Rock and Roll Book Club: 50 years since Altamont

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Joel Selvin's 'Altamont.'
Joel Selvin's 'Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

History repeats itself, wrote Karl Marx: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In the history of failed rock festivals, if the Fyre Festival was a farce, the tragedy was Altamont.

Fifty years ago this Friday, the Rolling Stones headlined a free outdoor concert at the Altamont Speedway outside of San Francisco. The location was only confirmed 36 hours before the concert. The stage was situated four feet off the ground. There were no concessions, no rows of port-a-potties. There were no gate checks. Local police, barely alerted to the event, kept their distance, with security being provided by members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, swinging pool cues. At the end of the show, a man was dead.

In fact, several people were dead. Part of the argument Joel Selvin makes in his 2016 history of that day is that the Rolling Stones — with their own self-interest in mind — have successfully shaped way we understand Altamont, by means of the documentary film Gimme Shelter. In that film, viewers actually see a man named Meredith Hunter draw a gun, and be subsequently stabbed by biker Alan Passaro. What's more, we see Mick Jagger watching the footage; the filmmakers freeze-frame Jagger's face as he looks up, and it's the last shot of him in the movie.

It seems damning...but it worked to the band's advantage, Selvin points out. The movie helped solidify the Stones' reputation as princes of darkness, their songs "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Gimme Shelter" soundtracking a chaotic scene where obviously drug-addled masses crawl naked onto the stage, where a young woman openly weeps even as she sings along, where a dog ominously wanders in front of a riffing Keith Richards.

The Stones avoided liability, both legally and in the public perception: their ascent continued as they remained the world's biggest rock band you could actually see in concert. If the notoriety resulting from Altamont wasn't exactly a public relations coup, it didn't hurt them nearly as much as it hurt the people who literally died in that sickly yellow field in the twilight of the '60s.

Immortalized by a Rolling Stone story that revealed the carnage mainstream media (including the New York Times) had missed, Altamont quickly acquired a heavy symbolic weight. Even after reassessing the day's events in Selvin's probing detail, it's impossible not to identify Altamont with the end of the '60s. In the film, musicians like Grace Slick (whose bandmate Marty Balin was repeatedly punched out by Hells Angels onstage) plea helplessly for everyone to just be cool, sit down, stop fighting, feel the love. The reality was apparent even to the musicians: they had lost control, and many of their listeners weren't even in control of themselves.

Selvin, an expert on the place and the time, puts Altamont in crucial context. The Stones, returning to the U.S. market after a multi-year absence, were acutely aware that the American scene had changed dramatically since the days of the British Invasion. The energy was in San Francisco, and Woodstock-style happenings were the gold standard for bands who wanted to make an impact.

Thus, when they scheduled a U.S. tour behind their edgy 1968 album Beggars Banquet, they eagerly accepted an offer from Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully to arrange a climactic concert at Golden Gate Park. The Dead and other big names from the San Francisco scene would play, making a camera-ready conclusion for the concert film the Stones ended up hiring brothers Albert and David Mayles to shoot.

As the Stones' wildly successful tour roared across America in fall 1969, the park plan fell through. Selvin points significantly to a plan B, the Sears Point Raceway. Stage construction was already underway on December 4 when the Stones balked at a demand from that venue's owners: Filmways, a company that also distributed video and demanded a $100,000 fee for a concert film to be shot. Jagger wouldn't pay a penny, and signed off on an offer from Altamont to host the event purely for the publicity — little imagining just what kind of publicity it would turn out to be.

One of the most piquant details in Selvin's history is that the first person to die at Altamont was an 18-year-old from upstate New York — just to accentuate the Woodstock contrast. He jumped over a fence, ignoring warnings that it was unsafe to swim in the California Aqueduct. A nearby police officer saw the young man taking off his shirt and frantically waved at him to stop; the teenager flipped the cop off and jumped into the water. He was pulled under in seconds, his drowned body washed miles away before being caught in a filter trap.

As Selvin points out, it's not like Woodstock went off without a hitch either; in fact, he argues, it's a miracle there weren't more serious injuries at that event. From the beginning, though, Altamont was seeped in malice. Even the light seemed hellish: cameras captured a menacing haze. Every observer remembers that the bad vibes were immediately apparent, and it didn't take long for heads to start getting literally busted.

One concertgoer threw a full can of beer high into the air; it came down hard on the head of a young woman, a musician in a local band, who was pregnant. Fearing that general anesthesia would endanger the pregnancy, doctors at the nearest hospital had to pick bits of skull out of her brain while she was still awake. Greil Marcus, offering part of his sandwich to a nearby concertgoer in the spirit of peace and love, had it angrily slapped out of his hand. After Altamont, the legendary music journalist couldn't listen to rock music for months.

But what, exactly, were the Hells Angels doing there? Selvin is helpful in this regard. For one thing, he points out, countercultural types like hippie bands were understandably disinclined to trust cops. The bikers had worked with local rockers in various capacities, but nothing on the scale of the free Stones show; to swell their ranks, the gang asked skittish new recruits, nervous and anxious to prove their toughness, to join in.

Then, infamously, they were all paid with $500 worth of beer. On top of that, pharmaceutical use was rampant: even the members of Santana, no strangers to drug use, were astonished to see their onstage security team downing handfuls of mixed pills as though they were breath mints. Selvin implies that the headliners should have known better than to stick with the arrangement, but also points out that the Stones' previous experience with Hells Angels involved the U.K. arm, a far tamer group.

When the Dead arrived on scene, in a moment captured on film, the deeply shaken members of Jefferson Airplane told them what was going down. The Dead decided not to play, hoping the Stones could take the stage sooner and get the whole debacle over with. That wasn't going to happen, though: Bill Wyman, counting on the planned set times, wasn't even there yet. The Stones' tour manager Sam Cutler was left to make increasingly desperate stage announcements as the hours ticked away. By the time the Stones went on, the situation was explosive.

Stabbed several times, Hunter died on the scene. Selvin writes that it's unlikely he could have survived in any event, but when Stones' team refused to lend the band's helicopter for an airlift, Hunter's fate was effectively sealed. His girlfriend Patti Bredehoft, caught in the melee, is seen sobbing in Gimme Shelter. Hells Angel member Alan Passaro was tried for murder, and found not guilty. Hunter's gun could be clearly seen in the documentary footage, and that convinced the all-white jury that Passaro was acting in self-defense when he stabbed Hunter, a black man, several times in the back.

The subtitle of Altamont calls it The Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day. That distinction is debatable; it's now far from rock's deadliest day, after multiple concert and nightclub massacres perpetrated by angry white men wielding weapons far more destructive than Hunter's handgun. The darkness of Altamont, however, lingers. After reading Selvin's book, you'll never have so much "Sympathy for the Devil" again.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

Dec. 11: Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield's Life in the Blues by David Dann

Dec. 18: Best music books of 2019

Dec. 25: No feature due to holiday programming

Jan. 1: No feature due to holiday programming

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