Altamont at 50: How 1969 went from peace and love to murder and mayhem

Altamont at 50: How 1969 went from peace and love to murder and mayhem

“Ooh, a storm is threatening/My very life today/If I don’t get some shelter/Ooh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.” So Mick Jagger sings for his “very life” at the beginning of “Gimme Shelter,” the apocalyptic anthem that kicks off the Rolling Stones’ classic “Let It Bleed” album, which was released 50 years ago on Dec. 5, 1969.

Those lyrics would prove to be prophetic when, on the following afternoon, the Stones arrived at the disastrous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in Livermore, California. “We’re walking off the helicopter, and a guy jumps up and punches Mick [Jagger] in the face,” recalled Ronnie Schneider, 76, who was the Rolling Stones’ 1969 US tour manager. “The guy was just out of his mind, punched Mick in the mouth, and I wanted to kill the guy. And Mick’s like, ‘Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him.’ That’s when we knew we had a problem.”

Conceived as a West Coast Woodstock — the music festival that had taken place in Bethel, NY, just four months earlier — Altamont would go down to symbolize anything but peace, love and doves. The Dec. 6 festival, which would be chronicled in the Stones’ 1970 documentary film “Gimme Shelter,” was swept up in turbulence and violence that culminated in the fatal stabbing of concertgoer Meredith Hunter by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. As the Vietnam War raged on, here was a battleground at home set to the sounds of California bands such as Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, all of whom preceded the Stones on the lineup. By the time the festival cleared out, four people would be dead.

“Woodstock was just embraced immediately as this extraordinary event,” said longtime San Francisco music journalist Joel Selvin, 69, who wrote the 2016 book “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day.”

Fans at the Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969.
Fans at the Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969.AP

“And in the kind of fog of that euphoria, Altamont took place. A lot of people believed that things were possible — both the people behind the concert and the people that came to the concert. You would have thought they would have got at least one lucky bounce.”

But scuffles broke out as soon as opening act Santana took the stage, and by the time Jefferson Airplane followed, it was clear that magic wouldn’t be recaptured.

“It was definitely a feeling of a lot of agitation in the air, a lack of preparation for the crowd’s comfort,” said Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady, 75, who, since the group split up in 1972, has played in Hot Tuna. “As the crowd kept moving in towards the stage, which was too low to the ground, we could feel that there was a portent of disaster.”

***

The tragic chain of events began when the concert — spearheaded by the Grateful Dead, who would end up not playing — had to be relocated last minute from its originally intended site in San Francisco, about 60 miles from Altamont.

The legendary motorcycle group Hell's Angels fight with pool cues during the Altamont Free Concert.
The legendary motorcycle group the Hell’s Angels fight with pool cues during the Altamont Free Concert.Corbis via Getty Images

“The original plan — which wasn’t so much of a plan as a pipe dream — [came from] one of the managers of the Grateful Dead getting high with Keith Richards,” said Selvin. “And what he wanted to do was have a concert in Golden Gate Park with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, and then just announce a surprise guest: the Rolling Stones. That’s so San Francisco hippie … The Rolling Stones went for it for a while, but then at some point they sort of took charge.”

In fact, Selvin said, it was the Stones who persisted until a new location for the free concert — Altamont Speedway — was found just two days before the event was scheduled. “They built that stage in under 36 hours,” said Selvin, noting that Woodstock producer Michael Lang had gone along with Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully to check out the site. “They were still plugging in cables and nailing down boards when Santana started.”

Fans at Altamont.
Fans at Altamont.Popperfoto/Getty Images

The stage was only about 3 1/2 feet high, and Jefferson Airplane’s performance was soon engulfed by a chaotic crowd of more than 300,000, egged on by Hells Angels who viciously guarded the stage.

“We did a partial set because [co-lead singer] Marty Balin got dragged into the audience and pummeled by one of the Hells Angels,” said Casady. “We were trying to keep it together as our lead singer was on the ground getting beat up. There was pushing and shoving going on during our set by various elements onstage. There was no protection onstage. It had gotten so out of hand and chaotic … but we played a number of songs before we stopped.”

