Mayhem, murder, and music: Altamont turns 50

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, held Dec. 6, 1969, has been immortalized in the Rolling Stones concert film ‘Gimme Shelter’ and is widely considered  the end of the ‘Summer of Love.’ The Stones headlined and are often thought to have organized it as their own Woodstock, having not appeared at the festival held that summer in Bethel, NY. An alternative narrative, however, credits Jefferson Airplane members Jorma Koukonen and Spencer Dryden, in cooperation with the Grateful Dead, as the event’s catalysts.

In either case, poor organization dogged the festival from the beginning. Altamont, 50 miles east of San Francisco, was chosen just two days before the event after plans to use first Golden Gate Park and then Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma collapsed. Traffic backed up for 20 miles trying to reach the speedway as an estimated 300,000 people made their way to the site. Wine, marijuana, and other drugs were openly available and used. One concert-goer on LSD jumped from a freeway overpass and was seriously injured. Another drowned. Multiple assaults and widespread property damage occurred, two other people died accidentally, and one person (Meredith Hunter) was murdered by Hell’s Angels.

The Grateful Dead, scheduled to play immediately before the Stones, dropped out of the show and left the site as security deteriorated.

Given the way everything went down, Hell’s Angels were understandably defensive about post-show characterizations that they had been hired to provide event security. Details of how they became involved and what their role was intended to be vary with almost every recounting. Their behavior as captured on film, however, is nothing if not that of a security force gone mad.

Santana kicked the music off, followed by Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones.

The scene surrounding snippets from Santana’s set is remarkable. Even if one didn’t know the history, the sense of menace is palpable. This was not a good time—notwithstanding the stage announcer’s hopeful suggestion that it “could be the greatest party of 1969 that we’ve had”—and it had only just begun.

 

Jefferson Airplane’s performance ground to a halt as violence erupted down front and a slow-motion stage invasion occurred. Hell’s Angels tried to clear the throngs, but having struck the Airplane’s Marty Balin and knocked him out in the process, their authority to do so was openly challenged. Grace Slick took the mic to try to get the show back on track: “You gotta keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love. People get weird and you need people like the Angels to kind of keep people in line. But the Angels, you know, you don’t bust people in the head for nothing.”

 

Stage announcements before the Flying Burrito Brothers tried to brighten the mood, and FBB succeeded in lifting the gloom to a degree, but nothing could be done to mitigate the claustrophobic conditions. Altamont’s tiny, low stage at the bottom of a geographic bowl now looked like the center of a refugee camp as opposed to a place where some of the world’s greatest bands were playing.

 

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played a six-song set and split, having their own gig that night at Pauley Pavilion on UCLA’s campus.

From Graham Nash’s 2013 autobiography: “We got a bad vibe from the moment we arrived. Electronic music blared over the PA that was loud, obnoxious, and irritating as hell. That put us in an itchy and distracted mood. More than two hundred thousand people were packed into that track, most of them ripped on amphetamines and LSD. The Hells Angels were drunk and unruly. It was an ugly scene, and unpredictable.

“The only reason we did Altamont was because Jerry Garcia had called Croz and prevailed on their friendship. But by the time we got there, the Dead had refused to go on after Marty Balin, lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane, got punched in the head. That left it to Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Stones, and us to keep a lid on that crowd. Woodstock had been our gig, and we were cool with that. The Stones were headlining; we’d be long gone by the time they went on.

“Our set went down smoothly and was incident-free, but Stephen was freaked out from the moment we went on stage. He took the temperature of that crowd and sensed the danger in the air. Later, he said he feared that some nut was going to try to shoot Mick, which distracted him from the get-go. And, of course, during the Stones’ set a fan was fatally stabbed by a Hells Angel a short distance from the front of the stage, which more of less signaled the end of the Woodstock era. The minute we finished, we grabbed our guitars and took off for the helicopter at a dead run. We were out of that scene before the applause died down. We flew down to LA and appeared that night at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion, where Stephen fainted from exhaustion.” (Nash, Graham; Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life; pp. 177-178.)

I’ll leave the Rolling Stones set to “Gimme Shelter,’ but urge you to take some time this weekend to watch the movie. Aside from capturing Altamont in all its grime and tragedy it serves as a perfect encapsulation of all that is both glorious and hideous about the music industry in general.

 

 

Set lists [from Wikipedia]:

Santana

Jefferson Airplane

The Flying Burrito Brothers

  • “Lucille”
  • “To Love Somebody”
  • Six Days on the Road
  • “High Fashion Queen”
  • “Cody, Cody”
  • “Lazy Day”
  • “Bony Moronie”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

  • “Long Time Gone”
  • “Down by the River”
  • “Sea of Madness”
  • “Black Queen”
  • “Pre-Road Downs”

The Rolling Stones

 

 

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