"Rock and roll's all-time worst day, December 6th." So wrote John Burks in February 1970 in Rolling Stone, referring to what might be the genre's most infamous concert — the Rolling Stones' 1969 Altamont Speedway appearance that was intended as a kind of West Coast complement to Woodstock. Instead, it erupted in violence and is best remembered for the murder of a young black man, stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels, who — at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead — were inexplicably hired as security. The violence reached a crescendo early in the Stones' set, as the band played "Sympathy for the Devil."
The question that remains 50 years later is whether Altamont was a fitting moral judgment on the decade's amorality or the betrayal of the '60s ideals.
Whatever hope and promise 1969 delivered with one hand, it cruelly took away with the other. There was Woodstock and Altamont. And before that, there were Americans walking on the moon, which brought the country, at least for a fleeting moment, full circle to the youthful ambitions of the Kennedy presidency. But the Kennedy mystique had taken a hit just days before the moon landing, with Sen. Ted Kennedy's reckless and deadly behavior at Chappaquiddick.
And not long after Americans experienced communal awe at the moon landing, TV viewers were gripped by terror at the reports of the grisly Manson family murders. The rootless anomie and the pleasure-seeking libertinism of the San Francisco hippie movement had proven an ideal recruiting ground for Manson.
The moon landing and Woodstock are the brightest historical markers for '69, but the year itself is more accurately recorded as a continuation of the savagery of '68, which witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, riots across the country in the wake of King's death, and violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
What America had already lost by '69 — and what neither Woodstock nor the moon landing could restore — was a political vision and rhetoric to match the aspiration for human grandeur and community that those events represented for so many. That idealism and promise vanished with the murders of King and Kennedy.
In his final speech, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered in Memphis the day before his assassination, King continued to advocate for civil disobedience. But he defined the options not as nonviolence or violence but "nonviolence or nonexistence." In language replete with Scriptural allusions, most dramatically to the parable of the good Samaritan, King urged his audience to embrace a "dangerous unselfishness." The message was not about the individual; it was about a communion of people working together for the expansion of human freedom and dignity.
The next day, as word spread of King's assassination, Robert Kennedy learned of King's death just before a campaign stop in a largely African-American section of Indianapolis. In one of the great speeches of the decade, Kennedy spoke of his own family's loss. Then, in a remarkable testimony to the way in which classic texts can inform and elevate public discourse, he cited from memory a passage from the Greek poet, Aeschylus: "In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."
In what had become a distinctive feature of his campaign, Kennedy both warned against lawlessness and called for dispositions of love, compassion, and "a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black." The speech encapsulates what would come to be called Kennedy's inclusive populism, which appealed across racial divides to urban African-Americans and rural whites.
As we incurably nostalgic boomers mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the 1960s, we would do well to distinguish what was merely self-indulgent and not worth preserving and what was positively destructive and in need of repudiation from what remains genuinely worthy of conserving.
In Altamont we see the consequences of the excess of libertinism that the decade embraced and that reverberates now. In the death and chaos of that concert, we recognize the unraveling of the 1960s' paradoxical promise that total individual freedom and communal peace can easily co-exist.
The end of the decade needed something that was stolen from it by assassins — the longing for community and higher purpose that King and Kennedy's robust and hopeful political rhetoric provided, with deep roots in classical literature, Scripture and American political ideals.
Instead, the country got a murderous concert. As we consider now how entrenched our divisions over race and religion are, how degraded our public discourse has become, and our addiction to hostile, tribalistic Twitter spats, we might consider which part of the '60s we took with us, and whether Altamont or the mountaintop is where we want to go.