by David Gans
This interview was an exploratory conversation for a book project that didn't happen.
Kantner [Altamont] was pretty one-sided. There were 8 million stories at Woodstock... Altamont was more dramatic.
Gans I wouldn't want to give the impression that Altamont was the centerpiece of your life --
Kantner No. It was a rather minor "end of innocence," as it were. There's always our assault on the White House, with Abbie Hoffman... The things that went around Woodstock were like a two-year period, where associations that you made and continued on, and that led up to it before that -- Abbie Hoffman being the one obvious one in our case .... Leading up to Woodstock he was on one sort of political road in New York, and we were out here. We didn't even meet at Woodstock, although we were there together. We didn't meet then, and only afterwards did we form some connection and have all sorts of interesting stories about going to various colleges and fighting the jock mentality that would surround the speaking hall and not letting Abbie in, having to go in at knifepoint, things like that...Working up to the White House situation--
Gans Where Grace was going to infiltrate [and dose Nixon with LSD]?
Kantner I think if we'd really wanted to, we wouldn't have taken, Abbie along, you know? To an all-women's luncheon at the White House ... Somewhere in the midst of the two realities -
Gans So your sabotage wish had a death wish attached --
Kantner I wouldn't call it a death wish-- it was probably a publicity wish more than anything [laughter]. I think the overall value of the situation as it happened caused much more prodigious problems -- or at least thought and concern -- in those courses, as well as humor and guffaw on the counterculture side that, you know, you get this close and all this could go on and people are thinking about them that way [laughs]. It was a real good healthy PR attack.
An interesting adjunct to that was that we toured Gettysburg, Abbie and his wife and Grace and I...
Altamont is probably a big chapter, a good dramatic focus... we could probably link in other interesting aspects.
Gans Yes. In a way, that gives context as to how this scene dealt with things -- the San Francisco people --
Kantner It was a shock that it could happen. It was stupid planning, but nobody would ever have expected that to happen. It's like when we went to Germany [Lorelei Festival riot] -- I wouldn't have expected an audience of ours to burn down our equipment. That was either naive or stupid of me. I think naive. But it was a naivete bred on experience -- like Altamont: you never would have expected that to happen, even in the worst...
The bikers were the babysitters at the Human Be-In, [taking care of] lost children... . They didn't have an altogether bad reputation. And, they weren't there that day. It turned out that most of them were having a big meeting in Oakland, [and] a lot of the guys who were there [at Altamont] and causing a lot of the hassle were neophytes, young would-bes -- early trainees, as it were. The older guys, who usually keep them in line -- somewhat the way a road manager keeps a band in line when there' s three cops following them [laughs] in squad cars in Ohio [an allusion to a real episode, I presume - dg], weren't present that day. Had they been there, I think, just for their own good PR and survivability within the community, they'd have seen that that was a bad thing to do, a real artless way of handling the situation. It could have been handled in a much more admirable way, even from their point of view. They didn't have to get drugged and violent that way.
It was just a day gone out of control, for a lot of elements. I don't blame it on the Hell's Angels. I blame it on the people who were there, but I don't characterize that as "the Hell's Angels."
... [just as] you couldn't blame General Westmoreland for Calley, if you want to look on the dark side of that equation. Or, the light side, you can't necessarily blame all this generation' s problems on Dr. Spock, although there probably (are) some considerations there.
... the site was shifted often by civic authorities for various i reasons.
Gans How did it start?
Kantner I believe the Rolling Stones wanted to play in Golden Gate Park. Nobody would let them in the park, though, knowing full the results. Same reason they don' t let us in the park [now]: they ... foresee the horrors of all those people climbing through the park, devastating it. That's their rational point of view.
Then there' s always the irrational fear of music, rock and roll, youth -- an unstated, unadmitted part of it.
Gans That feeling was running pretty strong in those days.
Kantner It runs equally strong to this day, if not stronger. Only recently have they been forced -- by public opinion, I like to think -- to [allow some] concerts in various places during the summer. They were loath to even do that.
When, Beverly Sills played in the park, oddly enough, was one of our strongest arguments. It eventually went to the constitutional issue, because if you can have Beverly Sills and 50,000 people, all the arguments about insurance, all these people standing on the grass will ruin it, blah-blah-blah, don't hold true. They' re standing there in the light of day and everyone can see that, and they have no choice but to back down or be counted a fool.
Gans Did anybody make a serious effort to get permission for the Stones?
