Not barely four months after Woodstock, Altamont would prove to be worlds apart from its predecessor. For reasons largely unforeseen, or at least unacknowledged at the time, there was a definite divide in ideology between the American hippies in the crowd, and some of the English rockers onstage– for whom this hippie-trippy way of life was hard to swallow. For some it was simply naive, and to others– it was downright offensive. Pete Townsend in particular left Woodstock with a bad taste in his mouth– “All those hippies wandering about thinking the world was going to be different from that day on… As a cynical English arsehole, I walked through it all and felt like spitting on the lot of them…” Country Joe countered with his personal recollection of Pete at Woodstock. “I saw Townshend pull up in his limo, then do his set, and leave. That’s the sum total of his experience of Woodstock. He played at it but he wasn’t really part of it.”
Look, we all go through life with our own backgrounds, beliefs and expectations that impact our openness to ideas, and color our perceptions of attitudes and events. That being said– Is Townsend really there to “experience Woodstock”, or is he there to put on a great Who show? Whose place is it to dictate that everyone passing through the ’60s has to buy into the damn hippie lifestyle? It clearly wasn’t for everyone. Certainly not for the Rolling Stones.
By 1969, the Rolling Stones were a band with a well-established attitude of monstrous proportions. They were effin’ rock stars baby, and royalty at that. The world was their stage– and they saw Stones’ fans as their subjects. There to adore them and feed their egos. They didn’t come into Altamont with the idea that it would be a lovefest. Strangely, Mick Jagger was going through a phase of curiosity in Satanism and the occult at that time– but he would be far from prepared for the darkness that would unfold at his feet on that December day.
Altamont and the Charlie Manson murders would effectively usher out the age of the hippie. But was the hippie movement even real outside of the provincial confines of Woodstock and Haight Ashbury? Or, were we all just temporarily clouded by the sweet scent of a movement that was never more than a passing fad or fashion for most?
Photo above of Mick Jagger & Charlie Watts with Hells Angel. — Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved. From the start, the Altamont festival was a disaster in waiting. The stage was too low, the crowd too close, the Hells Angels too wired on beer and bad acid. Such was the rush to stage the festival that there were no food or drink outlets, and few toilets. –Sean O’Hagan
It is still unclear how the Hells Angels were invited to provide security for the Rolling Stones free concert. The infamous biker gang was a fixture at rock gigs on the West Coast and often assumed the role of guardian angels, having forged an uneasy alliance with groups including the Grateful Dead and Steppenwolf, as well as Ken Kesey’s traveling troupe of fabled peaceniks, the Merry Pranksters. The Hells Angels were not peaceniks, though, nor pranksters. In his history of the Grateful Dead, A Long Strange Trip, Dennis McNally describes a meeting between Sam Cutler, the Stones’ tour manager, and two Bay Area Hells Angels, Sweet William and Frisco Pete, in which the fateful contract was drawn up between the world’s “baddest” band and the world’s baddest biker gang. “We don’t police things,” Sweet William said. “We’re not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun.” Cutler asked, “Well, what about helping people out – giving directions and things?” Sweet William responded, “Sure, we can do that.” When Sam asked how they might be paid, Sweet William replied, “We like beer.” The deal, McNally wrote, was done for 100 cases. –Sean O’Hagan
(Lt.) 12/6/69, CA — One solitary car head northwest on Highway 50, as a monumental traffic jam-even by California standards-backs up cars for nearly 20 miles, as thousands of rock fans converge on a free concert by the Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway, 50 miles southeast of San Francisco.
