Sympathy For The Festival

Part 1. Festivals are dystopias pretending to be utopias?

Is the postmodern music festival a utopian space, a paradise scene? Or is it the opposite, as a recent article claims, the essence of self-imposed dystopia?

In “Music festivals are the corporate dystopia we deserve,” Delilah Friedler skewers any idea that we can return to the garden on the wisp of a Joni Mitchell lyric, that we can get back to the collective romantic memory of primary festivals, from ancient Saturnalias and Bacchanalias, right up to Woodstock.

After attending Coachella, Friedler writes this screaming indictment about festivals in general,  “In the context of a land scarred by colonization, in a time when climate catastrophe looms, mainstream festivals reinforce the systems that have brought the earth to her knees. Raving beneath American flags, as bombs explode on screen, kids are finding ecstasy in symbolic displays of unconscionable violence. It certainly isn’t sustainable, and the comedown must be brutal.”

Bonnaroo in Tennessee is the mother of the new wave of American hippy camping festivals. Roo, of course, even after its take-over by Live Nation, does not care what any leftist blogger has to say. It is still seeking after utopia or its simulation, no matter. Bonnaroo has even evolved its own ethical code for surviving four days in a hot and humid, dirty and dusty version of Tennessee paradise. The short manifesto called the Bonnaroovian Code is not a 10-point-program as with militant groups of yesteryear, but a perfectly idealistic ideology for college preppies getting into their hippy gear for the weekend.

But we are not so cynical to trash it outright, as that corporate festival is renowned for recycling and composting almost all its trash. We have attended several of these, and we celebrate the diversity in music, we even appreciate its watered-down manifesto message. We cannot disagree with its view through rose-colored bohemian spectacles. We do need to respect each other and radiate positivity.

The violence unleashed on October 1, 2017 at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival suggests the worst in human beings and not the best. Firing from the 32nd floor of a nearby hotel, killing 58 and injuring 851, the 64-year old white male perpetrator was apparently a mystery to many, but likely looked something like this: a washed-up auditor, a boozed-up, valium-popping, gun-toting gambler, now dead by his own hand and standing in history as another statistic in the epidemic of white-male shooting sprees still terrorizing America. Other incidents of extreme violence mar the recent history of music counterculture, and it is shameful that a site intended to share celebration and unity could be so unsafe.

But the American music festival of this first quarter of the 21st century might want to do some reckoning with the antecedents of the late 1960s, with one particularly difficult antecedent called Altamont, the dark and fateful free festival organized by the Rolling Stones, at a speedway in Northern California on December 6, 1969. This reckoning might teach us much about the sympathy we do have for the festival, as well as the validity of critiques concerning festivals, as rock n roll might one day collectively repent of its internal racism and violence and finally find its way as the illegitimate child of gospel and blues, making joyful music on the road toward revolutionary hope.

Part 2. Looking deeply toward our roots and uprooting the wrongs

We are soggy but sober, socks squishing in my shoes. My sweet wife’s flip flops look like a better 
idea than these minimalist Merrells right about now. Wandering, walking in the mud, clothes soaked through. Why are we here? I wonder why we are there, surrounded by people half our age, kids who are smoking cigarettes and drinking beer and not seeming to mind the messy weather and crowded crusty conditions, no not at all. Soon, we will head home to our rented room before the headliner’s set.

We love music festivals, but sometimes, we feel too old for music festivals. Like many people our age, we are not the wild children we once were. But I am a devoted fan and student of these all-weekend and all-day concerts, ever since the folk, punk, funk, ska, and metal that wowed me at a Detroit neighborhood street fair some 30 years ago.

The necessary logistics to manage a proper multi-stage musical festival in 2017 reflect a miraculous labor of love. The collaboration between bands, sponsors, vendors, journalists, producers, and behind-the-scenes support in areas like medical and recycling—all this allows an inherently crazy beautiful idea to blossom with reduced risk. The level of coordination at today’s festivals is both courageous and common sense, but it has not always been that way. Facing facts, music festivals have been messy and dangerous from the start, risking fatalities and financial ruin.

Now, we just don’t have the annual latter-day Woodstocks of Coachella, Bonnaroo, or Lollapalooza. We have a festival each week, sometimes several per weekend, all year round. In the winter, there are destination cruises and resort festivals. Music festivals will always be a little edgy, but now they are also entirely mainstream.

Today’s array of regional boutique festivals are the music fan’s version of the World Series and Wimbledon, NASCAR and the Kentucky Derby. They are a for-profit cottage industry, delighting music fans and providing diverse exposure for aspiring artists. The tickets range from very expensive to VIP extravagant, but festies offer such a density of talent and community that the experience energizes everyone, leaving bands and their fans contagious with joy.

All this context shows how far we’ve come from the shambolic roots of Woodstock’s Edenic mythology. The festivals of old didn’t make money, and while some had sloppy but admirable logistics, they at least had great music and a good amount of joy. But not Altamont.

