MAY 2009 – NO. 33
The Hippie Apocalypse
Stones, Angels, and death at the Altamont Speedway free concert
The year 1969 represented a creative peak for the Rolling Stones. With the Beggars Banquet album climbing well into the Top Ten, the band spent most of the year recording tracks for the classic Let It Bleed (the band's third consecutive December release). Then, just before the release of that album, they headed down to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to begin sessions for what would become the classic Sticky Fingers (released in 1971).
But it was also the most controversial year in the band's history. Jones had become increasingly disinterested and undependable, and was making less and less of a contribution to the group in the studio. In June, after Jones was refused a visa for the band's U.S. tour, he was kicked out of the band. On July 3, Jones's body was discovered at the bottom of his swimming pool at his home in East Sussex, England, the first in a series of tragic rock 'n' roll deaths over the next two years.
The Stones went on with their plans to give a free concert to be held on July 5 at London's Hyde Park, where the group Blind Faith had given its debut performance just one month prior. The group debuted their new lineup, featuring Jones's replacement, the 20-year-old former John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers guitarist Mick Taylor. The Stones dedicated the concert to Jones and played before a crowd ranging in estimates from 250,000 to 500,000 people.
Experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger was on hand to film the band. Born in Santa Monica in 1927, Anger had a fascination with the occult, and his work was influenced by the life and philosophy of Aleister Crowley, the British occultist who preached a life of hedonism and "sex magick." Since his youth, Anger had also been friends with Anton Szandor LaVey, who in 1966 founded the Church of Satan.
In 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible, a collection of essays, rituals, and invocations that outline the core principles of LaVey's church. Despite its provocatively dark title, LaVey's bible was not so much an invocation of evil as it was an argument against all "religionists," and an argument for an ideology of base human gratification as influenced by Crowley's occultism, the Social Darwinism of Ragnar Redbeard, and Ayn Rand's Objectivism. LaVey, dubbed the "Black Pope," laid out the core teachings of his church in his "Nine Satanic Statements":
1) Satan represents indulgence, instead of abstinence!
2) Satan represents vital existence, instead of spiritual pipe dreams!
3) Satan represents undefiled wisdom, instead of hypocritical self-deceit!
4) Satan represents kindness to those who deserve it, instead of love wasted on ingrates!
5) Satan represents vengeance, instead of turning the other cheek!
6) Satan represents responsibility to the responsible, instead of concern for public vampires!
7) Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his "divine spiritual and intellectual development," has become the most vicious animal of all!
8) Satan represents all of the so-called sins, as they all lead to physical, mental, or emotional gratification!
9) Satan has been the best friend the church has ever had, as he has kept it in business all these years!
In 1967 during the Summer of Love, Anger had filmed LaVey during a "satanic mass" at his church in San Francisco for a project that carried the working title Lucifer Rising. One of the other actors Anger had cast in the film was Bobby Beausoleil, who would later find himself auditioning for a role in Helter Skelter. Anger included scenes from this footage in Invocation of My Demon Brother. Jagger wrote the music for the film, and his dissonant and unsettling synthesizer track perfectly matched the demonic mood of Anger's work.
After holding rehearsals on the set of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? at Warner Bros. Studios, the Stones began their 1969 American tour on November 7 at Colorado State University. It was their first tour of the States in three years, and demand for the tickets ran high. The rock concert scene had changed since 1966. Concerts were no longer spectator events at which audience members were content to sit or stand and passively watch the performance. By 1969, American crowds had become a part of the performance, and they wanted a piece of their favorite bands. More and more, the compressed groups of humanity seemed to lead to violence. After Blind Faith's well-received Hyde Park debut, the band's U.S. debut at Madison Square Garden on July 12 was marred by a half-hour-long riot, during which Ginger Baker was clubbed on the head by a cop and Winwood's piano was destroyed. "Somehow," said Keith Richards, "in America in '69 … one got the feeling they really want to suck you out." When they got to America in late 1969, the Stones found that fans really did want to suck as much out of them as they could.
Author Stanley Booth reflects, "The tour had been different from any of their previous ones. Up until then their performances in the U.S. had been brief, incandescent explosions of desecration, attended almost exclusively by shrieking adolescent girls. On the 1969 tour they played longer sets than they'd done since playing English clubs, and the American fans — people their own age, many of them — listened."