Kantner I'm sure they did, yeah. Probably through the Dead. But the last time we [the Airplane] had tried to play the park was when Robert Kennedy died. There was an impromptu thing that happened, and they threatened with the Tac Squad because they didn't have a permit. So we couldn't have a wake for Kennedy -- us and the Dead -- in Speedway [Meadows]. The stage had been built -- [laughs] -- and several members of the bands were there. It was early in the day, and the Tac Squad was out there threatening -- horses, helmets, mace and clubs. They came out after the stage was built ... it might have been just four flatbed [trucks], like we used to do. My memory says it was an actual stage, but it couldn' t have been that complicated compared to what they can do now.
So nobody had played the park -- no major band.
Gans How did it become the bigger thing it became? Did the Stones come to you guys?
Kantner Sam Cutler [then with the Stones org] was working on the project with the Dead' s people. Maybe he had come to San Francisco and asked for their help...
Just previous to this, we had played in Florida with the Stones, some god-awful night gig that turned out to be freezing. Grace got pleurisy, and Spencer [Dryden] fell into a bog [laughs] getting out of a helicopter. It was like film noir -- bright lights shining, helicopters, swirling waters and dark ... so there was a portent of things to come for us: the maelstrom of the Rolling Stones.
Gans Was it really like that?
Kantner Oh, yeah. It was pretty demonic. Not them -- they were pretty tame, actually. One of the main things we learned as a band in those days was not to be the headliner. Nowadays you can be the headliner, but in those days the headliner went on last -- which usually meant four o'clock in the godawful morning, with eight people awake, in those big monster shows. Everybody burned out on sun and drugs and beer and each other and dirt and...
But it was very -- not demonic, just chaotic, a swirl of wind and weather in that [Florida] show, that translated into personality and ego and everything else in the Altamont show. Just different aspects of the same -- [metaphorical] weather.
Gans But the Stones themselves were pretty tame?
Kantner Yeah. Particularly at Altamont. They were a bit cowed, I think, by what had gone on that day and what was still going on. You could feel it in the air. It was maelstromic . .
Gans Nobody was in contro1?
Kantner Nobody was out of control, except the Hell's Angels -- put it that way.
In control of what? Who is in control at any rock concert -- any large concert? Is control ever, thought about or excercised, beyond the ushers? There is no control -- that's the glory of a rock concert. The glory of the outdoor rock concert a la what the Stones tried to do -- and what we had been doing for years here, and probably what John Philip Sousa did in open-air sheds in the eighteen-whatevers -- is the lack of control, and enjoyment. There is no need for control, even. That' s why Altamont was such a shock and so [impossible] to prepare for or deal with -- as was Lorelei, in Germany, for us. That was differernt, actually -- most of us weren' t there -- but it was a situation totally unexpected, a combination of random factors that you couldn't have predicted, result ing in a negat ive force being exploded.
Compared to what they were, rock concerts now are like business meetings. I'm sure the goal of every rock concert is to reach t hat sort of hallowed religious experience -- semi, quasi, near-religious experience that happens -- down to the most mundane, looking for beautiful girls or getting drunk. Par-TY!
The archetype [of the rock concert] was the Fillmore shows. Three bands, largely disparate, playing six sets. One show -- not at the Fillmore, but in that tradition -- was us, Miles Davis and the Who. We were headlining, and sort of feeling like stupid white kids. The Who weren' t that big yet -- this was pre-Woodstock, so they were on the Tommy swell. They were magnificent, really hard to follow, but it always made us play better. That' s the kind of shows you want to play.
Now, some rock bands carry another band around like a beautiful girl takes an ugly girlfriend around: to make them look better. It's a syndrome that occurs with girls in high school ... but a lot of bands did that.
When we toured ... I was hungry to take out people like Jeff Beck in front of us; Fleetwood Mac, just before they hit; Heart, just before they hit. We have a great list of bands that have opened for us and have gone on to ... everybody from Iron Butterfly to the Who.
What was encouraged by the Fillmore shows was that kind of thinking. You want to present people with something staggering, unexpected, just to shift their brains into being open enough to go without even knowing what you were going to see. You could almost always go to the Fillmore knowing that something would be interesting. And if nothing was interesting [onstage], the floor was almost always more interesting than any band. [laughs] That's why we l iked to be on the stage: 'cause it was the best view of the whole floor, relatively uncrowded -- a nice place to be.
That' s what everybody was trying to translate into Altamont -- or Monterey, Woodstock. And those eventually got translated into these horrible things in stadiums that are just depressing to even think about. That is all an outcropping of that original search for that lack of self- control, up to a point, in a fairly uncontrolled area, be it Golden Gate park at the Be-In, or the Fillmore.
Winterland [5400 seats] was where people started losing it. They'd always say, "They've sold out. Now they're playing at Winterland instead of the Fillmore." That was the "big" place to play.