(Rt.) 12/7/69, CA — Aerial view of cars parked at random near Altamont Speedway where an estimated 300,000 rock music fans created a massive traffic tangle in a wide area surrounding the scene of a free rock concert. Police say several hundred cars remain in the area, apparently abandoned by their owners when they ran out of gas during the height of the influx to the concert. — Images by © Bettmann/Corbis
12/6/1969, CA — Eager rock fans storm the gate at Altamont Speedway here well in advance of the scheduled opening for a free rock festival featuring the Rolling Stones. A colossal traffic jam developed as rock fans converged on the site of the concert 50 miles southeast of San Francisco. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis
1969, CA — Mick Jagger & Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones with Chuck Berry, here backstage. At earlier shows through the South on the Let It Bleed tour, Chuck Berry was their supporting act. Berry was without a doubt the biggest musical influence on the Stones. Early on, Richards and Wyman worshipped Berry and ordered his records from a shop in Chicago before they were available in England– it was mind-blowing for the Stones to have Chuck Berry on their tour. — Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved.
1969, CA — Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones with Rock ‘n’ Roll legend Chuck Berry, here backstage. At earlier shows through the South on the Let It Bleed North American tour, Chuck Berry (Keith Richards’ hero) opened for the Stones.– Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved.
Keith Richards, Mick Taylor & Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones warming up backstage in ’69. — photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved.
Keith Richards & Mick Jagger backstage, 1969. — Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved.
Hundreds of thousands of rock fans were high on either drugs and/or alcohol as they gathered here to enjoy the free Altamont concert by the Rolling Stones and other rock groups. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis
12/6/69, CA — Here’s how a crowd of rock fans, estimated at 300,000 to 500,000 gathered at Altamont Speedway for a rock concert by the Rolling Stones (and other musical groups), looks from the air. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden. — Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved. “What I remember (about Altamont) is that as the darkness fell, the danger seemed to increase. The drama was always going to be the Stones. Mick going through his Satanic stage. But when the violence started erupting all around him, he suddenly seemed so small and vulnerable.” –Eamon McCabe
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones onstage at Madison Square Garden, NY. — Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved.
The events at Altamont reached their deadly climax when a young black man, Meredith Hunter, there with his white girlfriend, was ruthlessly taunted by the Hells Angels. Hunter pulled out a pistol and waved it. He was jumped– knifed several times in the neck and shoulders, and ultimately beaten to death while the Rolling Stones, unaware, played on. — Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
12/6/69 — Hells Angels onstage at the Altamont free concert in Livermore. The Alameda county sheriff’s department reopened the case because they believed there may have been a second assailant in the murder of Meredith Hunter.
Mick Jagger looks on as the Hells Angels drag their victim’s body onstage during the concert. After Hunter’s attack, The Stones left the stage, fleeing in helicopters that awaited them. They landed minutes afterwards, shell-shocked, in an LA airport terminal. “Mick sat on a wooden bench…,” wrote Stanley Booth. “He was bewildered and scared, unable to comprehend what had happened – who the Hells Angels were or why they were killing people at his free peace and love show… ‘I’d rather have the cops,’ Mick said.” After bad-mouthing the Hells Angels, Mick was reportedly targeted for assassination by the motorcycle gang. The story goes that the Angels were in a boat headed for Jagger’s Long Island, NY vacation home, when the bikers were thrown from their boat in a storm and failed to follow through with the assassination. Hmm. (AP Photo)
Alan Passaro, the Hells Angel arrested in the killing of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont free concert. Passaro was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense after the jury viewed the footage from the concert showing Hunter drawing the revolver and pointing it in the air. — Image by © Bettmann/Corbis
Hells Angels on security duty at the ’69 Altamont Free Concert, where Meredith Hunter was killed.
Mick & the Stones onstage at the infamous ’69 Altamont Free Concert, immortalized in Gimme Shelter. — Photograph © Ethan Russell. All rights reserved.
The infamous 1969 Altamont Free Concert — Acid, however, was not free — $1.00
read more at the Guardian
The definitive, required reads on Altamont –
True Adventures of the Rolling Stones
Interesting, and still disturbing reading about (and seeing it) all again. What’s interesting is that in the photograph of the beating, two men are photographing it happening. I suppose I’ve come to think that it’s only in recent years that people’s first reaction is to pull their phone out and record everything before helping, so it’s interesting to see this happening in ’69. I wonder what happened to those images? I’m know I wouldn’t have been brave enough to intervene, but I’m not even sure I’d have been brave enough to photograph it. Maybe the photos and the cameras never got past the HA.
