Monthly Archives: November 2020

A Few Transgender Tales: on Transgender Awareness Week 2020

Hi all, first up, a quick update on the podcast reboot. Four of the first six episode scripts mixed well, two need re-doing. I’ve recorded some background music. With a few long nights coming up I think we’ll be on track for weekly blogs Tuesdays, podcast episodes Wednesdays, come early December.

I was thinking of a couple of quick topics, for continuity’s sake – 600 or so words of ephemera to drop this week. Something interesting, a little quirky, and the kind of thing that on a rare occasion might pop up in a Tuesday night pub quiz…. But then the Twittersphere dropped something on my doorstep I couldn’t ignore. Harry Styles wore a dress in a Vogue Magazine cover shoot, and conservative/right wing talking heads lost their minds. Whether ‘Marxism’, ‘Post-Modernism’ or ‘wokeness’ was to blame – according to the hack commentators of the Alt Right – the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Thank you Harry. For some time I watched with glee as Ben Shapiro unintentionally undercut many of his own previous rants on the subject, in accidentally admitting gender is largely a social construct after all – all because someone yelled at him “what about men in kilts?”

The photo which offended so many Alt Right talking heads c/o Vogue.

But then, I started thinking of the timing of this kerfuffle. This week is Transgender Awareness week. Mid week, November 20th, is something altogether sadder – Transgender Day of Remembrance – the date chosen for it’s proximity to the anniversary of the brutal murder of Rita Hester, a beautiful transwoman who lived in Boston, was beloved by family, friends and the Boston rock scene, and who deserved so much more in life.

Now, all fairness to Harry Styles, I have no idea if Harry identifies as transgender – if I should refer to Harry as he, she, they, ze or some other pronoun. It could be Harry was just cosplaying David Bowie on The Man Who Sold the World. Whatever Harry’s scene is I wish him/her/them/ze only love. My main focus this week – when bad actors spread bad info, as a history writer it is my duty to share real narratives. What follows is a collection of tales of *Trans awareness.

Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .

Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus – ‘Even Bochan’ (1322).

Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus, aka Kalonymus, son of the elder Kalonymus, seems as good a place as any to start. Born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286, young Kalonymus did as all well born Jewish boys did in his time – he received an extensive education in religion and philosophy. He would go on to distinguish himself as a translator, specializing in the classical Greek and Roman writers whose works re-emerged in Europe following the Fourth Crusade. His one true love however appears to have been satirical poetry. When it came to writing attack poetry Kalonymus was quite the pistol.

Even Bochan is one such piece, and it fascinates me. I wonder if, in a time which lacked the vocabulary to discuss it like we can now; did other likeminded readers come across the work and find some kinship, or comfort in the work? The poem starts off like much of his work, a statement of some injustice in the world, expounded– in this case that Jewish boys were cursed with responsibilities and boring study, while the girls got to take it easy. While he starts off with

“Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed,
restrictions and constraints.”

The piece pivots, Kalonymus begging God to transform him into a woman, before stating

“If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity,
then I do not wish to remove it.”

Kalonymus is resigned to his reality, that for a well to do Jewish kid in 1322, he can never become she. He will have to live with the facade his creator gave him. In an age where he can become she, and was she all along deep down I’d suspect most transgender people would read Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus’ deep gender dysphoria in the piece. Even Bochan is widely considered the first written expression of gender dysphoria in our history. More importantly it signals for those who could do nothing about those feelings, they buried their sorrows deep and moved on best they could.

Which is not to say some people with these feelings didn’t live at least some of their life in a gender other than the one assigned them at birth. Fast forward to Oxford, then London in the 1390s. Let’s talk about Eleanor Rykener.

As we get into openly transgender people, and I try to explain their historical lives using modern concepts and constructs, I step into a hornet’s nest. I feel from the evidence available she/her is probably suitable with Eleanor – but when in doubt I’ll use spivak pronouns, ze/hir, or they/their.

