How does one event take on so much significance in our collective psyche the the mere mention of it conjures a catalog of images and meanings? I guess because we as people need starting and ending points; a lot of religions and philosophies have been built around that premise. I don't really believe that America lost it's collective innocence on the day Kennedy was assassinated... but it's a lot easier to say that then it is to have a long discussion about civil rights and boiling tempers and some people feeling that God-given rights were being taken away while others were saying that God-given rights were finally being granted and the expansion of media and the abandonment of lemming culture and and and and and and and... Nobody flipped a switch that day so that suddenly, Americans were no longer innocent, but it also cannot be disputed that things were never again quite the same afterwards. The Hippie Movement wasn't really born during the Summer of Love, Woodstock wasn't perfect... but again, there's really no arguing that things were just not the same after those focus points. For all the flaws in the reasoning and the lifestyle that came with being a hippie, a lot of good things happened, a lot of positive changes were made, and an awful lot of fun was there to be had.
Then came Altamont.
The What, Part One
In its purest factual terms, The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a one-day freebie rock concert/festival/counterculture event. It took place on Saturday, December 6, 1969 in northern California. The acts scheduled to appear were, in order, Ike and Tina Turner, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones. It was attended by approximately 300,000 people (I've read various accounts of the show, some of which claim a half million people attended, but 300,000 is the figure I most often see quoted). Partially because of the era and largely by design, it was referred to in the buildup to the show as "Woodstock West." It is generally accepted that The Rolling Stones were the major organizers of the event with quite a bit of initial input from The Grateful Dead. The show was to be at the tail end of the Stones 1969 tour; the band had already done a lot of concert, studio and behind-the-scenes filming during the tour for a documentary on the band, and a large part of the original purpose of Altamont was that the event be a very grand finale to both the Stones tour and film.
As with many iconic events, much of "why" depends on which stories you care to believe, though over the course of time, there's a general consensus as to how the festival came about (for the most part, at least). Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane says the idea for a "Woodstock West" began when he and Jorma Kaukonen discussed the idea of a free show featuring Airplane, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones. Airplane, of course, performed at Woodstock. The Grateful Dead did not, reportedly because they were leery of the event being too much of a mudbath to be a success (they were at least half right!). The Stones didn't play Woodstock either; Jagger was in Australia honoring his contract to film "Ned Kelly." Though Jagger starred in the film, it was a massive flop. I've read hints and allegations that Jagger could have taken a few days holiday from the filming for the Stones to play Woodstock, but that he wasn't interested because he really didn't think it was going to be all that big a deal. I also read that his being so wrong played heavily in his decision to perform at and organize Altamont.
By now, most accounts of the festival's genesis credit the Stones as being the main organizers, again with a lot of input from the Grateful Dead. It's not unreasonable to think that Jagger and Company failing to appear at Woodstock was a major factor in presenting Altamont; with the Beatles having broken up, the Stones were the unquestioned kings of the rock world, and they missed out on playing to the biggest audience ever assembled for a rock show. Besides the potential error in judgement, Jagger is certainly known to have quite an ego and it's certainly within the realm of possibility that organizing a show that drew more people than Woodstock would be a very solid "we showed THEM!" sort of thing. The Stones had toured much of America in '69, and there were multitudes of complaints about ticket prices being so high, and many accounts of the reasoning behind Altamont include the idea of the band ending the tour and the decade with "the biggest free show of them all;" again, ego and the added attraction of placating any criticisms the band might have received for gouging. Finally, the potential of having some incredible footage of the Stones playing to a massive adoring crowd, as well as behind-the-scenes footage showing the band's solid business acumen, would be an irresistible conclusion to the documentary they had been filming for most of the year.
Woodstock, remember, was not originally intended to be a free show. It simply became absolutely impossible to demand a ticket for entrance, partially because the weather gods just wouldn't cooperate and partially because about a bazillion more people than anybody anticipated in their wildest dreams showed up. Making Altamont a free show from the start circumvented any need for that, turning it into a tidy little package of ease and a PR masterwork all at once.
