Altamont: End of the Sixties
Or big mix-up in the middle of nowhere?
By David Dalton

From Gadfly Nov./Dec. 1999

I don't demand human sacrifice at this stage of the game.
—Keith Richards

The Rosy Apocalypse
Altamont, December 6, 1969. The name itself is fraught with menace—its flinty suggestive syllables (altar-mountain-tumult) reinforcing biblical overtones ("The devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world...."). Altamont has become infamous as the apocalyptic moment known as the end of the sixties, the moment when the termite-riddled walls of the New Jerusalem finally came tumbling down. If the seeds of Altamont started anywhere, it was in Keith Richards' Moroccan-encrusted living room on Cheyne Walk, circa the fall of 1969. Rock Scully, manager of the Grateful Dead and minister of culture for Haight-Ashbury, had come as an emissary to the court of the Rolling Stones. Soon, overweening plans were afoot. We expect nothing less from the combined forces of the two most delusional and drug-drenched bands on the planet. The only contact with reality for this lot consisted of negotiations with their drug dealers and the occasional highly publicized bust. It was a combustible mix. Mass gatherings of their equally brain-scrambled flocks were bruited about—events that would be cosmic in scope. What it all meant would have to be deferred—it was just too boggling to sort out just then.

The Stones were quite pleased with their showing in the psychedelic sweepstakes. They had put on a free concert in Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, and it had been—brilliant! Mick in the flouncey dress that Mr. Fish had designed for him, releasing butterflies and reading Shelley (it was ostensibly a memorial concert for Brian Jones, the Stones' guitarist who had died two days earlier). As security they'd used Hell's Angels. Well, er, English Hell's Angels—the Stepney chapter. East End yobs playing at being in a motorcycle club. The Stones liked to flirt with pantomime violence—always fun and decorative, isn't it? And hadn't these rough lads given the show just that bit of Clockwork Orange frisson that the afternoon needed?

The 1969 U.S. tour had gone fantastically well for the self-styled Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World. Of the sixties' big three (the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan), the Stones were now the only thing left, what with the breakup of the Beatles and Dylan having pointedly taken himself out of the running with Self-Portrait, his beer-drinking album of cover songs. The Stones, on the other hand, had moved on into new territory, a brooding neon-haunted Delta of their own imagining, with the myth-spinning albums Beggars Banquet and Sticky Fingers.

However, there was one fly in the ointment: the Stones had been getting bad press about the price of their tickets, so Rock Scully (always up for the next folly) told them, "Play for free, that's what the Dead do." A free concert in Golden Gate Park!

The Parks Department granted use of the site on one condition: no announcements about where the event would take place until twenty-four hours before the concert. Should the promise be broken, the permit would be revoked.

Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, the local hipoisie and biker riffraff had their own reasons for getting a free concert together. The idea was to try to bust the cycle of gang violence that had erupted in the last year in San Francisco. There was a mini-war going on between the Brown Berets, the Wah Ching and the other Chinese gangs, the black biker gangs, the Black Panthers, the Latino gangs and several different feuding biker factions: the Gypsy Jokers, the Hell's Angels and Sons of Hawaii. They were all violently clashing with each other in what was a pretty small turf (the population of San Francisco, the city itself, was only 750,000).

Perhaps a big powwow in Golden Gate Park involving all the different gangs would be just the thing. Get a budget from the Stones for beer, briquettes, beans, rice, burritos and so on. Gathering of the tribes, man!

Maybe it was because it was "Sympathy for the Devil" time and the Stones weren't getting much sympathy, but one fine day Mick Jagger blurted out the plans for the free concert in Golden Gate Park. Result: they lose the permit. But the Stones weren't ready to abandon the idea that easily. To save face, they started looking for another location. There was another, equally compelling reason to press on regardless: Albert and David Maysles were making a movie of the tour—the aptly named Gimme Shelter—and a big California-type concert with tepees, hookah-smoking hippies in tie-dyed tatterdemalion and bare-boobed dancing chicks would provide the perfect climax.

So the frantic search for a new location was on. Lawyer Melvin Belli and Woodstock promoter Michael Lang were flying around in helicopters and other such nonsense, and by now the whole world knew that there was going to be a free Rolling Stones concert. People were pouring into the San Francisco airport for the Big Event, the new location to be announced momentarily.

