“You gotta keep your bodies off each other, unless you intend love.”
Barnabas Collins has been brainwashed by cosmic horrors from beyond the mind, who are employing him as a kind of unpaid Faustian process server. Paul Stoddard has just learned that he made a bet with a baby twenty years ago, and lost. Young David Collins has shoplifted himself into a growing army of imaginary snake worshippers.
And to make matters worse, over the weekend, the 1960s ended, which is kind of a bummer.
The death of the decade happened all of a sudden on Saturday, December 6th, 1969, just a few days before today’s episode aired. On Saturday, 300,000 hopeful hippies descended on the Altamont Speedway in Tracy, California for a free concert featuring the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Flying Burrito Brothers. A noticeably smaller number of them left, later that evening.
The Altamont Free Concert was supposed to be Woodstock West, a San Francisco event where the hippies of Haight-Ashbury could experience the magical musical love-in that made history in upstate New York, just four months earlier. Instead, Altamont turned into a violent train wreck that marked the end of the nascent Woodstock Nation.
I want to look at this story today, because there’s an ominous warning for Dark Shadows here. Our soap opera spookshow lasted fifteen months past New Year’s 1970, but Dark Shadows is clearly a 1960s phenomenon that happened to overlap into the beginning of the 70s. And as we move through this turbulent year, we’re piecing together a larger narrative that explains why American pop culture became an increasingly unfriendly environment for Dark Shadows.
A few months ago, we talked about Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, a supernatural-themed Saturday morning sensation that debuted in fall ’69, because the original watchdog group, Action for Children’s Television, chased all the violent space-superhero cartoons off the network schedules. And last month, the premiere of Sesame Street marked the beginning of a new way that people are thinking about the relationship between children and television.
Over the next couple of years, we’ll see legislation and advocacy groups attacking junk food and unsafe toys. Seatbelts are coming, and child-proof caps. By 1972, America will be a lot more careful, especially with children, and it’s going to get a lot harder to market a malevolent, Satanic television show to the young set.
Dark Shadows is a product of the 1960s, and as the 60s end — both literally and metaphorically — the culture becomes less accepting of the slapdash craziness that Dark Shadows represents.
There’s actually two different stories about how the Altamont story starts, which is part of the problem. The Wikipedia article on the Altamont Free Concert begins with two different, mildly contradictory origin myths — the “Jefferson Airplane/Grateful Dead-centered background narrative,” and the “Rolling Stones/Grateful Dead-centered background narrative.” It’s a bad sign when, even forty-five years later, nobody can agree on who was in charge.
The original idea was to have the concert at the San Jose University practice field, where they’d recently had a three-day free music festival, but three days of peace and music was sufficient for the city of San Jose for the time being. Next, they thought of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but there was going to be a football game that day, and the stadium was too close to the proposed concert site. They finally landed on the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma. I don’t know why they thought it was a good idea to stage another Woodstock at a race track. They just did, that’s all.
And then, at the last minute, they switched race tracks. Sears Point wanted too much money, so they decided to have the concert at the Altamont Speedway instead, about two hours away. This decision was made two days before the concert happened, after they’d already built the stage at Sears Point.
There’s a fantastic 1970 documentary called Gimme Shelter that tells the story of the Altamont concert. The filmmakers originally intended the movie to be a concert film, just following the Rolling Stones on their American tour, so there were cameras rolling, as people made one disastrous decision after another.
And it started out as such a beautiful idea, which was part of the problem. Woodstock had just happened in August, and they made it look so easy — find a big open space, play some music, and somehow 400,000 stoned teenagers will show up, enjoy themselves, and try to make the rain stop with their minds.
The Rolling Stones wanted to make that happen. They didn’t get the chance to play at Woodstock, because lead singer Mick Jagger was in Australia over the summer, filming a terrible movie about a 19th century bushranger. So they wanted a second Woodstock on the West Coast, where they could create a similar experience.
“I don’t think it’s a concert,” Mick said to the reporters clustering around his trailer. “I think the concert’s an excuse — because the thing is, it’s just like, everyone come in and have a really good time. The concert’s not actually like the proscenium of a theater. It’s like an excuse for everyone to sort of, you know, get together, and talk to each other, and sleep with each other, and ball each other, and get very stoned, and just have a nice night out and a good day.”
That’s what the counterculture was about — building a new world filled with pleasure and fun and human connection, based on a utopian vision of how people would behave if they didn’t have all those hang-ups. If everyone would just relax — smoke a joint, listen to music, expand your consciousness, make out with a stranger — then the world would be a happier and more peaceful place. As Mick told the reporters, “It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society, which sets an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.”
