Sunday, October 2, 2016
The disaster that sprung from the free concert at a desolate raceway in Northern California on the night of December, 6, 1969 has been well documented but nowhere better than in this book by Joel Selvin "Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hell's Angels And Rock N' Roll's Darkest Day". It effectively creates a meticulously crafted timeline of events worthy of an investigative report.
Almost anyone who is aware of rock n roll knows what happened the day Santana, The Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Rolling Stones played a free concert to a crowd of over 300,000 at a disused dirt race track in the middle of nowhere (under the jurisdiction of a three man sheriff's department in a valley where radio contact was impossible) . There were several deaths, two were hit by a car driven by a chemically impaired young man, another fell into a canal and drowned and the most infamous was a young African American named Meredith Hunter who was beaten and stabbed to death by Hell's Angels during the Rolling Stones headlining slot.
Though the gig itself and the death of Hunter are well documented in the Maysles brothers film "Gimme Shelter" Selvin's book delves into the how and why the gig happened and the aftermath concluding with the murder trial of Hell's Angel Alan Passaro, charged with stabbing Meredith Hunter (Passaro would be acquitting and wound up dead floating in a reservoir in 1985 with his pockets stuffed with $10,000 in cash).
The idea to put on a free concert in the San Francisco area was planted in the Stone's minds by one time Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully. Ever conscious to be hip and seen at the forefront of counter culture The Stones (Mick Jagger in particular) were enthralled by Scully's Utopian visions of free concerts and the D.I.Y hippie ethos that pervaded San Francisco and wanted in before the Age of Aquarius drew to a close. The Stones were already planning to have their 1969 US tour filmed by brothers Albert and David Maysles. A free concert at the end of the tour would be a perfect ending for the movie and cement The Stones wishes to hitch their wagon to the great human spirit that had prevailed at Woodstock. The Stones were also being assaulted in the press and the hippie underworld where their high ticket prices (the band were effectively broke and the tour was needed to restore some much needed capital to their enterprise) were being touted as a sign of being capitalist pigs in a society where "free" was the way and to charge for something was the way of "the man". A free concert in the heart of the hippie dippy central would assuage all that.
Putting it together became a web of intrigue with a host of shady characters that takes on almost Dickensian proportions. From Rock Scully to former Blackhill Enterprises gofer Sam Cutler thrust into the role of road manager for the tour, a shady character named Jon Jaymes with an army of off duty NYC police detectives and connections to get the band coke and a fleet of brand new US made automobiles, money hungry speedway owner Dick Carter (who comes off even more unhinged than the drug soaked SF hippies), various SF counter culture fixtures, legendary attorney Melvin Belli (brought in to grease the wheels of the hostile SF city council) and the proverbial cherries on top: the Hell's Angels. The Hell's Angels were hired as "security" at the behest of Rock Scully, an idea The Stone's warmed to being staunchly "anti police" and being charmed by stories of the SF chapters long history of brotherhood and their own experiences with the bogus London chapter of poseurs who handled "security" at their previous Hyde Park free concert. Though the SF chapter of the Angels were at Altamont the area fell under the turf of their San Jose brethren who held no such cozy relationship with hippies or rock n roll. In fact a great deal of the violence as we can see in Selvin's book stemmed from keyed up, out there prospects of the San Jose chapter eager to earn their full time membership in the club by displaying their machismo and willingness to go Medieval on anyone in sight without the slightest provocation. Add lethal doses of hallucinogenic spiked fortified wine and beer to those already volatile individuals and the path to mayhem and death is sealed. There is an almost sad scene where an SF Angel and personal friend of the Airplane named Terry The Tramp retreats in tears at the mayhem he is powerless to stop.
Rehashing the contents of this highly insightful epic would do no justice here so we will touch on a few high points. One of the most fascinating is that the book offers several new perspectives into the planning of the event (no doubt the most haphazard gig ever planned on this scale, it's location was not confirmed until 20 hours prior to show time!), the Grateful Dead's arrival and hasty retreat without playing (akin to US embassy personnel hotfooting it out by chopper during the fall of Saigon) and offers new insight into the death of Meredith Hunter. Rock n roll mythology had previously cast Hunter into the role of the unfortunate young black man harassed at a gig for being there with a pretty young white girl. Though the latter part is indeed partially correct, Selvin's book paints him in a more sinister light as a cocky (he returned to his aunt's apartment as he left for the gig to retrieve "his piece"), strung out (he was a methamphetamine addict as well as a low level street dealer) and arrogant young man (his death was not the result of a hate crime for being with a white girl but because he repeatedly and inexplicably attempted to climb onstage multiple times). The final attempt to mount the stage resulted in a beat down by the Angels which led to him drawing his weapon and being killed. Common sense would indicate if you'd seen what the Angel's had been doing all day (beating various punters, knocking out a member of the Jefferson Airplane in the middle of their set, etc) you would give them a wide berth and certainly do so after being physically ejected from the stage by them. Trying it and second and finally third time could be fatal, and in Hunter's case, it was.
Selvin offers no apologies or justifications for any of the actions by the principals involved but rather leaves us, the readers, to draw our own conclusions and judgement.