Lucifer Rising

Hit up my article about the making of the infamous Lucifer Rising soundtrack over on Niche Appeal or peep below:

All Time Weirdest Records #49: Lucifer Rising

Let’s just get one thing out of the way straight up front about this record: The soundtrack to Kenneth Anger’s 1972  (oc)cult classic Lucifer Rising was recorded in Tracy Prison in San Joaquin, California by Robert “Cupid” Beausoleil of Manson Family Fame on a series of incredibly innovative self-made synthesizers. The fact that this is NOT the strangest thing about the record is testament to just how wonderfully bizarre both the back story and the music itself truly is.

In order to understand the intricate reasons behind why the darkly ambient soundscapes of this record are so compelling, you have to understand a little bit about Cupid. The first thing to know about Bobby Beausoleil is that he was a messianic little prick floating on the hazy outer edges of late ’60s popular culture who was eventually convicted of the first official Manson Family murder, where music  teacher and mescaline dealer Gary Hinman met his predestined but still-horrific fate. The second thing to know is that Cupid was, and still is, an extremely talented musician who performed in an early lineup of everyone’s baroque hippie faves. Love. As a matter of fact it was Arthur Lee himself who gave young Bobby the Cupid moniker. Young Cupid was a founding member of the completely awesome San Fran musical magic mushroom trip known as The Orkustra and later became the Brian Eno of the Oregon penal system with his way-ahead-of-the-curve work with synths and ambient dreamscapes. Just like his namesake, Cupid has also gotten up to abundance of horrific mischief over the years as well.  If you’re the type who cannot separate the art from the artist, then you should certainly separate yourself from the Lucifer Rising Soundtrack. If you can deal with it then by all means keep on reading.

Cupid

Sometime in 1966, right on the cusp of that elusive grey line when the ’60s really got good, Scorpio Rising filmmaker Kenneth Anger rented a run-down, vibey-as-hell flat on the first floor of an old Russian embassy in San Francisco’s Alamo district. Then in his late 30s, the ever-esoteric Anger was fascinated by the hippie tribes sprouting to vivid life all around him, sensing that the Age Of Aquarius could very well be the dawn of the new pagan era he had longed for since his early teenage years. Like 90%  of filmmakers of the time, he had the idea to capture the vibe of all these youth cult uprisings in the vivid light of celluloid. Kenneth was a lifelong devotee of everyone’s favorite egg-headed antichrist, The Great Beast 666 Himself, Mr. Aleister Alexander Crowley. Like in all times of great unrest and uncertainty, Sir Crowley was back in style (there he was peering out from behind Mae West on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover) and The Great Beast’s description of Lucifer as a light bearing god in his “Hymn to Lucifer” poem really turned Anger’s head around and gave him the core concept for what was to become his most famous and enduring work.

Kenneth Anger

The first thing he needed was a “naughty, mischievous” boy to play that most famous of fallen angels, and he found just what he needed at an orgy held in a cathedral. Never in the history of destiny has there been a more perfect meeting place for two figures of Kenneth Anger and Cupid’s predilections and interests. Chancing upon the indeed naughty and mischievous, not to mention extremely good-looking, young Bobby at said orgy was infamy in the making, for Anger christened his Lucifer that very night. And it wasn’t long before Anger realized his young  Lucifer wasn’t just a pretty face. The kid was a versatile and well-regarded musician on the freak scene, and soon he was playing both the lead role and composing the film’s soundtrack with a bunch of jazz musicians called the Magick Powerhouse of Oz.

All seemed to be going well until (you just can’t make this stuff up) Anger and Cupid were involved in an event called Equinox of the Gods where the Magick Powerhouse performed and Anger invoked (most would agree successfully) the oncoming of the Luciferian age. The sheer heaviness of the vibes on this night combined to create a falling out between the cosmic pair, with Cupid moving out of the embassy soon after. But he didn’t leave empty-handed. In an interview around this time Anger claimed that Cupid walked out of his life with the footage from Lucifer Rising. Soon after, Anger did the logical thing and proclaimed his own death in a two-page Village Voice ad, after which he fled to the then-swinging London.

Cupid Outside The Embassy

This turned out to be the best move Anger ever made, for less than a year later Mr. Cupid was splashed all over the headlines after having fallen in with the Manson Clan and notching the first post on their lumpen hippie killing spree (RIP Gary). The Family was known to target individuals from the entertainment industry who had crossed them (Terry Melcher, Charles Manson’s producer, lived in Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s house until just months before the Tate murders), so it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that Cupid could have convinced them to head North to pay Anger a little creepy crawl visit had he not fled to The Smoke.

So for those keeping careful track at home:

First attempt at the Lucifer Rising soundtrack:

Robert “Cupid” Beausoleil

Result:

Falls in with Manson Clan, banged up on first degree murder, sentenced to death (later commuted to life in prison)

Cupid Mugshot

This may seem impossible, but in London Town the Lucifer Rising got even stranger. Mick Jagger, then in his Edwardian-robed prime, was interested in stepping into the Luciferian role but ended up getting spooked after Altamont and offered up his brother Chris instead. This is unfortunate since anyone who’s seen Performance could tell you that the 1969-era Jagger would have been just perfect for the role. Before the infamously bloody festival  soured his taste for the occult, Jagger even laid down some impressively atmospheric  Moog tracks for the project, though these were eventually used in a different Anger banger, Invocation Of My Demon Brother, which is well worth checking out.

The Lucifer Rising soundtrack curse continues!

Second attempt at the Lucifer Rising soundtrack:

Mick Jagger

Result:

A curse that resulted in the most infamously disastrous music festival of all time and the actual death of the 60s.