Most of what we know of Eleanor is from hir recorded confession after being arrested for sex work. We know ze was christened John Rykener. We know John transitioned to Eleanor while in the employ of a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer. Brouderer taught Eleanor the art of embroidery, and allegedly pimped Eleanor out to local men. Ze would move on to Oxford where ze took up embroidery work, then for a while worked as a barmaid, before returning to sex work. At the time of hir 1395 arrest it was clear some of hir sexual partners were clients, but Eleanor appears to have had a number of romantic partners also. It is not clear from the historical record if Eleanor lived 24/7 as Eleanor, unfortunately all we have is a sliver of information. It is a fascinating glimpse nonetheless.
Stepping way back, and taking a macro viewpoint, it’s clear the transgender experience is hardly the work of postmodernism, socialism or ‘wokeness’. Trans people go way back, long before Kalonymus or Eleanor Rykener.

In Ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq on the modern map) a sect of priests who worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love, sex and war are pertinent to this tale. The Gala were considered male, presented as feminine, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. This presented a template for other ancient societies, such as the Galli – eunuch priests originally from Phrygia (Asia Minor) who spread across the Greek and Roman empires. Worshippers of Cybele, the mother of the Gods; they presented as female. In fact when you look around the world you are hard pressed not to find similar figures. In African history trans people are defined as a part of everyday society in Sudan, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, and among the Bantu long before postmodernism stepped in. The Indian Hijra date back to antiquity, and were both venerated as supernatural while demeaned as a class similar to untouchables. Thailand’s Kathoey are similarly ancient.
Numerous third gender peoples exist in native American tribes, including the Nadleehi and Ihamana. Pacific nations have Fa’afafine (Samoa) fakafefine (Tonga) fakafifine (Niue) and vakasalewalewa (Fiji). All were around before written history. My homeland, New Zealand is not exempt and is notable for electing the world’s first openly Transgender mayor, Carterton’s Georgina Beyer. Ms. Beyer would be elected in 1995, later serving in parliament, stating she started life as a stallion, became a gelding, a mayor… and was now a member (of parliament, of course). Ancient China considered their eunuch class a third gender. Many eunuchs presented as feminine. I could go on; a 5,000 year old male-bodied skeleton in a Prague, Czech Republic grave, buried in full female attire. A Tenth Century Viking grave in Birka, Sweden – containing a high ranking FTM (female to male) trans warrior. That time the Emperor of Rome begged the surgeons of the land for gender reassignment surgery.

Yeah, I should probably expand on that one.

Varius Avitus Bassianus, born in Emesa (now Homs, Syria) made the jump from high priest of the temple for the Syrian sun god Elah-Gabal to Roman Emperor, aged only 14 – in 218 AD. The reign of the re-named Elagabalus was not terribly long, or distinguished in any way. The new emperor seemed far more interested in extravagant, hedonistic parties, executing generals and forcing the people to worship Elah-Gabal – a variation on the Middle Eastern god Baal. Elagabalus’ reign ended in the Emperor’s murder by their own guards just four years later. What is pertinent to this tale however – the teenaged Baal worshipper dressed as a woman, insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and asked several Roman surgeons to devise an ancient method of genital reassignment surgery.

I could, in all honesty. bring up tales of thousands of interesting transgender figures – but I want to refocus. Much of the criticism of growing transgender visibility by the Shapiros’ and their ilk is their very presence in American society erodes what it means to be an American. I’d counter trans people have added to their societies fairly proportionate to their numbers in society – approximately 0.6% of the population according to estimates from UCLA’s Williams Institute. Setting aside Civvie street for a moment, around 15% of transgender Americans have served in America’s armed forces. Some, like former SEAL Kristin Beck served with distinction. For a moment however, let’s step back in time a little. Of note, up to 400 women served on either side of the American Civil war, disguised as men. A handful, most notably Union soldier Albert Cashier, lived the rest of his life as a man.

