Inside Altamont: New Book Looks Back at Rock's "Darkest Day"

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day
By Joel Selvin
Dey St. Books, 368 pp., $27.99

Headlined by the Rolling Stones, the free concert at Alatmont Speedway on December 6, 1969 was – according to Rock History Lore – the yang to the yin of Woodstock earlier in the year.

For while the gathering of “half a million strong” in Bethel, N.Y.  was all about peace and love and gentle hippies (or so we’re told), Altamont was a dirty, disgusting, clusterfuck of a debacle that featured the beating/stabbing death of concertgoer Meredith Hunter by an out-of-control motorcycle gang “security force” hired for $500 worth of beer. Even more portentously, Altamont marked “The End of the Sixties.”

But as with most chapters in Rock History Lore, that view is only part of the story. And in this book, longtime music journo Selvin does a masterful job of detailing the buildup, the event, and its aftermath.

And he does it with an interesting literary twist. For while Selvin conducted about 100 original interviews and used scores of previously-written accounts and reports, he doesn’t pause for attribution so the book flows like a novel. The effect works, and like reading a book on, say, the Titanic or Lincoln assassination, the reader marches toward the already-known grim conclusion, all the while wanting to yell at characters in the narrative “Stop! Don’t do that!”

The story of Altamont begins with the Rolling Stones, who had been out of action for awhile in 1969. In the meantime, San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Santana had taken a lot of rock’s mojo. Seeking something of a comeback, the Stones and their management decided to give a free show with those groups (who were all on the bill, along with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young and the Flying Burrito Brothers) as the culmination of their short U.S. tour.

And since Jagger specifically didn’t want a security force of police officers, how about getting those Hell's Angels to provide security? After all, hadn’t a contingent of English Angels (who, it turns out, had no connection to the actual chapter and were a much more mellow breed, some would say poseurs) done the same for a Stones show in Hyde Park? And hadn’t the Dead and their management put on plenty of these free, outdoor shows before — even using the Angels — to no issue?

The whole thing seemed, ironically, doomed from the start. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the original planned site, wasn’t available when permits could not be obtained. The second site, Sears Point Raceway, was used to hosting large crowds and had plenty of facilities for both the bands and audience. But negotiations between the owner and band/promoters fell through over profit and film rights squabbles.
Only 36 hours before the concert was to begin was the Altamont Speedway secured – a remote, hard-to-get-to, overgrown, run-down area with no bathrooms or medical facilities or concessions for food or water.

Crews who had already begun building the stage and scaffolding at Sears Point had to then tear it down and trek it to the new site. Not all of it made it there, or worked when it did. Finally, organizers naively expected 50,000 people to show up. In the end, it was over a quarter million. And no one, it seemed, was actually in charge.

And when the day started, Selvin writes is was clear that the show was being run by bikers and not bands, as Hells Angels began a series of beatings and intimidations. But he also writes that a good portion of the audience too, was on edge; flying high, baked in the sun, and pushing forward to get closer to the stage.

Interestingly, a wide-shot picture included in the book shows tens of thousands of fans sitting peacefully on the surrounding hills, blissfully unaware even after the show was over that anything wrong had happened way down there by the stage. And if the crowd down front didn’t feel safe from the menacing bikers, the performers were no less intimidated. However, as Selvin points out, even some of the Angels were just as frightened in that situation.

Stephen Stills was repeatedly stabbed in the leg by a stoned out Angel during his set; Mick Jagger was punched in the face two minutes after getting to the venue; and – most famously – Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin was pummeled multiple times by Angels for trying to stop them from beating up an audience member and challenging them from the mic.

That the Grateful Dead chose at the last minute not to play, leaving a simmering, two-hour gap until the Stones appeared and stoking fires both physical and emotional in the audience.  Throughout the show, people with no business on the nearly ground-level stage wandered on and off during the sets. Oh, and the string that served as the only physical barrier between audience and acts? (Yes, string.) That didn’t last long.

As Rock History Lore notes, Altamont’s tragedy was wrapped around the death of Hunter during the Stones' "Under My Thumb," caught by the Maysles Brothers' cameras in the documentary Gimme Shelter. Some rock legend states, it came during the more apropos “Sympathy for the Devil,” but not true.)

That Hunter was a black man whose girlfriend was white, wearing a loud lime green suit, high on drugs and acting weird, and carrying a pistol likely only inflamed the Angels responsible for his death. Then the finger-pointing began.

So who was to blame for Altamont? The Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger? The Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia? Managers/promoters like Sam Cutler, Rock Scully nd Ronnie Schneider? Bellicose lawyer Melvin Belli? The mystery figure of Jon Jaymes? Altamont owner Dick Carter? The Hell's Angels and the crowd by the stage both gacked to the gills on bad acid, cheap red wine, and pills?

There’s no one true father to this disaster. But Selvin’s judgement when all the facts are presented? “It’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones,” he sums up. “The simple truth is that the Stones were always in charge of the concert, with Mick Jagger clearly making the calls behind the scenes…the Stones brilliantly, intentionally it would seem, positioned themselves to be in control, but not responsible.”

In the end, Hunter’s wasn’t even the only death at the festival. One stoned-out hippie jumped in a reservoir and drowned, while two other concertgoers were killed by an imbalanced hit and run driver. And – despite the “circle of life” legend it later became – there were no recorded births.

“Altamont brought the Achilles’ heel of the hippie movement into sharp focus,” Selvin surmises. “As hopeful, optimistic, and encouraging as the perception of Woodstock had been in the public breast, Altamont struck a harsh, frightening, and discordant tone. It was a bad day where tawdry reality clashed with innocent fantasies.”

The word “Altamont” is forever embedded in Rock History Lore as Bad Mojo. But with this first, full book-length look at a day that has only been part of other larger narratives before, Selvin brings meaning and context to “rock’s darkest day.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero