I missed going to Woodstock – three days of peace and music.
Having just graduated high school that summer of ’69, I went to work in a political job my dad got me at a bleak state office building.
My wife Stephanie stayed home, too. Believe it or not, many Boomers like us dragged ourselves to full-time jobs in those days even if we hated the gigs.
But Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner and Marty Balin showed up in Bethel, New York, to blow the lid off the crown of creation with Grace Slick and their psychedelic San Francisco band. Man, did they ever show up, two immortal rock icons onstage – real 1960s music gods who welcomed white-hot morning in America with incandescent guitar fire and lyrical brimstone heard around the world.
Sunday, August, 17, 1969, remains a day of cultural awakening for wise yet not wizened survivors of the counterculture. Even though Stephanie and I missed the epiphany, we reign as two highly decorated veterans of the tumult, pure prophets from much “hippier” times.
That’s why the brief time I spent in 2010 with Kantner and Balin is worth its weight in Acapulco Gold – two exalted sinner saints who pushed the Establishment up against the wall, motherfucker.
The Airplane had landed for good by then while a recomposed Jefferson Starship still flew high above the clouds.
A killer buzz electrified the green room that night before the show in Wilkes-Barre, PA, when we entered – not because of me but because of Stephanie. People pointed, whispered, stared in awe when we walked in. I’ve watched Stephanie get noticed and complimented for decades, but this recognition screamed out as peculiar.
A guy from the radio station where I worked stepped from the mob of music fans lining the wall and struggled to keep from laughing when he explained the vibe in the weirdly wired room.
“You know why everybody’s freaking out?”
“They think she’s Grace Slick,” he said.
Stephanie wore a bright multicolored Chinese jacket with a military collar, a long black print skirt and matching midnight Birkenstocks. Her hair hung long, full and silver, shining under soft ceiling lights in a precious fusion of charcoal gray. Beauty and the beast had stepped into the behind-the-scenes spotlight.
Nobody asked Alice. I think we knew. We remembered what the dormouse said. We fed our heads.
True believers want the long, strange trip to continue. We had signed on as part of a contingent that took off with the Airplane, Starship and any other cruise-controlled intercontinental radical ballistic rebellion we could get.
As commanders on that mission, Kantner and Balin took us higher.
I tried to be cool as I surveyed the room. To my left standing by himself, Kantner, then 69, seemed at home in his head wherever the tour took him. Poised, tall and thin, an informal ease shaped his aura.
I flashed back on Stinson Beach north of San Francisco where Stephanie and I spent a few days after getting married at San Francisco City Hall in 2005. The Airplane rented a house there in their early years when Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and other master blaster luminaries of those times partied and played regularly together as a tuneful tribe of musical malcontents.
I still have half a bag of Stinson Beach sand in my cellar we use to hold incense sticks in burners throughout our house. I told Kantner about the sand and reminded him of a mournful day he remembered well because he was there. When Janis died in October, 1970, her commune of evolutionary souls threw a wake to celebrate her life and then spread her ashes on Stinson Beach. Stephanie and I burn incense in that special sand, I said, and believe the Mother Earthy substance represents another little piece of Janis’ heart, now, baby.
“I was gonna bring you a baggie of Stinson Beach sand, man,” I said.
Kantner laughed and put up his hands like he was trying to hold back an ocean wave.
“No, no, that’s OK,” Kantner said. “I got enough sand.”
But he dug the exchange and I could see he knew I understood.
Next I mentioned Bolinas, the little town about six miles up the road from Stinson Beach where Kantner’s dear friend and unparagoned ’60s writer Richard Brautigan shot and killed himself in 1984. Brautigan wowed the literary world with his laid-back yet action-packed explosion of hallucinatory reality, turning us on to watermelon sugar and trout fishing in America.
“I can’t go to Bolinas without getting bummed out about Brautigan,” I said.
Tilting his head, Kantner grinned easily and quickly, looking me in the eye and advising in a soft voice not to let death overshadow life – even suicide. Breathing our blows against the empire until respiration ends for whatever reason is the only way to fly.
“You got to do it somewhere,” Kantner said.
I’ve thought about that live wire response ever since, especially when a musician friend shot and killed himself in Nashville. Another friend got angry when I repeated Kantner’s words. But the Airplane’s longtime ace meant no harm. In his own fatalistic way he consoled me while upholding the burning desire to live life one sometimes deadly flash at a time.
Kantner knows as well as anybody how fatalism can create a spark like the ones that started at Woodstock and created an inferno of death at Altamont.
I spotted Balin, then 68, sitting alone at a round table for six in the middle of the room, drinking coffee from a cup and using the saucer, a polite presence that gave no hint of the loaded energy and heavy persistence that fueled his survival in the Haight-Asbury scene during the dark Vietnam War haze that symbolized everything that truly mattered among the young.
I leaned in.
“Something I’ve always wanted to tell you, man,” I said.
Balin adjusted his porcelain cup, looked up at me and got ready to hear what I had to say.
“It took a lot of guts to jump into the center of the Hells Angels melee at Altamont.”
Balin’s black eyes lit up like burning coal embers.
“Yeah,” he said. “I was holding my own, too.”
Videos from Saturday, December 6, 1969, show agitated Angels massing in front of the stage as the Airplane played a song called “The Other Side of This Life.” Wielding pool cues and clenched fists, the motorcycle outlaws hired for concert security played in the band that day, too, sounding a curtain-closing death knell for whatever was left of peace and love.
When violence flared, 27-year-old Balin jumped off the stage into the center of the brutality. Surrounded by long-haired and bearded denim-clad Angels wearing the death’s club emblem on the backs of sleeveless black leather vests, he disappeared into the savage abyss while trying to stop the madness.
A few minutes later Kantner put down his guitar and took the mic, thanking the Angels for smashing Balin in the face and knocking him out “for a bit.” Balin had climbed back onstage and stood unbowed before the crowd.
An Angel leader holding a beer pointed at Kantner and took issue with Kantner’s cynicism. Most people back up when an agitated Angel gets in your face. But Kantner stood his ground.
“Now let me tell you what’s happening,” the outlaw biker said. “You are what’s happening.”
The message made little sense but even this ominous specter wearing colors on his back as red as the blood on the ground seemed to respect Kantner. More blood would later christen the speedway show when another Angel stabbed and killed a man allegedly holding a gun.
Kantner and Balin stood against the darkness, fighting as volunteers in a young people’s movement that faced the collapse of innocence that once held hope for a better future.
That future died at Altamont.
Then Nixon pounded the final nails into Uncle Sam’s coffin.
Too many young people today have lost the dream in which we so foolishly believed. Instead, today’s young embrace technology that might one day send robots to overtake and eat them. Unless and until the young pick up the cry, march to the sea and revolt, the planet killers will win.
Kantner and Balin have left the stage forever.
Their music remains as does the shamanic wisdom of a time and place we who witnessed the magic of Woodstock and the murder of Altamont will ponder until the day we, too, leave Mother Earth.
So feed your head.
Save the world.
Definitely, feed your head.