A Man Of Wealth and Taste

Even though Mick dropped out as Lucifer, the “Jagger” name was still retained as his brother Chris stepped in. Plus, Mick’s GF Marianne Faithfull was expertly cast as the goddess Lilith. As one of the greatest scam artists of all time, Anger utilized these marquee names to gain funding from the National Film Finance Corporation to complete the remainder of the film in extravagant fashion. The fact that such a purely Satanic passion project that never made a dime received funding from such a prestigious institute is just one of the myriad of mind-blowing aspects to this story. England’s Sunday Telegraph certainly noticed, screaming “Devil Film To Get State Aid” from its red top pages. Nobody could say that Anger didn’t use the money wisely, however, since he blew it on flying the whole operation to Egypt where some of the most vivid scenes in the film are captured, including the simply immortal image of The Sphinx’s head being replaced by that of Lucifer.

So the filming was going well. But what about that cursed soundtrack? Well, back in London’s grey scotch mist Anger hit up an auction to bid on some rare Crowley memorabilia (robes and staffs and self-published poetry volumes and other Great Beast treasures) where, inevitably, he ran across a man who just hadto be in this story: Jimmy Page. Despite competing on the bid, with the Hippie-rich Page being the one who ultimately walked away with the robes, real recognizes real in the end. The two modern pagans were instant esoteric brothers and before long Anger was whisked off to the ultimate piece of Crowley paraphernalia that Page happened to own, the Great Magus’ former estate, Boleskine House on the shores of Loch Ness. Crowley had once attempted, and failed, to perform the Sacred Magic of Abramelin ritual at the Manor. Various demons and other mischievous beings let loose during Crowley’s residency still lurked the grounds, and all sorts of weird shit and death had befallen the place over the decades. Needless to say Boleskine was right up Kenneth’s proverbial alley, and it wasn’t long before he was living full-time in the basement.

Jimmy outside Boleskine House

It was only natural that the third person to attempt the Lucifer Rising soundtrack would be the princely and occult-obsessed James Patrick Page, and this was indeed officially announced in an Anger interview in Variety. The soundtrack curse got its long, cold fingers into Page almost immediately. Then at the zenith of Zeppelin’s universal reign, Jimmy began cultivating a serious taste for certain brown powders derived from poppy flowers, went from “rock star skinny” to “famine victim skeletal”, and began falling out with his wife Charlotte. The heavy, dark vibes he inherited as the soundtrack’s producer drew some seriously stifling curtains down on his until-then crystalline  creative drive, and he barely managed to complete less than 20 minutes of music for the score. Growing weary of the dissolute pagan chanting strange incantations in their basement, the bummer-bringing Charlotte eventually tossed Anger out of Crowley paradise. Anger got his revenge by calling a presser, from which he chastised Page savagely: “I’m beginning to think Jimmy’s dried up as a musician. He’s got no themes, no inspiration, no melodies to offer.”

Harsh words from Anger, but in fairness it should be noted that Page’s discarded music for the Lucifer Rising soundtrack surfaced in 2012 as Lucifer Rising & Other Soundtracks and, although not nearly as well-executed as Cupid’s, it isn’t dismal listening by any stretch.

Third attempt at the Lucifer Rising soundtrack:

Jimmy Page

Result:

A decade-long heroin addiction, the death of Robert Plant’s son, the death of John Bonham, and the downfall of one of the mightiest band of living gods to ever stalk this fair planet.

Sir Jimmy

This is the point in the story where we see the seemingly inevitable return of the Original Lucifer, Mr. Cupid himself. The bond originally formed at that fateful pagan orgy all those years ago was destined to complete its cycle. Really, there could have only been one cursed person who could adequately complete this most cursed of soundtracks. And the fact that Bobby was in the midst of a life term prison sentence? Well, had such lame earthly matters ever stopped Anger previously?

The supremely talented Cupid had not given up on his music dreams after his conviction, and with the aid of the prison music teacher he got his hands on a number of instruments and recording equipment, forming a band with fellow inmates called the Freedom Orchestra, a prison band strange enough to rival the one Roky Erickson formed with the inmates at his Texas psychiatric prison made up of spree killers and rapists, and put the mono synths he had spent years crafting behind bars to good use. Anger visited the prison regularly during the recording, and he was delighted with the sounds he was hearing. It is amazing to consider that a California Prison inmate named Cupid managed to succeed where two of the world’s most famous, talented, and rich musicians failed is a testament to the intrinsic strangeness woven into the dark tapestry of Lucifer Rising. Really, for such a strange project with such a sordid history of heady, brilliant failures, there could be no other ending, and the 44 minutes of music produced by Cupid at Penitentiary Studios was heady and brilliant indeed.

Cupid Recording In Prison

One of the main reasons Inmate Cupid’s soundtrack works so incredibly well is that, unlike temporary dabblers Mick and Pagey, Bobby and Anger truly walked the walk when it came to this occult shit. Anger had the book smarts, having deeply studied esoteric texts well beyond the usual Crowley content since far too young an age. Bobby may not have tapped into the texts to the same depths as his demon brother, but he actually LIVED OUT the lifestyle in a way the more respectable Anger could never quite bring himself to do. This combination of dark knowledge and actual darkness interlocked to create not only a classic film but an even more classic soundtrack which has won out over the usual controversy and outrage to see number of official releases and reissues over the years and has received a vast array of critical praise.

Don’t forget that Cupid was involved with this project from its very inception and once walked in the plush shoes of the Lucifer roll. There was nobody else who understood the multitude of themes, intricate rhythms, and hidden undercurrents of the project like Bobby B. The music is closely linked with the main occult themes on display in the work, mainly, in the words of the composer, the “mythical Lucifer awakening in his pit of despair, rekindling his torch, and rising like a phoenix from the ashes of his own unmaking to begin his long journey from the dark recesses of the underworld — shedding his pride along the way in his uncompromising desire to regain the Beloved.”