This is where things began to go horribly wrong, even before the day of the show. I don't know what the exact timeline was in regards to when the decision was actually made to hold the show and thus how much time anybody and everybody had to actually prepare for it. I do know that the FIRST announcement to the public about a free rock festival featuring the Rolling Stones and others was made only four days before the event was to take place. It is known that the originally desired site was the San Jose State practice field; there had been a recent outdoor free festival held there which accommodated 52 bands and 80,000 people over three days, but the city of San Jose turned down the request. Next on the list was the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; however, Kezar Stadium (located in Golden Gate park) already had a 49ers game scheduled for that weekend, so the venue became completely impractical. The Sears Point Raceway was settled upon; again, I could not find a date for when the venue decision was made. It was an attractive venue - huge, and the president had offered his land at no cost, assuming various conditions were met. Most of those conditions were pretty standard and easy to agree to; however, during negotiations for the lease contract, two major snags surfaced. First, a huge sum of money was demanded by the raceway as a deposit against potential damages (I've read $100,000, $200,000 and $300,000 in various accounts), and the Stones were very hesitant to put that money up. Second, and probably the dealbreaker, was the raceway's insistence that ANY film revenues resulting from the day's concerts be split 50/50 between the raceway and the band. Game, set, match, fail... there was no way the Stones were ceding that to anybody.
Here's a very interesting little bit of intrigue in regards to the negotiations about film rights. Sears Point Raceway was owned by a large holding company that did business under the name of Filmways. Another of the companies Filmways owned was a promotional firm called Concert Associates. They were the promoters of the Stones concert near Los Angeles during the 1969 tour of America, and like every other promoter, agreed to some very demanding concert terms. Obviously, ticket sales were brisk and one of the ways the Stones reportedly exacted a lot of concessions from Concert Associates was via an unwritten promise to return to Los Angeles for a second show within a matter of weeks (which Concert Associates, of course, would promote). The Stones reneged on the promise. Even as there was no way the Stones would budge on film rights to the upcoming show, there was equally no way Filmways was going to cut any leeway at all in their demands. Touché!
It certainly looked like Filmways would exact quite a revenge. The festival was scheduled for December 6, the stage was already built at the Sears raceway, and pow! As of Thursday, December 4, there WAS NO VENUE for the show. Then, local businessman Dick Carter, who had recently taken over a facility some 65 miles away called Altamont Raceway, got involved. The track had gone broke three times before Carter took it over, and through contacts at the Stanford Business School, he was able to offer his facility for free to the festival. In his eyes, the publicity the raceway would receive would translate into community goodwill and plenty of future dollars. Thus, a man with absolutely zero experience in anything remotely resembling music or rock promotion who ran a facility that had never hosted an event with an attendance of over 6,500 people offered up his place for a concert that was supposed to be the size of Woodstock. Uh-oh...
On the night of December 4, the location for the show was officially switched (though some reports say it wasn't actually announced until only 20 hours before the show was to begin).
The Pre-Show Problems
Maybe we're all a little wiser or more worldly now, maybe there were too many egos on the line... but simple common sense should tell ANYONE that you cannot, in 36 hours, properly prepare a facility to accommodate over a quarter million people AND seven very prominent performers, including the most famous, notorious rock and roll band in the world. It can't be done... or perhaps far more brutally honest, it can't be properly done. There is simply no way sanitation facilities can be arranged and installed that quickly. There is simply no way proper medical facilities can be arranged and installed that quickly. There is simply no way a proper stage and sound system can be designed and installed that quickly. It mattered not, apparently... they tried to do it all, and while technically they got it done, they did not get it done right, and in the bitter reality of things, they didn't come within a couple of galactic miles of getting it right.
In regards to sanitation facilities, there were reportedly about 100 portable toilets brought to the site, which is not even 10% of what would be minimally sanitary for the expected crowd. Clean water was scarce and nearly impossible to come by on the day of the show. Medical facilities were barren, to say the least; a few tents, a few doctors and nurses, a little bit of medication, and essentially zero facilities on hand to deal with any major sort of disaster. The greatest parts of the efforts made were on the staging and sound system, and even here, both were more than a miserable failure. As I mentioned, there simply wasn't the time available to deisgn and build a new stage, so they took the only route available - the stage that had been built for Sears was moved in pieces to Altamont and reassembled there. Major problem: at Sears, the stage was built at the top of a rise, and so the 39-inch height of the construction was more than adequate for both the safety of the performers and the enjoyment of the audience. At Altamont, the stage sat at the bottom of a slope. You read that right... some of the top performers in the world were to perform on a stage 39 inches tall that was set at the bottom of several hills. There was no "clear area" between the stage and the crowd. There was no barrier between the stage and the crowd.
