lesbian and Gay Pa­rade given by Lia Belli, who’s running for state senate. It was full of rich homosex­uals, which meant, of course, that there were three times as many men as women. I ate my fresh lichees wrapped in raw snow peas, and paté and brie and nectar­ines. I talked to a black lesbian activist mother, who’s running for the board of supervisors, and was tending bar. I was bemused. I went to a lot of other parties. They were not theater.

And nobody talked about anything. The spectacle was still to come; so was the substance. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?

Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?

November 30, 1967

San Francisco — The season changed, and the moon thrusts of the Autumn Equinox preoc­cupied the many people in Haight-Ashbury who chart by planetary movement. Others par­ticipated in the Equinox celebra­tion, a pleasant event which has become a tradition here in the past few seasons. This celebration was of special note, because two traditional American Indian medicine men decided at the last minute to attend. The medicine men, Rolling Thunder and Shay­mu, came to the Straight Thea­tre on Haight Street and helpers hurried to the street with hand­bills reading “QUICK INDIANS WANT TO SEE YOU.” The na­tives came, and, in front of the Straight, Rolling Thunder met Shaymu, and Shaymu said, “Let us adopt these people, who are called hippies, as our children. They have been disowned.” Roll­ing Thunder agreed, and the In­dians and many of their new children went to the country to dance all night around a fire on a beach.

The vast majority of the younger residents of Haight-Ash­bury just hung around the street, aware of neither the Equinox nor of their new family. Most were unaware because they didn’t care. They had more pressing problems: to find some bread to get home, to find a place bread to crash for the night, or to find some speed so they could forget about the night. Haight Street was lined with people with prob­lems. Behind the scenes, there were only more problems.

Most of the tourists were gone, and with them their funny mon­ey, which really didn’t matter because they only clogged the streets and not much of the mon­ey filtered back into the com­munity anyway. But the community was certainly short of bread. The Haight-Ashbury Medical Clin­ic, which had given free medical treatment to 13,000 people since June without any financial or moral support from government or foundation sources, finally closed its doors, defeated and depleted, on September 22. The Digger Free Store was in debt and the proprietor threatened to split to New York unless the $750 in back rent materialized. The Switchboard, which main­tained a volunteer legal staff of 30 lawyers and had found crash pads for up to 300 pilgrims a night, was doing fine until it received some contributions. They spent the money before the checks bounced, and needed $1000 to survive. Most of the communes in the country still depended on outside support, and even the free food in the Panhandle, which began to resemble ­a bread line, threatened to fold without any more funds.

Haight-Ashbury had survived the Summer of Love, but it seemed mortally wounded.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717973″ /]

Relatively Calm

It could have been worse. Estimates in the spring had doubled the estimated 50,000 saints and freeloaders who came to the Haight seeking the love and free life that the papers had promised. The subdivided flats in the bay-windowed houses-the rule to Haight-Ashbury as tenement apartments are to the East Side  stretched to accommodate guests. There were no hunger riots, and the now defunct free medical clinic kept the threat­ened plague and pestilence in check. The pilgrims were fed and housed — with occasional free music and drugs thrown in and the panhandlers on Haight Street were still asking for quarters in October.

As I arrived, there were kids on many corners with packs on their backs and thumbs stuck out trying to leave. The people I met, many of whom had been here before the Human Be-In and the Summer of Love (some of whom had coined the words), were exhausted and dejected, rather like a bartender counting unbroken glasses after an all­-night brawl. Yet they were count­ing broken spirits and their new veteran friends who had not yet split for the sanctum of an un-­publicized commune in the country. They were the hosts of the Summer of Love and now, after the Autumn Equinox, it was time to clean up.

***

There’s not much reason now to go to Haight Street unless it’s to cop. The street itself has a layer of grease and dirt which is common on busy sidewalks in New York but rare in San Fran­cisco, a film that comes from bits of lunch garbage and spilled coke ground into the cement by the heels of Haight Street strollers. It is not a plea­sant place to sit, yet hundreds do, huddled in doorways or stretched out on the sidewalk, in torn blankets and bare feet, bor­ed voices begging tor spare change, selling two-bit psyche­delic newspapers that were cur­rent in the spring, and dealing, dealing, dealing. The dealing is  my strongest impression of Haight Street. The housewives with their brownie cameras miss the best part of the show.

It’s not hard to cop in the Haight. It you look remotely hip and walk down the street, a do­zen anxious peddlers should approach you to offer their goods. It is something that may happen once a day on St. Mark’s Place. Here I am asked several times on each block whether I want to buy, or occasionally sell, grass, acid, meth, kilos, lids, matchboxes or, in the case of one ambitious (and, I think, mad) merchant, “Owsley tabs, mescaline, psilocybin coated grass, or anything, anything you want.” The merchant was young, fat, owlish-looking, perspiring and unshaven. He had an entourage of several pre-adolescent kids swathed in Army blankets. “I know the stuff is good,” he said. “I try it all myself.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715819″ /]

The Dealers

The pace of dealing picks up at night, when the dark provides some protection. Walking down Haight Street at night, the offers are whispers in the shadows or in the crowds. Mostly its acid. But the street acid is usually a combination of a taste of acid fortified with anything from methedrine to strychnine. There have been a lot of bad trips here lately, because there has been a lot of bad acid.