Lucifer Rising

Fittingly for such a subject, the extraordinary music Mr. Cupid laid down in confinement is convincingly dark yet invitingly lush, grand and sweeping but also claustrophobic, orchestral but primitive, evoking stark netherworlds both supremely alien and strangely familiar. Also importantly, the droning ambience perfectly complements the esoteric tones of the film and paints in the many corners of Anger’s masterpiece, gliding next to it and guiding the proceedings like a dark angel. He bests the Jimmy Page by a misty mountain hop, and the fact that he made this in a state prison is completely extraordinary and a major indicator that the mind can shine bright even in the bleakest of circumstances, and that sometimes the worst people are capable of creating staggering works of beauty. It should be noted that there is no need to actually watch Lucifer Rising in order to enjoy the film’s soundtrack.  Those who groove to ambient Eno or early Tangerine Dream will find a whole lot to admire here. Although the grand, cold hand of esoteric belief can be strongly felt throughout, not to mention the weighty history of the project, this is a lush dreamscape that is in many ways incredibly beautiful, like stumbling across a stoic stone head carving while out for a walk in a field of emerald-green.

This record and its back story may be incredibly bizarre, but the Lucifer Risingsoundtrack is well worth listening to and is one of the most incredible scores ever committed to tape.

Daniel Falatko

The Layla Curse: How Eric Clapton’s Masterpiece Is Responsible For Parentacide, Dead Guitar Heroes, Failed Kidneys, Bad Shorts, And Even Disco

Check out my article over at Niche Appeal about how Clapton’s smash hit “Layla” brought death, jail, and artistic decline for everyone who touched it. Or read below.

 

You’ve heard the song at least 102,697 times. It’s been blasting from the FM Classic Rock stations at every jobsite you’ve ever walked past. A limp acoustic version haunted your MTV childhood. It’s lush piano outro soundtracked several of the most poignant moments in your favorite movies. It’s a song that has seeped its way into the world’s collective consciousness with the likes of “Stairway” and “Freebird” and “Gucci Gang”.  The song is “Layla” and it’s got you on your knees. The song is “Layla” and it’s screamin’ darlin’ please. The song is “Layla” and darlin’ it will ease your worried mind.

You know “Layla” well. But did you know that the guy who co-wrote it with Eric Clapton killed his mother with a hammer?

If you don’t know this, then you don’t know about The Layla Curse. But unfortunately for you we’re about to tell you all about it.

We’ll start by stating a fact: “Layla” and the album it comes from, 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs are absolute stunners. Every second of this record is richly layered, earthy, highly emotional, and capital “G” groovy in every way. It was Clapton’s last stand, really, since he definitely never did anything cool ever again. He still had great hair and had not yet sprouted that coked-out line beard that haunted him through the late 70s and 80s. This was still the Clapton of Cream and Blind Faith. The spirits still walked with him. The heartbroken swagger on this record was influenced by George Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, and it bleeds through heavy on immortal dirges like “Bellbottom Blues” and the title track. We know, we know, you’ve heard “Layla” so many times it just doesn’t have an impact. But it’s a great and desperate song. Take our word for it. We’re professionals.

We’ve established that the record is an out-and-out classic. It’s also moved millions upon millions of units and is easily one of the crowning jewels of the classic rock era. But it came with a horrible curse, and even Clapton himself wasn’t able to outrun it.

Playing on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs should have been a big red letter day for everyone involved in the sessions, from the boys in Eric’s band (called Derek And The Dominos for some perverse reason) to the engineers to the person who swept the floor after hours. It’s a rare combination: a misunderstood cult record that still sold millions, an uncompromising work of art that made the commercial marketplace bend to its will over time. It’s remarkably pure but soundtracked jaded times. Everyone knows it and could hum the title track’s main riff off the dome. Playing on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs should be like having Dark Side Of The Moon or Appetite For Destruction  on your resume.

And yet everyone involved in the swampy hot Miami sessions that produced this thing met a horrible fate.

Jim Gordon, the “Layla” Drummer and Co-Writer

We’ll start with the sessions’ drummer, Bill Gordon. Or more specifically, Bill Gordon’s poor, doomed mother. Her son may have looked kind of square, but this was one of the freakiest and most versatile session drummers of the era. Dude pretty much played on everything. His resume reads like a wonderland of classic records from the era. Nobody would believe it if it wasn’t on Wikipedia. Crosby Stills & Nash? Check. The Monkees? Sure thing. Byrds? You know it. Alice Cooper? Oh fuck yea. Nancy Sinatra? Uh huh. Zappa? Of course. Steely Dan? You best believe it. Beach Boys? Been there, done that. John Denver? Booh yah. It was only natural that Clapton would phone him up to jam when he was putting together the Dominos, and only more natural that he was given the full-time drummer role. But Gordo wasn’t just a “How do you know when the stage is level? When the drummer is drooling out both sides of his mouth” caveman Keith moon type. This was a composer, classically trained, and that sweeping piano outro you know so well from that scene in Goodfellas that was tacked on to the end of “Layla” was his creation. Now, you can call Eric Clapton many things (a racist, for example) but you can’t say he was stingy with the songwriting credits. Gordy got a co-write on the thing. Perhaps Eric would have changed his tune on this had he known his cry of romantic pain would go on to generate millions upon millions of dollars. But now he has to share the proceeds and the multiple Grammys with a California Correctional System inmate.

But that’s just how the Layla Curse Works.

On a hot June night in 1983, some very convincing voices within Jim Gordon’s head demanded that he kill his mother. He took them up on it without question. We won’t get into the truly horrific details other than to say that a hammer was the main instrument used, which makes sense considering Jim’s long history as a percussionist. RIP to Osa Marie Gordon. After his conviction Gordy was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he has long asserted that the voices began just after the release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.

So if you’re keeping score at home, the Layla Curse has a dead mother and a murder conviction under its belt and we haven’t even made it past the drummer.

Image result for jim gordon drummer

Jim Gordon, the Convicted Parent Killer

Since we’re starting with the Derek and the Dominos rhythm section, let’s next move on to the bassist.