Recently, questions have been posed about the Father of the American Cavalry Casimir Pulaski. Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1745 to an aristocratic family, Pulaski made his name as a soldier. He served with distinction for the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth, but finding himself on the losing side of the War of the Bar Confederation (sorry folks too big a field to plough already today, I’ll come back to it another time) at a time when Benjamin Franklin was looking for the best soldiers Europe had to offer, Pulaski packed his bags and moved to the USA. Like the similarly fascinating, openly gay Field Marshall Frederick Wilhelm Von Steuben; Pulaski found a shambles in need of a lot of direction. Throughout 1778 he organized the cavalry into a finely tuned force. Like Von Steuben, his innovations would remain in place for decades. Pulaski would distinguish himself particularly in battle in Savannah, Georgia – where he would die from a gunshot wound. In 2019 his DNA would be examined by the Smithsonian, finding Casimir Pulaski was either transgender or intersex.

Casimir Pulaski.

Though it is true the interdisciplinary field of studies known as Transgender Studies began in the 1990s, it is also clear people were beginning to form theories around what made transgender people tick as early as the start of the 20th century. The first female to male surgeries were carried out in the first decade of the 20th century possibly starting with German Israeli author Karl Baer in 1906. Male to female operations followed in the early 1930s with Dora Richter ad Lili Elbe. Much early study was carried out in Germany by the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld’s work at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was ground-breaking, but most of his writings were lost in the Nazi party’s ascent to power. In May 1933 the Institut’s extensive records would be burned in the streets, the Institut itself destroyed, and his transgender employees – of whom Richter was one – executed. Hirschfeld himself was on a world speaking tour when the institut was attacked, and would die in exile in 1935.

Another German sexologist, Dr Harry Benjamin, would move studies further from the late 1940s. Benjamin would write a book, The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966) which would become the bedrock for treatment of Trans patients, and focus on aligning the body to the brain, rather than vice versa. Dr Benjamin would come to prominence some years before this book when one of his patients, a former G.I. now known as Christine Jorgensen, became the talk of the town in 1952. Around this time a number of sex change pioneers would gain international prominence such as Roberta Cowell (her surgery carried out by famous New Zealander and Father of Plastic Surgery Harold Gillies), Coccinelle and April Ashley.

Of course transgender people would be actively involved in the growing LGBT rights movement in the 1960s, taking an active role in the Cooper Do-nuts Riot (1959), Comptons Cafeteria Riot (1966), Black Cat Tavern Riot (1967) and the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which brought Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson to prominence.

Which is not to say transgender people face no discrimination today, seeing they helped fight the good fight in the 60s, and beyond. While the world has become more liberal and ‘woke’ as a general rule – and 86% of American Blue Chip companies offer healthcare today which covers Transgender transitions; a plethora of other figures tell of the work which needs to be done. 90% of trans people in America have reported some form of workplace harassment or bullying. They are twice as likely to be unemployed as cisgender Americans. Three times more likely to become homeless. One 2013 study based around Washington DC found a quarter of respondents faced trouble using restrooms at work, over half reported the same problem in general public spaces, with 54% of respondents reporting needing to see a doctor for a related UTI or kidney infection. All up bathroom intolerance costs Washington DC over a million dollars a year in lost productivity from trans employees needing to go see the doctor. This barely scratches the surface. Then of course there are hate crimes, and in particular murder. This brings us to Transgender Day of Remembrance – in 2020 commemorated on November 20th (the day before I began writing this post).

Every year somewhere near the end of November transgender people and their allies commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day when they pay their respects to trans people killed in hate crimes around the world. When I first heard of TDoR around a decade ago the numbers murdered ran around 200, in 2020 three hundred and eighty six trans people were murdered, with at least 37 of those people in the United States. Method of murder particularly is often shocking. Stabbings, torture, immolation. There is a particular savagery to many of these killings. This brings me to my final segment in this essay – the story of Rita Hester.