The sound system wasn't much better. From all reports, nobody heard the sound well that day - not the performers, not the people a hundred feet away from the stage, certainly not the people half a mile away from the stage. The system was nowhere near big enough, loud enough or good enough for a proper presentation of that much music to that many people.
Directly quoting Rolling Stone magazine from their extensive coverage of the Altamont disaster published in their January 21, 1970 issue:
"It was as if Altamont's organizers had worked out a blueprint for disaster. Like:
1) Promise a free concert by a popular rock group which rarely appears in this country.
Announce the site only four days in advance.
2) Change the location 20 hours before the concert.
3) The new concert site should be as close as possible to a giant freeway.
4) Make sure the grounds are barren, treeless, desolate.
5) Don't warn neighboring landowners that hundreds of thousands of people are expected. Be unaware of their out-front
hostility toward long hair and rock music.
6) Provide one-sixtieth the required toilet facilities to insure that people will use nearby fields, the sides of cars, etc.
7) The stage should be located in an area likely to be completely surrounded by people and their vehicles.
8) Build the stage low enough to be easily hurdled. Don't secure a clear area between stage and audience.
9) Provide an unreliable barely audible low fidelity sound system.
10) Ask the Hell's Angels to act as "security" guards."
I'm sorry, what was #10 again??!!??
The Hell's Angels
Yeah... #10 is the one that gets the most notoriety in regards to Altamont. For all that was going wrong and for the entire disaster cocktail that was being brewed, the Stones were most concerned about security. This intensified when they found they'd be performing on a stage that was located in a virtual canyon only about a yard off the ground. Jagger especially had a lot of fears about his own safety, many of them justified; the persona(s) he was crafting were potentially dangerous when viewed or adored by the wrong, perhaps slightly unstable, perhaps slightly addled fan. Besides, it was a rock show and even outside of the Stones, a LOT of big name talent was scheduled to appear. Of all the problems, something had to be done about security.
In fairness, there were certainly extenuating circumstances behind the Stones decision to hire the Angels for security (I'm not going to put quotes around "security" because the people that paid the cash paid for security, plain and simple). Remember, earlier in 1969 came the tragic death of Brian Jones, and amid the grief and mourning, the Stones organized a free show at Hyde Park in London, which sort of doubled as Mick Jones' public debut as the new Stone. That show had its problems as well, but (especially when compared to Altamont) was relatively non-violent. At that show, the London chapter of the Hell's Angels were hired for security, and it went pretty well; they did a good job and they were easy to work with. Also, there was a sort of common knowledge that the Grateful Dead had used the services of the Hell's Angels at their shows before. All this seemed to make it a logical and convenient choice. That this resulted in problems is now the stuff of legend, but at the very least, the band seemed to have at least some justification for the action. Of course, what wasn't known to the band at the time was that the British Angel's weren't actually a real chapter of the Hell's Angels at all... they were a group of avid motorcycle fanciers who essentially christened themselves as a chapter. The real Angels had nothing to do with them in any way, shape or form. After the show, Mick Taylor was quoted as saying, "I think we expected probably something like the Hell's Angels that were our security force at Hyde Park, but of course they're not the real Hell's Angels, they're completely phony. These guys in California are the real thing - they're very violent."
Most accounts agree that the Angels were hired the day before Altamont, and that the "fee" was $500 worth of beer that the Angels could drink freely. Beyond that, it gets very, very, very murky, and it's unlikely that will ever change. Various sources on the side of the Stones and other festival authorities say a lot of things about the deal. Some vigorously claim the Angels were definitely hired as a standard security force, some say they were hired strictly to surround the very low stage and make sure nobody climbed on to the stage who wasn't supposed to be there; Sam Cutler, who at the time was the Stones' road manager, declared that the only agreement ever in place was that the Angels make sure nobody tampered with the power generators. From the Angels' side, they have always denied that they were hired as or ever agreed to provide any sort of security, and again in fairness, that would be extremely consistent with every event the Angels have ever attended or been asked to be a part of. They're NOT a police force, and they make no bones about it. However, written deeply into their own code is the idea that when a deal is made, they adhere to their end of it. From everything I've read, my very best guess would be that the basic deal was indeed that the Angels got $500 worth of beer and that their responsibilities were to surround and protect the stage. I would further guess that when the Angels asked about what means they were supposed to use to protect said stage, in some form or another, "any means necessary" was the agreement. Keep in mind, again... from the Stones side, they had a very successful experience with the Hells Angels back home, and their idea of "any means necessary" was almost certainly not how the Angels on this side of the pond interpret the phrase.