Even in October some new stores are opening, latecomers for the leftovers of the poster and bead market, but it should be a rough winter for the bead game with no assurance that next summer the circus will come to town again. Enlightened natives have spread out all over  town from Haight-Ashbury. Anyone curious about hippies can pick up a hitchhiker or find some on his own block. Unlike Greenwich Village, the shops are not an attraction in themselves. The same goods are sold in more attractive shops all over town.

I did find one merchant who wanted nothing to do with the psychedelic market. I needed some matches so I went into a liquor store on Haight Street off Clayton and, rather than hassle the thin, white-haired man at the counter, I bought a pack of cigarettes, which he gave me with a pack of matches. Then I asked for an extra pack of matches.

He eyed me severely.

“You got matches, right here,” he said, tapping the pack of matches with the nail of his index finger.

“I’d like an extra pack” I said. “I’ll pay you for them”

He shook his head. “No,” he said, “you got matches right here. One pack is all you need. One pack of cigarettes. One pack of matches. What do you need more for?”

I pulled out my other pack of cigarettes. “For these,” I said. “That’s what I came here for.”

“What happened to the matches you got with those?” he shouted, triumphant with the evidence, finding me guilty of all the dope fiend-marijuana-puffing sins that the mind of a liquor store keeper could imagine. Even after the hoards, he was holding his hill. He was doing his bit.

Lonely Trips

The street is the heart of the Haight. It is where everyone first realized that they had company on their trip. It is reality — a hard fact to stomach when you’re 15 and strung out on meth and it’s midnight and you’ve got no place to crash except a doorway. Without the coffee houses and bars of the beats, the street is the scene, a hell of a scene, with tourists and runaways and dealers and burners and the holy Angels with their bikes and the gaudy stores as a backdrop.

A schism exists between the street and the elite in Haight-Ashbury. The same is true in New York. The elite of the Haight-Ashbury scene are more aware of it, and they have occasionally tried to bridge the gap, without much success. Chester Anderson began the Communication Company over a year ago, hoping to keep the street in touch and control with an “instant newspaper” of enticing handbills. The handbills fascinated the fringes but bored the masses. Anderson was finally purged and split several months ago for Florida. The Diggers tried harder, attacking the needs of the neighborhood with free food and free stores and free theatre and free thought. They convinced Jay and Ron Thelin, pioneer proprietors of the Psychedelic Shop, to fore­sake free enterprise and just be free. The shop became a lounge for the street and finally died October 6 with the proprietors in debt, in love, and enlightened. On that day, the elders decided to put an end to it all.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717600″ /]

Burying Hip

The idea was kindled at a meeting earlier in the week at Happening House, a beautiful Victorian mansion just off the Panhandle on Clayton Street, which opened at the end of the summer to serve as a community center. The idea was to have a three day funeral for the death of hip — or the death of the Haight — and most of the meet­ing was spent trying to determine just what had died. But all agreed that a funeral was a good idea. “The idea of a few people going down Haight Street,” sigh­ed Oracle editor Allen Cohen. “The idea, the symbol goes through walls, through windows, through air, through mountains. Through the media, it will hit millions of people.” The media giveth and the media taketh away.

“I’m going to be driving the truck all day,” a Digger said, “and I’m going to be talking to people.”

“What are you going tell them to do?” someone asked.

“I’m gonna tell them that everything’s out of control. That they’re free.”

And then someone read the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the meeting was adjourned.

After the meeting I walked with several of the talkers to the house of the Grateful Dead, where Rolling Thunder, the Shoshone medicine man, was staying while he visited Haight-Ashbury. It is a four-story Victorian townhouse glowing with stained glass windows, which clings to the hill on Ashbury Street and houses the Dead, their entourage, and the offices of the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization. Rolling Thunder was sitting in the parlor.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717029″ /]

Candid Prophet

Had it not been for his turquoise headband and heavy necklaces, which he said were given to him since he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, Rolling Thunder would hardly have looked like an Indian, let alone medicine man. His skin is light and his face bears the hard lines of the harsh weather in the country of the Western Shoshone, which is Eastern Nevada. His hair is short and combed back and he wore the simple clothes of a rancher. He is soft-spoken, with a slight Western drawl, and loves to talk, making him the most candid prophet one could ever hope to meet.

Rolling Thunder, who is chairman of the traditional Tribal Council of the Western Shoshone Nation, came to San Francisco to join 32 traditional Indians who were about to embark on a caravan to circle the country to protest a bill pending in Congress which will allow Indians to bor­row money on their lands. He believes that the bill is a trick to deprive the Indians of their remaining land.

But the real threat of the bill before Congress, Rolling Thunder explained, is that it endangers the lands of the Hopi, which have always remained intact. “The Hopi are the keepers of our religion,” he said. “As soon as we found out that the white man was taking everything, our sacred tablets were hidden with the Hopi.

“I was praying for my people,” he recalled, “and I had a dream. I was in a Kiva. I saw a fire — blue and green — in the dark at the far side. I knew it was a pre­sence. I know it was the supreme being. He was covered with eagle feathers. He had a beak like an eagle and a body like a man. He said and to saw look to the left. I looked and saw stone tablets with pictographs. He said, look there and you’ll find an answer.

“A few days later I was in Hopi land, and they brought out the stone tablets, and I read them.

