Horror Show

(Pictured: the Stones on stage at Altamont; L to R: Mick Taylor, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and tour manager Sam Cutler.)

This blog has written extensively about the rock festival era, the period approximately between the Summer of Love and the summer of 1971, in which young people gathered on farms, at racetracks, at ballparks, and in other large venues for concerts featuring multiple headliners. Some shows lasted a single day, some for a weekend, and some even longer. Some were successful, and some were not. Pre-Woodstock gatherings at Golden Gate Park and other venues in northern California (including the Monterey Pop Festival) were largely peaceable and well-run. Woodstock itself seemed to have worked, although the historical record shows that it was repeatedly blessed by guardian angels or simply lucky. Other festivals became disastrous debacles, like the Iola People’s Fair in Wisconsin. From our vantage point over 45 years later, the average festival looks like a crapshoot: maybe you’d pull it off, but maybe you wouldn’t.

In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. An outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.

The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.

Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.

The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.

Well before December 6th, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.

Ten years ago this month, this blog spun a theory that the last months of 1969 were haunted by a darkness you could hear on the radio. I developed it by cherry-picking the nation’s record charts, but Selvin’s book provides some halfway decent support for it—and I recommend it highly.

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