That’s a beautiful dream, and I want it to be true. It’s not practical and it doesn’t actually work, as we’re about to see; you can’t actually make the rain stop by thinking happy thoughts. But if you’re going to be wrong — terribly, drastically, fatally wrong — then you might as well start in the right place.
Mick was right about one thing; Altamont definitely taught us some important lessons about how people behave in large gatherings, especially when you don’t plan ahead very well. This is a story about all the practical things that can go wrong with your relaxed, utopian society, and the chaos that results.
A month after the concert, Rolling Stone had a cover story called “The Rolling Stones’ Disaster at Altamont: Let It Bleed”, which explained all the problems at Altamont, in horrifying detail:
It was as if Altamont’s organizers had worked out a blueprint for disaster. Like:
1) Promise a free concert by a popular rock group which rarely appears in this country. Announce the site only four days in advance.
2) Change the location 20 hours before the concert.
3) The new concert site should be as close as possible to a giant freeway.
4) Make sure the grounds are barren, treeless, desolate.
5) Don’t warn neighboring landowners that hundreds of thousands of people are expected. Be unaware of their out-front hostility toward long hair and rock music.
6) Provide one-sixtieth the required toilet facilities to insure that people will use nearby fields, the sides of cars, etc.
7) The stage should be located in an area likely to be completely surrounded by people and their vehicles.
8) Build the stage low enough to be easily hurdled. Don’t secure a clear area between stage and audience.
9) Provide an unreliable barely audible low fidelity sound system.
10) Ask the Hells Angels to act as “security” guards.
The documentary, Gimme Shelter, opens with concert footage of the Stones performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in New York, to a thrilled crowd. Mick Jagger is one of the world’s greatest rock performers, electrifying and fun, having an incredible time on stage and sharing it with the audience. Then we hear a radio broadcast from the day after Altamont, detailing all the terrible things that happened there, and the concert film becomes a horror movie.
Throughout the film, we see snatches of the last-minute planning, featuring the organizers making snap decisions by speakerphone. Sears Point Raceway has backed out, and the producers need to find another location in a hurry. The owner of the Altamont Speedway says that his parking lot can accommodate 12,000 cars. But the highway patrol is estimating there’ll be 80,000 cars coming to the concert. So what are they going to do with all those extra cars?
Cut to one of the organizers standing in a makeshift parking area, on a neighboring plot of land. “Make ’em as comfortable as we can,” he shrugs. “Even this parking situation, shit back here, it’s all wrong, but that’s the way the kids parked. For once, we’re just gonna let it happen. Just if for no other reason, for experimental purposes. You know what I mean?”
So that’s amazing. “We’re just gonna let it happen, for experimental purposes.” That’s not actually the stupidest thing that somebody says today, but it’s goddamn close.
We see a guy squatting on a little rise next to one of the parking areas, selling hashish. People are setting out blankets, and drinking unknown beverages from unmarked jugs, and spinning around in a psychedelic daze. Some guys are pissing on a wall next to a drainage ditch.
All these people, all this joy — but not enough toilets, and not enough medical tents. The utopian ideals of the 1960s are being expressed through event planning, which is not the place for them.
And now, a few words about set design. Woodstock was held in a large open area on a dairy farm, with grass and mud and places to hang out. The stage was built up high, as seen above, and there was a wooden barrier creating a clear area between the stage and the crowd, so that everybody could see, and nobody could randomly climb onto the stage.
In the design game, these are called affordances, because the physical design affords a certain kind of behavior. If you don’t want people climbing on the stage, then you put a barrier up, and it won’t even occur to people as something they’ll want to do. That choice has been taken off the table, without anybody having to post signs or hire dangerous lunatics to enforce the rules.
When they built the Sears Point stage, the area was at the top of a slope, which created the same kind of affordances. But the stage area at Altamont was at the bottom of a slope, so the pressure of the crowd pushed down towards the stage.
Here’s the view from the Altamont stage:
As we can see in the concert footage from New York, Mick is a wild performer, constantly dancing and strutting and moving around the stage. But here, he’s basically right on top of the crowd, who are leaning over the rim of the stage to get closer to him. He hardly has any room to move at all — and when trouble starts, nobody in the crowd can get out of the way, either. Spoiler alert: trouble is about to start.
They could have solved these problems with a different stage setup, but they didn’t have the time. They moved from the Sears Point Raceway to Altamont Speedway just the night before; they barely had time to get everything set up before the concert began.