“They said, in the last days, ­the Hopi would be the last to go. That’s happening now, so we know the time is close.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716114″ /]

The caravan is intended to ful­fill the prophecy which speaks of two stars in the sky. “For hundreds of years,” Rolling Thunder said, “the large star followed the small star across the sky. And the Great Spirit said, when the stars reverse, the time is right. That happened two months ago. He also said that we should go out and meet people, to see who is true and who is not true. And that is what we are doing.”

The prophecy also speaks of  destruction, that after the stars reverse a “gourd of ashes” will fall from the sky, destroying the people who are not true. “It’s written on the rocks,” Rolling Thunder said, “and when that comes people will come to the wilderness to seek refuge with the Indians and they’ll try to buy their way in, but their money­ will be of no value. We will know who is true and who is not true.”

Thelin explained the idea of the funeral. “We’re really trying to sabotage the word hippie,” he said. “It’s really fucking us up. It’s not our word. It has nothing to do with us. We’d like to substitute ‘free American’ in its place.”

Rolling Thunder smiled and nodded. “That free American term sounds a lot better,” he said. “I’ve asked several people what they call themselves, and they couldn’t give me an an­swer. Now maybe they can give me an answer.”

The medicine man sat on a large desk, and a dozen people sat around him on the floor. “I saw this before it ever happened,” he said. “This is a direct prophecy from myself. I wonder­ed it the white man could ever live in this country and eat the food and still remain a hashed­-over European. And I saw these people with the long hair. These people will be the future Americans.

“What you people are going through is the same thing that we’ve gone through. You’re just getting your training. We’ll help you in any way we can.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715930″ /]

Hidden Medicine Men

“There will also be people among you who will be medicine men. He will know protection. He will know what areas will be safe. There’s one among you already. He doesn’t know it. I’ve talked to him and he will be coming to my country to learn. But, until you have your own, you can borrow one once in a while.

“It’s going to be rough,” he warned. “It’s going to be violent, especially in the cities. The spirit told me tostay away from that violence. I think that might be good advice for you people. Violence is not the way. There’s something more powerful than that.”

“In the last days, they will throw everything at you to de­stroy you, and that’s what’s happening  now. And now the medicine men are coming back. When those stars reversed — that is when the power of good took over from the power of evil. Many young people are becoming me­dicine men. So now your people, who are living like Indians, you see what you’ve let yourselves into.

“They may prosecute and jail people. They may do everything, because they are fearful. But they won’t succeed.”

Someone asked about the Shoshone way of facing death.

“Death?” the medicine man asked. “There is no death. But if you kill yourself, you displease the Great Spirit, and you may be reincarnated as a worm.”

Rolling Thunder’s daughter, who was with him, said that she was walking down to Haight Street, and asked if there was anything she could do for him.

“I’ll tell you one thing you can do,” he said. “You can go down to the Psychedelic shop and get some of those ‘”We Shall Overcome’ buttons. Those will be very popular in our country. Can you get them wholesale?”

“They might for you,” some­one said. “They should know you.”

“Then I guess I’d better walk down myself.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

***

The next day was a day of preparation and press conferences. I walked into the Psychedelic Shop in the late afternoon to find CBS News waiting in line behind a local television station to interview Ron Thelin in his tiny office at the back of the shop. A tiny enameled American flag hung from Thelin’s freshly pierced ear.

The funeral notices had been printed. They were small stiff cards, bordered in black, reading “HIPPIE. In the Haight Ashbury district of this city, Hippie, de­voted son of Mass Media. Friends are invited to attend services beginning at sunrise,  October 6, 1967, at Buena Vista Park.”

And there was a handbill, which read in part, “MEDIA CREATED THE HIPPIE WITH YOUR HUNGRY CONSENT. BE SOMEBODY. CAREERS ARE TO BE HAD FOR THE ENTER­PRISING HIPPIE. DEATH OF HIPPIE END. FINISHED HIP­PYEE GONE GOODBYE HEH PPEEE DEATH DEATH HHIP­PEE. EXORCISE HAIGHT ASHBURY. CIRCLE THE ASHBURY.  FREE THE BOUNDARIES.  OPEN EXORCISE. YOU ARE FREE. WE ARE FREE. DO NOT BE RECREATED. BE­LIEVE ONLY IN YOUR OWN INCARNATE SPIRIT. BIRTH OF FREE MAN. FREE SAN FRANCISCO. INDEPENDENCE. FREE AMERICANS. BIRTH. DO NOT BE BOUGHT WITH A PIC­TURE, A PHRASE. DO NOT BE CAPTURED IN WORDS. THE CITY IS OURS. YOU ARE ARE ARE. TAKE WHAT IS YOURS. THE BOUNDARIES ARE DOWN. SAN FRANCISCO lS FREE NOW FREE THE TRUTH IS OUT OUT OUT.” And, at the bottom, according to the prophe­cy of October 6, 1966, the day the California LSD laws came into effect, the Declaration of Inde­pendence was re-declared.

Saturday morning the little windows in the parking meters up and down Haight Street were all painted white, and the faithful gathered before dawn at the top of the hill in Buena Vista Park to greet the sun. The sun rose on time, and they rang bells and breathed deeply and ex­haled OM, the first sound in the Universe. Then the pallbear­ers lifted the 15-foot coffin, to be  filled with the artifacts of hip, and bore it down the long hill to the street. They paused to kneel at the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury and brough the coffin to rest for the moment in front of the Psychedelic Shop, which had a huge sign reading “BE FREE” in place of its famous mandala. Then the elated mourners swept the street in preparation for the procession at noon.

