Tag Archive: Altamont


The Sponge

The Stooges – Raw Power – 2/7/1973

Iggy Pop is among the more fascinating rock stars that graced the planet. There is a great amount of material to sift through, and Iggy shows many different sides to himself through it. But no matter what facet of himself he’s letting shine on any particular day, he’s always honest about who he is, sometimes brutally so.

In 1977, he appeared with David Bowie on The Dinah Shore Show, a very strange venue for the two punk sires, to promote Iggy’s album The Idiot. During the performance, Iggy was his usual self; shirtless, scrawny and wiry, moving his body in a wild and worry-inducing way. In the interview, Dinah says in a demurely shocked voice, “And you were causing great harm to yourself!” Iggy responds with a giggle and a smile and says, “Yeah, and to other people.” He used to take a glass bottle, smash it to a jagged weapon, and scrape his naked chest several times until his front was a bloody mess. He must have been a real shock to the housewives who were Dinah’s primary audience. Given that, though, he was extraordinarily pleasant.

Just a few years earlier, right before the Stooges broke up for the second time, their last public concert was in February of 1974 to a bunch of bikers. Learning about Altamont has made me think that any time bikers go to a rock show, it can’t end particularly well. That concert had people throwing things at the band; things like eggs, jelly beans, ice, and beer bottles. At the end of their cover of “Louie, Louie,” you can actually hear glass breaking over guitar strings on the official bootleg of this concert, Metallic K.O. Iggy, like he usually did during his Stooges day, antagonizes and berates the audience, insulting them, ridiculing them, and swearing up a storm all the while. He takes the hate they give him and absorbs it like a sponge, spitting it back out even stronger. The bile and vomit grow more and more repugnant with each cycle of hate given between audience and performer.

Yet other aspects of Iggy shine through, too. He’s quite a savvy businessman, as his dealings with the advertising industry prove. And now that he’s completely drug-free, he’s actually very polite and well-spoken. He also has a certain wisdom about him; most wisdom is born out of horrible decisions that leave you with the thought, “I probably shouldn’t have done that…”

But for the most part, Iggy is a roaring lion, a slithering snake, a laughing hyena, and a charging, pissed-off bull, all at once. The place it’s most on display is every song on Raw Power. “Search and Destroy” and “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” are intense and over-driven like nothing had been before it. In “Search and Destroy,” the guitars are loud and clumsy, but Iggy sings almost in a falsetto. There’s a balance between ferocity and sibilance, until it all goes to hell and Iggy ends up hollering with abandon at the end. “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell,” on the other hand, features Iggy’s growl all the way through. His voice sounds like he’s breathing out rocks.

But for some reason, that same chaotic force serves only to bludgeon instead of excite on the title track. Perhaps that’s because “Raw Power” lacks the hookiness of other songs on the album. But the hooks return with “Shake Appeal” and “Death Trip.” The Stooges are not only intense and forceful – anybody can be those things, so that’s not what sets them apart. Under all the grime and clutter, there’s a kind of musical genius to the Stooges, and it’s something second generation punk musicians have been trying to emulate ever since. They’ve had little success.

Like a Martin Scorsese picture, over half of Raw Power plows over you with its brutal austerity. But there’s something else in the music of the Stooges, too, which only got bigger once Iggy went solo: a sense of fun. It’s a subtle message that the world is going to go down in flames, and Iggy will be playing a fiddle.

Being born in 1981, my experience with anything that happened before then can only be theoretical and historical. This includes the Vietnam War, and my only experiences with it were reading The Things They Carried in college and watching the movies Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Add to that the numerous protest songs written during the 60s, like “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Fortunate Son” and “Revolution.” But perhaps the strangest song about Vietnam I’ve ever heard is David Bowie’s “Running Gun Blues.”

Distinct from the more obvious tunes in this genre, “Running Gun Blues” takes a more cynical and disturbing tack. The narrator is a deranged Vietnam soldier who’s not in it for God or country or glory, but for killing. His childlike mirth at murder that you get paid to do and his utter disrespect for life may not do as good a job at generating action as the “stop the war!” anthems, but it definitely makes you squirm in your seat. Bowie’s voice lends happy madness to what is somewhat victorious music, not dark or foreboding like its predecessor “After All.” The song fits right in with Bowie’s motif of deconstructing our society till we see the simple, the ugly, what needs to change.

In “Saviour Machine,” things take a turn for the epic. There is a quick and nervous rhythm perforated by horns, and Bowie takes on a slightly more operatic quality to his voice. The lyrics tell of a dystopian future – there’s that phrase again; Bowie’s all about the dystopia – in which citizens are completely reliant on an intelligent, self-aware supercomputer. I’m picturing thousands of people in orderly rows and dressed in the same white smock, bowing down prostrate to a monolithic metal structure 80 stories high, with blinking lights and 50s bleeps and bloops, perhaps with a mondo antennae on top in the center sending out buzzing magnetic waves that look like Zs or lightning bolts.