Once the site at the Altamont Speedway was chosen, the original plan of bringing everyone together was totally blown. How were Chicanos, blacks and Chinese expected to get the hell out there? Take the (nonexistent) bus?

The Stones had used Hell's Angels at their Hyde Park concert, but English Hell's Angels were a far cry from the visigoths of the Oakland chapter. The Stones' infatuation with the heraldry of the Hell's Angels could be the beginning of a big problem, but attempting to explain this to Mick Jagger was fruitless.

"Listen, man," Scully was trying to tell Mick, "you can't hire Hell's Angels. They're, uh, not for hire."

Jagger quizzed him peevishly, "Wot you saying then, exactly?" Surely, reasoned Sir Mick, the Hell's Angels would leap at the opportunity to act as the Praetorian Guard for the Stones, wouldn't they?

"Waaal, Mick, I dunno...."

Sam Cutler, the Stones' rowdy tour manager, was equally smitten. "Oh, come off it, the Hell's Angels would be perfect. We used 'em in Hyde Park."

"Uh, Sam, those kids, excuse me, were not Hell's Angels. They had 'Hell's Angels' painted on their jackets, fer chrissakes! Like a costume party! These guys are red-and-white, real-time, Death's Head Angels! They went to Korea! Vietnam! They're fuckin' killers!"

Mick and Sam exchanged very noisy winks and soon decided to "hire" the Hell's Angels for a truckload of, I'm not kidding, ice and beer.

Day of the Locusts
All day Friday, the Bay Area radio stations were telling people to stay away, that you wouldn't be able to get in anyway, but anybody who had ever been to a festival, lived in the area or was just plain determined knew that that couldn't be true and came anyway. I'd flown in from New York and was sleeping on Jann Wenner's couch.

By early Saturday morning when the gates were opened, the surrounding hills were covered with people, encampments and cars. Down on the highway, traffic was backed up six miles in either direction.

California. The desert (really just scrubland). You couldn't have a more apocalyptic theater. Although from the air there seemed to be something ominous about such a massive gathering on these bald hills, the easiest thought that morning was that Altamont was going to be another Woodstock.

Woodstock, however, was a horse of a different color. And it took place on the East Coast. Someone called it the most rehearsed event in the history of the world. But Californians are not generally inclined to rehearse these things, and some of the tension of the day that followed came from fans who gathered so desperately in the desert because they expected the Stones to create a totally new kind of theater. They didn't realize that the Stones' image of America was a fantasyland barely thicker than an LP and that the Stones' theater was one of re-enactment.

Whatever it was that drew us to this place, everybody wanted it. Everything about Altamont was compulsive. In retrospect, it seems incredible that everyone scrambled so fiercely to get there—walking, riding, hitching, flying into this reckless expedition in a state analogous to somnambulism. Once it had been announced, it had to happen, even if a few details had to be forced to make it happen, like moving the entire site just twenty hours before the performance.

"Somehow," said Keith, "in America in '69—I don't know about now, and I never got it before—one got the feeling they really wanted to suck you out." It was obvious why the fans wanted it so badly, but the Stones wanted it to happen just as much. The idea of a free concert in the City of Love appealed to them too much to let it slip away because of a few inconveniences. In Muscle Shoals completing their next album, Let It Bleed, Mick was saying, "We'll do it in the road if it comes to that." It ended up more like Highway 61.

Saturday morning I went down to the heliport where they were loading equipment for transport to the site. I ran into a couple of hulking Stones roadies who told the pilot that they couldn't possibly lift Keith's monitor—wink, wink—without my help. From the air, the bleached-out hills around Altamont looked metallic in the haze and glare of the morning sun. Approaching the site, cars silted the base of the hills in crazy colored splotches. People swarmed like fur around the spindly shanks of Chip Monck's stage, poised like a Dali-esque mantis. "Once the kids started," Bill Wyman said later, "once the ants come down the hill, make way, watch out... they're going to eat you!"