The affordances at Altamont favored people climbing up onto the stage during the show, so what do the organizers do? That’s where the dangerous lunatics come into the picture.
Another big open question about Altamont is who decided to hire the Hells Angels, how much they were paid, and what instructions they were given. The most probable story is that Sam Cutler, the Stones’ road manager, asked some Hells Angels to hang out with the equipment and make sure nobody steals it. Plus, maybe they could give people directions or something, and it would be cool if they kept people from climbing up onto the stage.
The Hells Angels rep said, “We’re not a security team,” and Cutler said no, of course not. Just hang out, and keep everything cool and relaxed.
So, the Hells Angels. If you’ve never heard of them, they’re not a security team. They’re a heavily armed criminal gang with loud bikes and short fuses. They’re known as a “motorcycle club”, but that’s kind of like saying that the Mafia is a social club for Italian restaurant critics. Yeah, there are motorcycles involved, but that’s not really what the organization is about.
Cutler asked what the Hells Angels wanted to be paid, and they said, “We like beer.” So he promised them $500 worth of beer if they would come and help out, stage security-wise. That was $500 in 1969, which is somewhere around $3,300 worth of beer in 2016 dollars. That’s a lot of beer, and as far as I can tell, the idea was that they would drink it all during the day of the concert.
So here’s Sonny Barger, one of the Hells Angels, explaining the arrangements on the radio the next day.
“I didn’t go there to police nothin’, man. I ain’t no cop, I ain’t never gonna pretend to be no cop, and this Mick Jagger, like, put it all on the Angels, man. As far as I’m concerned, we were the biggest suckers for that idiot that I can ever see. And you know what? They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody would climb over me, you know, I could drink beer until the show was over. And that’s what I went there to do.”
So I guess that’s one difference between the Hells Angels and a security team: you don’t typically encourage the security services to drink alcohol the entire time that they’re working. There are some other differences that I bet we’ll figure out as we go along.
So let’s get to the violence, shall we? The crowd is jittery and uncomfortable. The sound system is underwhelming. And there’s a malicious biker gang lurking around the stage, chugging three thousand dollars worth of beer, who have been carefully instructed to do whatever the hell they want.
Santana starts to play, and between the first and second song, some Hells Angels kick a guy in the face and then beat him to the ground. People freak out, photographers start taking pictures, and now the Angels are hitting photographers, and grabbing their cameras. The Angels have sawn off pool cues and tire chains. People are being dragged off to the med tent to get stitches. Santana keeps playing.
By the time Jefferson Airplane’s set starts rolling, there’s a pack of leather-clad Hells Angels just wandering back and forth across the stage. The band apparently has to stay out of the bikers’ way. Random music lovers on various substances try to get up on stage to join the party, and then all the Hells Angels rush over and start hitting them with pool cues. Apparently, somebody’s pushed over one of the motorcycles, possibly accidentally. This riles the Angels up even more.
It’s hard to tell what the crowd is doing, up at the front. Maybe they’re trying to push back against the Hells Angels. Maybe they think that the party’s on stage, so they want to join. Maybe it’s the crush of people behind them, everyone straining to see what’s going on, pushing the people in the front up into the line of fire. Or maybe there are just a lot of people here who are on various mind-altering drugs, and they’re perceiving what’s going on in unpredictable ways.
There are little scuffles, everywhere. At one point, there’s so many people on stage that they bump into the drum set.
After a while, singer Grace Slick is just saying the word “Easy” into the microphone. “Easy… Easy…” She thinks that maybe reminding people to calm down will help. It doesn’t. The utopian visions are crumbling around them, but she doesn’t know what else to do.
At one point, Airplane’s lead singer Marty Balin tries to intervene in one of the beatings, and a Hells Angel punches him in the head and knocks him unconscious. This happens while they’re currently playing a song.
After they abandon the song, guitarist Paul Kantner says, “Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hells Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank you for that.” Grace adds, “There’s, uh, other ways.”
Then one of the lead Hells Angels — the scary looking one, with the long hair — grabs a mic. “Hey, wait — is this on?” It is. “You’re talkin’ to me, I’m gonna talk to you.”
“I’m not talking to you,” Paul says. “I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.”
“You’re talkin’ to my people,” says the scary guy. “Now, let me tell you what’s happenin’.”
Unfortunately, this meeting of the minds gets interrupted by another brutal beating with pool cues. I swear to god, you need to watch this documentary. It’s amazing.