At noon a huge banner was stretched across the street. It read “DEATH OF HIPPIE, FREEBIE, BIRTH OF THE FREE MAN.” (The Chronicle had dubbed the reincarnated hippie a “freebie” in a story on Friday, but later apologized). The coffin was carried to the Panhandle, where more news­papers, beads, fruit, cookies, posters, flowers, and buttons were added to the remains. A banner was held up reading “The Brotherhood of Free Men is Born.” And, as the proeession began, the crowd sang Hare Krishna, but slowly, as a dirge.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719802″ /]

The Procession

The procession moved slowly down the Panhandle towards Golden Gate Park. First came a legion of photographers, walking backwards, and then the coffin, over ten struggling pallbearers, and then a hippie laid out on a stretcher, holding a flower to his chest, and then about 200 mourn­ers, some in elaborate costume, some shaking tambourines, some carrying babies, some dodging cameras. When it reached the park the procession turned left, now with a police escort, whose job seemed to be to keep the procession jammed onto the side­walk. Six blocks later they turn­ed left again, hauling the coffin up the steep hill on Fredrick Street, and at the top of the hill, they turned again on Ma­sonic Street, which goes steeply down hill, to complete the circle of the Haight. The coffin picked up speed as it moved downhill, the photographers jumped to get out of the way, and dead hippie squirmed to stay on the stretcher. And then halfway down the steep Masonic Street sidewalk, their path was blocked.

A Cadillac had been left parked in a driveway.

The funeral procession came to a crushing halt, and the police escort — a lone cop — sauntered over and began to write out a parking ticket.

“Move the car.” someone yell­ed. The owner wa1ked out of the house and began to argue with the cop.

“Hassle him later,” they yell­ed. “Move the car!”

The cop gave the man a tic­ket, and the owner returned to his house. The Cadillac remained in the driveway, and the pallbearers were groaning.

At which point the cop consent­ed to let the procession bypass the car in the street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

The End of the Line

The procession ended where it began, in the Panhandle. The hippie on the stretcher rose from the dead, looking punchy, and the banners, were used to kindle a fire under the huge coffin. The flames took to it quickly and rose ten feet in the air as the crowd cheered. They danced in a circle around the burning coffin and the cameramen and, and as the fire died down, free men began to leap over the flames. Then the crowd gasped with horror as they saw the fire engines approach.

“The remains!” someone yelled. “Don’t let them put it out!” The crowd blocked the firemen and spokesmen argued with the   chief as his men readied their hoses. When the hoses were ready, the crowd parted, and the coffin disappeared in a monster cloud of spray and black smoke. The fire was out in seconds, and the firemen moved in with shovels to break apart the smouldering remains. A few diehards were still arguing with the chief, but the mourners had already begun to wander off.

Saturday, the Chronicle reverently reported that the Hippie was dead, but by Monday they were back in business again, with their daily quota of copy from the Haight. The banner re­mained strung across Haight Street for a week, as a reminder, and the Psychedelic Shop was closed and boarded up, and the parking meters were cleaned of the white paint. But the kids still panhandled and sold news­papers and lounged in the door­ways, and the occasional tourist still gawked from behind the locked doors of his car. Nothing bad changed. It was all the same.

But an exorcism is a subtle thing, and some of the dejection that plagued the Haight in the wake of the Summer of Love did appear to be gone. When a phalanx of 14 cops swept down Haight Street Tuesday in a daylight raid to net runaways, the community responded with vigor and outrage and, despite threats by Police Chief Cahill, the raids were not repeated. The heat was on and the Haight kept cool.

Within a few weeks, the Switchboard was out of debt and danger, and a series of well-attended benefits brought a generous reserve of funds into  the coffers of the clinic, which reopened in late October. The Straight Theatre, which was denied a dance permit by an ever-harassing city, held huge “Dance Classes” (for which permits are not needed) to the accompaniment of the Grateful Dead. And the Diggers were delivering free meat to communes and distribut­ing 5000 copies of a 20-page free magazine called “Free City.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”715757″ /]

The Free City

The elders now harbor hopes that San Francisco will indeed become a “free city.” If any city can, it can, but it must be born, not made. The hippie was made but the community called Haight-Ashbury was born, and it was a virgin birth — an evolution­ary experiment and experience. It was beautiful, I am told, in the golden age before the Human Be-In which awoke the media to the precious copy lying untapped on the south side of Golden Gate Park. “Were you here a year ago?” people ask. If you were, then you know.

But then the seekers came en masse, enticed by the media. “They came to the Haight,” a handbill relates, “with a great need and great hunger for a loving community. Many, wanting to belong, identified with the superficial aspects of what ‘hip­pie’ was. They didn’t drop out but rather changed roles.

“As a result the tone of Haight-­Ashbury changed. With many people coming in expecting to be fed and housed, the older com­munity tried to fulfill their needs. Rather than asking them to do their thing, the community tried te give them what they came for. The community tried to be some­thing it wasn’t.