Even the Examiner, that evening -- their guy had been, to the early part of the show and didn't see anything -- as people were being shot and stabbed and beaten near half to death in person, live, the headline that's on the stands was the line from our song: "We Can Be Together," with pictures of a nice, happy crowd, love, peace, Woodstock. They didn't even bother to stay and check it out ...
Gans And the morning headline could have been "Up against the wall, motherfucker." [laughter]
Kantner The morning headline was drastically different. But the potential of the show was great.
Gans Who was going to play?
Kantner Everybody did play [except the Grateful Dead] -- Crosby, Stills & Nash; us; the Flying Burrito Brotherss, who were very popualr at the time, with Chris Hillman [and Gram Parsons?]; the Stones; and several other bands I don' t remember, that -- fortunately, for them -- went on before...
It started during the Burrito Brothers' set. I was there [around] ten in the morning [The music started around 9, maybe]. The Burritos went on probably around 12 or 1, followed by CS&N -- or maybe preceded by CS&N, because they had to get away to another show in LA or something.
Gans How did you get there?
Kantner We got a helicopter ... and zipped right out there. We had just come off the road -- the night before, I think -- and home was like our hotel room: bags still on the floor, unpacked. We got up the next day, or it might have been the next two days, or three days ... So we were still in that right-off-the-road mode, so we just got up like another gig -- in our clothes --went down, got in the hellicopter, and god knows where we were flying to. Really easy way to get there. I love to go to those things; I was on the early chopper. Then you get to be involved with all the people, meet all the beautiful girls, get all the good food, get ready and locked in before all the crowds hit. Then you can just sort of relax and enjoy the music and the crowds. Again, it' s the same as the Fillmore, standing on the stage and watching all the freaks. Being one ourselves, hopefully, but we were always outdone. I would have been unhappy were we not outdone. There was no competition, even, when I think of this in retrospect. Everybody was like they were, from the old-west Charlatans to the Victoriana girls with their lace, to bikers, straight people, doctors, friendly policemen -- it was a wide-ranging audience, children to old people, sort of like the gays now bring their parents to the Gay Freedom Day Parade. In those days, the hippies would bring their parents the hippie doings and try to turn parents on to peace, love, and drugs. [laughs] "Smoke this, Dad!" ... Not too many, but a good scattering. They'd bring 'em up to meet us, because we'd been in Look Magazine or something -- "Here's those people. We know 'em, Dad, and they're just like the rest of us."
Gans I lived in San Jose when that came down. We were removed [from the SF scene], and we picked it up from television and magazines. It was pretty distorted and exaggerated --
Kantner When I lived down there, the City was a long way away. It was a place where Lenny Bruce was, and the Blackhawk -- strange places that you'd somehow maybe get together twice a year to go up there and actually see or do something. I forget that now, but yeah, that's true.
Gans It was a much more idealized and, I'm sure, pretty distorted picture of what it was like: constant magic, all these cartoon characters walking right next to you --
Kantner Oh, there were! [laughs]
Gans So you're at Altamont -
Kantner -- trying to do all that heavy peace-love shit, normal state of affairs.
Gans It wasn't a crusade?
Kantner No. It was just what we did. It was a pleasant thing to do, and nobody bothered us too much about doing it. It was the right thing to do. An explosion of music -- it was like a renaissance: literature, music, newspapers springing up everywhere, the Diggers feeding people, the Merry Pranksters -- Ken Kesey versus the FBI, Owsley -- pre-illegal LSD --
Gans ...sinister intent?
Kantner Always. Of course. There always were. Just for a while there, maybe for about 25 minutes in 1967, everything was perfect [laughter]. They had reached the idealized state. Unfortunately, they hadn't learned how to maintain the idealized state, and mainly from those forces that you talked about, be they heroin dealers, police repression, government repression, Charles Manson living up the street, speed ...
Gans Was [Manson,] known as a boogieman even then?
Kantner No. Nobody ever heard of him... You mentioned bad forces. Wherever you are, anywhere, there's always bad forces, bad people. That's why they have jails. So I don't think you can say everybody was wonderfully perfect. But the situation was very open and very Renaissance-like -- a Leonardo Da Vinci kind of time, in the sense of just opening up all those arts and letters and hedonism and sex-drugs-rock'n'roll, and freedom. It's the American ideal gone bonkers. You know what I mean?
Gans No, I'm not sure I do.
Kantner No real responsibility. The whole Burlingame [a suburb south of San Francisco] attitude gone up a step -- Burlingame plus LSD equals the Sierra Club -- that kind of equation.
