Last night, Rome burned again. Even as Limp Bizkit fiddled, or rapped, or whatever it is those kids do, the hamlet of Rome, New York, was inflamed and in flames. And all I could do this time was shake my head as I watched the violence, the mayhem, unfold before me on MTV. Woodstock 99? Ha. Woodschlock, perhaps.
This is not rock’n’roll.
I write these words on a Monday morning in late July, as I gaze out the window, past my iMac and my mug of Timorese roast, to my farm, 50 miles from Rome, New York. And I am telling myself: Those times — our peace, our community — thou art lost and gone forever.
Sure, I went to Woodstock. The first time. Sure, it was fun. But before the year was over, before the 1960s were finally trampled by Nixon and Vietnam and the Partridges, I was transformed by something else entirely.
Say it with me. Al-ta-mont. How my heart aches! The High Peak, its Pacific spray, its amber sunsets, its incense and fingerdrums and corncob pipes. And how Shannon Mulligan and I drove West, from a Columbia sit-in, in a Beetle stuffed with dope and Dylan. For it was at Altamont that I lost my innocence. There, Shannon took my face in her hands, with a beatific smile, and kissed me during the opening notes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” And whispered mots doux during the finale of “Street Fighting Man.” And in between, when the Rolling Stones roared through “Under My Thumb,” Shannon and I watched a boy our age, ten feet away — a boy in a green suit, with a pistol in his hand — Shannon and I watched a Hell’s Angel stab him to death. A boy we’d never know.
This morning, my friend Jann, an editor at a magazine about music and politics, called to ask if I could cover the anniversary of another rock’n’roll show. I was all set to protest before he hooked me in with an irresistible phrase. “Altamont ’99,” he whispered.
Altamont ‘99. I couldn’t go back. Yet I knew I must.
“Dad, I can’t see.” Poor Dustin was rubbing his eyes. We’d only been at Altamont for a few minutes, but the sound was already deafening; I could barely hear him through my earplugs. Truth be told, I couldn’t see much myself. Whose idea, we all asked ourselves on December 6, 1969 — whose crazy idea was it, anyway, to stage a Rolling Stones concert at an obscure little dragstrip near Livermore, California? Whose idea was it to commemorate a horrific nightmare resulting in four deaths and countless injuries and a harrowing documentary film?
Today, I ask myself another question too. Where are the Stones?
That was my first disappointment, I must confess. The notion of watching Mick Jagger, who turned 56 on July 26, when I began writing these words, strutting like a rooster 30 years later — it was an intoxicating idea, and I told Jann I’d give him the best concert story he’d ever seen. Jann was thrilled, and he said he’d fire off the plane tickets immediately. But in an email, he cautioned me: “Not sure the Stones are gonna make it. Things might be a little different this time around at Altamont.”
He wasn’t kidding. The Hell’s Angels are still here, but today, instead of beating people up, they’re handing out bottles of water and flyers on safe sex. At least the fans are still undulating and unruly, restless with untapped anger and hostility over a political system that keeps them oppressed. But this time, MTV’s got the event locked up, handling the stabbing reenactment with Daisy Fuentes and DJ Jesse Kamp. They’d been taking applications for the victim since March, apparently. And onstage, doing their techno-hiphop “Under My Thumb ’99”: Ricky Martin and Britney Spears.
When Dustin heard I’d be going to see Ricky and Britney play, he nearly jumped out of his skin. He’s staying with his mom this summer, but she couldn’t deny him such excitement. And how could I resist turning my own son on? How could I avoid bringing a new generation to Altamont?
I scooped Dustin up and plunked him on my shoulders. He clapped and squealed, and all around us were amused faces, touching this old ’60s salty dog, this draft-dodging, pot-smoking liberal — and his son.
Then my shoulder gave out. I felt it pop, and so did Dustin. “Uh, Dad?” he said. I was in such agony I couldn’t even answer him. “Dad!” People cleared away as he jumped off. He reached down and started massaging my shoulder, and within a minute he’d popped it back into place. Three teenagers, a little younger than him, smiled at us.
“Dustin,” I gasped at last, “I think maybe you’re getting a little too old for me to be doing that.” He smiled sadly and nodded. “It’s OK, Dad,” he said. “I can hear the music at least. And it sounds even better than it does in my car.”
Britney and Ricky were grooving along, singing that “Livin’ La Vida Loca” as a high-energy duet. It must’ve lasted ten minutes as they introduced the band — none of the players a day over 20, I’d guess. And then that roar.
That roar. Dustin and I stood on our toes. Daisy and Jesse came bopping out onto the stage.
“OK, who’s ready to get stabbed?” shouted Daisy. The crowd surged forward. There were shaved-headed kids, tumbling over the crowd, arms outstretched, wiry as whippets. Girls were squealing, waving toy pistols in the air. I could hardly believe this, but a boy next to us stood languidly, a smirk on his face. He was wearing a green suit.
A green suit just like the green suit from 30 years before. “Dad! Check out the video screens!”
I looked up at the Bank of America screens on both sides of the stage, and the face of the boy next to us filled them. His digital smile was a hundred feet wide. The crowd parted before him like a Biblical sea, and he stepped forward. The Hell’s Angels pushed the crowd back and ushered him up the steps.
The boy in the green suit high-fived Ricky Martin. He hugged Britney Spears. He got a kiss from Daisy Fuentes and did an elaborate routine with Jesse Kamp including a soul-shake, a cartwheel, a headbutt, and what looked like a step from the Hustle.
“You ready, dude?” Britney and Ricky were beaming. Daisy did some kind of jumping-jack flash. Jesse held the glinting knife. On screen, we could see the boy in the green suit smirking the words: “Dude, let’s get it on.”
I watched Dustin instead. Watched his face light up the way a telephone switchboard could be said to light up like a Christmas tree. Watched his eyes widen the way eyes are often said to widen like saucers. Of course, I couldn’t hear anything but cheers. Endless, deafening cheers.
And once again, Altamont was over.
Altamont is over, again.
Altamont is never, ever over.