Day 811: Sympathy For The Sixties

originally published March 21, 2014

Growing up as I did amid hippie anthems, psychedelic living room lighting fixtures and the notorious sweet smell of those skinny little cigarettes my parents would pass back and forth, it was easy to romanticize the Woodstock culture. When I attended high school, anti-war activism (to boot Iraq out of Kuwait) was non-existent and youth culture involved acting intentionally mopey and disenfranchised or memorizing the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby”. Those kids in 1969 were grooving to great music, they were smiling and enjoying the sun, and they were having promiscuous sex without fear of a deadly organ-murdering virus.

I understand now that framing that era is simplistic and one-dimensional, and I’d overlooked the racial violence, the gender inequity, the generational disconnect and the very real fear that many Americans faced at being shipped off to die in Vietnam. Also, from what I hear the weed wasn’t very good. Woodstock – and I watched the film a few times as a teenager – appeared to be the glittering diamond between the proudly stretched arms of the Peace ‘n Love generation. And Altamont was the axe that knocked the entire thing to the ground.

Another simplification, and it pains me to know that this rich and inarguably fascinating period in our history is going to be butchered by hazy summations and inaccurate conclusions the further we move away from it. The Altamont concert was not the “end of 60’s youth culture” or the “death of ideology”. It was a catastrophic blunder fuelled by poor decisions and lousy planning. Woodstock was a fluke, in that things went well after a disastrous build-up. Altamont was reality.

Less than four months after Woodstock, concert organizers were looking for a sequel. This was prior to the age of corporate-sponsored gigs, when there was no slick industry in place to monetize the counterculture. This is why a free concert was the plan – Woodstock had been free (not by the promoters’ choice, but that’s another story), so why not simulate that vibe on the west coast?

The Rolling Stones were slogging through a successful (though many felt overpriced) tour of the States, and landing in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for a huge free show with a killer roster of opening acts seemed like a great way to finish the tour. They worked alongside members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to make it happen.

Right away, Golden Gate Park was out; the 49ers were hosting the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium on December 6 when the show was to take place, and Kezar was located right in the park. It wasn’t practical. Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) was the next pick, but its owners wanted a $300,000 deposit from the Stones and exclusive film rights. It wasn’t going to happen. This decision to find a new venue was reached on the evening of December 4.

With literally one day to piece together a music festival, it wasn’t likely to go smoothly. Cancelling and trying again in the spring would have made sense – there were no tickets to refund – but instead they pushed forward. Dick Carter’s Altamont Raceway in Alameda County was offered up as a venue, and by the time the first revellers showed up on Saturday there were insufficient toilet facilities, a lack of medical supplies, and a level of overall preparedness that made Woodstock look like an Olympic Opening Ceremonies.

The stage was a big concern. At Sears Point the stage was at the top of a hill; at Altamont the hill rose up from the stage. This was a problem as the stage itself was only about 3 feet high, meaning fans who were desperate to grab themselves some Jagger-junk could lunge forward and do so with no problem. This meant they’d need security. The obvious (and most insane) answer?

Hells Angels.

According to most accounts, the local chapter of the notorious biker group had no interest in being cops or security guards. But they were offered $500 (that’s about $3200 in today’s money) in free beer to simply sit on the edge of the stage and keep the crazies away from the rockers. It was a last-minute solution to a situation that should have been given a tremendous heap of planning.

Part of the problem may have been the bizarre relationship between the Angels and the local hippies. The hippies saw the biker gang as fellow nemeses of the establishment – joined together in their disconnect from the mainstream. The hippies were the visionaries and the bikers were the outlaws. Except the bikers didn’t see things that way. They may have bought into their outlaw classification, but they weren’t terribly fond of the long-hairs who dazed and dozed beneath the California sun. Whether or not they were fans of the music, many of them were not fans of the scene.

From the very start, the air in Altamont was notably different than the Woodstock buzz. It was also a radical shift from the Monterey Pop Festival’s groove from two years earlier, just a few miles away. The Angels downed their free beer and let its effects roll through their blood like an angry fire, and the concert-goers seemed to display an increasingly agitated and unpleasant vibe through Santana’s set. There was a notable mellowing out when the Flying Burrito Brothers took the stage, but one of the Hells Angels punched Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane and knocked him unconscious in the middle of that band’s set.

Fights were breaking out everywhere. Angels were using motorcycle chains and sawed-off pool cues to drive the crowd back from the stage. Crosby Stills Nash & Young played a nervous set, and the Grateful Dead – who had been pivotal in organizing the event – took off without performing. Then the Stones stepped up when the sun went down.

The third song the band played was “Sympathy For The Devil”. A fight broke out in front of the stage, forcing the band to abandon the number until the Angels restored order. After another three tracks the Stones launched into their 1966 hit “Under My Thumb.” That’s when an 18-year-old man (in the green in the photo above) named Meredith Hunter stepped up to the stage, high as fuck on methamphetamine, and pulled out a .22 caliber revolver.

One of the Hells Angels, Alan Passaro, pulled a knife from his belt and tackled Hunter before a shot could be fired. He also stabbed Hunter to death, not ten feet from where the band was performing. Mick and the boys thought it was just another fight. They finished off the set, which included the live debut of “Brown Sugar”. At the end of the day the death toll was four: Hunter, as well as two deaths from an accidental hit and run and one death by drowning in a nearby canal.

The Rolling Stones were mortified when they learned of the stage-side stabbing after the show. Also, I’m sure the thought that someone had pulled a gun out, presumably to take a shot at the band, didn’t help them sleep that night. Alan Passaro was acquitted in 1971, and the story of the concert has been captured in a riveting counterpunch to the Woodstock film, the documentary Gimme Shelter.

The legal ramifications of the show stretched on for years. In 2003 the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office reopened the investigation of a possible second Angel involved in the stabbing. That was closed in 2005. Three years later, an FBI agent revealed there had been a murderous plot of retribution planned by the Hells Angels against Mick Jagger as payback for the band’s lack of support in Altamont’s aftermath, and for the organization’s negative portrayal in the documentary film.

The Hells Angels may have been partly to blame for the violence and general air of unpleasantness at the show, but I’d aim that accusatory finger a little more at whoever decided it would be a good idea to pay them in beer. Altamont was not about “the end of the 60’s” (well, I suppose in a calendar sort of way it was), but rather about a demonstration that lack of planning and a rushed spectacle will not always work out as fortuitously as it had in Bethel, New York in August 1969.

The counterculture survived Altamont. Idealism survived Altamont. They still exist today in some form, protesting inequality, growing out their hair in weird and creative ways, and doing their best not to be sponsored by Pepsi.

Oh, and the weed’s better now. So we’ve got that.

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