Altamont wasn’t the end of the ’60s, it was the start of rock ‘n’ roll disasters

Joel Selvin November 29, 2019 Updated: November 29, 2019, 12:09 pm

The Rolling Stones perform at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on Dec, 6, 1969. This is a scene from the documentary “Gimme Shelter.”Photo: Associated Press

The Fyre Festival earned its bad reputation honestly.

Thousands of Millennials stranded on a Bahamas island with pathetic provisions and no accommodations may have seemed like the height of disastrous music festivals, a landmark in ambition and overreach. As the subsequent documentaries about the 2017 festival made clear, the Fyre Festival was indeed a morass of bad planning, preposterous promotional schemes, utter incompetence and even criminal intent by the producers.

But it was hardly unprecedented.

In the pop music world, true originality is a rare commodity. When it comes to pop music festivals gone horribly wrong, it would be hard to top the original rock disaster: the free concert by the Rolling Stones at the Altamont Speedway about 60 miles east of San Francisco, between Livermore and Tracy, that took place 50 years ago this Dec. 6, a golden anniversary unlikely to be widely celebrated.

The Stones have always been one of rock’s great originators, and when they did Altamont, they set standards for catastrophe in pop music that stand to this day. And although Altamont went down at the time as one of rock’s darkest days, the public has been largely spared the grimy, gory details and the true dimensions of how wrong everything went and how bad everything truly was. At least at the Fyre Festival, nobody died.

A toxic combination of greed and innocence, the Altamont concert was born of hippie ideology posed by the Grateful Dead, who originally planned to present the Stones as surprise guests on a Jefferson Airplane/Dead bill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and the brutish ambitions of the Rolling Stones, who invaded America in November 1969 to plunder much needed cash for their depleted coffers. Altamont came to represent the dark side of the counterculture’s dream of peace and love, but the forces of ego and power that drove the event to its disastrous conclusion were decidedly old-fashioned.

Music fans dance and sing to the Rolling Stones at the free concert at the Altamont Speedway between Livermore and Tracy, on Dec. 6, 1969. The concert was dubbed “Woodstock West.”Photo: Associated Press

Woodstock had taken place only four months before, and its intoxicating illusion was still in the air. The myth of three days of peace and music had already been established, but that never held up under scrutiny. The Woodstock crowd, after all, broke down the fences and turned the ticketed festival into a free concert. They recklessly blocked an Interstate highway. They burned down the concession stand to protest the high price of hot dogs. If Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had sent in the National Guard — and he had to be persuaded not to — it would have been an entirely different story. Yet the festival remains so celebrated in popular culture that the U.S. Postal Service in August released a commemorative stamp on the occasion of that golden anniversary. “Three days of peace and music,” the stamp says.

Myths die hard.

If Woodstock wasn’t exactly the Eden it was portrayed, Altamont was even more hell on Earth than commonly thought: Held on a hillside beside a near-abandoned motor raceway miles from civilization. There was no food or water and only 100 Port-a-Potties for a crowd of nearly 300,000. And four people died — five, if you count Jim “Mac” McDonald of Santa Cruz, who arrived in the emergency room from the festival with his vital signs flatlined, although doctors were able to revive him.

One of the victims was an 18-year-old African American named Meredith Hunter, who brought his blond, white girlfriend to the event and was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. He joins a long, shameful list of famous black victims of violent white racism, even if his killer was acquitted of murder charges in a subsequent trial.

A still from the documentary film “Gimme Shelter” shows audience members looking on as Hells Angels beat a fan with pool cues at the Altamont free concert.Photo: 20th Century Fox

After weeks of the Stones promising to play a free concert at the end of the band’s triumphant U.S. tour somewhere near San Francisco, the exact site was only announced the Tuesday before the Saturday concert and switched to an entirely different location on Thursday afternoon, 36 hours before the show was supposed to start. The stage and sound system were built in the dark overnight by hippie wood butchers high on every imaginable drug they could find.

Everything that could go wrong did. The documentary film that formed the strongest impressions of the ill-fated Altamont concert for most of the past 50 years, “Gimme Shelter,” was produced under the supervision and ownership of the Rolling Stones and is hardly as candid and forthright as it pretends. The heartstring-tugging final scene where an ashen Mick Jagger is shown watching the footage of Hunter’s killing on a Moviola is perhaps the film’s most obvious attempt to paint the Stones as victims, but the most egregious misrepresentation comes from one of its most powerful scenes: Hunter’s girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, is shown sobbing and being comforted by a Red Cross worker as they roll his dead body past on a gurney. The film cuts to a shot of a helicopter taking off, strongly suggesting that Hunter’s body is onboard.

Actually, Hunter’s body spent several hours in the raceway office while the coroner’s office waited for traffic to die down before sending out their team. The doctor in charge backstage had been told the helicopter could not be used for Hunter because it was reserved for the Rolling Stones.

“It’s a very powerful shot,” said cinematographer Stephen Lighthill, past president of the American Cinematographers Association, who spent his first day on a film crew at Altamont, “until you realize that it’s a lie.”

Joel Selvin is the author of “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day.”Photo: Matt McClain, Washington Post

My interest in this topic dates back to the weekend 50 years ago, when I declined an invitation from some college pals to join them at the racetrack, and continued through writing a 2016 book, “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day.” Former MTV journalist Tabitha Soren will plumb my further observations onstage this Tuesday, Dec. 3, for the Commonwealth Club at the Mill Valley Community Center.

It is a popular canard that Altamont was the end of the ’60s — duh, it was December 1969 — although it is hard to see Altamont as the end of anything.

Watching Woodstock promoter Michael Lang — who played a small but crucially disastrous role in Altamont — just this past summer frantically running around, desperately trying to fund and stage his 50th anniversary Woodstock festival, changing venues, lineups, cities, states even, up until the last minute, it was obvious he would have staged his concert on a hill outside Tracy if he could have.

But, unlike Woodstock, there won’t be an Altamont stamp anytime soon.

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