In the song, the “savior machine” is programmed to do whatever it takes to serve the continuation of the human race, but people have become so dependent on the machine that it starts killing people to get them to start living again; essentially, it’s creating a common enemy by becoming it.

For some reason, “Saviour Machine” calls to my mind Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A supercomputer was constructed to calculate the answer to the question of life, the universe and everything; it came up with 42. Another supercomputer had to be constructed to figure out what the question was, and that was the planet Earth. Just before it was supposed to spit out its findings, the Vogons blew it up to make room for a hyperspatial express route and… You get the idea. Don’t panic.

Then comes “She Shook Me Cold,” a very metal and bombastic song. It goes for the extremely heavy and turns out too sludgy for its own good. It’s little more than an opportunity for Bowie’s guitarist of choice, Mick Ronson, to show off his shredding skills. The Bowie/Ronson combination was right up there with the pairing of chocolate and peanut butter, Oreos and milk, hydrogen and oxygen. Ronson was Bowie’s secret weapon, a juggernaut backing up a brilliant star. He’s one of the most underrated guitarists of the 70s, as well as one of the best. Ronson stayed by Bowie’s side for 5 albums, making his exit after Pin Ups and transitioning into a brief solo career.

David Bowie was the leader of a revolution, one complete with adherents like T. Rex, Roxy Music and Lou Reed. It’s called glam rock, a reaction to the hippie free love and social activism. It used the trappings of 1930s Hollywood glamour and spacey science fiction stuff and combined them with the sexual liberation of the hippie movement. But in 1970, it was still a little ways from happening. 1970 was a very interesting year, one between settings, a pause in the cycle of rock and roll. The hippies were either becoming businessmen or Jesus People, being disillusioned by Altamont. The guard was in the process of changing. David Bowie and his ilk were right there waiting when it did. And the whole stinking world would be theirs.

I went to a Christian college, one where chapel was semi-required – you had to accrue a certain amount of “Christian Life and Service” credits during the school year or pay a fine, and chapel was the easiest way to get CLS credits. Three mornings a week, most of the school would gather at the church on campus for about 45 minutes. The “good” kids sat up front and got into the worship; the “bad” kids sat in the back with their headphones in or homework for the next class; the “really bad” kids didn’t show up at all.

Once a year for about a week, we had Revival. It was a scheduled event where chapel was every day (including the weekend), and where the tone of chapel was turned towards holiness, conviction, and getting right with God, in order to create a sweeping-up of people to get “on fire” for God. For me, it was a good opportunity to get caught up on chapels I had missed, but little more. Truth be told, it always seemed very strange to me. The idea that you could schedule a revival (for a certain week and not another) was contradictory to the very concept of revival. When there’s true revival, things change, the Holy Spirit moves, and everyone feels God’s presence to a radical degree. But it can’t be manufactured on a week of the college administration’s choosing.

That desire to re-create something spiritual and unknowable reminds me of the Altamont Free Concert. The promoters of Altamont tried to repeat the magic that happened at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. While they should have known that those events were unrepeatable, there was no way they could foresee the horrible way things would end.

Be warned; what follows is the lowest point in the life of the Rolling Stones, and one of the darkest moments in all of rock and roll history. Brian Jones’s death was just an indicator, a warning shot from God to the Stones that things were about to get really bad.

Like most badly-remembered points in history, Altamont started with the best of intentions. When you plan a concert, make it outdoors on a huge site, include a bunch of very famous bands on the bill, and don’t charge admission, profits probably aren’t your main concern. That leaves creating an event where music is celebrated, which is pretty pure in the scope of things. From the time the Stones announced the free concert, which they would headline, the press touted it as “Woodstock West.” It came less than a year after that “Festival of Peace, Love and Music,” and involved a few of the same people at the organizational level. But the romance and perfection of Woodstock couldn’t be manufactured at will.

the Hells Angels didn’t have guns – they had pool cues

The first mistake the promoters made was hiring the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang, to handle security (if you hire a biker gang, what do you think is gonna happen?). Their second mistake was having the agreement with them be so loose as to make no mention of the word “security” at all. The terms, as the Angels understood them, were “we keep people away from the generators, and we get free beer.” No money exchanged, no contracts, no paperwork, no nothin’. It was kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, but the Hells Angels are no gentlemen. I’m not much for red tape, but I think in this case it would have not only have made things go more smoothly, but would have maybe prevented tragedy.

Things didn’t go well. There was an incident in the afternoon where Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin jumped off the stage in the middle of a song to help a fan who was getting the crap kicked out of him by a Hells Angel. The Grateful Dead (who had suggested the Hells Angels in the first place because they had used them before with success) were scheduled to go on after Jefferson Airplane, but decided not to perform in protest. Then evening came, darkness fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage. After fighting broke out during “Sympathy For the Devil,” Mick Jagger implored the crowd to calm down and be cool. He then performed a somber rendition of “Under My Thumb.” It was during that song that Stones fan Meredith Hunter, after pulling a long-barreled pistol from his coat, was murdered by a Hells Angel.

