It was a bit scary to go out there and plug into this ocean of hair, teeth, eyes, and arms. It was incredible. I’ll never forget the way the music sounded bouncing up against a field of bodies. You never forget that sound.
For the band as a whole, it was great. But I was struggling to keep myself grounded, because I had taken some strong psychedelics right before I went onstage. When we first got there, around 11 in the morning, they told us that we weren’t going on until 8 o’clock. So I said, “Hey, I think I’ll take some psychedelics, and by the time I’m coming down, it’ll be time to go onstage and I’ll feel fine.” But when I was peaking around 2 o’clock, somebody said, “If you don’t go on right now, you’re not gonna go on.”
We stuck around that whole evening, and I got to witness the peak of the festival, which was Sly Stone. I don’t think he ever played that good again — steam was literally coming out of his Afro. Musically, though, Altamont was better than Woodstock. I’m sorry people got hurt, but I have to say that everybody played incredible at Altamont: the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, ourselves.
Woodstock had more of a spiritual vibe; it was more of a spiritual celebration. Woodstock signified the coming together of all the tribes. It became apparent that there was a lot of people who didn’t want to go to Vietnam, who didn’t see eye to eye with Nixon and none of that system, you know? The people who started that movement in Haight-Ashbury taught me the difference between deals and ideals, between artists and con artists. They were not phonies, like the people wearing wigs in those commercials advertising old Sixties hits. The real people were wonderful. You could see American Indians and white people in love with life. Woodstock was a part of that. It was the same movement that got people out of Vietnam and got Nixon out of power.
Some people called it a disaster area, but I didn’t see nobody in a state of disaster. I saw a lot of people coming together, sharing and having a great time. If that was out of control, then America needs to lose control at least once a week. Maybe I’m too naive, but I still see it like that. I saw a lot of positive, artistic, creative stimuli for America. In the Sixties, people didn’t go to concerts to get drunk and pick up chicks; they went to get bombarded with music and be taken somewhere else. When you came out, you knew you were never gonna be the same. You didn’t go to a concert to escape. You went to a concert to expand.
A lot of the con artists in America have turned rock music into a kind of Gap-McDonald’s corporation music. You hear the same crap in every shopping mall. Everything is like Campbell’s soup instead of real gumbo, you know? We need more Jimi Hendrixes and Jim Morrisons. We need more rebels and renegades.
As for the movie, I don’t like the fisheye lens that made me look like a bug, but all in all I’m very grateful. I keep telling my wife that we’re very blessed because we have a whole pocketful of memories and a video to back it up. Basically, I’m very grateful I got the opportunity to play at Woodstock. I could still be in Tijuana, across the border with no papers.
A version of this story was originally published in the August 24th, 1989 print edition of Rolling Stone.