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Remember A Day




The Rolling Stones have been described as "the greatest rock and roll band in the world" for over twenty years. Their 1969 tour of America could have been one of their greatest tours ever, and it is documented well by one of the first bootlegs, "Liver Than You'll Ever Be," the live album "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out," as well as the rockumentary "Gimme Shelter." Every step of their massive tour was covered by "Rolling Stone" magazine, which was at that point as underground as FM radio was at the same time. The culmination of the Stones' tour was the free concert at Altamont Speedway, which was one of the largest rock disasters ever.

If the name "Woodstock" has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, "Altamont" has come to mean the end of it. (1)
Altamont is regarded as the warning of what might happen if Woodstock is taken too literally. (2)
A young black man murdered in the midst of a white crowd by white thugs as white men played their version of black music - it was too much to kiss off as unpleasantness. (3)

Just about everything related to Altamont shows how much of a disaster it was. It had all of the makings of a great day: a free concert near San Francisco with Santana, the ever-present Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, the Flying Buritto Brothers, and headlined and sponsored by the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger was very optimistic as the concert was being planed:

It's creating a sort of a microcosmic society.... It sets an example to the rest of America, as to how one can behave in nice gatherings. (4)

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons it turned into one of the most violent days in rock history.

Problems plagued the event from the very beginning. The simple task of deciding where to hold the concert turned out to be a big problem. Originally the concert was to take place in San Francisco like so many other free concerts before it. Once it was realized that too many people were going to show up, it was moved out of the city, and then twenty hours before the concert, it was finally moved to Altamont. Since people had already arrived from all over the country for this concert, moving it was considered a very risky proposition. The prime concern during the moves was that the staging and sound equipment had to be ready in time for the concerts. Somehow it all did work out, but the real problem was yet to arrive: the Hell's Angels.

The Hell's Angels were hired by the Rolling Stones as security for several reasons. The Grateful Dead had a long-standing relationship with the Angels and had used them for security on several occasion without incident. The Stones had used the Hell's Angels for security in London over the summer for one of their free concerts in Hyde Park. The Hell's Angels in London, however, were Jagger-type lookalikes, who were for the most part harmless, not like the American Angels, who were notorious for their violent nature and excessive drug use. At Altamont, the Angels acted just like they always did, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and dropping acid. The Angels probably abused more drugs, in varying combinations, than anyone else. There were no other security forces except the Hell's Angels, so if they got out of line, there would be no stopping them.

At this point in the genesis of rock festivals the mistakes of Woodstock were bound to be repeated: inadequate toilet and medical facilities, as well as open drug use, almost promoted by the fact that the Angels were security. The violence, however, that was to come was not expected:

By halfway through Santana's set, swirls and flurries of violence, at first almost too quick for the eye to follow, were happening all along the stage - from there to its scaffolded corners where massed Hell's Angels confronted the ordinary public. (5)

The Angels' most popular choice of weapons for the day were pool cues, which were used to beat people. The other popular weapon was the beer can. They assumed that the best way to calm an angry crowd would be to throw full cans of beer at them. From this point to the end "it had become, to a disgusting degree, a Hell's Angels festival." (6)

The Rolling Stones' road manager Sam Culter decided that he should intercede in order to calm the Angels down. He decided that if he move the beer right next to the stage area, perhaps this would help to keep the Angels in one area and be ready to protect the stage if necessary. Culter bought the beer the Angels brought with them for $500. "This was the origin of one powerful Altamont legend:" (7) that the Hell's Angels were given $500 in beer for security. Either way that it is examined, it was not a wise decision.

It should noted that the stage was too low for this kind of event. It should have been very high and monstrous, like the one at Woodstock, instead of being one foot high. With all of the Angels, film crews, and members of the audience at the foot of the stage, it is amazing that anyone actually saw any part of the concert.

Another unfortunate incident happened during Jefferson Airplane's set when Marty Balin got knocked out by an Angel, during a scuffle near the stage. When Paul Kantner told the audience what the Angels had been doing, one of them grabbed a microphone and started threatening him. Another fight was barely avoided.

Like the rest of the Stones' tour, the group waited as long as possible before taking the stage. They wanted their entrance to be as great as possible. The lights around the medical units were even asked to be turned off so that as their set began the only light would be a single spotlight on Jagger. Small fights kept breaking out as the Stones played. Meredith Hunter, an eighteen year old black man, was near the stage with a knife and a gun. As the Hell's Angels attacked him with their pool cues, "Mick sang his song about how groovy it is to be Satan. Never has it been sung in a more appropriate setting." (8) Hunter was beaten to death by the Angels. "There could be no worse circumstances for making music, and the Stones are playing their asses off." (9) It soon became apparent what was happening, Jagger stopped singing, and tried to calm everyone down, finally calling for an ambulance. They had to continue playing their set, otherwise even more violence was sure to follow.

Tragically, three others also died at the Altamont concert. Two people died sleeping as they got run over in their sleeping bags. One unidentified person drowned. "Even the most incomplete medical reports show that this was a festival dominated by violence." (10) It is a shame that a concert like this would have to end under such disturbing circumstances. Four months earlier, Woodstock seemed like the future of rock festivals; everyone getting together to have a good time, people enjoying the music and each other, and nothing was getting in anyone's way. For future good, Altamont showed that a festival like this must have better and more proper organization.

Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity. (11)


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Copyright 2005, Adam Stanley