All this backstory provides perspective on how sadly shocked, but not surprised, I am to finally look deep and deeper into the human error that allowed the anti-Woodstock of Altamont. We cannot see Altamont as only a bad trip, of a good idea gone wrong. There are some fatal flaws knitted into the American mythos of popular music that need uprooting, if not restraining, even as music fans continue to perpetuate and participate in some of the problems that plague an industry.

Altamont is such cruel folly and creepy fascination that it almost requires the kind of investigation provided by Joel Selvin’s recent book simply titled Altamont and subtitled The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day. Selvin really digs past the assumptions and generalizations as he unpacks in chilling detail and analysis the total horror of the day.

As part of an ambitious summer reading list of rock n roll nonfiction in 2017, I found Selvin’s searching and sobering book too compelling to put down, too good of storytelling and investigative historical writing about a very bad thing. I inhaled it like a page-turning novel, and I am re-reading it this year to finish this essay. I loved this book and cannot agree with it more. I support Selvin’s diagnosis and insist on taking it further. Altamont in light of Selvin’s version has so much to teach us, but we have to really understand it and not turn away from accepting the terror of it, so that we might abstain from future terrors.

Part 3. Bad drugs and bad vibes

There is an aspect of all music festivals that are reckless and silly. They are decadent celebrations, unnecessary potlatches of musical and cosmic abundance. But if we are going to have festivals: Logistics matter. My arguments here about Altamont will ultimately be spiritual and theological but also somewhat ethical and practical. A more scientifically sociological interpretation of Selvin is something I would also love to read. Contemporary festivals, that generally range from 20,000 to 100,000 in attendance, these take months and years to plan. Altamont had 300,000 in attendance, but was chaotically orchestrated by crazy people, truly thrown together in just a few days. Contemporary festivals occur in late spring, all summer, and early autumn; even though Altamont took place in California, it was basically a winter day.

We would never imagine a single-stage festival for that many people today, but the stage assembled at the speedway in the dark of night was radically insufficient for the scale of the event. There was no way to separate the stage, that barely sat above the ground, from the fans. Of course the idea that a drugged and drunk Hells Angels motorcycle gang would be the best security detail for an event like this turned out to be the most terrible strategy. Even today’s bouncers, more like off-duty cops or college athletes on summer break, stand between fans and performers separated by suitable barricades and stages set high from the ground. 

The lack of significant food vendors and bathrooms is unheard of at today’s festivals. We whine  about the overpriced food and complain about the lines to the smelly bathrooms. But at least today’s festivals provide sufficient facilities. And what about our other basic needs? One year at Bonnaroo, before I got clean and sober, I sustained a serious injury while drunk. It was not the first time I had to visit the Bonnaroo medical camp. But what compassionate and equipped professionals work the triage tents at a place like Bonnaroo! It is a truly impressive and necessary operation. Altamont was the opposite; there were some medical helpers onsite, but it was not well-organized, and clearly not enough resources for an event of that scale.

It’s sadly taken for granted that copious quantities of drugs and alcohol will be present at a popular music event of just about any scale. Long-standing satires about the brown acid at Woodstock aside, Woodstock and festivals since have tried to engineer compassionate crash spaces where people can come down safely. But Selvin recounts a downright demonic pharmacology at Altamont. Setting the hippy mythos of good drugs versus bad ones aside for now, by any estimation, Altamont was a cruel catastrophe cooked by bad drugs, bad vibes, and bad trips, and then forcefully drowned in a broad creek of cheap booze. The tents for drug casualties existed at Altamont, but they did not have the capacity to handle the unholy mess and unhinged crazy of that day.

But even such insane lackadaisical logistics could be overcome with utopian, California love, right? In this case, wrong. Drugs, crowds, carelessness, all this was not the worst of the day. The sins of Altamont, if we can call them that, found their evil apex in violence. And the violent acts of that dismal day are found in the deeply embedded sexism and internalized yet overt racism that sadly are indicative of the American mythos.

Part 4. Rock n roll needs to repent from racism and toxic masculinity

Even though the potent phrase “toxic masculinity” is more fluent to describe such moments of male misbehavior in our contemporary world, it describes what the Rolling Stones and Hells Angels participated in that terrible Saturday. The Grateful Dead, who intelligently ducked out and canceled their set that day after arriving at the sordid scene, were unintelligent enough to suggest the Hells Angels as stage security, allegedly as a free community service, except in exchange for all the beer they desired.

The footage in the disturbing documentary Gimme Shelter shows what cannot be unshown. The motorcycle gang spent the day rough-housing, intimidating, manhandling, beating, and finally murdering. This violence included attacking and hitting members of one of the bands, the Jefferson Airplane, some of the people they were supposed to protect. The footage unveils an argument at the mic between the Airplane and Angels, and even though it is early in a day that only gets darker at sunset, this moment typifies nothing about the ideals of free love, but the unfreedom of rock at war with itself.

