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Altamont Free Festival

December 13, 2015

Altamont Free Festival

Whether the events at Altamont marked the death of the hippy dream, as is often claimed, is open to debate, but coming in December 1969, at literally the end of the 60s, the symbolism is irresistible, especially happening four months after the high of Woodstock.

But really, it was all far less prosaic than that. When you get many thousands of people in one place, drug them up and have them policed by Hells Angels, it'd be amazing if something bad didn't happen. And, man, something very bad happened at Altamont.


Everyone knows, or thinks they do, about the death of Meredith Hunter at the hands of Hell's Angels during the Rolling Stones set at Altamont Speedway in Northern California.

Jagger looks on as the Hells Angels remove someone from this lifeJagger looks on as the Hells Angels remove someone from this life

So many years on, it's almost impossible to fully apportion the blame, to sort out the motives of the people involved. Was it wise to hire the bikers as security? No, it wasn't. A cursory knowledge of other festivals in 1969 alone should have told a story. They caused mayhem everywhere. But somehow, they were seen as a kind of alternative, perhaps more cool, version of the cops. But then this was a huge crowd, so would they have been there causing even more trouble if they hadn't been hired? Was it on the Stones' insistence, or the Grateful Dead's? Were they really paid with $500 worth of beer? It's all gone down into mythology.

Why did 18-year-old Meredith have a handgun at the concert? Was he getting hassled by the Angels because he was black and with a white girlfriend? Was he planning to shoot at Mick Jagger, as some have claimed? Had he fired a shot? Did he even have a gun?

The only thing you can really say for certain is that, having stabbed Meredith once, and taken him to the ground, he shouldn't have been stabbed a total of five times (coroner's report) and kicked / beaten to death, which ain't much to say about the end of a kid's life, but there it is.

The murky legal aftermath saw Angel Alan Passaro cleared on grounds of self-defence; there was talk of a second assailant, scared witnesses, the whole sorry nine. The case was not finally closed until 2005.

Anyway... so other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

The Altamont Speedway Free Concert of December 6th 1969 was set to feature a line-up of Santana; Jefferson Airplane; The Flying Burrito Brothers; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead and the Stones. Now that is a bloody good line-up isn't it? Hey, and it's free so you and me are both going, right? Too right we're going dude and we're gonna get real high. What's the worst that could happen, man?

The venue was only chosen 48 hours before the event - amazingly slack preparation for an event that 300,000 would attend. And the racetrack was a run-down, bleak place, appropriately enough only now used for demolition derbies. Facilities were minimal. It should never have happened. A free festival put together in 24 hours was a recipe for disaster and disaster was what they got.

The festival was advertised on local rock radio stations on the Friday and even as early as Friday night people were turning up in their thousands. A lot of them were drinking heavily and whacked out on STP, a combo that is guaranteed to end in tears, even if you're just sitting watching TV, let alone if you're in a desolate speedway track with a gang of angry Hells Angels.

This is what 300,000 people looks like
This is what 300,000 people looks like


A Saturday dawned, streams of hairy people, looking like refugees from a nuclear war, trudged in lines up to seven miles long to get to the racetrack. By 11am there wasn't a foot of space within 75 yards of the hastily built stage. Chip Monck, who had built the stage at Woodstock and worked for Bill Graham at the Fillmores, was the best stage manager in the business at the time, but with so little time available the stage he built was only seven feet high and easily climbed by anyone with a mind so to do. It should have been at least 12 feet. He knew it could be a problem. He was right.

The legendary stage manager, Chip MonckLegendary stage manager, Chip Monck

In retrospect, other than hiring the Angels, maybe that was the single biggest mistake. Loaded fans surged towards the stage - check out the great Gimme Shelter documentary for footage - and, to be fair to the Angels, they had legitimate concerns about the stage being stormed, over-run. Backstage a man, out of his mind on acid, had run at Jagger shouting 'I'm going to kill you' which y'know, is like totally uncool brother, so everyone was jumpy from the get-go.

Even during Santana, the first band on, there were already fights breaking out. Of course, the fact that they'd been drinking beer and wine that was spiked with acid didn't exactly help matters.

Jefferson Airplane at AltamontJefferson Airplane at Altamont


Second band on were Jefferson Airplane opening with 'We Can Be Together' to try and tone the mood down. But during 'The Other Side Of This Life' fights broke out, pugnacious singer Marty Balin tried to intervene and was promptly knocked unconscious by a biker. Paul Kantner, understandably concerned that one of his singers was sparko, stopped the music and pleaded with the Angels to stop beating people up, only to have the microphone confiscated by one of them.