Stanley Goldstein, who collaborated with the Maysles brothers in their filming of the Stones's American tour, remembered the sparks in the air for the shows at Madison Square Garden at the end of November:
The feeling at Madison Square Garden was quite extraordinary. The Stones hadn't toured in a number of years … and were the most eagerly awaited of groups except possibly for a reunion of the Beatles. So there was just great excitement. The tickets were in extraordinary demand. It was a phenomenal crush. It started with a crush toward the front of the stage that you would have normally expected near the end of a concert, and then it simply grew from that …
With demand for their tickets running high, the Stones had charged as much as $15 for tickets, something for which Ralph Gleason took them to task in the pages of Rolling Stone. The Grateful Dead's manager, Rock Scully, suggested to the Stones that they play a free concert in San Francisco, and the band took to the idea. Plans went into motion for a "Woodstock West" to be held at Golden Gate Park on Saturday, December 6, with the Stones to headline a free festival that also included popular bands from the Bay area: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Grateful Dead. Reports differ on whether or not a permit had yet been secured for the Park, but when Jagger made a public announcement about the band's planned "surprise" performance, Golden Gate officials either denied or revoked the permit. The organizers turned to the Sears Point Raceway in the Sonoma Mountains, and a construction crew began setting up stage facilities there. There was a dispute over film rights to the show between the Stones — who were already filming their tour — and the owners of Sears Point, Filmways, Inc., and once again plans fell through.
It would be a busy season for Mel Belli. In addition to his involvement in the Zodiac media spectacle — and working with the defense in the Manson case — the "King of Torts" led a group that represented the Stones in their hectic search to find the West Coast version of Yasgur's Farm. Just two days before the scheduled festival, an agreement was reached with Dick Carter, the owner of the Altamont Speedway, who offered free use of his grounds. "I want the publicity," Carter told Belli. The organizers quickly packed up and moved everything downstate to Carter's speedway in Livermore.
Michael Lang, who was brought in to spin his Woodstock magic on the West Coast, was asked if there was enough room at the new site for the anticipated influx of humanity. "I think we have the room, sure. I think we can hold as many people as want to come," he said in his laid-back way. But could they get everything set up in time? "Well, we had a much bigger operation to change at Woodstock. I don't think we'll have much problem."
As volunteers worked through Friday night in the 30-degree weather setting up the makeshift stage and scaffolding, thousands of kids from across the country had already begun arriving and setting up camp on the barren hillscapes near the speedway. "All day Friday, the Bay Area radio stations were telling people to stay away, that you wouldn't be able to get in anyway … " remembered author and photographer David Dalton. "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."
In flooded carfuls of kids in their teens and twenties, somewhere between 300,000 and 350,000 of them, all hopeful witnesses to the last big happening of the year. "You have no idea what goes on here," concert promoter Bill Graham had told Belli's group. "It's an amazing phenomenon. It's like the lemmings to the sea." They converged like they had at Woodstock, but this was no bucolic summer setting. Dalton wrote,
You couldn't have a more apocalyptic theater … from the air there seemed to be something ominous about such a massive gathering on these bald hills … the bleached-out hills around Altamont looked metallic in the haze and glare of the morning sun …. 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.
And then in came the Hells Angels. The Angels existed on the darker fringes of the West Coast counterculture, and had earned the status of outlaw heroes in the popular culture from Hunter Thompson's nonfiction novel, Hells Angels, and B movies like Hell's Angels '69, which featured legendary real-life Angels like Sonny Barger and Terry the Tramp in the role of outlaw motorcycle gang members. They showed up at Altamont from all over northern California, the hard-core, self-touted "one-percenters" from local chapters like Oakland and Frisco.
In a vague agreement that would be debated endlessly by both parties, Stones tour manager Sam Cutler apparently told representatives of the Angels that they could congregate near the stage in exchange for $500 worth of beer. Up until then, Angels had had a prominent presence in the San Francisco concert scene. According to Stanley Goldstein:
[T]he Hells Angels had traditionally had an area that they established at these outdoor venues and that they were asked to establish or agreed to establish around the techie equip, around the generator, around the equip truck, and so forth, and that just by their presence they kind of ensured security of those areas; they weren't hired security, but they were there, that was Hells Angels territory … and in return for their presence, a few cases of beer would be presented to them by the concert promoter or whoever the group was that was putting on the show, and so this was an arrangement that had become, it was an unspoken agreement that had been worked out over the years — that an area offstage right or stage left would be screened off, and would be Angel land, and within Angel land, house security didn't go; people that went into Angel land went in at their own risk and came out however they came out.