Rita Hester was a transwoman living in Boston Massachusetts. Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Rita’s family state they can’t recall a time when Rita wasn’t Rita – she was just born that way. As a young adult who found Hartford unaccepting of her she moved to Boston, where it appears she found kinship not so much with the LGBTQI+ community as the largely heteronormative rock scene in the city. On November 28th 1998 Hester was found barely alive in her apartment, having been stabbed 20 times by an unknown assailant. She would die in hospital hours later, and the police would initially file her as a ‘John Doe’.
News coverage, similarly, reported in ways one would not expect in 2020. LGBTQI+ newspaper Bay Windows reported of the death of a “transgender man” followed by the Boston Globe, who reported on “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes”. It was the Bay Windows coverage which prompted the TDoR movement. When criticized, they doubled down on December 10th 1998 reporting on an ‘Alston Man’ and ‘dead-naming’ her (referring to Rita’s birth name). Days later a group of around 50 trans folk marched on both newspapers in an angry protest. To this day Rita’s death remains unsolved.

For anyone who is interested in studies and articles on transgender people there is now a lot out there on the internet. I recommend clearing a few afternoons and just diving in. Somewhere out there is a dissertation this author wrote on trans people – though in a different field (business management – I have three University degrees, the most recent a business degree majoring in Project management).

Admin Note: A Quick Update…. And Random Ephemera

Hi all, just dropping a quick note here today. Work on a rebooted podcast is going a little slowly – I think, like a lot of people, the US election has been the only show in town over the week just past. When your country, Americans, is the hegemon – the most powerful nation on earth – I think we are all in some ways de facto Americans. We live under the same neo-liberal experiment you ushered in. Our dollar is tied to yours due to the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944. Your nation exerts a soft power on other ‘western’ nations in a myriad of ways from the jeans we wear, hamburgers we eat and music we listen to – to some of the scarier stuff i.e. when I see people I know posting Ben Shapiro and other Alt Right grifters on social media. The world has, on some level, been watching apprehensively to see who our new president is this week. I’ll let you all guess if I’m pleased with the outcome (if you follow me here, you know that I am).

Anyway, I’ve got ten topics for the podcast, FYI all existing posts. I’m still hoping to launch in early December. So far I’ve recorded six scripts, mixed three of them. I’m looking to find some time next week to record the theme and background music for those episodes, then on to do the final four. I’m hoping to restart the blog series at the same time, and at least until Christmas, will be running week to week. I suspect my choices of blog topics will be swayed to Tales I think of as ‘oldies but goodies’ – stories that have been with me for decades now. I’m really not sure if they’re anyone else’s oldies but goodies however.

This week (yes I’m launching this a little early, I know this should have been Tuesday) I’m compiling some of my off the cuff Facebook ads into a post. At my day job this year my personal development plan revolves almost entirely around the blog and podcast, and one of the things which has come from that is to up my weekly social media game, including by dropping weekly ads. I normally write these in my morning tea breaks, fact check and find a picture at lunch, then release later that day.
It’s still early days in rolling these out, check out the few I’ve done so far below.

One: Doppelgangers.

There is a Tale goes thus…
On 28th July 1900 Italy’s King Umberto I sat down to a restaurant meal in the town of Monza, Italy. Nothing seemed extraordinary about the meal until the owner of the restaurant came out to meet the king.

The two men were doppelgangers, mirror images of one another.

The king and the restauranteur got to talking. Both were named Umberto. They shared a birthdate, and birthplace (Turin).
To add to the weirdness, both men had married on the same date – 21st April 1868. Both women were named Marghareta – though I’m not sure if Umberto the restauranteur also married a cousin.
The day of Umberto’s coronation, 9th January 1878, was the day Umberto the restauranteur opened his business.

The monarch was deeply moved by the experience of meeting his brother from another mother he invited him to come sit with his party at a track and field meet he had to attend the next day.

Neither man would see that day’s end. Umberto the restauranteur was murdered by robbers in the wee small hours while locking up the shop. The king would be assassinated by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci, in retaliation for the brutal massacre of protesters in Milan in 1898…

Why a Tale of Doppelgangers, Facebook followers? This page now has it’s own evil twin… a Twitter profile If you are a Twitter person please follow our ‘evil twin’ profile also – Simone

Two: What’s His Line?

