On December 6th, 1969, The Rolling Stones hosted what proved to be one of the most tragic concerts ever at the Altamont Raceway Park, effectively silencing the rising counterculture movement and, in a sense, the 60’s themselves. As the turbulent decade went on, what started as a utopian dream of free love and grinning madness born of sunshine and an infectious, enthusiastic hope sadly faded into chaos, anger, and violence at Altamont. The Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger beseeched the crowd for a return to sanity, but the wave of heady change that had gone out years before had finally came crashing back in, drowning a dream.
The sixties ended in more ways than one, near the epicenter of the cultural revolution’s birthplace, San Francisco, CA. The spirit that had permeated the heart of the nation and it’s youth was one of yearning: Yearning for change in social and racial views, an end to the decade-long wars in southern Asia and an abandonment of the outdated and inequitable gender roles. People wanted America to live up to its slogan and truly be “The Land Of The Free.” It had been almost 200 years since our founding, and after almost two centuries of living a lie, the drive for true freedom was gaining steam.
From the corner of Haight-Ashbury, a tie-dyed wave had emanated outwards across the country. It was a new shared perspective, equal parts free-thought, mind-expanding drug use and an outright rejection of all common wisdom. The beginning of the sixties saw the Beat generation start to deconstruct conventional thinking and break the stagnant veneer of middle class safety and upper class privilege. It was the poor who were most likely to become statistics on the news, as it always has been. Interestingly, for the first time, real time reporting was being done of a war, and it was being done in every living room across the country.
Every facet of our society saw a splintering, and nowhere was this more pronounced than in music. The Beats and their jazz, the big band swing, the singing groups of the decade before became, as it always does, the music of the previous generation. Rock and Roll, which had come on like a revolution itself, had gotten into a groove that seemed to be a defining of its parameters, an establishment of boundaries. Then, a new British Invasion, this one musical, brought new sounds to our lands. Two bands in particular, the squeakily clean Liverpool chums The Beatles, and the rough and tumble lads from London, The Rolling Stones, lead the charge.
Every release became a near-instant chart-topper, and the two acts both ruled and dueled up and down the charts for much of the decade. The dichotomy between the two groups was obvious. Though both found their way to rock through the blues, The Stones lived life on the dirtier side of town, much more so than their refined friends. Both bands steered directly into the psychedelic wave and were greatly changed by it. While the Sergeant marched Beatles in one direction, the Devil wondered if the Stones might have a little sympathy for his plight.
Simply put, the Stones were the leather jackets, the tough guys who rocked out and then partied til the bars literally ran dry. Hotels around the world feared their concert tour announcements as fervently as their fans anticipated them. Their partying spirit was the stuff of legend, and his legend continues to this day. His name is Keith Richards, and he still rocks harder than any of us could. Their fans responded to that energy, and were a raucous group to be sure. As the decade went on, what started as a pleasant dream born of sunshine faded into screams in the dark at The Altamont Concert on December 6th, 1969.
The Rolling Stones weren’t going it alone, though. They were bringing their compatriots Ike and Tina Turner, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the band that would come to personify the hippie movement, the Grateful Dead. In their four years together at that point, the Dead had already amassed an impressive following, and the Bay area concert was in their home town, and the massive audience coming for the show was sure to be well stocked with early Deadheads.
In hindsight, the many troubles during the lead-up to the show seem to scream that something was not right, but the band, promoters and lawyers plugged ahead anyway. The tragedy was not the result of one cause, and there is no true evil, hands-rubbing-together Mr. Burns-type in the background. There’s some altruism, some greed and some folks who wanted to walk very different paths to the same destination. When a people embrace free thinking on a large enough scale, folks who have differing views on what “freedom” means are inevitably going to find themselves in conflict. Behind the scenes, last minute emergency deals were being made and broken over and over just to make the event happen at all.
After several more size-appropriate venues backed out of the show for a variety of fairly sound objections raised by the location owners and operators, Dick Carter offered up his Altamont Speedway as a last option. Though the venue was smaller than they wanted and with no time to construct an adequate stage, the Stones and their management team and lawyer Mel Belli knew that to call off the show was too risky. Fans were already on the road and on their way for the show from all points in the nation, and in those pre-cell phone days, there was no way of stopping the approaching horde.
The Dead’s manager for more than two decades, Rock Scully, was involved heavily in the production of the festival, and withheld his sign-off on the Speedway location until he and concert organizer Michael Lang toured the site by air in a helicopter and was satisfied it could hold the hundreds of thousands of incoming fans. Everyone wanted the show to happen, and were collectively crossing everything they had to cross. Unfortunately, all bills come due eventually, and Altamont seemed to collect all the bad karmic debt that had accrued over the last six or seven years.
It’s important to remember that, barely four months earlier, after a last minute change to Max Yasgar‘s farm in upstate New York from its own original location, the Woodstock Music and Art’s Festival‘s proposed “3 Days of Peace And Love” had turned into a plague of human locusts that pillaged the area as thoroughly as any occupying army ever had. Some of the Altamont promoters had been a part of the Woodstock production team and cautioned against riling the building forces of nature they had invoked. Backs against the wall and feeling there was no choice, all parties worriedly agreed that the Speedway was the only choice, and the new location was announced, on December 4th, for a show happening the following Saturday, December 6th.
Of all the havoc caused by late in the game changes in facilities (such as the needed number of bathrooms and infrastructure capable of housing the staff required to manage such a large event), the difference in stage placement had the biggest effect on the day’s events. Instead of a raised stage, the new location’s low stage was situated at the bottom of a steep incline, with the crowd set to congregate up the hillside. This was more than a cosmetic change. It also heavily altered the optics of the event. From the naturally positive of looking up at the music idols on high, now fans would be staring down their noses at the performers, surrounding them and, as always, pushing ever forward like like tides coming in against a protective wall of…Hell’s Angels?