And as such, the stage was set, so to speak. Fairly early on Saturday morning, the first of probably around 300,000 music fans began filing into the Altamont Speedway for what they most likely hoped and dreamed would be an event, maybe the show of a lifetime. It was, just not in any of the ways they were hoping.
The What, Part Two
Woodstock was Three Days Of Peace, Love and Music. Altamont was One Day Of War, Terror and Barely Audible Music. As with all things, it started innocuously enough. People, lots of them, showed up. There were plenty of drugs (most accounts say LOTS of low grade acid) and plenty of alcohol to wash the drugs down. The Angels were there, and while there was plenty of confusion as to exactly what they should do, there was of course no confusion about the beer that was provided for them to consume. Tensions mounted quickly, there was a lot of hostility between the Angels and the crowd, the Angels and the organizers, the crowd and the performers... the whole thing was a huge cauldron of bad vibes, bad drugs, bad planning and, predictably, bad results.
The most notorious incident of the festival happened late, during the Stones performance (which didn't start until after sundown, after making the crowd wait for 90 minutes. Jagger reportedly felt both his makeup and the lighting were more effective in the dark). The name Meredith Hunter will live forever as the ultimate symbol of the Woodstock Nation failure - he was the 18-year old man who was killed by a Hell's Angel while the Rolling Stones played live music. By the time the Stones had taken the stage, so much had already happened that neither the crown nor the Angels were in a particularly loving mood. Again, there are variations about what happened with and to Hunter, but in this case, there's actually film evidence to make much of it clear. Hunter was, from all accounts, a relatively passive young man, intelligent, well-spoken, responsible. However, for whatever reason, he also owned a gun, a fairly menacing-looking long barreled revolver. Who knows why, but for whatever reason, Hunter took his gun with him to the festival that day. By the time the Stones were on stage, he was extremely altered; his autopsy showed he had a significant amount of methamphetamine in his system when he died. Fairly early in the Stones set, Hunter and other fans made an effort to get up onstage with the Stones, and if nothing else was certain, it was VERY clear that the Angels were not to allow this. Hunter was grabbed, punched and chased back into the crowd. The next few moments are subject to various accounts; some say the Angels chased Hunter through the crowd, with the possibility that he was attacked with a knife during the chase, others say the Angels forgot about him after dragging him off the stage and chasing him back to the crowd. However, a few moments later are the moments etched into infamy, with film backup. After about a minute, Hunter reappeared by the stage, his girlfriend reportedly pleading with him to calm down and back off. More than one witness described Hunter as enraged, irrational and so high he could barely walk. He drew his long-barreled .22 from inside his jacket. Hell's Angel Alan Passero saw the revolver being drawn, drew a knife from his own belt, charged Hunter and stabbed him at least twice, which resulted in Hunter's death. The whole incident was a couple of seconds in time, and though caught on film, the cameraman was completely unaware that he had done so until about a week later when reviewing the raw footage. After the stabbing, the crowd closed around Passero and Hunter; it is possible that Hunter was stabbed up to five times, though only two are actually captured on film, and as with everything else, there are widely varying accounts as to what happened next. Some say Passero took his place back by the stage and resumed his job, others say he "stood guard" over Hunter's fallen body and angrily demanded the crowd leave him alone, some reporting the quote, "He's going to die anyways, just let him die."
It was a couple of seconds, but one young man and a whole lot of dreams, fantasies and fairy tales died in those couple of seconds.
While certainly the day's most notorious incident, it was far from the only ugliness of the day. Four people actually died that day; Hunter, two people in a hit-and-run incident outside of the speedway and a young man who jumped into an irrigation canal and was quickly overwhelmed by a very strong current; he drowned. There are legends that four children were also born during the festival, but what looked to be a pretty thorough investigation by Rolling Stone magazine found no evidence of it; nobody at any of the medical stations reported the birth of a child, and no area hospitals had any record of births that could be attributed to the timeframe of the festival and attended to after. The magazine seemed to conclude that the myth of four births was a sort of weak counter to the documented fact that four people died. What else?
