Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day

By Joel Selvin

Harper Collins | 2016 | 358 pages

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Joel Selvin

Sixties Memories Won’t Fade Away

Rock critic Joel Selvin says he didn’t go to Altamont in 1969—the denouement of the Rolling Stones’ month-long tour of America that has been mythologized as a generational milestone.

I was there, and I’m not sure if it was a milestone.

Does Selvin’s depiction of the frenzied day and night of rock music match my memory of it? No, it doesn’t.

The question is: does Selvin get the story right in his Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day?

I think he mostly does, but the very title augurs the grandiosity with which so many baby-boomers regard their teenage years. Those of us who were born after World War II and roughly before the affable yet now nearly forgotten hero Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, were beneficiaries of the greatest period of general prosperity the country has ever known.

One could argue that period led directly to the carefree counterculture that was just around the corner. If you can remember the beloved Ike puttering around a golf course or christening a battleship, you might also remember the decade that followed—although the mantra goes: if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t really there.

Selvin covered the rock scene for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1970 into the new millennium and he can throw together a character sketch of Bobby Weir, Tom Donahue, Grace Slick or Bill Graham without batting an eye. Maybe more important he cannot only tell you the history of LSD (at one time mass produced by the grandson of a U.S. Senator, chemistry wizard Owsley Stanley), STP, speed, peyote and mescaline, but can give you a Google-map view of where they were first manufactured and spread out from the Bay, beyond the Golden State, and into the greater population of the people now nervously monitoring their IRA accounts and assessing the viability of reverse mortgages. My contemporaries.

This is all-important because Selvin weaves into his story snippets of philosophy about such things as “evolution of consciousness” and pronouncements like “the dream never died” that I’ll get back to later.

By elevating Altamont to epochal status he sets a formidable task for himself. For him, the botched free concert changed the game in the already tail-spinning world of the 1960s. It shut the door on whatever dreams there were of love, peace and understanding—if that was, in fact, what the era was all about. But he may have extended his metaphor too far. In fact, in a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2007, he already made it clear that when the fabled Summer of Love flowered in San Francisco in 1967 “the party was already over.”

So what was Altamont? In the fall of 1969 the Rolling Stones, who after the implosion of the Beatles a year before, became the premier rock and roll band, launched a 24-show tour of the United States. They had recently fired the band’s founder Brian Jones (who subsequently died that summer) and replaced him with ace guitarist Mick Taylor, who was then too young to walk into a bar. The rest of the band members were in their early 20s. A couple were fathers.

Before the Stones tour, set to begin November 7, in August, the Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, was thought to be a success despite many planning mishaps, and has since been idealized as a love fest.

The Stones didn’t play Woodstock because front man Mick Jagger was in Australia making a movie.

In the meantime, Jerry Garcia and his Grateful Dead band were planning a West Coast response to Woodstock in Golden Gate Park. But the city refused them permits. They’d have to find another location. Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully persuaded Keith Richards to come on board to boost the profile of the event. In Selvin’s telling, the Stones tour had been a smash hit, but tickets were the highest yet for a rock concert, topping out at $8.50—pre-scalping days. Writers such as the widely respected Ralph Gleason were dubbing the Stones the greed-masters of rock. Not cool. “They couldn’t be seen as doing it for the money,” Selvin says.

So they signed on for the free concert—automatically making them the headliners. It would be December 6, at the end of their tour. But it was a concert without a venue.

The Grateful Dead suggested Sears Point Raceway, an hour up the coast near their Sonoma Valley getaway. This also hit a snag. The Stones wanted to tie the project in, along with their tour, to a documentary film brothers Albert and David Maysles were making about them, and they wanted control over distribution of the ultimate film, as well as the lion’s share of the profits.

Super attorney Melvin Belli was brought into the deal. As it turned out Filmways owned a piece of Sears Point and would only allow for use of the venue if it could control distribution of the film. The Stones wouldn’t have it.

As the momentum grew a disparate collection of bands, groupies, hustlers and interlopers frantically searched for a venue.  Altamont was a lesser raceway east of San Francisco with inadequate parking and minimal comfort facilities. The owner offered it for free for publicity for his track, which he thought would lead to lucrative future bookings. Everybody wanted to be the next Bill Graham.