A documentary film crew was present; they had filmed the Rolling Stones in the studio, and were on hand for the entire Altamont experience. When the murder happened, they caught the whole thing on film. The movie they made, Gimme Shelter, included footage of a very sad Mick Jagger looking at the concert tapes. The most poignant moment is when he’s watching the performance of “Under My Thumb” and freezes the frame right when the knife that killed Meredith Hunter connected.

Let It Bleed had already been released at this point, and Altamont was the Stones’ big opportunity to promote it. “Gimme Shelter,” the lead-off track, had likewise already been recorded several months before. The music is eerie and unsettling; not a new thing for the Stones by any means, but the eeriness was escalated by the tragic events that took place only a week later. It’s freaky how prophetic this song is. The lyrics speak of an insidious force threatening the life of the singer, and an atmosphere of gloom and death. In the bridge, there is even talk of “rape” and “murder.” However, the song ends on a hopeful note: “I tell ya love, sister – it’s just a kiss away.”

“Gimme Shelter” features Merry Clayton on backing vocals. She sings the bridge with such emotional power that it even takes Mick Jagger aback, as he can be heard saying “Whoo!” in the background after her voice cracks for the second time. Merry was pregnant at the time of recording, and suffered a miscarriage later that day; the strain of hitting the highest notes was a little too much.

The Rolling Stones are one of the only bands to ever have a murder happen during one of its live performances. “Gimme Shelter” is an unthinkably awesome song just by itself, but when it’s viewed in light of the giant debacle that is Altamont, its greatness rises to about 3 times its original level. Many critics call Altamont the point in history where the romance and glittering sheen of the hippie movement not only wore off, but was killed with devastating prejudice. To me, it was a turning point. It was a time when a large group of people said, “this isn’t true for us anymore,” and they went in search of another truth.

More about Let It Bleed tomorrow!

Every Inch

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin’s first album carved out a name for them and let the world know that things would be different from here on out. Led Zeppelin was about taking blues music and giving it a hard, modern edge. Nearly every song takes a standard blues formula and spins it to a different angle so it’s almost unrecognizable. “Dazed and Confused” is a good example. It was technically released long before the Altamont Free Concert, largely agreed upon to be “the death of the 60s.” But it heralded changes in the sound, stability, and mindset of rock and roll. It was getting nastier, darker, and more sexual. Led Zeppelin and Beggars Banquet prepared people for it; II made it a reality.

I’ve heard II described as the template for heavy metal. Most metal artists at the birth of the genre looked at II and thought, “we’ll just do that.” In that way, all metal artists from Stryper to Mayhem, Twisted Sister to Slipknot, owe Led Zeppelin big time. Without them, there would be no heavy metal, and that’s just the truth.

Led Zeppelin - II - 10/22/1969

The opening guitar strain of “Whole Lotta Love” is, without a doubt, the heaviest thing the world had heard thus far. Every time I hear this track, it only takes a few seconds before it captures my attention and I think, “wow; this is some serious business.” As plodding and unmerciful as the guitar part is, the vocals are serpentine and smooth, a feat Robert Plant was the first to pull off in this setting. But beware, Plant isn’t a wilting flower or a lovesick puppy – he’s dangerous. Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I once heard Robert Plant say in an interview something to the effect of this song letting the world know that Led Zeppelin “possessed sex.” Each time I listen to this song, I get it. The music is very sexual, but not like a horny teenager. No, it’s more like an experienced womanizer, a lion who hunts prey. The lyrics appear innocent enough, but have an undercurrent of male libido that is almost overwhelming. “I’m gonna give you my love” could be taken at face value, but I think the listener is intended to take it one step further.

Let’s be blunt: every instance of the word “love” in this song could be replaced with “penis.” Near the end, Plant even modifies the lyric to “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love!” It would take football fields full of naivety to miss that meaning. I could do without Plant having an orgasm into the microphone half way into the song, though; it’s not very manly to finish early.

After that burst of aggressive male sexuality, things slow down for a moment with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The song has soft-on-the-verse, hard-on-the-chorus cycle; this is just one piece of II’s influence on not just heavy metal, but rock and roll in general. I think the concept is supposed to be the contrast between the extremes of hard and soft, like sleeping and waking. The verses are almost dreamlike, while the chorus is hard-driving and intense. Despite that, the melody in the chorus isn’t very compelling, and the verses aren’t formed enough. I understand that that’s the point of the song, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

“The Lemon Song,” on the other hand, really does. This song is full of sexual innuendo; Robert Plant saying “the way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right outta bed” is more deliciously bawdy than all the modern sitcoms, rap songs and stand-up comedians combined. Sexual humor is always funnier when it’s presented with a wink. “If you know what I mean…”

“The Lemon Song” is arguably Led Zep’s most blues-influenced song; that’s saying a lot for a band that makes its name on updating the blues for the changing times. It borrows from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, and John Paul Jones’ bass track has funkiness that simply defies his age. Best of all is Robert Plant’s splendid and perfectly timed delivery. I feel I would have a lot of people on my side if I said that Plant is the greatest lead singer of all time.

On Monday: Being a man is more than what’s between your legs.