I could feel it before I got there. Several miles out and the dark vibes curled through the air like a toxic vapor. Serpentine streams of people twisted through the hills, uncertain of exactly where they were going. There were no maps. No trails. No signs. Nothing pointing toward our destination: Altamont.
Like some hippie version of The Walking Dead, we just followed whoever was in the lead. We assumed the people in front knew where the fuck they were going. It soon became clear we were on the right path when we started encountering people scattered throughout the hilly scrub lying on their backs, curled up in fetal positions or sitting upright with fear etched on their faces. We were on the periphery of a psychic warzone and these were the first casualties – people tripping on low-grade LSD, speed and alcohol. I parted from the zombie march and went to the nearest person struggling through a bad trip. She was a young girl and she was severely freaked-out. This encounter set the tone for most of my experience of the Altamont rock festival.
Like thousands of young people living in the Bay Area in 1969, I got the news of a free concert headlining The Rolling Stones via radio. Time and date were to be announced and we waited. This was going to be the West Coast’s Woodstock and people were psyched. When the word went out that the festival was taking place at a racetrack 50 miles east of San Francisco it seemed like an odd choice. But it didn’t deter the hundreds of thousands of people who ended up there on Saturday the sixth of December.
I hitchhiked from Berkeley to Altamont more out of a sense of obligation than excitement. The distance was a hassle and I wasn’t interested in most of the bands on the bill other than The Rolling Stones and The Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead and CSNY were the other major acts and I wasn’t a fan of either. But as a card-carrying member of the hippie counter-culture this was a call I couldn’t ignore. California had always been the rock festival capital of the world and Altamont was going to shift the attention from Woodstock back to where it belonged. Little did anyone know that Altamont would draw the kind of attention that would later be described by some as the death of the Sixties.
Between the vast quantities of freely distributed toxic LSD, the huge mistake of hiring the Hell’s Angels to provide security and a stark and ugly location, Altamont did just about everything wrong. There was plenty of blame to go around, mostly on the part of The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead. But none of us at the concert were aware at the time of the behind-the-scenes fuck-ups. We knew that The Dead had cancelled their gig and we could see the sociopathic behavior of the Angels. Mostly, we could feel the energy. And it was dark. I’ve never taken the concept of black masses seriously. It always struck me as dress-up for losers. But if there is such a thing as a black mass, Altamont would be my reference point.
I saw very little of the actual performances by the bands. I witnessed The Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin being assaulted by the Angels while Grace Slick begged the bad guys to calm the fuck down. The bikers were upstaging the bands, pathetically and repeatedly trying to hog the spotlight. The Hells Angels thought they were the fucking show. I moved as far away as I could from the macho stench and spent most of my time talking people down from bad acid trips and escorting the completely helpless to the emergency medical tents.
Between being Florence Nightinghale to weekend hippies, I would stand on a hill behind the Hell’s Angel’s modified school bus and watch musicians struggling to get through their sets alive. There was so much chaos near the stage that no one in their right mind (and I was in my right mind) would go near the mess. The stage itself was about about four feet tall and held together by twine. The bands were barely visible. The whole thing was rinky dink. I waited out the horror show for the Stones. Every cell of my body was telling me to get the fuck out and go back to Berkeley. But I’d come a long way and wanted to see the headliners.
The Stones finally went on after the sun had set. The temperature was dropping and people were burning whatever they could find to create some heat in the cold. Bonfires blazed as far as the eye could see. It was hellish.
When The Stones hit the stage they were bathed in red light and Jagger was draped in a scarlet and black cape. In the convulsion of bonfires, biker mayhem and wailing of people on bad trips, Jagger’s infernal image spooked the living shit out of me. When the opening chords of their third song of the set signaled they were playing “Sympathy For The Devil,” I turned on my heels and headed toward the nearest highway.
I was not alone. People were leaving in droves. Many couldn’t find their automobiles in the dark. It was pandemonium. I got lucky when a van full of freaks slung open the door and yelled “get in!” The further we got from the site, the better we all started to feel. The drive back to the Bay Area took hours but there was a collective sense of relief in the van and we all started talking about what we had just experienced. We were all weary and heartbroken. Altamont was a disaster.
While reading Joel Selvin’s new book Altamont, The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, I was so deeply disturbed by memories of that day that I had to repeatedly put it down and regain my emotional balance. There’s only been a few books that have this kind of effect on me. Most of them had to do with either the assassinations of the Kennedys and Malcolm X or 9/11.
Without making the usual grandiose statements holding Altamont responsible for being the death knell of the Sixties, Selvin has done the far more difficult job of investigating the massive miscalculations and ego-trips that led to the worst rock festival in history. Sidestepping cosmic mumbo jumbo and apocalyptic social scenarios, Selvin writes with the no bullshit precision of a hard-boiled crime writer. He digs deep into the murder of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter who was killed at the festival by an Angel. He makes no apologies for the borderline criminal and reckless behavior of the people who organized the festival. Among those responsible were amateur promoters, the clueless Rolling Stones who were following directions from the hippie dippy Grateful Dead, the sleazeball owner of the racetrack and the utterly ineffectual local police.
The fact it was so poorly organized makes it hard to know exactly who did what, when and where. Selvin sifts through the mess and gives it about as much shape as is humanly possible. People who were acting on behalf of The Stones had no authority to do so. Scammers and hustlers were intertwined with arrogant rock stars who had little knowledge of what was going on and wanted to keep it that way. The less the bands knew, the better. When it came to laying blame, The Dead and The Stones could claim ignorance. Or they just didn’t care. In addition, there was a film crew hired by Jagger with the intention of releasing a theatrical movie. So greed entered the mix and the show had to go on.
In an attempt to create the ultimate hippie love fest, the people behind Altamont created the world’s biggest bummer. The festival was free but it came at a cost. The last big concert of the Sixties became Vietnam the musical, without the big artillery and the Vietnamese. We only had ourselves to blame for this one. No Nixon. No Kissinger. Our good karma had run out. We were devouring ourselves whole.
Not all of the blame can be laid at the feet of the organizers. Many of the people attending the fest jumped on the hippie train with little interest in Aquarian Age ideals. They were there to get fucked-up, get fucked or fuck someone up. That and LSD laced with speed was a recipe for something as far removed from Woodstock as peyote is from crack. In almost all of the photos I’ve seen that were taken at Altamont it’s rare to see people looking happy. For the eight hours I was there, all I remember was misery and how very very small Mick Jagger looked standing on the rickety stage in his little red cape. Surrounded by angels from hell and an audience so tweaked they might as well have been watching a puppet show, Jagger had conjured something far beyond his control and a rock and roll reckoning was just a shot away.
In this clip from The Maysles Brothers’ documentary on Altamont, Gimme Shelter, The Stones perform “Sympathy For The Devil” while Hells Angels beat the shit out of rock fans with pool cues. The violence is literally just a few feet from the band. Note the expressions on some of the faces of the audience members. Shock and tears. Footage from the film was used as evidence in the trial of Meredith Hunter’s killer.