Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin
ALTAMONT has special meaning for me, since I live very close to Altamont. Of course, I've heard a lot about Woodstock, but very little about this "West Coast cousin" of Woodstock.
Much of the earlier part of ALTAMOUNT describes the decisions that led up to the concert. There were lots of frustrations trying to find a venue in San Francisco. Time was running short, so Altamont was a last-minute choice. The arrangements were hastily thrown together.
If nothing else, ALTAMONT is an example in how to NOT hold an outdoor rock festival. No planned medical, two local sheriff deputies, who themselves didn’t even know about the concert ahead of time. There was no professional security, and no medical--except a handful of doctors who happened to be available (who were mostly psychiatrists!)
Altamont was a violent disaster: “In a single day, the innocence of a generation was shattered. If Woodstock had been rock’s Promised Land, Altamont was its Hell." Many people were beaten by the impromptu "security team" of Hells Angels. “The Hells Angels were scary enough, but loaded on drugs and cheap red wine, they were all but uncontrollable.” One man was fatally knifed when he pulled out a gun. Beside the beatings, one man on drugs drowned in a canal, and two were killed in a hit-and-run (never solved.)
Adding to the mess was the lack of traffic preparation: “By ten o’clock in the morning, the CHP was reporting a ten-mile backup in either direction. They estimated the crowd at two hundred thousand and growing.” Serious problems started immediate. One crazed person decided to jump in a dangerous canal: “He looked at the officer across the water, flipped him off, and slid down the bank feet first into the canal. He stayed afloat only a few seconds before the icy torrent pulled him under. They picked him out of a filter trap a couple miles down the canal two hours later.”
ALTAMONT contains very few light moments. One of the less-violent scenes played out at the tiny Tracy airport where Crosby Stills, Nash, & Young flew in. There was no transportation, so naturally the group hot-wired a truck nearby: “Nobody was waiting when the helicopter carrying Crosby, Stills, and Nash & Young touched down at the Tracy airport… The entire airport was empty, except for a pickup truck parked in the corner of the lot. CSNY road manager Leo Makota started to hot-wire the truck… and David Crosby got behind the wheel.”
Unfortunately for CSNY, they were not safe, even on the stage: “A plastered Hells Angel sat on the side of the stage with a sharpened cycle spoke, and every time Stills stepped forward to sing, the Angel would stab him in the leg. By the end of the half-hour performance, streams of blood streaked his legs and soaked through his pants.”
Joel Selvin is critical of the Rolling Stones, as the real mover of the concert, and thus responsible for the violence. “When all the facts are presented, it’s hard to see true responsibility lying with anyone but the Rolling Stones. The simple truth is that Stones were always in charge of the concert, with Mick Jagger clearly making the calls behind the scenes.” Joel points out that the for-profit film, “Gimme Shelter” is hardly an objective narrative of the day, because “the Rolling Stones themselves were partners in the film’s production.”
The concert was so poorly arranged that it was difficult to hold any one person accountable for the fiasco: “The issue of affixing blame for the catastrophe confounded analysts. The organization and structure of the event was so shadowy, the chain of command so circuitous, and the work so improvised, nobody could ever tell who was in charge. When there is nobody in charge, nobody is at fault.”
One interesting outcome of the concert--Altamont put the Rolling Stone magazine into the spotlight. Immediately after the event, uninformed writers in major newspapers made little mention of the violence, painting the concert as a generally peaceful event. The Rolling Stone article corrected this misconception: “Not only did the Rolling Stone article completely reshape public opinion of the event, but it lifted the music magazine out of the underground and established Stone as a respected journalistic voice.” The article included graphic photos showing what actually happened. "The photos alone told the story in a graphic and vivid way that brought the violence of the day home to readers.”
All in all, I found ALTAMONT to be a fascinating book, which shed a lot of light on a crazy, sad day so many years ago. ALTAMONT is not a "fun" read in any way, but it's helpful to get the facts in the open.
Advance Review Copy courtesy of Edelweiss.