Grace is still trying. “You gotta keep your bodies off each other, unless you intend love,” she says. “People get weird, and you need people like the Hells Angels to keep people in line, but the Angels also, you know, you don’t bust people in the head for nothing. So both sides are fucking up, temporarily. Let’s not keep fucking up!”
This is all said into microphones, for the entire crowd. This is the concert.
Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead arrive at the site when it’s already a warzone; they hear about Marty Balin being knocked out during a song, and they just leave. It’s a bad scene.
The Rolling Stones consider doing the same thing — just cancelling the rest of the concert, getting out — but that might make things worse, it could turn into a riot. Also, this is supposed to be their big free concert. It’s kind of embarrassing if they don’t show up and play some music.
So they finally take the stage, after a long wait. “Ohhh, babies,” Mick says, looking out at the crowd. “There’s so many of you. Just be cool, down in front here, don’t push around. Just keep still. Keep it together.” This is not good advice.
They start to play “Sympathy for the Devil”.
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste
I was round when Jesus Christ…
Had his moment…
And then it’s mayhem, just absolute mayhem. The stage is swarmed with Hells Angels, at least a dozen of them, beating people back. As usual, it’s impossible to tell what the hell is going on. Who started it, what’s it about, why do people keep pushing, are they fighting back? Seriously, what the hell is going on?
The entire scene just melts down. Everybody’s stopped playing, except for guitarist Keith Richards, who hasn’t noticed that anything’s wrong. Keith kind of lives in his own world. If you want Keith to notice something, you need to point it out to him, and then answer a series of questions, all of them variations on “What?”
And Mick, bless him — the devil, the angel, the rock star — he still thinks that this is a problem that can be solved by telling people to relax.
“Hey,” he says. “Hey, people. Sisters, brothers and sisters. Come on now. That means everybody, just cool out! Will you cool out, everybody! Everybody be cool now.”
It works, kind of. At least, the devastation clears for long enough to start the song again. Mick tries to get his groove back. The Hells Angels walk around him, paying no attention to the band at all. They appear to be constructing a barrier out of speakers. This is what it’s come to; they’re actually building a fort.
Then, in one of my favorite moments in the movie, a random dog walks across the stage, and nobody notices.
There’s more violence, somewhere, involving somebody. Between songs, Mick tries once again to appeal to the utopian spirit of the 1960s, in a long sequence that aims for magical space angel, and lands on ineffectual elementary school principal.
“Let’s get it together! I can’t do any more than just ask you — to beg you — just to keep it together. You can do it! It’s within your power — everyone, Hells Angels, everybody. Let’s just keep ourselves together. If we are all one, let’s go, we’re all one. Just keep cool.”
And then the murder happens. The Rolling Stones play “Under My Thumb”, and a concert-goer is brutally murdered a few yards away from the stage.
Meredith Hunter — he’s the one in the lime green outfit there, the one being murdered — was apparently involved in one of the many random scuffles that happened throughout the evening, and he came back with a gun. One of the Hells Angels sees the gun, grabs Meredith’s hand away, and then stabs him with a knife, twice.
That’s actually captured on film — it’s in the movie — but nobody realized it at the time. The Angels drag Meredith away, and the crowd closes up again, just like it has a hundred times that day. Once he’s on the ground, they drag him off to the side, and they do horrible things. He ends up stabbed six times, and then they kick him and beat him, and stand on his head. They know he’s going to die — they’re murdering him, right now — and they want to make sure he can’t talk. By the time somebody gets him to the medical tent, it’s too late, and it’s not like the medical tent has any supplies at this point, or an ambulance.
Afterwards, Jerry Garcia said it was “Sympathy for the Devil”, which is such terrible bullshit that I can’t believe a musician would even say it. “It was the music that generated it,” says Jerry. “I think the music knew; it was known in the music. I realized when the Rolling Stones were playing at the crowd, and the fighting was going on, and the Rolling Stones were playing ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, that I should have known. You know, you can’t put that out without it turning up on you somewhere.”
It wasn’t “Sympathy for the Devil”. Jerry Garcia is an asshole. “Sympathy for the Devil” is fine.
It was the parking, and the toilets, and the stage design. It was the Hells Angels, and the $500 worth of beer, and the fact that almost everybody involved was at least a little bit stoned and drunk. Mostly I blame the parking.
So I know, that’s a long ass story that has no direct connection to Dark Shadows. But we just watched the 1960s die, and I happen to like the 1960s.
