How Warner Brothers fumbled a revolution
After Woodstock erupted in the summer of 1969, every community in America rushed to create laws banning rock music festivals from their counties. This was a directive from on high because it happened everywhere and very quickly.
The campaign was greatly aided by a murder committed by a Hell’s Angles while the Rolling Stones launched their satanic anthem, Sympathy for the Devil, at the Altamont Speedway festival in 1970. In fact, most historians place the decline of the counterculture as starting with that moment. The Maysles made an incredible movie and its pretty clear the Stones were playing with matches while the Angels were playing with blowtorches.
Meanwhile, before Altamont took place, Warner Brothers was already plotting for months on how to capture the center of energy on the counterculture revolution so it could be properly mined for profit, a plot that involved putting the Grateful Dead and Merry Pranksters (two of the stars of Woodstock) on tour across America in a series of free concerts, and eventually send the hippie circus over to England, in a sort of reverse English invasion, as if the hippies were American’s answer to the Beatlemania/Gimme Shelter dialectic, as if the CIA was plotting to upstage Tavistock.
But when Altamont took place, the Grateful Dead were widely blamed for introducing the concept of the Hell’s Angels as a reliable security detail, due solely to their prior relationship. According to Paul Krassner, however, the concept of the Hell’s Angles as bouncers was actually introduced by Emmett Grogan, founder of the influential Diggers movement, who made use of improvisational ritual theater as reverse mind control. Before Grogan would provide a free meal, he’d make a person step through a skeleton doorway to signify their passage into another dimension, where the profit motive didn’t exist. I am sure that doorway helped break down some mental barriers.
Burning Man runs a similar ritual on arrivals, but they charge an outrageous $400 per person for something Peter Schumann provided for decades for free? And Schumann (founder of the Bread & Puppet Theater) also gave away bread he baked every morning, bread smeared with garlic and oil. I’ve never been to Burning Man because I wouldn’t cough up $400 to spend a week in the desert, even with the LA party scene. If Grogan was alive today, he’d be standing at the Gates and protesting the rip-off.
But there are some key elements documented in this new book just released by Trine Day, the best publisher in America. The book is the Bandit of Kabul and the new details concern the Grateful Dead being kicked off Warner’s Medicine Ball Caravan simply because they were scapegoated for Altamont. The Pranksters were removed because Kesey had re-emerged from Mexico and Warners did not trust Kesey, thinking he might attempt a real counterculture revolution instead of the comfortable dialectical profit stream they were looking for.
So Warner’s great follow-up plan to Woodstock was a huge bust. A French directer looked for cowboys and naked hippies, while completely ignoring the magic of Kesey’s last minute substitute Wavy Gravy, who has since proved himself one of our greatest saints. Today the movie is mostly know as the only film footage of High Times founder Tom Forcade, who dogged the caravan as it traveled across American, staging a counter-festival at every stop.