Carl Radle, “Layla” Bassist

This guy also got around. And by “around” we mean that he jammed with a Beatle. Radle served as the main bassist on George Harrison’s overwhelmingly awesome All Things Must Pass record. He also kicked it with Joe Cocker and J.J. Cale. But then he made the poor decision to take Eric Clapton’s call and join in on the Layla sessions. Check out the gatefold album sleeve sometime and you will see an incredibly drunk guy in granny glasses sitting underneath an indoor palm tree. That’s successful session bassist Carl Radle, ladies and gentleman, and his alcohol consumption skyrocketed right around the time he became a Domino, crested during the Layla sessions, and never let up after that. Rads may have been an in-demand session musician of the 60s, but he couldn’t sidestep the Layla Curse. His liver gave out well before he saw 40.

The Layla Curse takes another life

So now we have a dead mother, a murder conviction, and a dead bassist. The Layla Curse is in full horrific spring. But you didn’t think it would stop there, did you?

Brother Duane

If there was ever a template for the “rising rock star” it was created by Duane Allman in 1970. His band, a little outfit called The Allman Brothers Band, had just released their second LP. A little song called “Midnight Rider” was gaining traction on the radio. They were touring hard, selling out the psychedelic ballrooms, getting coverage in Rolling Stone…it was just ON for these boys and they absolutely knew it. They had even reached the discerning ears of Eric Clapton, which led to Brother Duane taking a fateful phone call and falling right into the grips of the Layla Curse. Duane’s playing and backing vocals on Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs are emotional, evocative…too saintly for any known descriptors. His slide playing is what makes this record ring out so distinctly. It made him familiar to millions before the Allman Bros had their big breakthrough with At Fillmore East later on that year.

But it also sealed his fate. The Layla Curse could not be cast off with mere stardom and Rolling Stone covers. Just months after the release of Fillmore East Brother Duane crashed into the back of a flatbed truck while speeding on his motorcycle in Macon, Georgia. He didn’t make it. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, and damn that Layla Curse.

He didn’t even get the chance to suck in the 80s

We’ve now added one dead guitar legend to the Layla Curse tally. But how about we’ll throw in another one just for kicks? And why not make it the Ultimate Dead Guitar Legend of all time while we’re at it?

Jimi Hendrix chilling with Clapton

During the Layla sessions the Dominos cut a wailing, majestic version of Clapton’s homey Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. It serves as a centerpiece of sorts on the record and should have been a great compliment for Jimi who loved him some Eric Clapton. But the Layla Curse was an efficient and heartless beast, and within days of the song being recorded he was found dead in London after choking on his own early morning vomit.

Jimi Hendrix after the Layla Curse

Two dead guitar legends. A murdered mother. A killer drummer. A dead bassist. Where will it end?

Not there, of course.

This brings us to the trickier Layla Curse victims, the ones who aren’t dead or in prison. They may technically be survivors, but as far as career trajectory and artistic output are concerned, they were dead in the water after Layla. Bobby Whitlock was an official Domino and can be seen in the photos lining the album sleeve looking sweaty and happy. By all means he should have been happy in 1970. Dude was on the rise for sure. Whitlock had spent time jamming the keys with Delaney & Bonnie before Eric called him up to the big leagues for what should have been his big break. It should also be noted that Whitlock was by far the best looking of the Dominos.

Stoned and Dethroned: Bobby with Duane during the Layla sessions

The sky truly was the limit for Mr. Whitlock after the release of Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. A solo career. High priced session work. A supergroup invitation. All of these seemed inevitable. So why have you never heard of him then? Because of the Layla Curse, that’s why. His solo LPs went nowhere (you should check them out, though. They’re good.). He was never in Fleetwood Mac. His session work fell off. Bobby Whitlock is one of the more bewildering musical footnotes of all time. Because he was never meant to be a footnote. Sure, he never killed any of his family members or drank himself to death, but the Layla Curse has its hooks poor Bobby to this day.

Now we have a mysteriously stalled career to throw on the Curse’s rap sheet. But what of the man who made the Layla Curse possible?

Conjuring the Curse: Clapton at work

We would understand if you argued that Eric Clapton himself managed to sidestep the Curse he created. He’s one of the most massive rock stars in the world, after all. The guy probably has nine Ferraris. He dated Cheryl Crow. He’s had hits as recently as ten years ago. But did he really dodge it? Think about it. Sir Eric was weaving dreams from fire right up until Layla. Cream. Blind Faith. The Yardbirds. The Blues Breakers. Six absolute classic records spread out over the four bands. More if you’re a Clapton fanatic. He was cutting edge, the height of fashion, a visionary on an artistic run that rivals the Stones and Beatles progressions of the same era. Layla and other Assorted love Songs was another crowning achievement, a left turn from the bombastic lysergic blues of the Creams and the Blind Faiths into something far more soulful and earthbound. If E.C. had died after these sessions he would have gone out a legend with the perfect artistic progression to his credit.

But Eric Clapton did not die, which is the Layla Curse showing its supreme cleverness. Instead he sank into years of heroin addiction, eventually kicking the habit but also kicking what was left of his artistic inspiration. For the past however many decades Eric Clapton has been releasing subpar solo records, putting out subpar blues covers, organizing subpar reunions of his once great bands, touring on subpar nostalgia fumes. His eventual marriage to Patty Boyd, his torturer and soulmate and most vivid of muses, ended in divorce. One of his children fell off a balcony and died. Sure he’s rich. Sure he’s maintained his star status. But as he lays awake at night Eric Clapton himself just has to know that he hasn’t done anything of much artistic value for many decades. If there wasn’t a dead mother involved we could say that Eric Clapton himself is the saddest victim of the Layla sessions. Just go and try to listen to Covering Robert Johnson Volume Nine or whatever and you will see right into the lucid, evil eyes of this seemingly never-ending Curse.