By this point the concert was just a few days away and there was no time to shop around for a setting. Altamont it was. Technicians worked around the clock to set up the stage and sound system. The stage, it turned out, would be only a foot off the ground. (This would be one of the more calamitous of a series of blunders.)

The audience would fan out from the stage up to the lip of the bowl formed by close hillsides. To keep fans from rushing the stage the Hells Angels motorcycle gang—Cro-Magnons and misogynistic bullies—would occupy a fan-free zone between the stage and the audience. The pay for their “security” services: $500 worth of beer.

Selvin does a masterful job of building the suspense of the story, weaving in the characters and the disputes that led to catastrophe late into the night of December 6 (It spilled into Pearl Harbor Day). He also gives ample evidence of the callousness and naiveté of the stars of the show. Mick Jagger approved of use of Grateful Dead pals the Hells Angels for security because he didn’t want any real police on site. And he had his way. The understaffed local police did no more than haplessly monitor traffic far outside the raceway.

By Selvin’s account it was never clear who was in charge of the festival-concert. A wily character by the name of Jon Jaymes squeezed into the Stones inner circle and brought in limousine drivers and engineered much of the haphazard planning. The Grateful Dead, meanwhile, moved into the background, and in the end declined to perform. And anyway they had a gig in San Francisco that night. Sam Cutler of the Stones managed most of the stagecraft and emceed the event.

This was primarily a gathering of hippies from the Bay area supervised by a motorcycle gang with roots in Oakland. It was a mostly white event, which is significant to the outcome, and for what the event is mostly remembered for: the killing of a young black man, Meredith Hunter. Hunter and his white girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, got to Altamont early in the day and secured a spot not far from the stage, close to the Hells Angels barrier. The motorcyclists had their eyes on the flashily dressed black man and his young white girlfriend throughout the concert.

Cars began jamming into the available parking at the site hours before the concert was to begin, and hundreds were left stacked along the narrow highway. Early birds scrambled for patches of ground as near to the stage as they could get without being swatted away with pool cue stick-wielding Hells Angels.

Selvin brings readers right onto the stage and the nearby audience through extensive interviews with key players. Because the bikers became increasingly drunk and drugged (LSD-STP-laced fruit punch was circulating throughout the crowd), there was chaos on and near the stage. At one point Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane was coldcocked by a biker who didn’t like the way he looked at him. Audience members were apparently so juiced up on acid and other chemicals that some were stripping off their clothes and attempting to rush onto the low-level stage. Overdoses were mounting, and a small emergency medical team was frantically overburdened.

The three friends I had driven to the concert and we were perched on a hillside too far from the stage to see much of the action, and I avoided taking any drugs because I was the designated driver. I think I shared one joint and a bottle of wine the whole day and night. I can’t remember what I ate. As Selvin says, there were hardly any food or drink concessions; it was mainly a big potluck: of mind-altering drugs.

What we could tell from our vantage point was that the concert seemed disorganized. There weren’t enough porta potties, not enough water. Things weren’t right on stage. The Jefferson Airplane played, Santana played. Hours went by before the main act came to the stage. Finally, the Stones led off with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” During his set Jagger stopped mid-song—was it “Midnight Rambler” or “Street Fighting Man” (two sure crowd calmers)?—and yelled out “Hey people! Sisters, brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters. Come on now. That means everybody, just cool out. Will you cool out, everybody?”  Something was wrong, but we didn’t know what it was. We didn’t know someone was being murdered in front of the world’s most famous rock band.

The Maysles brothers captured it on film. Meredith Hunter had either looked at him the wrong way, or rushed the stage, or pulled out a gun that he had brought along, and Alan Passaro, a Hells Angel from San Jose stabbed him repeatedly with a knife. His friends then took turns stomping the young man into ground. By Selvin’s account—and the film and eyewitnesses bear this out—Jagger and his band mates paused momentarily while this mayhem unfolded, and “had no idea they had just witnessed the killing.”