And there was something swarming and ominous about this gathering—kinetic energy zinged through the air like psychic pellets. The place was a war zone. The state of the Altamont site was unimaginably appalling, a mini-Vietnam of garbage and old car wrecks. This, combined with the steep grade of the canyon slope, resulted in stoned people rolling downhill onto the stage.

"There is too much of something," wrote Michael Lydon in Ramparts. "Is it the people, the dope, the tension? Maybe it is the wanting, the concentration, not just of flesh, but of unfulfilled desire, of hope for (or is it fear of) deliverance... have we jammed ourselves together on these here hills miles from home hoping to find a way out of such masses? If that is our paradox, is Altamont our self-made trap? And yet... might we just be able by acting out the paradox so intensely to transcend it?"

Which is where the Motorpsycho Blues entered the picture. The image of the Frisco and Oakland chapters flanking their Satanic Majesties on stage was just too tempting for the Stones to resist. But if the Angels were hired to protect the Stones, the question was: from whom? One Angel ridiculed the idea by saying that they had been hired to protect the Stones from ten thousand screaming chicks. Part of the problem was that the Stones thought of America in terms of past tours and Hollywood movies. As David Crosby said, "The Rolling Stones are still a little bit in 1965... to them an Angel is something between Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper."

Wavy Gravy, sorcerer of crowds, was one of the few people who thought that the problem was not specifically with the Angels. "The Angels were together and the people weren't together, they didn't have time to get together, you know?"

The Stones put the Hell's Angels in charge of security, but the Angels didn't show up; the real dudes were at a big meeting of the entire Bay Area governing board of thieves and plunderers, deciding how to divide up the territory. This is the Yalta of gang powwows, and, Stones concert or no Stones concert, the Angels are very turf-conscious, like a pack of wild boars in rutting season.

So that left "prospects" as the only Angels at Altamont, young cats trying to prove themselves. What you had was East Bay rowdies on Ripple and ludes. Out of control with no one to rein them in. Pure gelignite.

The Fire Is Sweeping My Very Street Today
Everybody at Altamont wanted something, and the collision of exorbitant expectations could hardly have happened at a worse time, in a worse place or with a worse choice of participants. The Stones themselves were on a negative trajectory. "Gimme Shelter" and "Midnight Rambler" seemed almost like presentiments of the sweeping chaos and random violence to come.

By the time the Stones touched down on the speedway's asphalt pit in the late afternoon, the whole infernal machinery had already been set in motion. As Mick moved away from the helicopter, a kid punched him in the face. It was an omen, but so many other more practical warnings had been shunted aside to get it on, so why should an incident like this that could have happened anywhere... anyway, it was already too late.

The girl who slipped up to the stage during Santana's set could have told them, not to mention the moon in Scorpio and God knows what else. With all the astrological preoccupations of San Francisco, no one had bothered to check. But by late afternoon no one needed to be told either. What was going on was obvious. Hell's Angels beating up Hell's Angels. A pledging Angel does a karate feint to a brother, who boots him in the groin; "Don't pull any of that shit on me, bitch," and he walks away.

The crowd that milled around the Stones' caravan was hardly unusual for a rock festival. Straight and stoned, drunk and floating freaks mingled with college kids and super beings in their otherworldly robes—people who seemed to exist only for this kind of event. From time to time, Mick and Keith peeked out from the caravan door, drinking wine, eating sandwiches and signing autographs, trying to bring the afternoon around. But nothing could change the prevailing mood, which was nasty and oppressive. Fights were breaking out everywhere, one hair-raising thing after another.

Jerry Garcia's old school bus became the Dead's dressing room. Jerry was shaking and huddling with Mountain Girl on the floor of the bus through the worst of the fighting—the Hell's Angels and guns and pool cues and all of that. They'd arrived fully medicated—gummy opium, mescaline and a half a key of rolled joints, but all the dope in the world wasn't going to help a bummer like this.

Phil Lesh, even more jittery than Garcia—if that's possible—was peeking out through the saggy curtains of the bus, giving us a running commentary of the savage sideshow outside. Grisly and violent images were replaced by others even more disturbing and incomprehensible.

"Jesus Christ, there's this three-hundred-pound naked guy, and—oh God!—the Angels are beating him to a pulp."

