Altamont was rock's ugliest moment — for years, it deflated the culture's sense of its own idealism. It also brought the Stones face to face with the violence that had been implicit in their work for years, scaring Jagger and Richards away from the themes they had been pursuing, and helped contribute to a long bout of artistic decline from which the band never fully recovered.
The dream, as one of rock's most honest voices would shortly announce, was over.
Did this series of disintegrations and bad ends negate the joy or worth of 1960s pop music? Hardly. Though it's easy to over-romanticize the period, rock in the 1960s achieved some sizable victories, and the best of them have enjoyed an enduring legacy. For one thing, rock established itself as a remarkably protean form: It was now a field with a sense of its own history and traditions, as well as a field that was willing to stretch and disrupt its own aesthetics by incorporating ideas and textures from numerous other disciplines. Today we can see the perpetuation of that spirit of adventure and openness as more and more pop artists fuse African, Jamaican, Brazilian and other musical forms with familiar American and British pop sounds.
Sixties rock also showed that it was capable of more than disruption — that it could unite masses for worthy causes and could actually bring about social and humanitarian change. That assertion helped pave the way for later philanthropic and political ventures like Rock Against Racism, No Nukes, Live Aid, Farm Aid and the anti-apartheid efforts. More important, in a time when countless conservative strategists claim credit for the rise of freedom and democracy movements throughout the world, it is important to declare that the protests of the 1960s youth culture — and the spirit of courage and defiance that those protests shared with rock music — have probably served as an even greater impetus for many of today's brave revolutionists.
Finally, 1960s music not only deepened rock & roll's ability to work as a music of rebellion, disobedience and disrespect — often worthy and noble impulses that were reenacted in 1970s punk and are still acted out in much of today's best (and worst) rap and heavy-metal music — but also made plain that pop music had become capable of expressing emotional and thematic truths that were as rich and consequential as anything contemporary film or literature had to offer. In other words, the 1960s proved that rock is anything but a trivial music; it does have impact, and at its worthiest, it still aims to threaten, to draw boundaries, to defy and to win young people over to its view and its ethos.
But it is also true that rock has lost much of its political and social convictions in recent years, that it is now a music that can accommodate ugly views of sexism and racism, and that perhaps too much of it has helped spread an unthinking affection for alcohol and drugs. To put it differently, 1960s rock didn't save the world — maybe didn't even change the world enough — but it fought good battles, and it enriched a progressive struggle that is far from finished, and far from lost. In the end, rock and youth culture met with considerable and determined opposition — and that opposition is still formidable. But for a moment, in the middle of a momentous decade, rock & roll was heroic enough to tell us the essential fact of our time: that we were finally on our own, and that we were "with no direction home." In some ways, the most important music since that time has struggled either to deny that bold truth or to follow its chilling and liberating implications to their bravest and most surprising ends.
This is a story from the August 23, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.
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