Next week. (sorry folks, I could only find one very murky black and white still to turn into a colour cartoon this week).
The man in the white suit should be familiar to all right? Colonel Harland Sanders, a Kentucky gas station franchisee who began selling fried chicken at his store… and who subsequently founded what we now call KFC.

The other man is John Charles Daly. Daly was the reporter who, on December 7th 1941 informed the USA of the attack on Pearl Harbour. As a special reporter he covered a lot of big news during World War Two – and moved on to host a gameshow in 1950 called What’s My Line?

On What’s My Line? a panel of very sharp media personalities would try to guess the occupations of the contestants. Most were everyday Americans. One contestant would always be a celebrity – and the panel would wear blindfolds in that round.

Sanders appeared on the show in 1963 as an everyday American. He had around 600 stores across the USA at the time, but had yet to sell the business to a corporation who took KFC worldwide- it was only when he sold in 1964 that he became a brand ambassador, and everyone came to know his face.

Daly and Sanders make a cameo in the next tale, which will likely run for two weeks. Next week will be a whodunnit that touches on a number of infamous deaths.

Three: I was tardy…

Hey all I really wanted to share a picture with you all today of Myron T Hendrick, but I guess the man’s tardiness knew no bounds, including having his photo taken? Instead I find myself sharing a picture of this man, Robert Bacon.

And yes folks I know I could make the same point, a very similar one at least, using Seth McFarlane – of whom there are a load of photos… Seth didn’t seem old-y World-y enough…

My mini Tale today: The rather stern looking man in the photo is one Robert Bacon; a former businessman turned secretary of state for the William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt governments. In 1909 he served as the American ambassador to France – concluding his term in 1912, with a plan to return to the USA and run for senate. In early April he had his voyage home booked in… but his return was delayed till April 20 by his late replacement – the aforementioned Mr Hendrick.
When I look at Mr Bacon’s stern visage I can imagine him wanting to cuss Hendrick out as every kind of lazy, shiftless bastard imaginable. I bet he was all smiles however – I can even imagine a big old hug for Hendrick – when he finally arrived. Hendrick’s slowness saved Bacon’s life. The ship he was forced to miss was the Titanic.
This is my way of saying sorry, this week’s tale is likely to be a little late. This one took me days in working out how I structure this tale. Some time tomorrow evening NZ time I’ll drop part one of my tale on What’s My Line’s Dorothy Kilgallen.

Four: House Moving…

Hi all just a quick update. We’ve been packing up and lifting so many boxes, tables, chairs and wardrobes here that…. well we’re probably a long long way from having guns like strongwoman Katie Sandwina (1884- 1952) …. but if we stopped the takeaways we definitely would.

The house/office move continues. Writing remains on pause. In the meantime I am finding time here and there to edit some already done, and half done pieces.

Normal service will resume shortly. Keep yourselves all safe out there – Simone

Five: Swan’s Arch.

Hi all just a quick note. The picture today is local to me …. Westies will perhaps recognize it as that weird arch sticking out of the grass in Central Park Drive, on the way to Henderson. It’s known as ‘Swan’s Arch’. It was built by British immigrant Henry Charles Swan early in the 20th Century.

We don’t know when exactly Henry arrived in New Zealand with his wife Edith, but we know the couple moved to the leafy North Shore suburb of Devonport. Henry, it appears bought a large plot of land around Henderson creek in the 1890s without telling Edith, and a sailing boat. Swan jumped on his boat in 1900, telling Edith he was off to sail round the world alone, just like Joshua Slocum had done a few years earlier. Instead he sailed up the creek, moored his boat there, and engaged in an affair with his true love – growing fruits and vegetables…. It appears Henry loved gardening more than he loved Edith.

Swan lived on his boat, but built a brick shed to house his library. The archway was the entrance. Edith lived till 1940 in a house in Devonport, completely unaware of her husband’s dishonesty – believing he must have been lost at sea.

Why do I tell you this today?

Well, for one I have a rare New Zealand tale to drop next week – followed by a week’s worth of Halloween Tales to drop….. and I’ll be taking a month off the blogs to restart the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. There are a couple of things I need to develop that are in my can’t do yet bucket, to do a podcast some justice. I was going to do that over Christmas – but it seems since Joe Rogan has signed up with Spotify, the podcast episodes already made have been accruing dozes of listens + I should really fix + re-launch sooner rather than later.