Robert Johnson Never Wore Shorts, Eric: The Curse continues

Inspirational voids. Divorces. Tragic accidents. Shorts. This Curse just doesn’t let up, does it? Can there possibly be any other travesties to attribute to these fated sessions from 1970? How about Disco? No, really.

The argument can indeed be made that the Layla Curse brought about the very downfall of the classic rock era it pinnacled. Unlike some of the tragedies covered in this article, this one isn’t even too far of a stretch. It is, after all, a fact that Clapton’s sleazbag manager of the time, Robert Stigwood, stole a good portion of the Dominos’ money (there’s that Curse again!) and used it to start up a little thing called RSO Records whose main reason for existence was to record the Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever album which of course launched the rise of Disco and killed off what was left of the prime rock era, banishing it to classic rock stations forevermore. If you miss guitars in popular music, then you too are a victim of the never-ending Layla Curse.

….and so does the Layla Curse

By this point we’ve lost count of the tragedy tally, but it’s up to at least five tragic deaths, one vicious murder, the Bee Gees, ruined careers, inspirational dead zones, embezzlement, shorts, and the Death Of Rock N Roll.

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is a masterful work, but it’s also a spiral of destruction and evil. Make sure to get rid of any copies your dad most likely has in his attic vinyl collection. Delete it from your playlists (although Spotify should take it off their site completely due to their new “hate” clause). Steer well clear of all films that use these songs on their soundtracks. And never, ever, turn on that FM dial.

For the Layla Curse lives on.

Daniel Falatko

Altamont: Strictly the Music

This infamous, bloody music festival may have killed off the ’60s dream for good, but it produced much better music than its angelic cousin, Woodstock. Check out my review at niche appeal or peep it below.

 

Altamont: A Musical Review

 

Rest in peace to Meredith Hunter.

The sacrificial lamb of the ’60s. He is easy to identify in the Maysles Brothers footage that made up the Gimme Shelter movie due to his psychedelic green suit, hovering on the edge of the churning, violent crowd like the ghost he was soon to become. He dances wildly. He grinds his teeth and bites on his lips. Classic speed freak behavior. His eyes dangerously alive, gleaming with joy and paranoia. A potent speedball. Just 18 years old when he was cut down by the Hells Angels at the Altamont Motor Speedway as the Stones played “Under My Thumb”, Meredith Hunter still hovers on the edge of youth culture like a whirling green dervish.

Mr. Hunter getting stomped and slashed down and by the Angels has to be one of the most disturbing images ever caught on film. The parting of the crowd at the first flare-up of trouble.  The dark cloud swarm of Angels bum rushing in on Meredith. The gun from the pocket of the psychedelic suit, gleaming obscenely against the backdrop of the Northern Californian night. The Angel swarm reaches him. The kid had no chance. Even with the gun. Down he goes. Fists and feet and denim. The knife in the Angel’s hand, long and strangely tribal. And down it goes, so precise and methodical it’s easy to forget there is a mere kid on the receiving end. The Maysles Brothers make these horrible few seconds the centerpiece of their infamous documentary, rolling, rewinding, and rolling it again to hypnotic effect. Several members of the Stones are forced to watch as the cameras capture their reactions, and it’s completely riveting to witness as they realize the full extent of the horror they created with this festival. Even the cold dead eyes of the future Sir Mick Jagger go moist for a long moment.  Of all the hundreds of hours of footage that have been filmed of this performer over the past 50 years, this may very well be the only moment that captures him raw. “That’s horrible,” he mutters audibly under his breath, flipping his classic 1969 corkscrew shag back into place.

Indeed it was horrible. But was it truly the “death of the ’60s” as has been mentioned in the same breath as Altamont for nearly 50 years by every publication, blog, documentary, and buzzed music writer at happy hour? Any true ’60s aficionado, Stones fan, or horror gawker knows the legend well and has seen the documentary. Many can quote from it directly. Some dress as particularly colorful audience members from the film for Halloween. Images of pool cue-wielding Hells Angels in coonskin hats tripping their faces off as they lash out randomly at audience and band members alike, flower children looking grey and washed out in the winter Californian gloom, naked fat guys falling and crushing people who were just trying to vibe to the music, traffic jams and bad acid, cheap bottles of wine passed next to out-of-control bonfires, musicians pleading for peace from the stage, some seemingly genuine and others just because they knew it was being filmed and wanted to be on the right side of history. This is what people think of when they vibe on Altamont.

Although they took place on opposite ends of the Nation and were set up as distinctively different beasts, Woodstock and Altamont are nearly always used as an angel and devil analogy, the shining heart of the optimist, change-the-world, peace-and-love ’60s vs. the dark dismantling of bad drug freakouts and Mansonoid zombie killers. An easy yin-and-yang scenario for lazy writers and uninformed cultural historians alike. In reality Altamont was not set up to be anything like Woodstock. While the party in Bethel was touted from the very beginning as a multi-band festival  to spread out over three days, Altamont was from its inception a simple showcase for the Rolling Stones with the other bands added as afterthoughts, a sort of nod of their golden hat to a flower power generation they never truly belonged to. Woodstock was originally a paid festival before The People took over and made it free, while Altamont was free from the very start. Woodstock was set up as a multi-day affair, while Altamont was schedule for just one very long day. The two festivals really couldn’t be more different in their intentions and setups.

While it cannot be denied that Altamont turned out very badly and deserved the harsh press it received (thanks to the Grateful Dead for sparking the idea for hiring the Hells Angels as security), one thing that is hardly ever mentioned is the actual music. Five bands played at Altamont, three of which had also graced the stage at Stock just months earlier and would be cashing in madly on the film and endless double albums commemorating the event. The main aspects always mentioned about the bands at Altamont are what horrific events took place during their sets. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane getting knocked unconscious by the Angels during their performance. Meredith getting stabbed to death while The Stones shuffled through their shortened set. The outbreaks of violence during Santana and CSN&Y. The music itself tends to be left out in the cold like an Orange Sunshine casualty in the Speedway dawn.