The Altamont Free Concert is the end of the 60s, because this is where the utopian dream died. War, it turns out, does not actually stop just because you want it to. Wars happen for reasons. They happen for stupid, selfish, terrifying reasons, and if you want to make the war stop, then you have to understand why it’s happening, and do something practical about it. You can’t tell war to everybody cool out. That just makes it more angry.
The ideal of the Woodstock Nation is that you don’t have to plan, or be practical. You don’t have to cut your hair, or have a job, or stay sober from one day to the next. People will take care of each other. Someone will feed you. You just need to smile, and let go of your hang-ups, and have sex with the guy who gives you drugs.
I wish that worked. I wish you could really change the whole world by being kind to people, and dropping acid, and lowering your expectations around food and shelter and who you have to have sex with and how often people take showers.
But if nobody cares about the parking — if there aren’t any clear thinkers around, taking care of the details — then it all falls apart. I know that’s square, and judgmental. But I think, on the whole, people would prefer to go to a Jefferson Airplane concert where the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane remains conscious for the duration of the set.
So the idea that died at Altamont is that if you let people follow their natural inclinations, then everything will turn out okay. It turns out that our natural inclinations are complicated, and conflicted. Yes, Woodstock was amazing. A huge crowd of relaxed, stoned people can act really nice, when they’re safe and the sun is shining and there is literally the greatest rock concert in the history of the world happening within earshot. But when it’s dark, and cold, and there aren’t enough bathrooms, people’s natural inclinations get less utopian in a hurry.
So each of these milestones — Scooby-Doo, and Sesame Street, and Altamont, and child-proof caps — is another step towards a culture that values safety and predictability over vampire soap operas and other experimental parking concepts. There’s less patience for the unplanned and the under-resourced.
Looking at Altamont — how crazy it got, and how long that crazy was allowed to happen — it’s unthinkable today. It just wouldn’t happen. There are laws and contracts and guidelines now, created specifically to keep anything like that from ever happening again. We don’t live in that country anymore.
But that’s the country where Dark Shadows was born — that unsafe, unplanned, experimental Satanic soap opera for children. Dark Shadows belongs to the 1960s. The show can survive past 1969, for a while — gritting their teeth and finishing the set, like the Rolling Stones did at Altamont — but eventually you have to stop playing, and you leave the stage.
Tomorrow: Bringing Up Baby.
Gimme Shelter is fantastic, and I really do recommend it very highly for its mix of music, mayhem and generalized schadenfreude. It’s available for streaming on Hulu.
I’d also recommend Rolling Stone‘s Altamont cover story, which is also available online. It’s long and sarcastic and super dark. There’s some really fascinating, scary stuff that I didn’t even get to, so if you’re not tired of this story yet, then go check it out.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
Roger tells Barnabas, “He has a way of winning himself over to people.”
When Paul and Carolyn come back to his hotel room, there’s no sign of the chalk pentagram on the rug, or the candles. They were there when he ran out of the room in yesterday’s episode. The furniture is all switched around, too. (They’re still doing a lot of out-of-sequence shooting; they shot yesterday’s episode and today’s nine days apart. Things start to calm down right around here, and as they head into December, they’re more or less shooting a week’s worth of episodes in a week.)
Paul shouts, “I will not have it!” Barnabas assures him, “You will do — whether you want to or not. You see, we do keep our bargains. That is why we expect you to keep yours.”
Carolyn tells Roger, “I am not five years old!” Roger’s response: “You’re acting like one!”
Megan tells Carolyn, “I can’t imagine not growing up without a father.”
Behind the Scenes:
This is the first episode with a credit that says “starring Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins” — an honor that has only been given to Joan Bennett before now. In episodes with both Joan and Jonathan, she gets the “starring Joan Bennett” credit, followed by “also starring Jonathan Frid”.
Yellow seems to be the fashionable color in Collinsport this season. Everybody was writing on yellow stationery last week, Paul’s pentagram was drawn with yellow chalk and surrounded by yellow candles, Carolyn’s been wearing a yellow coat for the last few episodes, and today there’s a yellow lamp in Paul’s room that wasn’t there before. This happens on the show sometimes — they went through a light green phase in mid-1968, starting with Cassandra and then spreading out to the other female characters. I think there was also a blue period at some point, but I can’t remember when it was.
Also, there’s a moment in Gimme Shelter where you can see one of the concert posters that David Collins has in his bedroom. So, you see? There is a Dark Shadows connection after all.
Tomorrow: Bringing Up Baby.
— Danny Horn