Graded on a Curve:
Black Cab,
Altamont Diary

Altamont: It’s the single social happening of my lifetime I’m truly sorry I missed. (I knew I should have RSVP’d!) The free concert on December 6, 1969 was a major brown acid bummer: its lowlights included a Hell’s Angel stabbing Meredith Hunter to death; Hell’s Angels on bad drugs beating up naked hippies on bad drugs; Mick Jagger making a wussy of himself; and Jeff Airplane’s Marty Balin getting socked in the mouth. (Who says nothing good happened that day?) Nowadays that’s an average night at Hooters, but the love bead generation actually believed they’d transcended human aggression, and the ultraviolence came as a lethal shock.

The fiasco at Altamont murdered The Age of Aquarius just as surely as did Manson Family member Patricia Krenwinkel when she stuck a fork in Leno LaBianca, then carved “WAR” into his chest. “Let’s not keep fucking up!” cried Grace Slick from the Altamont stage, but she might as well have been singing “Somebody to Hate.” Altamont marked more than just the death of hippie innocence; the Rolling Stones’ violence-marred set provided the soundtrack to the Fall of the Woodstock Nation, and when it was over everybody had lost except Don McLean.

Just as the only answer to the Manson Family’s August 1969 murder spree that ever seemed logical to me was Charles Manson’s “No sense makes sense,” the only musical eulogies to Altamont I knew were Blue Öyster Cult’s “Transmaniacon MC,” and the Grateful Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie” and “Mason’s Children.” Then I discovered Black Cab’s 2004 LP Altamont Diary, and it was like I’d happened upon the Holy Grail. An ENTIRE ALBUM about Altamont! I’m a wild-eyed Altamont obsessive—I celebrate every December 6 as “Punch Marty Balin in the Face Day,” complete with a showing of Gimme Shelter and the heavy intake of Red and Blues and bad acid—so I’m pleased to report that not only is Altamont Diary good, it’s stone brilliant and definitely my No. 1 musical discovery of the year.

Melbourne, Australia’s Black Cab has been called a drone guitar/electronica outfit with psychedelic overtones, and that characterizes their sound well enough. At the time Black Cab released Altamont Diary—their first full-length album, it was two years in the making—the band included Andrew Coates (vocals, programming, arrangements), James Lee (guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, vocals), Rich Andrew (live drums), Adam Cunha (guest bass), Andrew McCubbin (guest acoustic guitar), Glenn Sharp (sitar), and Angela Gilltrap (guest backing vocals).

Altamont Diary has it all: from a sound snippet of Jerry Garcia at Altamont muttering inanely about the evil shit going down to a cover of “New Speedway Boogie” to songs called “Good Drugs” and “Angels Arrive.” And it’s filled with big, wonderful grooves that you can dance to without fear of being beaten to a pulp by Hell’s Angels swinging pool cues. I was going to review Happy Monday’s 1990 LP Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, but Altamont Diary is almost as dance-friendly, and features groovy hypnotic sitar drones, cool sound collages, and a 10:45 guitar freak-out/sound collage that you can grok to till the Weather Underground comes home.

“Summer of Love” is an infectious groove-friendly drone of a song that features Coates repeating the line, “It’s the summer of love” over and over again while Gilltrap throws in some Dark Side of The Moon vocal wails. “Summer of Love” opens slowly with some programmed piano and maracas; then Cunha’s big bass comes in and the song kicks into overdrive, propelled by Lee on guitar and Andrew kicking hell out of the drums. “Summer of Love” would make the ideal rave tune, and I’d take some ecstasy while listening to it if the last time I took ecstasy I hadn’t flailed about in a field in Hampshire saying, “Nice one,” and “Geezer,” only to nearly drown in an irrigation ditch. (Which, it so happens, is how one unlucky hippie at Altamont met his demise. Two other attendees died in a hit-and-run car crash, making the final death count four.)

“It’s OK” is another fantastic tune, what with its “It’s OK/Things are not OK” providing the perfect ironic counterpoint to the song’s upbeat groove. “It’s OK” opens with some crowd sounds and a radio broadcaster, then a guitar comes in followed by some very funky drum bash, and together they play a very long and funky intro. Then Coates comes in, singing, “It’s Ok/Things are not OK” over and over, followed by another male vocalist singing, “Oh good, OK” then just “OK” as the guitar rises in pitch and the song comes to a precipitous end. It doesn’t sound like much but it’s as far freaking out as The Flying Burrito Brothers, the only band at Altamont whose set seemed to pacify both the unruly crowd and the downers-and-beer besotted Hell’s Angels.