The desperate yet unconvincing pleas of Jagger from the stage as things started getting ugly is to me one of the highlights of rock and roll. I wanted to sample it for a song, but was denied by the Rolling Stones’ legal team. It is now simply a lyric in the song.
“Everyone, sit down! Keep cool! Let’s just relax! Let’s get into the groove! C’mon – we can get it together.”
Now understand that I don’t know one way or the other, but the whole Altamont thing has bugged me since the day it happened, and Gimme Shelter is still top of my list of all time scary movies, and so it was with much interest that I read through the Altamont chapter of the equally scary ‘Mostly True’ history of Laurel Canyon. Mick and company, it seems, may have been sucked in to the whole scene, and what you say here about Pete Townsend maybe takes on a new level of his ‘disgust’, however it does appear the Stones were not completely innocent in deploying known hippie-hater ex–military anti-peacenik aggitators as their personal body guards, and it’s funny you should mention Manson:
Again, I don’t know what happened that day, you and I may never know, but when I correlate the details in Inside the LC to those facts that are public, it is pretty darned scary stuff and I wouldn’t blame Pete one bit for bolting for the door.
chuck berry “supporting act” to the rollingstones ? wow. only in america. with out chuck there would be no rollingstones, punk rock, hard rock, rockabilly. a total architect of the genre known as rock n roll. and as far as altamont goes – that is what happens when you hire a bunch of drunken hells angels to provide security. dumb ass move.
So true about Chuck Berry – one of the few artists of that era whose lyrics stand up even when you take the music away (‘I was campaign shouting like a southern diplomat’ – fantastic.)
A friend of mine works regularly with Bill Wyman, and Chuck Berry tore a strip off him at the 100 Club (London) not so long ago for pointing at him, shouting “Don’t you f*cking point at me, boy!” So I think we can say that Wyman, at least, knows where he stands in the great musical scheme of things.
I saw Bill Wyman play a few years ago in Cambridge (UK). He didn’t have much nice to say about Chuck, so that’s obviously stuck with him.
Pointless sidenote: I gigged the 100 Club 2 years ago. The baby grand I played was used by Jerry Lee Lewis 7 days later. The ticket price to see him play it was more than I was paid. Still a great gig though.
I was at the concert with several friends. We had no idea there was violence until the next day when we saw the news stories. Those folks up close to the stage saw problems, but then if you get close to the stage when drunk Hells Angels are milling about you are a moron. The Stones clearly invited the problems, at the time they were pushing their satanic image to counter the Beatles’ saintly image, sort of a marketing problem I’d say. That’s showbiz. John Lennon famously said, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” I don’t either, nor Stones didn’t then don’t now, niether should you. It’s just show biz.
It became a symbol of something but I never figured out what. Maybe people belatedly saw that all these icons were no more tuned in than Pat Boone or Charo. The Angels? Please.
If you have any interest at all in Altamont and the circumstances leading up to the event, you must read “The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones” by Stanley Booth (which is quoted in this post)–an absolutely riveting account of the 1969 tour.
Two interesting anecdotes:
-The day of the festival was also a Hells Angels initiation day, so members had been partying since the night before, and a number of new members wanted to prove their worth.
-The five Stones really had nothing to do with the organization of Altamont and had been pressured into hosting the free concert because of complaints over the “high cost” of the tour’s tickets (between $4-$8). Having wrapped up what was the exhausting 1969 tour in Florida on November 30th, they recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” in Alabama on December 4th, then flew into San Fransisco on the 5th, slept most of the day, and came to Altamont on the 6th, with the festival already well underway. Booth sets up the scene nicely, the exhausted Stones leaving their quiet luxury hotel rooms, helicoptering in, and descending into the wild muck and chaos of Altamont–wherein Jagger was punched in the face seconds after landing.
there was a giant horse trough filled with ice and beer that greeted you when you entered the area, it was being guarded by Hells Angels wielding pool-cues. None of these guys looked like Peter Fonda, they were more Charlie Manson in their physical appearence and demeanor. Those of us who lived in the real world knew better than to sit anywhere near those jerks. A black guy in a lime green suit entering that scene was not exactly wise. The racism of the Angels was widely known, let’s not forget Altamont was Oakland’s backyard not San Francisco’s. It was an attempt to somehow re-create Woodstock, why anyone would want to reproduce the disaster that was Woodstock is beyond me. There was at the time an EastCoast vs WestCoast rivalry as to who was more authentically hip, my how foolish that all seems now. Heroin, speed, herpes and AIDS answered the question.
