Tag Archives: Altamont

Shattered

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Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin (Dey Street, $27.99, 358 pages)

There are books that you read and when you finish you say to yourself, “That was a good book!” And then there’s the book that causes you to think, “That was interesting, but…” Altamont falls into the second category.

One is unlikely to find factual errors in this account of the notorious concert. This is a plus. Another plus is that this nonfiction work appears to have been edited to within an inch of its life. I found not a single grammatical or punctuation error, something that is sadly unique in this day and age. Kudos to the staff at Dey Street!

So where does the “but…” come from? This account is written in tense and turgid language. It’s as if Selvin is writing about THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY. It reads as if one is listening to Walter Cronkite reciting the facts that led to a third world war. Come on, Joel, it was only rock ‘n roll!

How overblown and overly dramatic is the language? Here’s an excerpt:

The whole event had turned into some oblique rite of passage, an ordeal to be endured by band and audience alike. The promise of love was vanquished, and in its place, the specter of evil loomed. In a single day, Altamont had turned the myth of Woodstock inside out.

Whew. So this music concert was about a battle between good and evil, and it represented a momentous change in our lives and our time. Well, OK, if you buy that. I don’t.

It’s not as if dozens of people died at Altamont. There was one death that occurred while the Rolling Stones played and another person died while leaving the event. These deaths were not insignificant; but the Altamont concert pales in comparison to multiple tragedies in our history, which is why Selvin appears to have lost a proper perspective in 2016.

Fans of the Stones may find themselves surprised and/or dismayed by Selvin’s view that this was the beginning of the end for the band in terms of musical excellence, honesty, and creativity:

Whatever they lost at Altamont, they would not get back. The Stones would play out their days like tigers in the shade, challenging neither themselves nor their audience. Instead of a cultural force, the Stones settled for being caricatures of themselves, a raucous and colorful, but ultimately meaningless sideshow, prancing onstage with props, costumes, and elaborate stage sets in cavernous football stadiums, no more five simple men and the music.

Common, Joel, tell us what you really think.

altamont RS

Stones fans are bound to enjoy the 22 pages of color and black-and-white photos, which are likely to have been previously unseen.

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A few rock historians might find Selvin’s account useful but I doubt that most rock music fans will want to spend their time ingesting over 350 pages of rather depressing facts. And, as in many accounts of the period, there’s far too much made of drug use and abuse; something that one quickly finds boring rather than interesting. For a perhaps more entertaining read that covers the events back in the day, including the Altamont concert, one might elect to read David Talbot’s highly engaging The Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love.

Fade to black. Paint it, black.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Altamont was released on August 16, 2016.

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A review of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

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Exiled on Main Street

Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger by Christopher Andersen (Gallery Books, $27.00, 363 pages)

One would suspect or expect that a biography of a singer-songwriter-musician would deal mostly with the person’s music.   That’s not the case here.   Andersen’s quite tawdry bio of Mick Jagger might have been subtitled A Salacious Sexual Biography.   Yes, readers, there’s little about The Rolling Stones music in this account – other than some interesting background on the development and failure of the Her Satanic Majesties Request album – and what is contained within the pages are events you’ve read about elsewhere.

“Marianne’s (Faithful) ex-husband…  certainly appeared to be in a position to know who was sleeping with whom.”

What you likely won’t read about elsewhere are the specifics about seemingly every sexual encounter – with males and females and housekeepers – that Sir Michael (Mick) Jagger has had in his lifetime.   (Based on this account, that’s about 1% of the population of the earth, and may include a few aliens from other planets.)   The writer seems to  not only find these details interesting…  He appears to be obsessed with them.   Sadly, he does not provide a reason for us to care about these personal encounters as the nexus between the sex and Jagger’s – and the band’s – musical creations (with a couple of rare exceptions) is missing.   In other words, what’s the relevance of a bedroom diary?

This is clearly an intimate biography that’s supposed to sell based on its titillation value.   However, and you’ll have to trust me on this, the reader’s patience for dealing with “shocking” material is pretty much used up in the first 100 pages.   After that, it’s just more and more of the same jaded tales.

It’s a missed opportunity as Andersen has a nice, engaging and flowing writing style that makes for quick reading; but, there’s no substance for the music lover to grab onto.   Andersen’s also a bit too fawning when it comes to Jagger, meaning there’s minimal critical perspective or analysis of his subject’s actions.   Further, it’s hard to know what’s real and not real, true or untrue, in this telling as the listing of the author’s sources is quite vague.   A number of the “facts” cited seem to be at least questionable without authentication.

Even if every sexual event listed in Mick were to be documented, the question remains as to what it all means for the curious and/or Jagger’s fans?   The overly spicy details might have been interesting when Jagger was still a young man, but he’ll be 70 in July, and his most loyal fans are enjoying their retirement.   Why is it, exactly, that we need to know now about what happened back in the day?

This is a biography that reduces its subject to an almost microscopic level.   Jagger, a very successful artist in and of his time, comes off as a .5 dimensional character.   As Mick himself once sang, “What a shame.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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