The two Grateful Dead songs written about Altamont

In ways both big and small, the Grateful Dead were the lynchpin act at the Altamont Free Concert. Although The Rolling Stones were the headlining performer, the concert was largely organised by members of the extended Dead family. It happened in their backyard and featured many of their contemporaries in the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene. Their commitment, and eventual absence from the event, proved to be a vital part of the chaos that unfurled.

Were the Grateful Dead responsible for what happened at Altamont? That’s probably going too far. Even “the facts” are somewhat blurry: the Dead’s crew usually gets the blame for hiring the Hells Angels to protect the generators at the show, but key figures within the organisation disagree over who specifically gave them the go-ahead. What we do know is that the Dead were the biggest players in organising the show, and when things began to go south, they absconded from the venue without playing a single note.

Instead, the Dead would save their playing and their comments about the tragedy that unfurled at the show for a later date. Just two weeks after Meredith Hunter was killed at the concert, the Grateful Dead debuted two brand new songs that faced the doomed Altamont concert head-on and gave the band’s side of the story – or at least lyricist Robert Hunter’s version of events.

On January 19th, 1969, the Dead arrived at the Fillmore Auditorium for their seventh live show since the debacle at Altamont. After a brief acoustic set, the band launched into their first electric song, which also happened to be a new song. ‘Mason’s Children’ was a song that had death – more specifically, responsibility – baked into its DNA. But with its garage rock sound and layered harmonies, it didn’t quite have the impact that the band wanted.

After only three months and roughly 20 performances, ‘Mason’s Children’ was dropped from the Dead’s repertoire. A recorded version was proposed for Workingman’s Dead, but instead, it became the final song cut from the final mix. The Dead didn’t need ‘Mason’s Children’ anyway: they had a more powerful song about Altamont, death, and who carried the burden of responsibility.

A day after ‘Mason’s Children’ made its live debut, ‘New Speedway Boogie’ was performed as the penultimate song in the Dead’s set from December 20th, 1969, (‘Mason’s Children’ kicked off the first set). A lumbering beast of a song, ‘New Speedway Boogie’ was an unmistakable allusion to Altamont, and its message was unmistakable: “One way or another, this darkness got to give.”

The Dead (or, again, Robert Hunter) refused to take any direct responsibility for the death and chaos of Altamont. When writer Ralph J. Gleason put the Dead organisation at the forefront of the blame for Meredith Hunter’s death, Robert Hunter felt compelled to respond. Instead, Hunter’s lyrics admonish those who try to put the responsibility of Altamont onto others. Jerry Garcia echoed the themes found in the song’s lyrics after the tragic events of the free concert.

“What’s to forgive, there isn’t any blame,” Garcia claimed in an interview following the event. “Because who are you going to blame? You’d have to blame everybody. We’re all human beings, we’re all in this planet together, all of the problems are all of ours. Not ‘Some are mine, and some are theirs.’ You know, if there’s a war going on, I’m as responsible as anybody is. If somebody’s murdered, I’m responsible for that too. At a certain point, someone has to say, ‘There can be no Hells Angels.’ And who’s gonna say that?”

In poetic verses, Hunter channels the wisdom that he had accumulated over the years to comment on the finger-pointing and accusations that followed Meredith Hunter’s death. Some were put off by Robert Hunter’s refusal to directly acknowledge the tragedy, while others felt that the response wasn’t strong enough. For most fans, ‘New Speedway Boogie’ was both an enigma and a definitive statement, one that continued to linger throughout the band’s history.

After Altamont, ‘New Speedway Boogie’ became a calling card that the Dead would occasionally bust out when things seemed to be going out of control. The ending lyrics were used as a title for an open letter addressed to Deadheads after a concert storming on July 2nd, 1995. A month later, Garcia was dead, bringing a sad end to a band that already had a dark cloud surrounding it.

After 1970, ‘New Speedway Boogie’ was dropped from the Dead’s setlists. Perhaps the band didn’t want to continue associating themselves with Altamont. Maybe they thought they had said their peace. In any case, the song made a return in 1991 and was sporadically played until the end of the band’s run.

Not coincidentally, the July 2nd show at Deer Creek Music Center in Noblesville, Indiana, would be the final time that ‘New Speedway Boogie’ was played. It came just after scores were injured during the gate crashing that occurred during the show and was likely also influenced by the death threats that were levelled against Garcia at the time. ‘New Speedway Boogie’ remained one of the darkest and most ominous songs associated with the Grateful Dead.

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