Good stuff, JP. this dark, haunting episode of R&R can be further detailed in the photography of Ethan Russell as well as ‘Gimme Shelter’ the wonderful movie from the Maysles brothers — awesome.
REally enjoyed PatGigs’ recollections as well~!
Further to the incident as represented in the film Gimme Shelter, it is a bit on the odd side:
Further, while the film pairs the murder with Under My Thumb, that article says the Rolling Stone journalists cited the unedited film stock to put the incident at Sympathy for the Devil — can any of the commenters here who were present shed any light on that? Was the Rolling Stone guy simply unfamiliar with Stones songs?
The Chuck Berry pics and the shot of Jagger and Richards where Keith is holding the neck of his guitar skyward were all taken at Auburn University on 11/14/69. Chuck only played two dates on that tour – two shows on 11/14 at Auburn, and two shows on 11/16 at the International Amphitheater in Chicago.
I saw an episode of Antiques Roadshow a couple of weeks ago that was shot in Mobile, AL. One of the featured pieces was an original poster for the Auburn shows, which was valued in the $5K range.
Stellar stuff as usual, JP!
Here’s the poster from my previous comment:
Here’s one of Wyman from that same night:
I’ll say it:
The hippy movement was a fad, and to think that the entirety of the 60s was one big hippy love fest is ignorant.
Was it an important cultural movement? Sure. But there was so much else occurring in the 60s that unfortunately gets overshadowed by Woodstock.
Townsends’ assessment however, is dead on.
When you think about it, considering the number of people at the concert and the lack of proper organisation and fascilities it’s surprising that there was only one major incident!
Just read in the news this morning that over 300 people have been killed at a festival in Cambodia – puts a different perspective on things – but that was the 60’s and major news was made about things people don’t blink an eye about nowadays. It’s a strange old world!
Regarding the lone car heading west on what was then State Route 50, probably crossed the median and made a u-turn. The eastern approach, out of Tracy,CA was completely blocked by abandoned cars when I rode through on my motorcycle about 4PM that day. Every road road in the area was packed with cars left on the roadway by concert goers who had walked the rest of the way to the site. The CHP had a fleet of tow trucks hooking the end vehicles by the back bumpers (remember those???) and dragging them, tires screeching, off the roadway and into nearby fields.
Man, this is my favorite blog, ever. Love it. Thanks for this amazing stuff!!
There is some interesting, additional insight from Keith Richards during his interview on NPR with Terry Gross. Check it out.
I wrote about watching Gimmie Shelter for a friends magazine. Not only do we not know the facts from the show but I also find it so hard to comprehend this kind of event. When have I ever been to a show or festival that wasn’t full of advertising, promotion and health and safety? Heck, at Coachella you have to stand in designated “Beer Gardens”, you can’t even sup a beer and watch a band, never mind get off your box on acid and get in a fight with a Hells Angel.
Did this gig signify the start of the transition? I don’t know, but I can’t help but be vaguely disappointed that I missed it all.
“Did this gig signify the start of the transition?”
I think so from the point of view of having been an avid concertgoer in the mid-to-late ’70s. The Who show in Cinci in ’79 was the real nail in the coffin in my opinion.
Of course, I can remember seeing Zappa in late ’79 at a general admission show, and going by the ticket taker with my feet six inches off of the ground in the crush. I still have the whole, original ticket. I wasn’t a small person, either – six feet and 225 pounds.
Jeez… what was the big deal, Mike?? It’s only Zappa??? 😉
RIP Sweet William Tumbleweed AFFA