Western prof talks about Rolling Stones, Altamont

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

This week, in an unlikely London setting to an audience sipping strawberry tea, a Western professor explored history’s most infamous rock ‘n’ roll concert.

On Tuesday, Norma Coates delivered a talk at the London Music Club entitled “Blame Woodstock? The Rolling Stones and Altamont,” as part of the university’s “Classes Without Quizzes” outreach series.

The discussion was an engaging and entertaining look at how “the kings of rock music” inadvertently brought about the end of the flower-power generation and the peace and love mentality that had made them famous.

Coates, who is jointly appointed to the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Don Wright Faculty of Music, clearly relished the chance to talk about a band she loves; she has fond memories of silk-screening their iconic lips logo for a grade eight art project.

Now that she’s all grown up, the U.S.-native has used her passion for the band as a portal to explore The Stones’ lasting impact on popular music and cultural history.

The lecture’s focus was on the now-legendary 1969 Stones concert held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. The combination of over 300,000 over-refreshed fans and the hiring of the Hell’s Angels’ motorcycle club as security guards proved too much for the naïve concert organizers to handle, and the event spiraled out of control.

In one day, over 800 people were injured and four people were killed, including an 18-year-old boy stabbed to death by an Angel during The Rolling Stones’ set.

The day after Altamont, an outraged public demanded that someone be held responsible for what happened.

According to Coates, the most popular targets for blame included the band " they chose the venue only 48 hours before the show started " and the organizers of the Woodstock concert four months earlier (for setting a precedent that all music festivals should be free, and thus unregulated). They even pointed the finger at Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, although he always denied being the one who suggested the Hell’s Angels would make effective security guards.

Still, Coates believes the hippie era was doomed by the emerging rock culture itself.

The 60s gave rise to the culture of celebrity; rock stars were “elevated to god-like status” and heralded as the spokespeople for a new generation, Coates said.

Musicians were left struggling to balance the ideals of their free-spirited fan base and the realities of corporate-sponsored tours and record label contracts " the “arts-commerce binary,” according to Coates.

After the disaster of Altamont, newspapers and magazines began to distance themselves from rock. Coates claims they even began to play up the satanic aspects of The Stones’ appeal by spreading a myth that the teenage victim was killed during the classic song, “Sympathy For The Devil.” In fact, the incident occurred during the next song, “Under My Thumb.”

Coates showed footage from the 1970 rockumentary Gimme Shelter, including scenes of a bewildered Mick Jagger pleading with the crowd and urging “brothers and sisters, be cool now, all right ... everyone, just sit down and keep cool.”

The original intention was for everyone to enjoy a “nice gathering” and embrace peace and love. However, by the end of the day, violence and fear had won out. The widespread backlash against the “dangers” of rock ‘n’ roll that followed ultimately led to the death of the 60s’ defining counterculture.

At the end of the discussion, Coates concluded that on this occasion The Rolling Stones “danced a little too close to the devil” and a generation ultimately lost its soul.

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