“The early members tried to save the community and as a re­sult it began to die. It began to die because in the effort to save it the individuals lost themselves. Without individual selves the community started to become a shell with little within; to maintain the community feeling, meetings replaced relationships and organization replaced com­munity.

“By the end of the summer we were forming organizations to save something that no longer existed. Community is a creative thing and saving is only a hold­ing action. By desperate clinging, we lost.”

They lost, but they learned.

 

Categories
FEATURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

1980-1989: The Meaning of the ’80s

From Counterculture to Culture, But Here’s No Culture, Fuck Ecology and the Death of Communism

1981

NYC

Dear Lin,
Today my mother met William Burroughs. She got, she said, invited to this dinner party that was all men. As the token woman. She said William Bur­roughs has the intelligence of the sharp­est knife she’s ever met. She stood against one of the dining room walls and watched him go to work. He likes ani­mals. She didn’t want to talk to him; she wanted to be invisible and watch. My mother wants to be a wall.

P.S. I’m not going to ever have anything to do with anyone.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721398″ /]

SAN FRANCISCO, NEAR THE MISSION

Dear Zoozoo,
Life’s fine even though yesterday I got attacked by a bicycle gang. Seven black kids, they weren’t fucking older than me but they were fucking bigger, rode around me on their bicycles and they said that since I was a lezzy and a punk, they were going to kill me. I was lucky because they weren’t going to kill me now. I guess that’s why I’m alive.

Mom told me not to be upset about this NAUSEATING incident because the problem is political, not personal. She said I mustn’t ever mistake the political for the personal or else I’ll be selfish. “Better off selfish than dead” I know my father’d say, but I have no idea who he is. SHE said that the Mayor, in her (can a Mayor be a her?) effort to get rid of Chicanos and gays, is rezoning the city so that the gays have to move into the Mis­sion, the Chicano territory. The Chica­nos, who have a good form of machismo, have arms or are up in arms and are setting gay hangouts like “Rush” fac­tories on fire.

I’m a child and I don’t need this shit. I told mom I need education. She said she was now hanging out with these guys who do RE/SEARCH (magazine), they used to do SEARCH AND DESTROY! and those people know about all and the only things that are interesting here. Like about Mark Pauline’s computer-run monsters who attack gigantic photos of the Virgin Mary and someone named Reagan; like about real artists, artists of the body, tattooists. If I really want to learn, I could go out like her and find where learning is, rather than complain all the time. She said that if I think the system’s going to help me, I’m already dead. My mother’s too tough.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721404″ /]

1984

SF

Dear Zooz,
I’m sick of your NYC punk. Here’s where the real violence is. Down in San Diego, the Chicanos are sniping at cars on the freeways. The Chicanos live in these tracks or gullies on the hills above the freeways. They don’t REALLY live in gullies; rather they sneak over the Tijua­na border and squat in gullies until they can earn the under-minimum-wage pit­tances the rich whites hand out for ser­vices such as MAID and gardener. But this is a lot of money in Mexico where their extended families are living. Chicanos have to have fun too; for fun, they set empty lots on fire and snipe at freeway cars. I’d do the same thing if I could, but you don’t understand violence.

That is ’cause you don’t understand real art ’cause your NYC art world eats money.

And as my father, who would say any­thing ’cause I’ve never met him, says, money isn’t where it’s at.

Speaking of violence, which I love madly except when it’s against me, I’m reading this writer William Gibson who’s in some ways better than William Bur­roughs and in some ways, not. Read him, fuckface. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel, and a dead cock was coming out of it.” He’s the first writer I’ve read in a long time who talks about you and me. I’m going to be a writer. As soon as I learn to write. The ways I want to write. (Mom said it’s going to be hard for me to be a writer ’cause I’m a girl. She should know.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”721420″ /]

NYC

Dear Linda,
I’m using your full name because if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to get rid of all that counterculture crap, which is just provincial. San Franciscans are isolated. Mother says that if you want to be an artist whose work matters, you both have to be part of the large world and affect the large world. You can’t af­fect the large world if you’re using some weird language you and your friends in­vented and you wear clothes so full of holes, your tits show. It’s not your vio­lence I object to. It’s the provincialism and isolation that underline violence. You have to stop seeing only your side of things because your side of things is a gutter and you’re going to live in the gutter and never be a writer if you go on as your are going. Writers communicate; they are not autistic and everyone knows that the only reason people stay in San Francisco is because they’re mad.

What artists (I hate how you always use “real”) are now doing is repeating other points of view. Objects. We have to enter the world. And we have to make money. I’ve seen mother fuck with pover­ty and it almost killed her art. (Sex isn’t worth it.) Maybe you don’t see enough bums. Every day I see at least a hundred bums in the street. Maybe you don’t know what real violence is. Real violence is poverty and it does nothing but stink and so the art that comes out of it stinks too.

The artists here, including mother (father went off with some rich dealer, but he never mattered) utilize mirroring tech­niques. They simply re-represent various parts of the future. With none of that hippie moralism that sent our parents raging into punk; without the stylistic pyrotechnics — prettiness — your William Gibson wears like a pink dress. Only drag queens are allowed to be pretty. Here’s literature, by a guy named Richard Prince, who’s principally an artist but can make anything:

He could never imagine what it must be like to spend an entire day without ever having to avoid a mirror. And where he lived, he made sure, never had a reflec­tion, and any surface that did so, got dulled or rubbed out, and any surface that became stubborn and kept its polish, got thrown in a bucket.