What Cutler didn't understand, though, was that Hells Angels in America were a different type altogether from the Angels he'd seen in Hyde Park. "English Hells Angels at their best or at their worst certainly bore only the faintest resemblance to Hells Angels from California," Goldstein remembered. The ones that showed up at Altamont were the real thing, and since there was an officers' meeting of area Angels Saturday during the day, the brigade of Angels who showed up first at Altamont Speedway were the pledges and newer Angels — the ones who were most eager to show they had what it took.
In an issue devoted to Altamont in January, Rolling Stone reported:
Mid-morning on Saturday, Berkeley people laid what looked like a thousand tabs of sunshine acid on the Angels — not good sunshine: it had a lot of speed in it — and this was being dispersed both at the Angels' bus 30 yards uphill and on the stage. At one point, 500 reds were scattered on the front portion of the stage. The Angels were downing tabs of acid/speed and reds in huge gulps of red Mountain wine.
Angels and hippies and alcohol and drugs — it was a combustible mix. Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Oakland Hells Angels, would later write:
The people who were the most fucked up on drugs were the ones who got to Altamont first — the so-called Friday-nighters — the ones who camped a day earlier to get a good seat. They'd been exposed to the open air and hot sun for hours on end. They'd staked their territory up front. When we came in on our bikes, they wouldn't give up their space. But … they moved. We made sure of that. We pushed them back about forty feet.
The day had evolved into barely organized chaos. The eerie silhouettes of fans climbing the hastily constructed scaffolding might have reminded one of the Tower of Babel just before the confusion of tongues. Cutler spoke into the stage mic in his polite, authoritarian British accent and asked them to climb back down from the scaffolding, but he had less success in getting people off the stage. Unlike the natural amphitheater of the Woodstock stage, the stage at Altamont was only a few feet high and easily accessible to anyone who felt the need to climb onto it. Crew members, Angels, hangers-on — they surrounded the musicians during their sets and created a sense of pandemonium throughout much of the day. "The concert's like the proscenium of a theater. It's like an excuse for everyone to get together," Mick Jagger had said on the eve of Altamont, but now the proscenium had been torn down, and the crowd had become part of the performance.
Jefferson Airplane took the stage amid the confusion and bad vibes. The group had released the album Volunteers in November, and just as Surrealistic Pillow embodied the spirit of 1967, Volunteers captured the kaleidoscope of forces shaping America in 1969. Rolling Stone's David Fricke writes, "It took just two years for the folk-rock shimmer and Camelot optimism of Surrealistic Pillow … to harden into the black and temper of Volunteers, the band's requiem for an America under Nixon."Jim Newsom for AllMusic called the album "a powerful release that neatly closed out and wrapped up the '60s" on which the band "presents itself in full revolutionary rhetoric, issuing a call to 'tear down the walls' and 'get it on together.'"
Woven within the sweet San Francisco–style harmonies of the opening track, "We Can Be Together," is an anthemic statement of class war, lawlessness, and anarchy. It's the band's call to join the revolution, a self-righteous statement of social anarchy ("We are all outlaws in the eyes of America … and we are very proud of ourselves") and a neo-Marxist warning ("All your private property is target for your enemy"), peppered with the late-'60s radical motto, "Up against the wall, motherfucker." The album's closer, "Volunteers," announced "Got a revolution, got to revolution," and drew the battle lines down the middle of the generation gap: "One generation got old/One generation got soul." In between these bookend anthems were standout tracks like the back-to-the-land hippie fantasy of "The Farm," "Eskimo Blue Day" (described by Fricke as a "prophetic eco-drama" in which Grace Slick's voice is "shivering with apocalyptic dread"), and the post-apocalyptic "Wooden Ships," a song cowritten by Paul Kantner, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills. (Crosby, Stills & Nash also recorded it for their debut album). The song summons up the ecological despair of an imagined barren landscape after a future war. "Can you tell me please who won?" the singer asks someone from the "other side."