***

The Hells Angels’ part in the violence that took place at the festival has always played a major role in the Altamont story. But Selvin said the notion that the Stones hired the Hells Angels as concert security for $500 worth of beer is “bulls–t.” Rather, he said, Hells Angels from the San Francisco chapter were invited to attend because they were friends with the Grateful Dead.

Members of the Hells Angels gang, acting as both security and hoodlums, jump the stage with Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane on Dec. 6, 1969 at Altamont.
Members of the Hells Angels gang, acting as both security and hoodlums, jump the stage with Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane on Dec. 6, 1969 at Altamont.Getty Images

“The guys that caused all the trouble at Altamont were from the San Jose chapter,” said Selvin. “They weren’t hippies, they’d never gone to concerts in the park, they probably hadn’t even taken much LSD. So you had an entirely different strain of Hells Angel out there.”

Bill Owens — a Livermore-area photographer who was assigned by the Associated Press to shoot the Saturday concert — captured the Hells Angels in violent action from his vantage point at the top of a sound tower he had climbed.

“I did photograph the Hells Angels beating people up,” said Owens, 81, who earlier this year released the photo book “Bill Owens: Altamont 1969.” “I took those classic shots of the guys swinging the pool cues.”

Hells Angels motorcycles at Altamont.
Hells Angels motorcycles at Altamont.AP

But the violence went beyond pool cues, fists and bad acid. Performer Stephen Stills would be stabbed multiple times in the leg. After the Grateful Dead decided not to go on stage due to safety concerns, there would be about a three-hour break from any performances. As the Stones waited for darkness to fall to hit the stage, tension was getting higher — right along with many of the concertgoers. The worst was still to come.

After The Stones opened with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Hunter — an 18-year-old black man who was attending the concert with his white girlfriend — tried to make his way up to the stage. By the time the Stones launched into “Under My Thumb,” Hunter was perched on a speaker box when a brutal attack began.

“Hunter gets pushed back down by a Hells Angel, and he gets back up in the Hells Angel’s face,” said Selvin. “That’s when he starts getting his ass kicked — several Angels beat on him — and he falls back and comes up with a gun in his hand. Several feet away, Alan Passaro, who’s a San Jose chapter member, sees all this going down, he grabs a knife out of his ankle scabbard, and he stabs Hunter in the neck and back four times.”

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform at the Altamont.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform at Altamont.Getty Images

Although Selvin said that the Stones saw what happened, Schneider insisted that the band didn’t find out until after the show — once they completed a full set and made a quick getaway in a helicopter that was overweight with too many passengers. “Everybody was, like, in shock,” says Selvin of the band’s reaction. “Nobody talked about it after that.”

***

In early 1970, Owens had his Altamont concert photos published in both Rolling Stone and Esquire magazines, but he used pseudonyms in fear of the Hells Angels seeking revenge. “I knew to not publish my name,” he said. “Your name’s in the phone book, right? So I used two different aliases.”

A year later, Passaro, who argued he had acted in self defense, would be found “not guilty” in the death of Hunter.

Mick Jagger signs autographs backstage at Altamont.
Mick Jagger signs autographs backstage at Altamont.AP

The tragic legacy of Altamont still lives on five decades later. In addition to the killing of Hunter, one man would drown and another two men would die in a hit-and-run. Although it ended the ’60s on a sad, violent note, Casady doesn’t see it so symbolically. “In reality,” he said, “it was just a really poorly run concert, and then people attached all kinds of significance to it. But it was a lesson for everybody that these things have to be entered into with a lot more forethought.”

Schneider said that, despite all of the chaos, it wasn’t all bad: “The people that were 100 feet back from the stage had a great time. They listened to music; they were partying.”

But for years to come, that will not be how Altamont is remembered. Reflecting on the “enduring fascination” in that fateful festival, Selvin said, “This is a scar on rock history that just won’t go away.”


Source : Chuck Arnold Link

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