Clean.

[related_posts post_id_1=”670235″ /]

1986

LONDON

Dear Zoozoozoo,
Fuck you darling, mother and I are in London. New Yorkers, my dear, are so provincial; they live in that death that is New York and never know there’s a whole world outside their island culture.

The GLC (Greater London Council) (Americans are so vulgar and stupid one has to explain the simplest things to them) runs this city. Londoners enjoy mugging-free clean tubes (subways), ex­cellent and free medical services, and of­ten live in government-financed lesbian communes. Everything here is fun! Every night I go to this club Taboo and a big, gay beauty who’s actually American! throws me around and everyone takes off some or all clothes. Rachel Auburn, the club’s DJ, who also designs clothes, usu­ally wears a tutu and gold pasties. Every­one’s bi and no one fucks. They do other things. That’s the English way. Style. At five o’clock in the morning, we all go home. I’m stylish now and I’m never go­ing to suffer again.

Mother says that life here is good for women only because feminism is so strong. But the English feminists are strange because they believe that a wom­an has to be a lesbian to be a feminist and to be lesbian is not to sleep with other women, as back home, but not to want to sleep with men. Since many of the lesbians here aren’t doctrinaire femi­nists, most of the feminists don’t have sex. Mother isn’t having as much fun as me, but when I’m an old woman, I’m going to be an eccentric so I can have lots of fun. Because I’m going to be a writer, and if you don’t have fun, you can’t write well. Americans don’t understand.

As for art. Art as in Artforum. Really. Everyone here, I mean everyone on the streets, communicates through music, tattoos, and clothes. All of us’d do any­thing for Jean Paul Gaultier. None of us earns money. So who needs New York City art, the Mary Boone stock market game?

NYC

Dear Lin,
Mom and I do what we can. We keep all the Levelors closed so that no light enters the apartment. Mom doesn’t want any lover to penetrate her territory more than three times and I never want to be touched. I don’t give a damn whether or not you understand. Mom is a famous artist and beginning to make money. They say that the ’80

s is about empti­ness. But. This is real style.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

1989

LONDON

Dear Zoozoo,
I’ve watched a country go to hell in four years. It’s probably taken longer than that: when I first came over here, I was so American, I couldn’t understand that I was living in a foreign culture. Much less that the culture was almost dead. Perhaps due to a triple multiplica­tion; a class system times a woman named Margaret Thatcher times a longing for both the days of the Empire and for 19th century trade unionism.

I’ve seen about half of our friends go out on drugs or die from AIDS. Now I’ve watched a nation die. I’ve seen how, when a political economic structure turns from civilized social welfare to a poor imitation of American postcapitalism, every single person’s life radically changes. The rich and successful here are basking in their form of death or boredom. The others, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, an American film, would go any­where if they had anywhere to go.

I want out now. I don’t know what to do with my life, but I won’t live in this death.

P.S. That stupid wall which anyone could have gotten over is down: the whole world has changed.

NYC

Dear Lin,
Come here! Because the idiots in our government tried to pass a censorship bill, and perhaps will, all the artists who, I agree with you, are provincial and ego­tistic in their provinciality, finally out­raged, are battling. Now the city is a lot of radical and good art and homeless oc­cupying the parks and sidewalks and pipes rising like snakes up through pave­ments and buildings. Makes William Gib­son into an outmoded writer. While this city’s decaying artists and blacks and even others are fighting back. Minimal­ism’s gone to hell. The blacks’re leading our way. So get your ass over here. We might as well go to battle for joy as hard as we can because whether we fight or we elect to live like zombies, we have to die anyway.

Get your hot pussy here, girl. ■

NEXT…

Crime as Entertainment: A Necessary Evil
By Teresa Carpenter

Categories
Equality From The Archives PRIDE ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Harvey Milk: Homophobic Homicide

“We know what killed Harvey Milk,” said a young man in a bomber jacket at 18th and Castro, the center of gay San Francisco. “It was just plain, old-fashioned homophobia.”

That was the feeling in the gay community when it learned that the nation’s only openly gay city official had been shot dead, allegedly by the city’s most anti-gay official.

Harvey Milk was no ordinary supervisor to his constituents in the Castro area. During his years as a camera shop owner on Castro Street, the democrat from Woodmere, Long Island, became known as the gay communi­ty’s unofficial mayor. Early races for supervi­sor in 1973 and 1975 proved unsuccessful, but Milk gathered strong grass-roots support among unionists and other minority group members to win a landslide victory last year.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715930″ /]

He was an outspoken leader of the Board of Supervisors’ most liberal members. That made him the political nemesis of the board’s most outspoken conservative, Dan White. Milk was a Jewish, former Wall Street broker, fond of describing himself as a “left winger, a street person.” White represented a heavily blue-collar district and was proud of his background as a member of the San Francisco police and fire departments. In March, White was the only member of the Board of Supervisors to vote against the city’s broad gay civil rights ordinance. In October, he cast the only vote against closing Polk Street for the city’s annual Halloween party.