After having positive results working with the Angels in a kind of security role in the past, the Dead had no problem recommending the Hell’s Angels for the job. It’s been said that since meeting at an acid test, the Dead and, to an extent, a lot of the more informed members of the peace movement saw the bikers as a more violent, yet still noble part of the same counterculture wave they were surfing. This notion, though true in a more theoretical view point of the situation, broke down in a more practical analysis. Though also shunning society’s imposed roles, the Hell’s Angels by then were more of the outlaw tradition than any other denomination of boundary pusher.
The Flying Burrito Brothers brand of Americana had a temporary calming effect on the crowd, but the Angels continued to drink, and the crowd continued to indulge in a variety of excesses, lighting the proverbial fuse. During the multiple opening bands’ sets, a tense stand-off began formed between the increasingly drunk and perturbed bikers and the growing number of drug users who were doubling down on intoxicants of all shapes, sizes and amounts. Fights broke out in the audience in bursts of anger, with circles of onlookers and distance-keepers quickly forming and disappearing when the violence ceased. It wasn’t always the Angels getting involved, but they certainly stayed in the mix, their penchant for physical confrontations percolating strongly as the day wore on. Not even the performers were safe, as Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane took an Angel’s punch in the face during the set and was knocked cold.
Though a part of the planning for the event since near the beginning, the Grateful Dead wisely bowed out of their slot between Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Stones. Their frustration at the days events haunted them for years, and references to the day turned up repeatedly in lyrics from songs penned after the event, most notably “New Speedway Boogie,” whose haunting chorus “One way or another, this darkness got to give” became a reverent plea for the return of the loving feeling of freedom from which that the Dead had been born. Sadly, once innocence is lost, it can never truly be regained.
Mick Jagger was on his heels and shrinking in video of the performance. The tone of the day had been set quickly after he stepped off the plane, when a fan (of sorts) punched him in the head. It’s a far cry from an earlier press conference in the film Gimme Shelter. He downplays the importance of the music, saying that the real reason for the gathering is the gathering itself–and he’s spot on with that observation. The crowd of close to 300k fans, a vast majority of which twisted in one direction or the other on a wide variety of booze, smokes, pills and powders, was ready to blow the time the band took the stage at midnight. Mindful of the firestorm they had called into being, the Stones now had to take the stage and hold their own against the highly unstable crowd.
Not three full songs in, the show was forced to stop as a fight raged near the stage. Jagger repeatedly asked the crowd to calm themselves, so the show can go on. In hindsight, many were asking why the show did not stop. The band and promoters had discussed the canceling the rest of the performance, but wisely realized that would be akin to pouring gasoline on an already smoldering fire. The violence that would have likely followed such an announcement would have made what actually happened pale in comparison.
In the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, the situation gets plain very quickly. Sonny Barger, the Hell’s Angels Oakland chapter head, comments via a call-in to a radio show. That radio appearance, hosted on the KSAN airwaves by Altamont organizer Stefan Ponek the following day, tried to hash out what had happened to cause Altamont’s ignoble end. Barger refutes any thought that he or the Angels considered themselves paid security. “I didn’t go there to police nothing, man.” He lays his case matter of factly, in a tone that resonates with absolute truth. As Stefan and the city listened, Barger continued: “I ain’t no cop, I ain’t never gonna pretend to be no cop, and this Mick Jagger, he put it all on the Angels, man. Like, he used us for dupes, man. They told me that if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody would climb over me, that I could drink beer until the show was over, and that’s what I went there to do.”
And that’s just what he and the rest of the Angels did. They drank…all day, and to the point of drunken anger. Again, the issue with all redefining waves is that not everyone responds to it in the same way. The cultures clashed, metaphorically and physically as the day stretched into night at Altamont. Better planners and clearer thinkers could have seen what was coming…an epic surge of human attention, and a wall of boozin’ bikers who wanted little part in such responsibilities standing between fans and the band.
There’s a social contract we all rely on to function. A trade-off of certain freedoms..not many, and most of them actually matters of common courtesy, like…no jumping on people, or throwing up on people…pretty much respecting a person’s space. Your freedom to act however you want stops when it is against the personal or public good. Or to put it more plainly…”don’t start nuthin’…won’t be nuthin.'” And quite possibly hiring a security force that works for beer during the job is a resoundingly bad idea.
When it’s said that the sixties ended in Altamont, they actually mean it ended in that single moment at Altamont–A moment captured in images on film by a documentary crew without their even realizing what they filmed at the time: A drug crazed fan, Meredith Hunter, high on methamphetamines and angry from an earlier altercation with the Angels, raising a gun in the crowd. Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro lunging towards him and stabbing him before a shot could be fired. Well-worn biker boots crashing down on a man who made terrible choices and was paying the ultimate cost. Was it a case of instant karma? A public venting of a well-known, simmering antagonism between two very different results of departing from regular societal roles?
…Or was it something more basic than that? A generation had come of age in a time when it truly looked to them as if they could change the world. The spread of the flower power movement in the sixties mirrored that of growing through adolescence, of learning not just the boundaries of society, but the very reasons those boundaries existed. The underlying abuse of the mind-expanding drugs that had inspired the counterculture had finally presented a terrible bill to the hippie generation, and it had to be paid in full. The collective hangover from a decade of excess made the seventies a dark time of hedonism and excess, which led to the eighties’ snap back to family values and capitalism seem as if everything the hippies had dreamt of had died. The spirit of change can never truly die, but on that tragic day at the Altamont Free Concert, a spirit did fade away. It was the day the ’60s died.
[Cover photo via Gimme Shelter]