Up next is “Angels Arrive,” which opens with somebody in the Altamont crowd laughing hilariously, followed by some programmed organ by Coates and one great psychedelic wail of a guitar. Then a Hell’s Angel can be heard saying, “Move to the side of the stage, man” at which point the bass and drums come in like a ton of bricks, and lay a few tricks on you. “Angels Arrive” is one heavy-duty number, what with one industrial strength guitar riff vying against the wailing guitar, and Coates singing, “Gonna be a bad boy/Gonna bring ya down/Down/Devil’s in the details/Yeah/Guess I’ll see ya around, round.” Then the song does a little stop and start but the drums and bass never abandon that great groove, and the keening guitar sounds like a warning siren of trouble ahead as some voices shout something unintelligible in the background and Coates repeats, “Down/Gonna bring ya/Gonna bring ya down” as the song fades out.

“Jerry Sez” is a 1:21 sound snippet of Jerry Garcia recorded at Altamont, overlaid with some very high-pitched programmed electric piano. Poor Jerry sounds utterly clueless, and is reduced to repeating, “Really?” and “Oh man, really?” in that nasal hippie voice of his as the reports of Hell’s Angels-on-band violence come in. He asks, “Who’s doin’ all the beatin’?” to which somebody replies, “Marty got beat up.” And all Garcia can say is, “It doesn’t seem right, man.” Talk about your understatements of the year, and the song’s overall effect is to make Garcia look like a hapless hippie fool, although to be fair there were some 300,000 hapless hippie fools at “Woodstock West” that day. As for the Grateful Dead they fled before their set, so maybe Garcia wasn’t such a fool after all. He knew which side his LSD was buttered on, and he and the rest of the Dead skedaddled via chopper like the last evacuees out of Saigon in April 1975.

“Good Drugs” must be sarcastic, because Altamont was famous for its bad drugs, especially Tuinal, which both the crowd and Angels mixed with booze and bad acid with baleful consequences. The song opens with distant crowd noise, then some eerie programmed sound and Sharp’s sitar come in, followed by congas. This space collage goes on, growing louder and louder, until about the two-minute mark, when Sharp proceeds to kick out the jams like Ravi Shankar on a speedball, the drums come crashing in, and the band falls into a groove so sublime I am forced to call it the best slice of psychedelia I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately it doesn’t go on forever, but peters out after two minutes or so into riotous applause and the sound of a woman saying, “Basically.”

“Good Drugs” is a great song and I guarantee I’ll be listening to it long after I’ve grown my white hair really long and become close personal friends with Augustus Owsley Stanley III, the legendary acid king and inspiration for Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” Together we’ll live on red meat (Owsley considered all vegetables poisonous and wouldn’t tolerate them in his house) and drop megadoses of his primo LSD while listening to “Good Drugs” on repeat.

“Hey People” opens with some very loud programmed noise (or is that a guitar? Can’t tell) that whooshes in and out, then some programmed drums come in all funky like and the song takes on a very dance-friendly vibe. Then a woman calls out, “Somebody’s hurt!” as the song grows in volume while slowing in tempo, and to the sound of some more whooshing finally fades out. It’s a too short mash-up of a song, far too short to really develop, and it’s the only track on Altamont Diary I’m not 110 percent gaga about. There’s just not enough “there” there, and had I been producing I’d have called in Sharp and said, “Okay, Sharpie lad, let’s produce some groovy on that see-tar of yours, shall we? Just to stretch things out… ”

Black Cab’s take on “New Speedway Boogie” didn’t move me at first, but I’ve grown to love it. Gilltrap does a great job on vocals; as for the song, it opens with some oddly tuned guitar and crowd noise, then takes off, moving faster than the Dead version (the Dead never did move very fast, except at Altamont.) The guitars are great, a pair of maracas produce a wonderful shuffle, and freaky guitar feedback enhances the choruses. Black Cab’s version is far busier than the GD’s take; guitars, psychedelic and otherwise, fade in and out, there’s some nice programmed stuff going on, and those maracas are always there, shaking like the guy in “New Speedway Boogie” who “in the heat of the day” dies of cold. There’s a great freak guitar vs. acoustic guitar instrumental passage at the 2:11 mark, as well as a funky little interlude preceding Gilltrap’s final “One way or another/One way or another/One way or another/This darkness got to give,” which is accompanied by some really cool acid-laced guitar riffs.