San Francisco’s gays shed few tears when White resigned from the board for financial reasons on November 10. When he decided to withdraw his resignation days later, Milk was among many liberals who successfully urged Mayor Moscone not to re-appoint White to the seat. Moscone was to announce the new supervisor just minutes after his final meeting with White. After allegedly shooting Moscone in his office, White went to the supervisors’ offices, where he allegedly shot Milk.

Though the acting mayor, Diane Fein­stein, will undoubtedly appoint another gay supervisor from the Castro area, it will be hard to find a politico with the substantial support outside the gay community that Milk had cultivated. Knots of stunned and somber people gathered around sold-out newsstands to look at the extra editions that described the shootings. Said one young man bitterly, “You just can’t do a thing like this without somebody doing something back.” ■

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

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 nytimes.com 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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719802″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719815″ /]

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.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

Guy Maddin and Co.’s Found-Footage Feast “The Green Fog” Teaches New Ways of Seeing

I first saw The Green Fog at its world premiere as the closing night event of the San Francisco International Film Festival, presented at the historic Castro Theatre, with the Kronos Quartet giving a live performance of Jacob Garchik’s original score. Commissioned by the festival from directors Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson, and billed as a “San Francisco Fantasia,” the film felt like something that belonged to a particular time and place — a delirious reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, created out of hundreds of clips from movies and shows shot in the Bay Area that were very much not Vertigo. It certainly made for a cinematic experience, but I had no idea if this Green Fog could be replicated as a mere film, to be screened elsewhere.

Now that The Green Fog has arrived at the IFC Center, I’m happy to report that Maddin and his collaborators have succeeded in turning it into something that can stand on its own. They have reportedly not done much new to the footage, though they have toyed with the soundtrack — adding sound effects and, at a couple of points, fading the score in and out. Even so, what I saw in San Francisco, perhaps because of the live setting, felt looser, fragmented — more an exploration of Vertigo than a re-creation of it, revealing all the ways that Hitchcock’s masterpiece has sunk into our cinematic spiritus mundi through repeated gestures, glances, and images found in countless other works. (Some of these were made long before Vertigo, of course, because what is Vertigo itself but a laying bare of neurotic obsessions that were always there?) Watching it anew, I can see that The Green Fog fairly closely follows the structure of Hitchcock’s film; achieving that in itself is some sort of accomplishment. However, it’s not so much an assemblage as it is a conjuring. You don’t just watch these clips —  you see through and between them. The juxtapositions create vital, cosmic connections.

[related_posts post_id_1=”564867″ /]

Maddin has made a career out of mining the latent tensions of mainstream cinema, often by pushing the styles and attitudes of classical filmmaking to absurdist extremes. This time, playing with existing footage, he and his collaborators do something similar, but the effect is more subtle, and in its own way more expansive. We watch clips and clips of men communing across restaurant tables, with all the dialogue parts removed, and the silent, tense exchanges start to gain a sexual charge — as if every form of human interaction has suddenly been reduced to a series of secret impulses and desires. Lust, repression, voyeurism, and narcissism all turn out to be part of the same spectrum: Men watch women from cars, in restaurants, across rooms, on screens — just as Jimmy Stewart watched Kim Novak in Hitchcock’s original, and as we do whenever we watch Vertigo. But they also watch other men. And sometimes they watch themselves. Through the magic of the most basic of editing tricks, Rock Hudson watches footage of *NSync singing in a forest. Michael Douglas from The Streets of San Francisco watches footage of his own naked behind (from Basic Instinct) and remarks, “Well, you look good, Mike. Ever thought about going into showbiz?”

At times, the playfulness reaches moments of sublime, unlikely beauty. The passages of Vertigo that concern Stewart’s post-traumatic catatonia coincide in The Green Fog with a masterful reverie on Chuck Norris’s face in An Eye for an Eye, remixed here so that the action lug’s impassive mug attains a melancholy grandeur; you want to laugh, but it’s all done so beautifully that you come away genuinely moved. That’s the magic of The Green Fog. It envelops you and pulls you into its own world, teaching you to see again. I’m familiar with most of the films and shows used here, but I could only recognize a small handful while actually watching the movie. You might come for the clips, but you leave with your brain on fire.

The Green Fog
Directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson
Opens January 5, IFC Center

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Living NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Jimmy Stewart and Vertigo are Hanging in There as the Best Movie Ever

As with many masterpieces, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo yielded a mostly lukewarm reaction upon its May 1958 release. Variety dismissed it as “basically only a psychological murder mystery.” In 1973, Hitchcock took the film out of circulation; his estate did not re-distribute it until a decade later, around the same time it finally entered Sight & Sound‘s 10-best-films-of-all-time list.

Two years ago, it knocked Citizen Kane from the top slot. The new 4K restoration of Vertigo — which runs at the Film Forum from October 24 through 30 — removes some of the 1996 restoration’s cheesiest blunders (an overkill of seagull cries in the San Francisco Bay scenes, for instance).

The color scheme — the eerie cornflower hue of the dawn sky in the riveting rooftop chase, the funereal grays and browns of the perpetually haunted James Stewart’s suits — is rendered more piercing. But what still makes Vertigo so remarkable isn’t just its frequently copied visual trickery — most notably, the dolly zoom shot, closing up on an object while pulling away from it, to underscore the acrophobia plaguing Stewart’s ex-detective. It’s the dramatization of Hitchcock’s obsession with San Francisco as a phobic’s nightmare, with its craggy, steep streets and winding highways.