Gans I see. Trying to translate these ideas into real works -
Kantner -- is very difficult. Real life, yes. It's what has happened to every commune ... [with] Utopian ideals: they usually break down in the face of human nature and human foible, and elements, and just life. But it was a noble experiment, and the repercussions will be felt well into the next century, I trust... . Everything from the Sierra Club to not believing in government -- rightfully so -- and finding all this stuff out and correcting it is a real positive example of that particular element. Correcting it, I don't know; just shedding the light of day on it is a first major step, being one of the earliest generations not to just accept the words. What's that bumper sticker? "Question Authority."
I was raised by the Christian Brothers, who believe in that, fortunately. They were, to me, the most rebellious arm of the Catholic Church -- and one of the most liberal and forward thinking. We would readily discuss the condemned book list in 8th grade class all the time, read a couple of them even. They made wine -- what more do I need to say about the Christian Brothers? [laughs] They had no problems, other than stomping [grapes]. They were good, humane people. They weren't that stuffy, religious kind of approach I got later at Santa Clara with the Jesuits -- which is sort of medieval versus Renaissance. That's the best way I could put it. The Christian Brothers set me perfectly up for... they probably wouldn't want to hear that, 'cause I'rn not a good example of a Christian, Catholic, whatever.
Gans You're not?
Kantner I' m not a Catholic any more, so they failed -- in their own eyes.
Gans That' s another three days' discussion, though -- whether or not you're a successful "Christian" --
Kantner Oh, yeah. I think most non-Christians who try to be good people are probably better Christians than Christians.
Gans Lower-case "c" christians.
Kantner Yeah. I mean, you try to be a good person as much as you can, and not consciously fuck anybody over too terribly. Unless they deserve it.
Gans ... to be a life-affirming person rather than a robot, a blind and helpless tool of the state. To think for yourself --
Kantner Our whole generation had that luxury. Generations before us did not necessarily, as a whole.
There were no teenagers before this century. There was not a concept of a teenager. You'd grow up. If you were Jewish you'd have your bar mitzvah, or you'd get out of high school or whatever, and you' d go to work -- if you were lucky enough to go to high school, even. It' s only in this century that we've progressed ... beyond the ability to deal with it, I think. All those '50s movies -- Teenagers In Hell!
Gans I don' t think people are encouraged to think for themselves any more --
Kantner They never have been, I think.
Gans So what caused this glorious explosion?
Kantner [laughing] LSD!! No, no. LSD is just one of the factors in the explosion. All these things happened at once. Why? Who knows why? Why did Babylon become Babylon? Why did Persia run the world for a while? Why do these things happen? They do. It's a lot of random situations that combine in a certain volatile form and create a bigger-than- the-whole situation that nobody could have predicted. You couldn't have fed the '50s into a computer and come out with the '60s. No way!! [laughter] But somehow nature did. I don't think anybody -- still -- knows what went on or what happened, or what the true repercussions of the '60s will be.
Gans Why do you suppose it succumbed again? A drop of bright colored ink fell into the blotter of society, but instead of creating color it got soaked in and was eventually overcome by the darkness again.
Kantner Because there were a lot of dark sides. There was Charles Manson; there was Altamont; there was, uh, herpes; heroin; cocaine; speed. A lot of real negative forces entered in. it's not like the perfect Utopian situation that everybody should follow to the ends of the sun or something. Like other humans, they had failures, too. So a lot of the good things that they do get painted in with the bad as the pendulum swings back and forth. Rightfully so. The pendulum always do swing.
There's that thing about the '80s, the '40s and the '60s, and the '30s, the '50s and the '70s. Something about those odd decades in this century that weren't too pleasant. I'm not enough of a historian to know if that went on in the last century or not, but it has been pointed out, interestingly -- starting with all the similarities between Kennedy and Lincoln [chuckle]. It was the 1860s when Lincoln got killed, right, and the 1960s when Kennedy got killed.
The '80s seem a real positive force. The '70s were deadening, in a lot of ways.
Gans But we're in greater danger than ever before.
Kantner That'll always be true, until we blow ourselves up. You could say the same thing in medieval times with guys having those big fire-throwing devices: "Hey, it's a lot more dangerous then when Attila was here, man!" [laughter] I don't think that'll ever change, til we get out of here and off the planet. And even when we get off the planet there's going to be guys in the spaceship who want to blow up the left side and guys who are going to take over the right side. It's human nature. Short of some massive DNA alteration, I don't think the race is going to change. It changes daily, but I don't think we're going to see it in 55 of our lifetimes, so it's not of great concern to us within the problems we have in this particular 90-year period, or 80, or 40, or hundred, whatever we live. Most people don't have the time to deal with that, much less plan for the future. You can't plan for the future, because some guy's going to land in a spaceship with three heads and a big beak and take over everything. [laughter]
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