Altamont Speedway, Tracy, California

New Speedway Boogie by Grateful Dead

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Things went down we don't understand
But I think in time we will
Now, I don't know, but I was told
In the heat of the sun a man died of cold Read full Lyrics
In Box of Rain, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter revealed that he wrote "New Speedway Boogie" in response to rock critic Ralph J. Gleason's moral indictment of the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead's involvement with the Altamont Free Concert disaster of December 6, 1969. Hunter doesn't go into great detail about exactly what Gleason wrote, but a little bit of sleuthing uncovers the poet's likely thought process.

The Altamont concert was so named because it took place at the Altamont Raceway, which existed between Tracy and Livermore, California, and was in operation from 1966 to 2008. It hosted a variety of events, from NASCAR races to carnivals. The Altamont Free Concert, however, may be the location's most infamous event. A short summary of that festival is that it was a complete and unmitigated disaster. It was so bad, in fact, that Rolling Stone dubbed it, in all seriousness, the worst day in rock history.

Promotional poster for <i>Gimme Shelter</i>, the film that documents the Altamont disasterPromotional poster for Gimme Shelter, the film that documents the Altamont disaster
The concert has been documented and analyzed rather extensively by journalists and historians. Because this is an article about a Dead song, we're going to stick mostly with the events as the Dead and their chroniclers have recalled and presented them.

Altamont came about as the conclusion of efforts spearheaded by the Rolling Stones to put on a free concert. Many contend that this desire by the Stones resulted from a long line of bad publicity they'd received over the high prices they'd been charging for their concerts. Whatever the ultimate motivation, the Stones were billed to headline the event they planned, with other heavies such as the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Santana also signed to perform.

Many of those who got involved in the festival, including the Dead, had envisioned that the concert would be a kind of West Coast Woodstock. Things didn't go that way, however. Not even close. While Woodstock would become synonymous with peace and love, Altamont would become synonymous with violence.

Logistical problems plagued the festival from the beginning. The first two locations chosen for the concert fell through, leaving planners scrambling for a venue. Things didn't come together until the last moment, which meant that the stage constructed for the performers was only about three feet high. This, along with the general layout of the speedway, meant that the band would be extremely close to the audience. To mitigate potential threats, the Stones decided to hire the Hells Angels as security, reportedly for 500 dollars' worth of beer, which would be consumed during the show.

In hindsight, the whole thing sounds like an almost comically bad idea. Some people at the time even recognized it as such. However, Phil Lesh in Searching for the Sound defends the Stones' choice of security personnel, explaining that in England biker "clubs" were mostly innocuous, "mostly about wearing leather and riding two-wheelers" (p. 164). The London branch of the Angels had already acted as security for the Stones during a Hyde Park concert and everything went fine.

Lesh insinuates that the Dead may have been just as - or more - responsible for the terrible decision regarding security personnel, because they were in a better position to know what the Angels were really like. But in their defense, he points to lack of communication between the Dead and the Stones as the reason the subject was never broached. He also points out that the Dead were not directly involved in planning as the Stones were.

Regardless of who should have known what, the end result was that the concert quickly became a boiling cauldron. The crowd swelled and fought and tried to storm the stage while the Angels got drunk and beat them back with leaded pool cues. Things only got worse as the day dragged on.

The Angels had parked their bikes by the stage. When concertgoers started trying to climb over the vehicles to get onto the stage, the violence turned up another notch: An Angel's bike is his life. If you know that, you know to touch one can result in severe and irreversible consequences.

Things had gotten so bad that, by the time the Dead were set to take the stage, terror filled the air. David Browne's So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead tells that Dead friend Sue Swanson "saw fear in the faces of other musicians who'd played and were on their way out" (p. 12).

Lesh provided a rather poetically stark recounting of the scene: "There we stood, as the demonic red sun slid below the hills, watching ignorant armies clash by day like a battle out of 'Lord of the Rings,' both sides so ugly you couldn't tell the Orc from the Uruk-hai. The crazed victims would rush the stage, be beaten back, and rise out of the bloody dirt to do it again—and again, and again." (Phil Lesh, Searching for the Sound, p. 163). It caused, among other things, the Dead's refusal to take the stage.

It may have been a wise decision. That night, as the Stones played "Under My Thumb," a man named Meredith Hunter pulled a gun and, some witnesses say, started yelling that he was going to shoot Mick Jagger. One of the Angels spotted Hunter and charged him, stabbing him repeatedly. Hunter died that night at the hospital. Autopsy doctors found methamphetamine in his system. Dead manager Rock Scully, who had actually looked right at Hunter as he approached the stage, verified that the 18-year-old looked crazed, drugged out of his mind, and "murderous."

The Angel who killed Hunter was found not guilty at trial, largely because footage of the concert validated the claim that Hunter had pulled a gun.

Still, bad as the whole scene got, Lesh expresses guilt that the band didn't play. "Not our finest hour," he writes (Searching for the Sound, p. 165). He wonders if the Dead could have turned the angry energy around and pacified the situation. It's a possibility that neither he nor anyone else will ever know.

Numerous journalists and culture critics went on the attack after Altamont. The Stones generally took the brunt of the damage, but everyone involved with the concert was at some point implicated for participating in such a terribly planned and deadly disaster.

For some reason it was Gleason, specifically, who drew Hunter's ire, inspiring him to start "New Speedway Boogie" with "Please don't dominate the rap, Jack, if you've got nothing new to say."

At the time, Gleason blamed Altamont on greed, poor planning, and a general disregard for the safety of the audience. The whole thing was framed as the "death of the '60s" brought about by money-hungry narcissists who had lost touch with what music was supposed to be about.

Gleason himself, however, would later mellow his appraisal, as did most others. From the long perspective of history, most have concluded that doom was simply in the air that day in Altamont, either by chance or by destiny. Many reported having visions of disaster before it even started. Respected journalists, who were normally skeptical nonbelievers in the supernatural, spoke about feeling an evil mojo in the air from the moment the raceway's doors opened to the public.

Ultimately, nearly everyone now agrees no one person or group of people was to blame for what happened at Altamont. The stars were simply aligned for blood that day. As Hunter wrote in the song, one way or another the darkness just had to give

Jeff Suwak
September 22, 2015
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