Stewart’s sad, stooped aura — his anguished, tongue-wagging face looks too small on his long-legged frame — and his begging blue eyes make you forgive the torment and even sadism he inflicts upon the blonde, then brunette, and then blonde again Kim Novak.

Vertigo — not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful work but certainly his most tragic — remains a parable on not playing God: with the past, with your lover, or even your own impotence.

Categories
Calendar CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events FILM ARCHIVES Living NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

The Overnighters Is a Tragic Doc About Loving Your Neighbor

Quick, name the most expensive housing market in America. If you said New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, you couldn’t be farther from the truth — literally. Each is over 1,500 miles away from Williston, North Dakota, a monochrome town you can drive end-to-end in 15 minutes. In four years, the population of Williston has doubled as newcomers gold-rush to work the newly discovered Bakken Shale formation, the largest oil find in U.S. history. But these men need a lot of black gold to afford a place to sleep. The average cost of a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Williston is $2,394 a month — almost $1,000 more than the same space in Manhattan.

Jesse Moss’s documentary The Overnighters is a heart-wrencher about the clash between economics and ethics. Its story sounds like the sort of dry news blurb you’d skim over in the Sunday paper but unfolds into an epic tragedy. To the locals, Williston is under attack from the hordes who have flooded their once-quiet town. (“These people come and then they rape, pillage, and burn, and then they leave,” spits one woman.) To the invaders, Williston is the end of the line, the last domino to tip over in the chain of disasters that began when the recession wreaked blue-collar havoc, cost folks their homes, and forced these men to fend for their families by striking out for North Dakota alone.

We see the transplants decamp for Williston in video diaries where they cross their fingers about the jobs they hope they’ll find. And we see them when they arrive: homeless, hated by the community, and clustered in the corners of Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church. Pastor Jay Reinke, a soft-voiced father of four who favors lavender button-up shirts, has given his blessing to sleep anywhere they fit: in storage rooms, along the hallways, even between pews.

Reinke’s got rules. There’s no swearing, no drinking, no spilling coffee, no long hair. “Did Jesus have short hair?” one metalhead counters. Sighs the pastor, “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.” But more importantly, Reinke’s got an unshakeable belief that Williston’s crisis could be cured if the townspeople practiced what Jesus preached and opened their hearts (and homes) to strangers. Love thy neighbors, he pleads, even if they’re squatting in a van.

Can this gentle, optimistic man — the living embodiment of Ned Flanders — change the minds of the town he’s served for 20 years? With the local Williston Herald printing rabble-rousing stories about the new thugs in town, he doesn’t seem to have a prayer. As the city considers an RV ban, and then debates closing Reinke’s dormitory altogether, the pastor pilgrimages door to door begging locals to give the outsiders a chance, and trying his best to maintain his belief that there are good people in his town. After a door gets slammed in his face, he snaps, “Not to judge people by appearances, but a man with no teeth, living with his daughter, calling other people who have needs ‘trash.’ ” But you sense if Moss kept the cameras rolling, Reinke would have corrected himself and apologized.

The Overnighters could have been a simplistic parable about redemption, and for the first 30 minutes it seems to play like one. The newcomers say all the right, rote things: that Reinke’s faith in them has given them faith in themselves, that they’re more than their struggles and mistakes. Former drug addict Alan spent 16 years in prison and is now Reinke’s right-hand man. A flinchy screw-up named Paul admits that no one has ever cared about him, and Reinke immediately replies, “I want to love you — I love you.”

But hope is fragile. Once Moss completes the social-issues survey and zeroes in on Reinke, the doc goes from good to great. Reinke loves everyone. He has to. Unlike the blowhards who’ve given religion a bad reputation, Reinke is so self-effacing you want to step into the screen and give him a hug. In his own editorials for the Herald, with titles like “Newcomers Should Be Welcomed Because They Are a Gift From God” and “People, We Can Do This,” he confesses to his own fatigue every time a new man arrives at his church, and then explains — seemingly almost to himself — how to spin exhaustion into empathy.

His forgiveness has no limit. But the town’s does. When a local reporter — a transplant himself, in Williston for only two weeks — accuses him of harboring a sex offender on church property, Reinke moves the man, a truck driver named Keith, into his own house. When Keith then tests Reinke’s trust, we watch this good man’s sandcastle dreams start to crumble. The film then urges us to look to the rest of the men, who need Reinke’s faith to survive, and without it, risk being broken in ways they weren’t broken before.

Is Williston’s own faith so broken that one sinner outweighs a living saint? It’s a question Reinke is left wrestling with himself. He still writes editorials for the Williston Herald. The title of a recent piece: “Graduates, Don’t Try to Change the World.”

Directed by Jesse Moss.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Listings Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Christopher Owens

Remember Girls? That cool indie rock band you were supposed to like a few years ago? They were dope, sure, but never quite to the level of praise they received, right? If this is what you thought, this is the correct opinion—and Christopher Owens, the mind behind that band, agrees with you. A couple years ago, the San Francisco-based songwriter ditched the name and the hype, reinventing his music in a solo project, just under his name. Like Girls, the music is poppy and catchy—think early Elvis Costello—and his upcoming record New Testament continues this sound, but gets weirder and stranger and, ultimately, better.

Wed., Sept. 24, 9 p.m., 2014