• During Santana's set, quite a few concertgoers were beaten by Angels carrying the preferred weapon of the day - sawed
off pool cues.
• Skirmishes between the crowd and the Angels continued; during Jefferson Airplane's set, singer Marty Balin tried to
intercede during a fight between a member of the audience and one of the Angels and was literally knocked out cold.
When Paul Kantner took to the mic to say something about it, he was verbally and physically threatened by another
Angel, and it took intervention to prevent Kantner from being possibly seriously hurt.
• Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young gave a very half-hearted performance, only even consenting to perform at the sincere
urging of David Crosby. There was continuous violence visible to them during most of their set, including one time where
the Angels looked to make an almost military charge into the crowd, brandishing their pool cues and knocking cold
anybody they felt they needed to. After the CSNY set, stretchers were taken into the crowd and a "significant number" of
bloodied, wounded fans were taken from the crowd.
• The Grateful Dead, who were supposed to perform after CSNY and just before the Stones, heard of all the violence and
ugliness and simply refused to play. This prompted many journalists to comment that it was a perfect thumbnail of
Altamont - that essentially the "home team" and one of the principal organizers of the event didn't even play.
• Even Mick Jagger, for all his paranoia, fell victim. Shortly after the Stones arrived at the event via helicopter, a fan rushed
up to him, reportedly screaming, "I hate you! I hate you!" and punched Jagger in the face.
The litany goes on and on and on. Medical people report that there were so many freakouts from the combination of bad drugs and bad happenings that they pretty much abandoned their preferred method of trying first to talk people down; things got so crazy, doctors started immediately administering doses of thorazine to try to bring people out of it. There were so many freakouts the doctors had to send for emergency supplies of thorazine; they ran out. The fights never stopped, and once the mood of the crowd went from bad to worse to disastrous, the fighting wasn't just warfare between the Angels and the fans; the crowd turned on itself, with numerous injuries reported even far away from the mayhem of the stage.
Nothing went right. Nothing. Woodstock had hopefully proven that a city-sized crowd could gather and exist together in difficult circumstances, and that caring and music would hold them together and provide a means for survival. Altamont proved that it just wasn't so.
Did the music really die that day? Not literally, of course not. Journalistic excess, guilty as charged... yes, I wanted very much for you to read this article. Much of the greatest music of my and many other lives was created from the seventies onward and continues to be made to this very day. Were things the same afterwards? No, they weren't. While they obviously didn't go away for good, the idea of festivals (at least in the U.S.) went away for a long, long time, and when they began to come back, you can bet your bottom dollar that Altamont was the primary case study of everything NOT to do if you want to survive, both financially and maybe even figuratively. While for the most part the Stones never said much about the whole thing, most of the other performers were very open about the trauma they suffered as a result of their world falling apart around them. Certainly there was an element of their profession, which by now was becoming established and (dare I say it?) perhaps even respectable, being seriously affected in a negative way by all this. However, reading over the quotes and watching some of the video footage of interviews with the performers... the pain on their faces and in their voices seems real. And seriously... who ever picks up a guitar and dreams of playing on stage in front of a whole lot of people and thinks, "Woah! Maybe some day I can even help get somebody killed!"
Alan Passero was eventually arrested and charged with murder. He was found not guilty, mainly because of the film evidence which plainly showed that Hunter drew his weapon first (there's even disputed evidence that he fired the gun before he was attacked). As of references I found from as late as 1973, nobody from the Rolling Stones organization and nobody from any of the systems involved with Altamont has contacted Meredith Hunter's family to offer even so much as a condolence. Though it was reported that the Stones were supposed to be carrying a $1,000,000 insurance policy for the event, I can find no documentation anywhere that anybody got any financial compensation from Altamont. Outside of the Hunter family, I have no doubt that some 300,000 people carried some pretty deep scars with them for a long, long time. December 5, 1969 - the Rolling Stones gift the music world with Let It Bleed. December 6, 1969 - Altamont, largely the brainchild of those same Stones, draws enough blood that the entire hippie movement goes on life support.
What a difference one damned day makes...