the museum of americana

a literary review

To the Tripping Man at Altamont—Poetry by John A. McDermott

Werewolf, caveman, California bear
fresh from the northern woods, you
stand beside Mick Jagger. The camera
trains on you, though you don’t see it.
You see—what?  Whatever acid burns
in your brain turns you inside, away
from the music, oblivious to the biker
in front of you, the man paid in beer
to keep the crowd away, or, as the day
wears on, to keep them, at least, at bay.

How did you end up on the low stage,
not one of Hell’s Angels hassling you?
Did you come from behind amplifiers,
did you leap to escape the jostling crowd,
the vibe gone wrong, wrong, Meredith
Hunter not dead yet, but soon, a verse
or two, before this song is through. If this
were John Bunyan’s tale, New Pilgrim’s
Progress, you would be Anguish, capital A,
tongue worrying & working your mouth,
heavy hands stroking your bearded face,
gripping your long hair. Your shoulders
slump. You lose your denim jacket. Your
shirt’s paisley, perhaps, or is it camouflage?
Do you know the way to San Jose or Saigon?

And what do you see that’s worse than this,
this crowd ready to tear at the bikers,
the bikers ready to lash out at the crowd,
these gods of rock made lower case g’s
with the sweat of their fear, their jangling
notes, their earlier pleas to the crowd, please
let’s just all get along (no thought of spending
the night together, let’s just get out of here
alive). Most of you do—not Meredith—but
maybe you live to see this footage? Do you
remember? What was your vision? Barren
farmland, stolen water, concrete highways,
napalmed jungles, warm water in oil drums,
Ronald Reagan and his celluloid chimp,
the glass of a million flat-screens glinting
in a 21st century landfill, Youtube, us,
horrors you can’t explain, for which words
don’t yet exist. Or maybe it’s simpler.
Your mother dying in a gray nursing
home, your father’s grave, your sisters,
your brothers too far to hold your hand.

Please, somebody hold your hand, this
is no place for a bad trip. Now: the biker
notices you, grabs your shoulder, another
yanks you offstage. They curse you
and you disappear into the roiling bodies.
Mick keeps singing about power, about
power, about power but he’s not the one
who has it here, not here: it’s diffused,
it’s nobody’s and it’s anybody’s, and the boy
with the gun has only minutes to live but
nobody knows that yet, not the camera,
not the band, not the white girl in the crochet
vest, but the blade has already jabbed in you.
It’s warm from the stabbing a chorus before.

~~~
John A. McDermott lives in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he coordinates the BFA program in creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University. His work has most recently appeared in American Journal of Poetry, Brevity, and Juked. Some of his earlier poems were published by the museum of americana and later collected in his book, The Idea of God in Tennessee. Follow him at www.johnamcdermott.net.