I’ll be back, I’m no Henry Swan… though all fairness to Henry I bet he told Edith he’d be back too.

Unlike Henry Swan, I will drop in with something new next week. Have a great week all.

Altamont: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter

The following was originally released in four parts, on the Facebook page, in June 2019. I’ve heavily edited, & collated the piece into one blog post.

One: That Dick Cavett Interview…

Hi folks, I should say up front I thought I understood Altamont. In researching this Tale, I found out much of what I thought I knew was superficial, or wrong. I think it’s also worth spending a little time on the reason I came to revisit the infamous concert – old episodes of The Dick Cavett show on YouTube. As with episodes of What’s My Line? I’m a sucker for good, old television, and in 2019 I was regularly binge watching old interviews on The Dick Cavett show. Some clips (Segregationist Governor of Georgia Lester Maddox storming off for example) are historically important, others (Orson Welles, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) perhaps less so, but make great viewing for a pop culture junkie like myself.

The episode in question was filmed in 1972. The setting, backstage at Madison Square Garden. The Rolling Stones – last stateside as a band in December 1969 – had returned. Cavett is speaking with bassist Bill Wyman; and clearly has a question which must be asked.

Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?

Wyman replies he’s just tired. Cavett asks would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett continues…
You’re still protected from the…”
Wyman runs him off at the pass. He states he’s just a little tired this tour.
Cavett “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?”
Wyman replies “Just the energy…

Knowing when to pivot, Dick Cavett changes tack. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.

Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”

Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause
No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know

Was there much of that this time?

Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.

Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble

Dick Cavett moves in, he deindividuates asking about “the guys in the group” rather than “you” but all the same, he knows he’s landed the hook. Now is the time to reel his catch in.

Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?

Bill Wyman answers.

We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”

Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to some ‘other’, as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall gig at the Station Night Club, Rhode Island, February 20th 2003, where malfunctioning pyrotechnics set fire to the club, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more? It puts me off.

What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There’s a look on his face that implies the day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards also downplayed the incident, but rumours abound during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security” -oh and we are not talking about the police – sought revenge.

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all on the bill. The Grateful Dead were meant to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to play. The assault on Marty Balin was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin“.

It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness“.

Jerry Garcia

I get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It turns out this was not exactly the case.

Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

When one thinks big, open air concerts in the 60s, people generally think of a little thing called Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly needed to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain, people danced, got high – some involuntarily, they put flowers in their hair and got closer to nature. It took on the aura of the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.

Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th, 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-loos. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Food was terribly scarce – were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been nothing provided whatsoever. Back to the toilets, there was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. For all the peace and love there was a little violence – notably Pete Townshend of The Who beat up a stage invader with his guitar. Besides the death of Raymond Mizsak, two others died of drug overdoses.

In the aftermath, the people of Bethel got rid of the town supervisor at the next election. The people clearly stating the concert was their reason for punishing him in the polls. A couple of musicians who played the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however.

Soon after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to plan a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. They decided to ask fellow Woodstock alumnus The Grateful Dead– and The Rolling Stones – arguably the second biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, to be on the bill. Both bands signed on. The Stones likely did so because they were heavily criticized for the high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA – and this was a free concert. They were also filming a documentary, and footage of a large, open air concert would look fantastic. The Grateful Dead? Well they were friends. They gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They played the two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, so it made sense to include them on the third.

With next to no planning time, the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in California) had a large practice field that could be used to host large concerts, but the university were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the other acts on the bill. However there was a scheduling problem. On 6th December Kezar Stadium – located in a corner of the park – was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears. (if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21). To have two large activities going in the park at the same time would be a logistical nightmare.
Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but organizers ran into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front, and they did not have the cash to spare. Second, the owners of the raceway were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, best known now as the creators of a much of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my personal favorite – Green Acres. Filmways wanted to film and distribute the concert – the Rolling Stones refused as they were intent on their own crew filming for their documentary Gimme Shelter.