The reason for this is simple. Because of the violence and degeneration on display at Alty, there was never an album released to showcase the musical trip of the evening. The documentary itself focused mostly on the blood and the shell-shocked faces of the audience. Meanwhile, everyone and their ex-hippie mother assumes that the music of Woodstock was a glorious tapestry of good vibes that no amount of rain or mud or brown acid could conspire to soil. You already know all the clichés. Hendrix rocking the Anthem at dawn. Santana headbanging away on one riff for an hour. CSN&Y with their “soaring harmonies”. Ten Years After with their savage blues pummeling and watermelons. But for each of these instantly iconic moments there were the ones you never hear about. The abysmally bad Dead set in the pouring rain with the failing amps. The Band showing up lethargic and out of tune. The ear-splittingly awful Incredible String Band set where 300,000-plus couldn’t hide their disinterest. The lame band that played the woodblocks. John Sebastian’s cloying, twee wailings. And…ahem…Melanie. The editing in the final Woodstock film made it seem like one flowing, groovy dreamscape of history in the making, but The Stock’s musical reality was far drearier than what Rolling Stone’s decades-long propaganda campaign has led us to believe.

So what of the music at angelic Woodstock’s evil west coast second cousin? It is understandable that the actual music of Altamont has been long-buried by images of dead teenagers and ultra-violent motorcycle gangs glazed on speed and acid. But for anyone who actually delves into the music produced on that ’60s-killing night, as we do here, the argument can be made that the music of Altamont actually burned much brighter amidst the hippie apocalypse than the better-documented sounds that came out of that Upstate New York hog farm.

The sources:

  • The famous Gimme Shelter. There are really less than twenty minutes of music footage from festival, but as some of the lone visuals from the Death Fest they are invaluable
  • The Rolling Stones & Friends – Altamont Live. This bootleg only surfaced earlier this year. Previously you would have had to cobble together 47 or so different spotty boots just to get a complete-ish musical picture of the day/night, making this thing an absolute godsend. The sound is patchy in parts, but this audience recording is easily the most complete document of the musical twists and turns of Altamont and includes many, many tracks that never even showed up on the various band’s official setlists from that last month of 1969.

Opening Announcement

Rating: 76/100

Altamont kicks off early in the jingle jangle morning with the bizarre and appropriately eerie strains of an early Moog being tuned. As someone who has listened to every scrap of recorded music from this festival, I can tell you that I’ve not come across one Moog line on any song by any of the bands who graced the makeshift stage that day. So if some fellow obsessive out there should know who used a Moog at Altamont, hit us up. Here the synth squelches work as a perfect lead-in, setting an ominous feel much like the opening seconds of a ’60s acid exploitation flick, which is essentially what Altamont was, only come to very real life.

Then we have legendary Stones manager Sam Cutler on the mic. While Sam never fully recovered from the Altamont bloodbath (he was the guy who listened to the Dead and installed the Angels as security, i.e. the guy who made the call that killed the ’60s dream), here he sounds sincere as all fuck in his belief that “this could be the greatest party of 1969.” The exhaustion tinging his voice is understandable. The guy had not slept in 3-or-so days. On the documentary footage he looks like a wet shag rug left out on the lawn, wrapped in a plastic jacket against the northern Cali fog cold. But while not completely convincing, there is definite hope that can be detected underneath the trepidation of this opening proclamation. It was hope that would soon be viciously dashed, but the guy wasn’t cynical out of the gate. Which counts for something.

Santana

Rating: 81/100

Kicking off the fest is the wide-eyed Chicano mystic. Right from the opening notes of “Savor” you know this isn’t the gentle vibes world music bro who showed up at Woodstock and found his fame. Mr. Santana and his band sound raw here, locked-in and savage. This isn’t “Oh wow man far out”. This is crunchy and darkly tribal. The crowd sounds hushed in awe, stunned at finally getting some music after a long night on blankets in the chill. Percussion breaks pound like drum circles in hell, threatening to spin out of control completely. It may have been the sound system which was admittedly bottom heavy, or perhaps the young upstart was simply adapting his vibe to the mood of the crowd, morphing from the saintly, benevolent Woodstock San Man to something a little more foreboding. A young punk in sleeveless fringe casting a hypnotic and surprisingly aggressive spell on an early afternoon crowd of sleep-deprived lumpen hippies. “Evil Ways” simply slays to close out his short set as the recording captures an audience member stating with wonder that a fat guy had just taken off his clothes. This is most likely the same naked fat man who can be seen in the documentary being beaten down by the Angels’ pool cues, but it’s interesting to know that earlier in the day dude was just grooving to this incredible set as the lysergic waves fried his synapses.

Crowd Calming Score:

Santana: 0/100

Mr. Santana is the only Altamont frontman who had nothing to say to the audience, potentially because the main trouble had not yet started during his set.

Sam Cutler: 90/100

Sam jumps back on the mic at the end of the set to admonish the “many people who should not be on this stage”. He pleads, “Let’s give the musicians some room to breathe.” While not necessarily crowd control, his concern for the musicians is admirable considering what came later. And it’s chilling to hear his voice start to lose control as he realizes the gravity of the situation. Oh shit, here we are in a field with 300,000 people and with only a day-drunk motorcycle gang as security. Oh shit indeed, Sam.