"Phil, please, no more."

Pigpen was huddled in the back of the bus, too numb to react. Night must fall.

Not until the Jefferson Airplane go on do Garcia and company venture out of the bus. Part way into the set, Marty Balin gets into a fight with an Angel named Animal wearing a grisly cowl made out of wolf fur. It's road kill, essentially, that he has shaped to go over his head, complete with snout, teeth and whiskers. All that's missing from his outfit are horns. Animal proceeds to smack Marty Balin in the face and has to be pulled off the stage kicking and screaming, still trying to smash Marty in the face with his boot. It's a moment of pure terror. In the film Gimme Shelter there is something chilling about the shift in Grace Slick's voice from her opening comment, "What the fuck is going (on?)" to her pleading, "Everybody, please cool out," as she realizes that the command of the stage has been usurped and the Airplane are not invulnerable. After that, the Angels commandeer the stage. Jerry holds up both hands in an involuntary gesture of keeping back some unseen host of demons. He is petrified and runs straight back to the bus speechless and shaking like a leaf. He turns every shade of pale and whispers, "Oh, maa‑aan, there is no way we're doing this. There is absolutely no way." Jerry has a new plan: "Go sort it out, man. Talk to the Angels or something."

Oh, sure, Jerry. If somebody would only just talk to the Angels, this misunderstanding could get itself worked out.

Dan Healy, the Dead's sound guy, pokes his head into the bus: "The Airplane are coming off stage, what do you guys want to do?"

Well, they had planned to go on just before the Stones, but things seem to be falling apart too quickly. It's essential, if more chaos is to be avoided, that the Stones play as soon as possible. Many more bands have shown up than anticipated, the show is going on too long, and if the Stones go on after the Dead they will go on way too late. It is already starting to get dark, and there are no lights and no lit roads to find the way out of this godforsaken place. Two hundred thousand people in this demonic gully!

"Let the Stones go on, this is their madness," says Phil.

"No way we're going to play good, anyway. Yeah," says Jerry (ever the pusillanimous philosopher-realist), "we're just gonna give our enemies more ammunition." Our enemies?

They take off while the Stones are playing, happy to have gotten the last helicopter out of Saigon.

God Said to Abraham, Kill Me a Son
Night has fallen by the time the Stones hit the stage. It is so cold that even the mass of arc lamps and the huge electric heaters in front of the stage cannot keep the chill off. The stage is very low and ringed in hierarchical layers with Angels, film crew, friends and photographers who from time to time get thrown off the stage. Everything is schizophrenic. Nude chicks and guys slither over the sides of the platform only to get booted, trampled and lacerated with pool cues. Their hair and faces matted with blood, they simply climb up again. It's as if they want to be clobbered.

Not much time is wasted; Keith has already tuned up backstage. Zip into "Jumping Jack Flash," Mick's mythic autobiography, and it could hardly have been more appropriate:

I was born in a crossfire hurricane,
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain...

Keith: "It felt great and sounded great. Then there's a big ruckus about one of the Angels' bikes being knocked over in front of the stage. Oh dear, a bike's got knocked over. I'm not used to bein' upstaged by Hell's Angels—over somebody's motorbike. Yes, I perfectly understand that your bike's got knocked over, can we carry on with the concert? But they're not like that. They have a whole thing going with their bikes, as we all know now."

"Carol" is next, an old rocker, and the hogmasters can dig that too. A temporary pause. Then "Sympathy for the Devil" brings on another outburst. Each discharge of violence in front of the stage causes the crowd to sweep back into the darkness behind them. It's hard to believe that it's possible to clear so much space under so much pressure in so little time. What makes it possible is total fear.

"Something always happens when we get into this number," Mick says calmly. This time it's a nude chick who is freaking out in the front row. Six Angels jump on her. "Now fellows, I'm sure it doesn't take all of you to take care of this," Mick says in high camp.

They're only into the third song, but already it's obvious that the riveting power of the music is not going to turn back the tide. "Brothers and sisters," Mick says a little tremulously, using apocalyptic words from "Gimme Shelter," "Why are we fighting? Who wants to fight?"