The culminating cruelty of Altamont, though, was the murder of Meredith Hunter by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. This brutal stabbing is caught on film in Gimme Shelter. Pasarro was ultimately acquitted of murder on the basis of self-defense, his case helped because Hunter had a gun, and it appears to be drawn when the Angels attack him. All this, while the Stones played “Under My Thumb” (not “Sympathy for the Devil,” as some legends have it).

Hunter was an 18-year-old black youth born to an African-American mother and a Native American father. He was attending the concert with his white girlfriend, and he was wearing a bold lime green suit and hat, hiding his Afro. After his death, he was buried in an unmarked grave. His white killer went free.  Today in a shocking period of unchecked white violence against black youth, Meredith Hunter’s murder should speak to us in new ways.

Even though a handful of activists are seen on film taking donations for the Black Panthers at Altamont, it was a predominately white event. Even though many top black artists in a range of genres perform at today’s top festivals, they are largely white events. As long as rock n roll is white weekend recreation and careless white intoxication, it loses touch with its revolutionary roots in black gospel and blues, as music of black freedom and hope. The idea of rock music being fully integrated into social justice movements still continues today, but any applicable examples or practical successes at this are fragmentary and anecdotal at best.

The Stones are a British band that would be nothing were it not for their inspiration from and appropriation of American black musical forms. Selvin’s book also documents the Stones taking a huge gate from their shows, but paying black support artists like Ike and Tina Turner a mere pittance. Selvin shows journalist Ralph Gleason taking Mick and company to task for an implied racial and economic imperialism. When I first saw the Stones as a teenager in Cleveland, Etta James opened the show. She also probably took a terribly modest paycheck compared to the headliners.

According to Selvin, the Stones fail to atone for any of their real mistakes at Altamont, then proceed to make money off the movie that is as much murder mystery as rockumentary. As partners with the filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, the Rolling Stones allowed the sloppy mounting of Altamont in part to guarantee the final scene of the tour flick. The Maysles’s footage was actually used by the law in the Pasarro trial. And it was a commercial, for-profit, theatrical release that the Stones would cash-in on.

Legendary film critic Pauline Kael shows immense courage in her critique of the Stones and the film itself:

“Mick Jagger symbolizes the rejection of the values that he [...] appeals to. Asking stoned and freaked out people to control themselves is pathetic, and since the most dangerous violence is obviously from the Hells Angels, who are trying to keep their idea of order by stomping dazed, bewildered kids, Jagger’s saying ‘Brothers and sisters, why are we fighting?’ is pitifully beside the point. Musically Jagger has no way to cool it because his orgiastic kind of music has only one way to go – higher, until everyone is knocked out. Mick Jagger’s performing style is a form of aggression not just against the straight world but against his own young audience, and this appeals to them, because it proves to them that he hasn’t sold out and gone soft. But when all this aggression is released, who can handle it?”

Kael truly captures the tragedy of toxic masculinity as expressed by a young Mick Jagger. Selvin also shows that the Stones are ultimately to blame for the tragedy, and he shows the many ways in which they have never repented of that event’s crimes and the subsequent crime of publishing their own sin in “reality TV” fashion, in order to reap more financial rewards.

Others have tried to show Altamont as a kind of cosmic failure of the counterculture values, kind of like Manson. This flattening is foolish, though, too. Because as a mainstream response, it throws all the good that the rebellious and utopian counterculture did accomplish into one big historical compost pile, leading at times to false equivocation of the worst kind. Feminism, civil rights, ecology, and peace, these to name a few, were the true rebellion.

What Altamont showed us though, is that when driven by toxic white masculinity, by racism, and by violence, any such rebellion is not rebellion at all. It is the dark meaning of American conquest and the covert demons that still perpetuate grave injustices and sadly separate us from ourselves.

As white fans and supporters of musicians of all genders and races, we need to return to the racially diverse and antiracist aspects of our popular culture forms. As white fans also inside faith communities, we need to constantly repent from the sins of racism and sexism, always self-examining our own complicity in systems of institutional sin, even ones that are otherwise happy and benign, like the holy ghost revivals called music festivals. I am sure, too, that there are reforms within the music and festival industries themselves, that could begin to address and deal with race and gender biases at all levels of the scene.

And all of us, we can remember Meredith Hunter. We can say his name and learn more about his story. As an African-American and Native American murdered by a white gangster, Meredith Hunter might be remembered by how unremarkable the Eurocratic attack on the descendents of the indigenous and the formerly enslaved has been on this continent for centuries. We can also remember as segregated as the counterculture music scene actually was back then (and probably remains), there were also pockets of integration and allies in collaboration, because rock n roll at its best, ought to be the multiracial house choir of the revolution and a beloved part of the beloved community.
-Andrew William Smith

Resources and further reading (in order of mention in the article)

Delilah Friedler, “Music festivals are the corporate dystopia we deserve,”, April 19, 2018.

Joel Selvin, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day, HarperCollins, 2016.

Gimme Shelter, directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin, 20th Century Fox/Criterion Collection, 1970.

Pauline Kael, Review of Gimme Shelter, The New Yorker, December 19, 1970 p. 112.