Jefferson Airplane

Rating: 96/100

Next The Airplane takes flight. Always a hit-or-miss prospect, here the future Starship sounds far less watery than usual, something close to solid, with Jorma’s solos squiggling and wiggling in a way seemingly designed to freak out hundreds of thousands of people on heavy psychedelics. Grace Slick and Marty Balin, whose voices often clashed horribly both on wax and stage, lock in on vocals the way they probably always imagined it in their heads, conjuring their vision to life. Things were no doubt starting to get out of control out there in the crowd by this point, and the band ring through the chaos admirably. Check out the ragged, almost punked-out edge to “3/5th Of A Mile” if you’ve always assumed the flower children didn’t have grit. And was the choice of playing “Fat Angel” a good one when surrounded by fat, pissed-off Hells Angels? Perhaps due to the danger, the song burns here with far more funk and verve than it did on vinyl. “White Rabbit” is blessed with a doomy bottom end that places it very far away from the song you know from classic rock radio and every ’60s movie montage, more of a bad trip anthem than a call for utopia. “Free Bird” is presented as a garage rock rager with Jorma ringing out snotty rhythm chords like dirty denim flung into the corner of his room. Only the beginning of “The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil” falls into disarray as the twin leads yodel out of sync. Considering Balin had just been punched in the face by a fat Angel, this was understandable and the band pulls out all the stops to back him up amidst the chaos, sweeping back in with a crazy rhythm break and then a swirling out with a psych freakout breakdown that spirals over ten minutes and crash lands with a Jorma solo with so many notes it seems to be trying to pick out all the shifting heads in the audience. The Plane is a hundred times better at Altamont than their tepid, disjointed, oh-so-out-of-tune Woodstock set. They powered through more violence here than your average 77 punk band and came through with a set both spacey and admirably tough.

Crowd Calming Score:

Grace Slick: 100/100

“Easy, Easy, Easy, Easy, Easy, E-e-e-e-asy”

This mantra, chanted perfectly in sync with the rhythm section after the guitars cut out during one of the many outbreaks of violence during their set, is some of the most convincingly cerebral crowd calming attempts of the night. And then you have the simply immortal, “You’ve got to keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love.” Ah, the late ’60s. Peace and love and not a puritan thought in sight.

Jack Casady: 0/100

“I’d like to mention that the Hells Angels just punched Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank them for that.”

Although admirable for his fearlessness and cocky stance in the face of what was proven to be serious danger, the Airplane bassist certainly did nothing to stop the Angels from beating on people with pool cues. If anything this announcement worked to amp up the gang’s hippie hate and spark them up for further battle.

The Flying Burrito Brothers

Rating: 100/100

Simply immortal.

Gimme Shelter and the black-and-white photos from Altamont are jewels for Gram Parsons fanatics. Here was GP before his largest ever audience, angelic in a snake skin, torso-exposing Nudie suit that only he could pull off, all smiles with a prop acoustic held out to the audience like a joint on a clip. These are some of the purest Gram images in existence, and they perfectly capture his laid-back oddball charisma. The Burritos were no joke. Chris Hillman chugs away on hard-edged Bakersfield bass lines and future Eagle Bernie Leadon masters his twangy Telecaster, leaning into string bends like his impressive whiteboy afro tilting in a strong breeze. One of the highlights of the documentary, “Six Days On The Road” is a total delight, rollicking along like a rusty train, rickety but headstrong. You get the sense each of their songs could fall apart at any moment, but you have faith that they never will. “High Fashion Queen”, an underrated track from Burrito Deluxe, is trotted out to strong effect here. The Burritos were that rare band who could add a touch of lightheartedness to a song without diluting its message, and when Gram gets to “nothing left inside your heart but the same old hurt” his voice breaks with emotion in the midst of an otherwise rote junkie groupie tale. You really get the sense that some buckskin-and-sandals cutie had done some damage to poor ol’ Gram just recently. Of all the bands that rocked Altamont, this is the only real “having a good time and grooving in a field” music on the agenda, and it’s telling that there were no significant acts of violence from the crowd during their set. In the documentary footage you can peep frolicking hippies with zonked smiles having way too much fun tossing coffee can lids back and forth like Frisbees. It’s the only time you see people smiling the whole day. The sun is even out. “Cody Cody” floated with a Byrdsian jangle that worked like a calming salve on the crowd. It’s interesting to hear an audience member calling for “Lazy Day”, a song that failed as a single and is much hated within the Parsons cult. The Burrito Bros happily bust it out, adding a stutter-stop R&B rhythm that locks in defiantly after the opening lead and never lets go. This is clearly the only band having any fun at the Altamont Motor Speedway that day. Gram was known to be hit-or-miss live during his short life, but here he really shined when many lives depended on it.

Crowd Calming Score:

Gram Parsons: 100/100

GP didn’t have to address any violence because there was none during his set. His honky tonk angel presence and good vibe music was far more successful in soothing the crowd than any of the peace rap preaching by the other bands.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Rating: 91/100

At Woodstock they had arisen from the mud as harmonized acoustic saviors. At Alty they storm the gates with a slow-burning “Black Queen” that taps into a dark energy that people just don’t think of when they consider CSN&Y. Steven Stills sounds almost metal on the solo, raining down-strokes like early, bluesy Slayer. “Pre-Road Downs” hits solid and bright, unabashed pop with an expansive mindset, with a jittery organ underscoring the hooks. It sounds like Stills may have been hitting some dirt weed before their set as his vocals sound a bit ragged on this one, but Crosby and Nash swoop around his lead for the save. “Long Time Gone” is The Cros at his supernatural tent preacher best. The chorus burns with a surprising desperation, the band crescendo-ing with an aggressive force that could jar your image of these dudes as some Laurel Canyon “Judy Blue Eyes” warblers. “Down By The River” locks into flight and surges with a grace that Neil’s more respected Crazy Horse never could have mastered, with four of the greatest ever vocalists swooning and gliding over the top. Extra points are awarded for Stills and Young doubling up on the first solo like Ratt would two decades later.

Crowd Calming Score:

Graham Nash: 45/100

“Please you people stop hurting each other. You don’t have to.”

The first sentence of this plea rings true, with Nash sounding like a child pleading with his parents to stop their fighting. But “You don’t have to”? Seriously, Graham? Of course they don’t have to, man. But they are, man. And, man, you’re doing nothing to stop them.