Some panicked crowd noise opens “A Killing,” a cool shuffle of a song jam-packed with feedback, propulsive programmed drumming that seems to reference “Sympathy for The Devil,” and some of the spaciest guitar this side of Spock’s immortal guest solo on Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine.” (Pointy-eared dude could rock!) “A Killing” is a very cool (if too brief) tab of LSD-fueled rock, and as it winds down a ghostly health care provider at Altamont goes on via loudspeaker about the need for Ace bandages, gauze, and sponges before concluding, “Please bring it to the medical tent.” I really wish he’d said “freakout tent” (as in Tripe & Ego’s “I’d trade my bong for a French fry/Left my poncho in the freakout tent”) but you can’t always get what you want, as the Stones found out the hard way at their vanity festival.

“1970” opens as a relatively straight-ahead hard-rocker, all big guitars and drum bash, with Coates singing, “Had our chance to see/Be all that we could be/We played with rock and roll/But playing’s never free/Dancing with the devil/On a cold mountain side/I think we’ve fucked it up again/And give us a chance we gonna do it again.” Then the song comes to a virtual stop, with just quiet acoustic guitar, some programmed noise, and the occasional big guitar riff to keep it going. Then it resumes at a slow shuffle, with Coates singing, “Cos youth is ours to waste/And I can hear the sound/Of people getting down/Always wanting to taste/Coz youth is theirs to waste/But something ain’t right/Something’s gonna give/Had our time in the sun now/Now there’s nowhere to run.”

Then comes the sound of a radio interviewer saying, “That was Sam Cutler, one of the organizers of the Altamont Free Concert” as the song drones slowly on, no drums, just a programmed hum and guitars, until a big-ass guitar tosses in a few Jolly Green Giant riffs and some smaller ones just to be nice. Then the song crashes back into interstellar overdrive, drums pounding, guitars spazzing out, as Coates sings, “It’s 1970/Now I think I can see/It’s 1970/The future’s on its way/It’s 1970/Now I think I can see/It’s 1970/The future’s on its way/It’s 1970/It’s 1970/It’s 1970/The future’s on its way.” Then the melody slows again, the drums fall out, and there’s nothing left but programmed sound and stray, feedback-drenched guitar licks as “1970,” the best song about that benighted year since Iggy and the Stooges “1970,” comes to a close.

The 51-second “Untitled,” which closes the album, is a sound snippet of cars (presumably filled with bummed and muddy hippies) departing Altamont and all the bad hoodoo that went down there. Me, I like its utter lack of content and commentary, because what was there left to say? Altamont was the payment of an IOU to the Devil, for the counterculture’s hubristic belief that it could transform human nature. Unfortunately humanity is venal, vile, and violent—the lowest form of life on the face of the Earth. The hippies were utopian enthusiasts, and as E.M. Cioran once said, “The worst crimes are committed out of enthusiasm, a morbid state responsible for almost all public and private disasters.”

Black Cab’s Altamont Diary is a gorgeous and strange album about a terrible day that turned out to be the tilting point between the new Garden of Eden and the prevailing gloom that Neil Young sings about so well in Tonight’s The Night—and what more could you possibly ask for?

Well I, for one, impatiently await the definitive concept album about those other killers of the Woodstock Nation, the Manson Family. They were co-conspirators with Altamont in the murder of the hippie dream, and they too deserve their day in the lethal California sun. Funny how California was ground zero for both the birth and death of the Age of Aquarius; from the Haight in ’67 to the day the Manson Family took over Dennis Wilson’s house to the festival of death that was Altamont, it all went down in the land of sun, surf, and good clean fun. And when it was over, 12 people were dead, there was absolutely nothing funny about peace, love, and understanding, and the surf was most definitely not up.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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