The Stones suddenly seem very fragile. Mick appears especially vulnerable; divested of his sensual reality, he is the butterfly prince, a delicate gossamer figure in the camp of the Huns. With the threat to the Stones, all our collective dreams seem to collapse and layers of illusions are ripped away.

Teeth-grinding, amphetamine paranoia is rampant, and in that collective psychic storm Meredith Hunter, a young black man, gets pulled into the undertow. The stage is so low that it's hard to tell what is happening, and in one of the many random acts of violence, Hunter is knifed to death by two Hell's Angels. The chaos and terror are so pervasive that few people notice the murder; it's just another bone-crushing skirmish among a hundred others. The Angels pull his blood-soaked body underneath the Dead's stake bed truck.

In Gimme Shelter, we clearly see the silhouette of Hunter's gun as he pulls it out of his jacket. We witness Jagger's reaction as he watches the slow-motion frames of this chilling moment on the editing machine. Was Meredith Hunter going to shoot Jagger? Or was Hunter reacting to the relentless badgering by the two thugs who stabbed him, racist Angels who couldn't handle seeing a black man making out with a pretty white girl?

And there are no cops to be found anywhere. There's never a policeman when you need one! Hey, they're smart, they stayed away. Let the Hell's Angels kill the Hippies, what the fuck do we care? One of the interesting aspects of the Altamont "experiment" was, of course, to see how feebly the counterculture handled a crisis without the help of the customary social restraints—those very guardians of middle-class society that we had so loudly railed against. We had seen the future, and it was not exactly the utopian blueprint we'd had in mind.

You Know Neither the Day nor the Hour
As we all drifted away from Altamont that night, everyone who was there knew it was the end of that kind of event forever. We could no longer afford apocalypses. We had used up all the unreasonable cosmic-radical anticipations for another hundred years. But if it is the business of the future to be dangerous, Altamont is witness that to pull time in both directions is totally explosive.

Woodstock and Altamont, polar opposites in a mass media-generated parable, have collapsed in on one another as prequel and sequel of light and darkness in an ongoing passion play of the sixties. Woodstock is peace and love, the triumph of Woodstock Nation. Altamont is guns, drugs and the end of the world. But in reality they were just two ends of the same runaway train. The same fuck-ups, the same cast of characters.

Woodstock was no more peace and love than Altamont was. They were the result of the same disease: the bloating of mass bohemia in the late sixties. At that point, Mercury, the patron saint of merchants and thieves takes over, all hell breaks loose, and the Devil starts setting up his bleachers out on Highway 61.

The astonishing thing was that almost nobody saw it coming. The Dead at least should have read the writing on their own wall. A couple of days before Altamont, Emmett Grogan of the Diggers had left this message scrawled on the blackboard at the Dead offices at 710 Ashbury: "CHARLIE MANSON MEMORIAL LOVE DEATH CULT FESTIVAL."

Garcia, in the cosmoblather of the times, dopily blamed the Stones' songs for bringing on the disaster. Oh really, singing about the Devil can make him appear? As Marianne Faithfull, Jagger's girlfriend at the time, said of his supposed devotion to Satanism, "a devotee of satin, perhaps." Still, Altamont had a determining direction for the Rolling Stones, too. They went on to mock the earnest mayhem of rock's desperate adolescent expectations in "It's Only Rock 'n Roll." As Stanley Booth said, "After Altamont, the Stones opted for comedy."

The haunting possibility of narrowly averted onstage assassination—a recurrent paranoia of the late sixties—along with the brutal death of Meredith Hunter (and the concomitant demise of the counterculture) has always made Altamont seem to be the ideal marker for the end of the sixties. True, it conveniently took place in the last days of the decade, but, according to my memory, the sixties died many times before that: with the Summer of Love, with Sgt. Pepper, with the Death of Hippie, with the election of Nixon, with Charles Manson (the Tate-LaBianca murders occurred just one weekend before Woodstock).

Or, did the sixties, an exhausted behemoth in bell-bottoms and platform shoes, stumble on into the next decade, watching helplessly as its sacred hatchlings—Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison—met their fates one after another, and like some lost phantom of our great expectations, unable to remember what it wanted, melt into the thin air of the seventies?