On the 4th December 1969, Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Running out of options, the organizers signed up to put on the concert at the poorly set up venue.

Three: A large visible space…

Hi all, this week let’s bake a disaster. What’s the recipe?
First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking for Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont was no Woodstock. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane describing the atmosphere

The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.”

Next add a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there are far too few toilets. A shortage of medical tents will prove very problematic as the day wears on also. At Woodstock there was no shortage of tents, something which came in handy in dealing with many cut feet and, allegedly, burnt eyeballs from tripping kids looking up at the sun. More on first aid later.
The stage would prove a massive headache for organizers. It was far too low – just four feet off the ground, constructed in a dip owing to the slope of the racing track itself. The organizers had no security barriers to keep the concertgoers a safe distance away so a ball of string was run at chest height, in a line in front of the stage, to mark where the crowd should stop. Making up for the lack of barriers, the Hells Angels were stationed front and centre to keep the crowd back.

Now add security. The Hells Angels were hardly new to doing concert security, having worked many shows without incident. Altamont was a difficult gig for them for a number of reasons.
First, their role was poorly defined. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stating

“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”.

They came to the concert with no idea just how much they would be required to do.

Second, they agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now. Adding a large amount of alcohol to the mix would prove disasterous. Third, no provision was made for a safe place for the Hells Angels to park their bikes.

Add to the bowl an expectation 100,000 people would attend, sprinkle in 200,000 excess concertgoers. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels had to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.

Drunken Hells Angels were one thing – no doubt their judgment was impaired by the beer; the drugs were far more concerning. Early in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed was passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of tripping fans, nothing new there, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff, treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day. Many a concert goer became strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene.
Now mix ingredients thoroughly.

Santana were the first act up. They got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, then by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to intervene, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.

Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd.
Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit
Sarcastically he addressed the security “I’d like to thank you for that.”

Bill ‘Sweet William’ Fritsch.

A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel named Bill Fritsch – a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and fires back.

Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.
Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.
Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.
Kantner: “Right.”

All the while Hells Angels continued to trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.

Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what just happened, and the Dead decided they’d seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.

The fighting died down while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted – and escalated. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. To paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence is wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. All the same, concertgoers who dared get close to the front were beaten senseless with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point was dragged across the stage by her hair.

A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.

As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett’s (1972) guest Bill Wyman – he missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going out to play, regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set. The helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene

“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.

Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter.

At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they didn’t have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years after she turned to electro-convulsive therapy to manage her depression over her loss. After the killing she was a shell of her former self. His sister, Dixie, couldn’t bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that when a white man is charged with killing a black man, the white man walks – a little on this later. She did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.

It was Dixie who plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.

Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been, as he was high on methamphetamine. The latter was true.

Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers flew through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. The couple were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and returned to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would go back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?

Everything – everything could go wrong – and it happened very quickly. Why it unfolded is a subject to guesswork – following the incident, president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger stated on KSAN Radio San Francisco

When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it”

He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like an Athenian phalanx. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before the surge, perhaps feeling safer up there – but a Hell’s Angel grabbed him by the ear and threw him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, putting some distance between himself and his assailant. He drew his pistol and tried to back himself away from the bikers, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled. Passaro followed him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.

Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men continued to strike Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He eventually managed to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and to a medical tent. A helicopter was called for but he passed before it could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.

Post Altamont, the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million dead Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia and Laos – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans. and a high number of wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins returns to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, in an attempt to start a race war in the USA. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention – edit. 2020. with the release of the film on Netflix maybe I should have- still should? write a post on them), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do…
The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.

Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously drown in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.

I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.

The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert. Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger in revenge. Their plan, to assemble a death squad, hire a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day of the assassination, a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, the worse for wear, and by all accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – Mick himself only found out how lucky he had been when the public did.

Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview, which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.

After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?

Jagger replied.

Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era… I didn’t think any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”

This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

Originally posted in four part May – June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow