don't demand human sacrifice at this stage of the
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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).
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!
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.
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
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?
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.
man," Scully was trying to tell Mick, "you
can't hire Hell's Angels. They're,
uh, not for hire."
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?
Mick, I dunno...."
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
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!"
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.
of the Locusts
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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."
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?"
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.
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.
Fire Is Sweeping My Very Street Today
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Christ, there's this three-hundred-pound naked guy,
and—oh God!—the Angels are beating him
to a pulp."
please, no more."
was huddled in the back of the bus, too numb to
react. Night must fall.
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."
sure, Jerry. If somebody would only just talk
to the Angels, this misunderstanding could get itself
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?"
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!
the Stones go on, this is their madness,"
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."
take off while the Stones are playing, happy to
have gotten the last helicopter out of Saigon.
Said to Abraham, Kill Me a Son
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.
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: