GM featured prominently in this Washington Post reportage about Altamont, which includes a stunning 2-part podcast as accompaniment. (Access past WP‘s paywall is required.)
You’ve written about your experience at Altamont, “the ugliness, the disgust, the cheapness of feeling,” and its aftermath, how you “suddenly couldn’t stomach listening to rock and roll” and went into a long retreat.
Have you ever contemplated how that mirrored Sly Stone’s retreat from his own music at the same time? Following the triumphs of Stand! and at Woodstock, Sly & the Family Stone released “Thank You”/”Everybody is a Star” a few days after Altamont on December 10, 1969, topping the charts again, and then—two years of blankness, an abyss which no one grasped until Riot revealed it in November 1971.
In Mystery Train, you do not speculate about the causes or discuss the details of this pre-Riot period—you say “something went wrong,” and little more. Do you think Altamont might have played a part, might have left Sly Stone, a fellow Bay Area resident (could he have been there?) with the same pall of confusion, horror, falseness, and betrayal?
I feel stupid not having asked myself the questions you’re asking about Sly Stone and Altamont. Why did it never occur to me that that band might have been at Altamont, or that Sly would have cared about what happened there? Because there never seemed to be any interaction between the original Fillmore crowd and Sly? Because, especially after Woodstock, no one wanted to be upstaged by him? I asked Joel Selvin, not only author of a fine book on Altamont but the person who knows more about San Francisco music from that time (or other times) than anyone else, about the question of Sly at Altamont. He says he doubts it would have come up, that it was a “family” operation—i.e., about the Grateful Dead and their milieu—and that Sly wasn’t remotely part of that.
The lineup of bands was very catch as catch can and last minute—different members of the Dead bringing in different outfits. But even if the idea of Sly and the Family Stone did come up, from elsewhere, by late November or early December the why not is obvious. When the Rolling Stones played the Oakland Coliseum Arena on November 9, 1969, early in the tour that culminated with Altamont (that culminated with Altamont partly because they played there that night, and were attacked by Ralph Gleason and others for high ticket prices—depending on seating, from a low of $4.50 to a high of $7.50, when admission to the Fillmore was about $3—and Altamont was conceived as an apology and a way to regain credibility as a band on the right side, as well as a way to end the movie that had been filming all along), the first show started at about 7 PM, with Terry Reid and Ike and Tina Turner opening. Tina so tore up the place that the Rolling Stones wouldn’t follow her—they waited two hours before going on (which is why my wife and brother and I waited outside for three hours for the second show and got home around 3 AM). There is no way in the world the Rolling Stones were going to let that happen again—and I can’t imagine any of the bands that did play at Altamont being willing to follow Sly either.
The question of how Altamont might have affected Sly Stone is more complex and ambiguous. He was no innocent. He’d been up and down and around the block so many times they could have named all four streets surrounding it after him. San Francisco hippie optimism was part of the Family Stone’s self-presentation from the start—but as time went on and their music got sharper, always questioned, critiqued, made contingent on things no one could control. “Thank You fallentinme” #1 and #2 have the same lyrics, but the first version gives them the lie and the “Riot” version gives practically everything Sly had recorded before, including the same song, the lie. Altamont couldn’t have been a shock—on one, cognitive level. In terms of a sense of home—where do I belong, where am I from, who makes up my community, what role to I play there?—community in terms of the Bay Area, but also the world of music, of audiences, radio, records, communicating to people all over the world—it’s hard to imagine that that didn’t have an effect.
Sly had his own problems. Timothy Crouse’s 1971 “The Struggle for His Soul” story in Rolling Stone is first-class and it only skims the surface. Sly was living, partly, in his own world. He heard, saw, felt the world he had been living in, and had helped make, coming to an end—it’s stunning to hear him historicize that time, on stage, at the Isle of Wight in 1970, before most people had grasped that anything had changed or even would. But Altamont had to bring any thinking person up short, and Sly was a thinking person.