It took ten minutes to clear the stage before Airplane could resume their set. The show must go on. Now everyone was scared that a long gap without music might make the crowd even more restless, so the Flying Burrito Brothers were ready to go as Airplane came off.

Gram Parsons makes everyone feel a bit better for a while
Gram Parsons makes everyone feel a bit better for a while



It worked. For a while. Their brand of proto country rock soothing jangled nerves. However, the medical tents were over-run with people crazed on bad acid consumed in the spiked wine that was being passed around. Doesn't sound very hygienic, does it?

CSNY were up next. Violence erupted again as the Angels beat up tripping people who were out of control. Like, dude that's really not helping my buzz, I was hoping for naked chicks not naked aggression, maaaan.

The Dead refused to follow them as scheduled, due to the excessive violence and later Robert Hunter wrote 'New Speedway Boogie' for the Workingman's Dead album about the day. But The Stones simply had to play. God knows what would have happened if they hadn't.

They made everyone wait a long, long time before taking the stage, as was their wont in those days. They wanted all the lights out apart from a spot on Mick, it's said that they even had the medical people turn out their torches. The vibe, at least that captured by the film-makers (young George Lucas was one of the cameramen!), is dark and ugly and thrilling.

The Stones play on in the heart of darkness
The Stones play on in the heart of darkness


Mick Jagger looks extraordinary, in a satin half-brown, half-black sort of blouse, with these crazy long tasselled arm things, and his skinny little bum wiggling in mustard velvet trousers, alongside these hairy-arsed bikers. He appeals, in vain, throughout the set for calm, sounding like a sort of camp drama teacher who has lost control of the fifth form.

�People! Who's fighting and what for? Why are we fighting,� he pleads. �That guy there (pointing) if he doesn't stop it man, cool it man, or we don't play.�

But it's quite clear that the Stones don't have much of a choice: there's no way they could walk off without a riot. The version of 'Sympathy For The Devil', shown in its entirety on Gimme Shelter, is absolutely brilliant. There's a real edge to the playing, like they know they are playing for their lives: it's dark and exciting and urgent. There's also a sense of ridiculousness, too - Jagger strutting, singing and snarling about being this ruthless and terrible Satanic figure, yet surrounded by these brutish blokes who could snap him like a dry twig and look like they wouldn't mind trying, who are in their turn his only protectors from a surging, drugged-up mob.

At one point, bizarrely, this huge German Shepherd (dog, not human) trots across the stage. A fat, naked woman fights, really physically fights, her way to the front. All the girls are staring at Jagger, captivated, saucer-eyed. Yet they all look so young, really, just kids swooning at their favourite popstar, not some sort of social or political movement, no less na�ve and star-struck as the kids you saw squealing at Beatles concerts five, six years earlier. Jagger is at once transfixing and ludicrous.

There's loads of aggro all over the place now and it is not surprising that many people wrongly believe that the murder of Hunter took place during this all-too-fitting perfect cacophony of Satanic groove. But in fact it is during the next song, 'Under My Thumb', that it happened. The band stops, but the full extent of what's happened is not clear, not least because the Hell's Angels have formed a ring around the murderous action.

It's after this that the famous moment between Keith Richards and Angels leader Sonny Barger took place. Keef said they were going off; Barger says he stuck a gun in Keef's side and told him: �Keep fucking playing or you're dead.�

Meredith Hunter was not the only fatality that night: two people were run over, one drowned in a drainage ditch. Bad drugs, bad people, poor organization and massive egos added up to a disaster at what was hoped would be 'The Woodstock Of The West'.

Altamont, partly through the fascinating and macabre Gimme Shelter movie, has become totemic for the death of peace and love.The end of the innocence and the prelude to a decade of excess and self indulgence. But that's to ignore the fact that there had been bad festivals before Altamont and great ones after. Violence and aggression exist throughout society and when you stick 300,000 people in a racetrack and get them wasted on wine and acid, it'd be surprising if there wasn't a few problems. I'm also willing to bet some people had a great time because The Stones were on their kick ass best form.

Those sort of pronouncements like �this was the day the Sixties was finally over� and so on always seem a bit of a stretch, but you can see why people have made the case. But, distasteful though it is to say, it's one of the finest Stones performances. Writer Robert Santelli said when the Stones plugged in that day they �set forth an avalanche of power and emotion that, in 1969, was rarely reproduced.�

There was a bizarre coda to the whole thing when it emerged that Hell's Angels - in revenge for Mick Jagger blaming them for the violent fiasco of Altamont - plotted to murder him a few months later, by travelling to his Long Island home... on a boat! A severe storm disrupted the mission and saved Mick's bacon. A case of crazy pirate bikers with cutlasses in their teeth and parrots on their hogs: not very pleased to meet you...at least not unless you're Johnny Depp.

 






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