The Rolling Stones

Rating: 100/100

One of the Maysles Brothers who filmed Gimme Shelter stated:

“The Stones never sounded better than at Altamont…they were playing like their life depended on it.”

In a very real way their lives did depend on it. And Mr. Maysles was also right-on about their playing. This is far-and-away the best Stones live performance on record, not only from this period but ever. If you only know the stadium Vegas act of the post-’70s Stones then listening to any of the dozens of “Stones At Altamont” bootlegs will shock you. This was a young band (seven years old in 1969) that was still raw and hungry even as they were achieving the type of status that would draw 300,000 people to a godforsaken race track in the middle of nowhere.

The contrast between what the Stones were doing and their long-tuning, free-form jamming peers of the time was monumental and misunderstood by the rock press of the time. For example, the Grateful Dead were supposed to play Altamont but backed down because they were wimps. While The Dead and The Stones sharing a stage may seem just about right for the times, in reality these were bands at serious aesthetic odds. The Dead’s Utopian vision and anti-star persona was completely lost on the Chuck Berry greaser Stones. The English lads were old school showbiz through-and-through, so it isn’t surprising that they would stand out like an uncool ego trip at their own festival. The Stones were trying to buy into the flower power market here, but they didn’t have the loose spirit to back it up. “We don’t really do the crowd participation thing,” Mick Jagger said in a pre-Altamont interview. “We’d rather come out on stage in a Cadillac.” A joke? Sure. But it rang true and set them apart from the muddy free festival spirit of the late ’60s/early ’70s.

“The Stones were on an ego trip,” David Crosby later said of the band that birthed the Altamont nightmare. And their set from that night benefits greatly because of it. The opening one-two-three punch of “Jumping Jack Flash” into Chuck Berry’s “Carol” into “Sympathy For The Devil” draws the battle lines very clearly. These are not groovy tunes to usher in the communal age. These are harbingers of the apocalypse. “Sympathy” in particular is given its best ever airing here, with Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts giving the tale a hard-funk edge. Keef’s solo is truly evil, dredging up The Dark Lord far more effectively than Mick’s satanic posturing, and it’s no wonder that the main bloodshed of the night began kicking off during this solo. Motorcycles exploded. Multiple scuffles erupted in the dark. And Meredith Hunter began his death dance.

One of the filthiest songs of all time, “Stray Cat Blues” is treated like a redheaded groupie on ludes. Mick Taylor does his crazy slide guitar thing way off the beat. It sounds like he’s playing a completely different song, or at least he wishes he were. Keef misses whole chord progressions. Mick changes the age of the stray cat in question from 15 to an even more scandalous 13. It’s a savage deconstruction of a song that was only one year old at that point, and it shows why bands like The Damned would give the Stones a break eight years in the future. These shag-haired Englishmen didn’t give a fuck long before that was cool.

Finally realizing that their hard-edged avant blues was actually causing people to be stomped and killed that night (just consider this and compare it to the sanitary seated arena spectacles The Boys put on these days), Mick & Co. made the call to slow it down a notch. “Love In Vain” is glistening and gorgeous like they just couldn’t capture it on record. The malevolent ghost of Brian Jones shows up in the dark misogynist grooves of “Under My Thumb”. Even the gentle, down-tempo reading the surviving Stones give it on this night cannot chase him away. The crowd erupts, parting like multiple red seas from any sign of trouble. A black dog walks across the stage. And Meredith Hunter is knifed down within mere yards of Sir Mick’s mic stand.

At that point they knew they were fucked. They were fully aware their “best party of 1969” had morphed into something monstrous that their music itself was partially responsible for. They realized they were in great danger. It was shut-up-and-finish-the-set time. No more gentle grooves to pacify the crowd. Like any great band would, they settled fully into the murderous chaos. Their set really takes flight from here on out. “Brown Sugar” rears its soon-to-be-inescapable head for the first time ever, and it never sounded this good again. Oh the gall of this band for breaking out “Midnight Rambler” as kids were being assaulted and hoisted bloody onto the stage in front of them. “Gimme Shelter”, all heroin and rape and murder, rings out desperate and true with Keef and Mick T. weaving around one another like shaman dancing next to a massive bonfire. Only “Honky Tonk Women” sounds out-of-place in this atmosphere with its leering, party-time vibe clashing with the counterculture meltdown taking place in its path.

Leave it to the Stones to end this slasher-fest with the incredibly inappropriate “Street Fighting Man” and somehow escape being hounded into early retirement by all the hundreds of post-Altamont think pieces and op-eds and finger-wagging radio broadcasts that started once the sun came up the next morning.

Over the course of their roughly hour-long set, it is thrilling to listen as The Stones gradually ease into their role as Luciferian hippie dream killers.

They would never sound this great again.

Crowd Calming Score:

Mick Jagger: 11/100

“Why are we fighting and what for? WHY ARE WE FIGHTING AND WHAT FOR??”

Crowd control is certainly not Sir Mick’s strong suit. Why ask why, Mick? People were fighting and they didn’t know what for, and no English school mum scolding was going to stop it.

Keith Richards: 96/100

“Listen man, either those cats cool it, or we don’t play!”

Leave it to Keef to go right for the source. Pointing to a couple of club-wielding Angels, the Human Riff calls it as he sees it. Unlike the Jefferson Airplane bassist, he doesn’t get all passive aggressive in calling them out either. In pointing out that the Stones would stop playing if the violence of their security platoon continued, he was most likely hoping that the Angels themselves wanted to hear them play and would stop pummeling naked fat men in order to keep the concert going. Unfortunately he assumed wrong, but props to Keef for the proactive effort. As always, the most fucked up head on the racetrack that night was also the most sensible.

While the Free Concert At Altamont Motor Speedway may have been a bloody disaster and the death knell of the flower power dream, its musical selections were far tastier than those of its angelic and peaceful Upstate New York rival.

 

Daniel Falatko

Niche Appeal

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