One of the incidental characters running through Selvin’s book, Paul Cox—he would later testify for the prosecution in court against Passaro and be lacerated by his defense attorney—ran to help Hunter. An Angel (the irony of the biker club’s name was fully illuminated that day) blocked his way, shouting “Don’t touch him. He’s going to die anyway.”

Hunter was taken to a makeshift medical tent and Richard Fine, one of the doctors who valiantly volunteered that day, rushed to locate a helicopter to take him to a hospital. When he found one, he was told that it was reserved for the Stones and he couldn’t use it. So he waited for an ambulance. It was too late for Hunter. He died in the tent. But the Stones did catch their helicopter ride minutes later—ascending into the sky just miles from their hotel in San Francisco and, despite a rocky end to their U.S. tour, into the firmament of rock and roll beatification.

Selvin does a skillful job of pulling the pieces of the story together, even if the writing itself sometimes falls short, as in such passages as this reference to the Grateful Dead after the Altamont debacle: “Their camaraderie with the Angels was destroyed. The band’s brush with the big time left them scorched. After much discussion and soul searching, they came together. They were determined to move through the darkness.”

One muddles through passages like this and just wants to get back to the story.

As it turns out the Stones were to find out about what went on in front of them on TV in their room in San Francisco that night. When they saw the report of Hunter’s death, Keith Richards apparently called the Angels “homicidal maniacs,” who “should be thrown in jail.” Selvin says the band was “stunned and traumatized.” This may have been the description of their reaction to the unedited version of “Gimme Shelter,” the Maysles film that they saw weeks later.

But the impresario Bill Graham said on the radio that the “blame lay almost exclusively with the Stones” for the outcome of Altamont. Selvin, however, says “the Stones never signed any documents that would tie the band to the concert.” They were absolved of any culpability.

But they drove the vehicle from start to finish. For them, it was all about the money and the desire for what Selvin calls “a big finish for their epochal movie that they hoped would document their magnificent return to glory.” Selvin is prone to such hyperbole.

As for Alan Passaro, the Hells Angeles bought him one of the top lawyers in San Francisco, George Walker, who cherry-picked a jury of older white men who hated hippies. And although Walker was black, he also ousted prospective black jurors. Paul Cox, the star prosecution witness, who was afraid to testify, was annihilated by Walker. And the jurors were made to watch the Maysles clip so many times that it lost its impact on them. The jury’s finding: Pissaro acted in self defense.

In the end Altamont, according to Rolling Stone Magazine, “was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.”

But was it something more than that? Selvin says “in a single day, the innocence of a generation was shattered.”

I don’t think so.

My friends and I found my dusty old VW bug in the early morning of December 7, tired, but glad to have seen the Stones, albeit from a distance, and drove back to Sonoma State, where I had to write a paper on T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets for a class the next day. I doubted that I would go to another free concert.

Selvin seems conflicted over Altamont’s ultimate effect on the Sixties. On the one hand, he says “the innocence of a generation was shattered.” Yet he says, “it wasn’t the end of the Sixties in some definitive, apocalyptic way as it is so often portrayed.”

“All the ideas and aspirations for the evolution of consciousness that were at the heart of the movement still remain,” he argues. “That dream never died.” Maybe.

Historian C. Vann Woodward said “Every self-conscious group of any size fabricates myths about its past: about its origins, its mission, its righteousness, its benevolence, its general superiority.”  This is no truer than in the way people of the sixties persist in maintaining their specialness. And everyone has a Sixties they remember.

Maybe those memories are something like these:

Everyone has a Sixties they cherish. And those who have more yesterdays than tomorrows like to think of their youth as special.

As for the music, what writer Selvin likes to call the spirit of the Sixties was never found in the lyrics of the Rolling Stones, at least not the spirit of love and brotherhood that Selvin likes to remember. If anywhere it may have been found in the Youngblood’s “Get Together”:

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

Did we ever get together? Nearly half a century later some would say we are more fragmented than we would like to be. During this election season, the ubiquitous public opinion polls tell us that it’s not about getting together anymore, it’s about getting ahead or getting even. We are a divided nation. An ugly new tribalism is afoot.

As for peace, love and understanding: it’s a bitter tonic to have to admit that maybe you weren’t so special after all.

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