the bill james of rock criticism?
woodstock, or, b-legit meets daryl hall

a brief anecdote about altamont

As is usual with my anecdotes, I’ve told this before, although perhaps not here.

The infamous concert took place in December of 1969, when I was in my senior year of high school. I lived about 40 miles from the Altamont Speedway. I knew about the concert, of course, but I was still under my parents’ thumbs, and there was no way they were letting their 16-year-old son attend an all-day rock festival. I don’t remember whether I was upset about this … I’d only been to three concerts in my life up to that point, so it’s not like I was always going to shows.

Sometime late that night … not late like after midnight, but late like 9:00 or something like that … two of my friends came over to visit. They had gone to the concert. The exact words of one friend were “We just got back from Woodstock West!” I asked how the Stones were, and my friends said they left before the Stones came on … it had already been such a great day, they’d seen so much great music, and it was so crowded, they just decided to go on home. I don’t remember if the news stories of the bad stuff going down at Altamont were out yet. I do remember thinking “how could you leave before the Rolling Stones played?” My friends left, still on a high from what had clearly been a great day in their lives.

Some years later, I was hanging out with some friends, one of whom was the “Woodstock West” guy. The subject of Altamont came up for some reason, and he was asked about it, since we knew he’d been there. He told us that it was a disaster, the vibes were awful, you could tell things were going bad, in fact he left early because of that.

I don’t tell this anecdote to chastise my friend for his memories. He told the truth both times, as he knew it. But memories are funny things … I’m sure I’ve gotten several of the details wrong myself in this re-telling. But different people remember different things, and all of us remember the same things in different ways as time passes. As an example, look at this picture:

david bell

This is David Bell scoring the winning run in the game that put the Giants in the 2002 World Series. I was at that game, and I can remember it as if it were the proverbial yesterday. In my mind’s eye, I can see Bell sliding across home plate on his belly, as we in the stands shared the joy you can see on the players in this picture. That memory looks exactly like the picture, in fact, which is one reason I love the picture so much.

Except … my seats are just to the left of home plate, so the angle from which I saw Bell was … well, I’m not good at describing spatial stuff, but whereas the picture is taken from someone who experiences Bell sliding towards them, my vantage point was such that Rich Aurilia (#35) was leaping in my general direction. In other words, my memories of this moment, which match the picture, are not really my memories of Bell’s slide, but rather of the picture of Bell’s slide. And that’s one reason why memory is a funny thing.