As Jefferson Airplane performed their set at Altamont, they must have wondered what side everyone was on. Angels began scuffling with non-Angels at the front of the stage. Grace Slick stopped singing and yelled "No! No!" at the combatants, then tried to mollify those in the pit by hypnotically saying, "Please be quiet … please be quiet." A heavy and bearded Semitic-looking man tried to talk some sense into the Angels, and they beat him to the ground. Vocalist Marty Balin, wearing a cowboy hat and red bandana, grew incensed as he looked down from the stage at the fighting. First he threw a tambourine at someone in the ruckus, probably an Angel, and then he made the decision to jump offstage and into the fray. Once down in "Angel territory," he ceased being a rock star and became just another non-Angel — in other words, fair game. The next thing the crowd heard was Paul Kantner speaking into his mic: "Hey, man, I'd like to mention that the Hells Angels just, uh, smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I'd like to thank you for that."
It was a verbal challenge to the Angels. One of the hairier, scarier-looking ones walked onstage. "Is this on?" he said as he grabbed a mic, and then he challenged Kantner: "You're talking to me, I'm gonna talk to you."
"I'm not talking to you," Kantner said. "I'm talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head."
"You're talking to my people. Let me tell you what's happenin'. You are what's happenin'," said the Angel. "You know what's happenin'? We're partying like you."
Marty reappeared onstage dazed from the blow he'd taken to the head. The Airplane had to cut things short. The Flying Burrito Brothers' set was also interrupted by violence, and Graham Parsons had to beg those in front of the stage, "Please stop hurting each other." When the Grateful Dead got wind of what was going on, they canceled their performance and got the hell out of Livermore.
Shortly after Mick Jagger arrived by helicopter and was making his way to the trailer, a young guy, most likely on a bad trip, ran up to him through the crowd and hit the singer. "I hate you!" the kid said as he was restrained by security. Mick looked at him dazed, wondering how this stranger at a free concert could have such contempt toward him. He remained in the safety of his trailer, joined by then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull.
As soon as Bill Wyman showed up, the band took the stage at night courtesy of a path that the Angels cleared with their bikes. The crowd had endured the scene at Altamont all day, and now they looked to move front and center. Barger remembered, "When the Stones came out onstage, people moved back in toward the roped-in area where our bikes were parked, trying to jump on the stage. In response, we began pushing them off the stage. Plus, they were messing with our bikes."
Jagger, in his plush pants and red-and-black satin shirt with long, streaming sleeves, performing flamboyant gestures as he primped and pranced around stage during the band's set, looked part pirate, part Gypsy, part peacock — the perfect antithesis to the burly bikers in leather vests around him. After "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Carol," the Stones launched into "Sympathy for the Devil." A fan was kneeling on the seat of a Frisco Hell's Angel's bike, causing the seat springs to come into contact with the battery posts and shorting it out. The battery was right next to the oil tank. Stanley Booth remembers, "As Mick sang, 'I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain,' a motorcycle near the right side of the stage suffered a small explosion. Oily blue-white smoke swirled up, and a space opened almost instantly, the people moving away from the trouble. You could see violent movement in the darkness, but no details."
Angels went out into the crowd and began pushing and beating people. "While we secured the stage, some of the people who had been hit and pushed got mad and started throwing bottles at us and really started messing with our bikes. Big mistake. That's when we entered the crowd and grabbed some of the assholes vandalizing our bikes and beat the fuck out of them," wrote Barger.
Jagger, performing in the role of Satan, stopped singing and looked out at the chaos in the darkness. One Angel yelled something angrily at drummer Charlie Watts, as if he was blaming the band for the mess. Jagger addressed the crowd: "Hey, people. Brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters. Come on now. That means everybody just cool out. Will you cool out, everybody?"
"Something very funny happens when we start that number," he observed, and then they started the song again from the beginning. To highlight the chaos, a dog (a hound of hell?) walked across the stage in front of Jagger. The band made it to the instrumental bridge, and then the fighting started up once again. Jagger momentarily stopped his dancing and watched helplessly. One guy near the front of the stage shook his head and stared at the singer, as if looking for Jagger to take control of the chaos. A girl sitting on the front of the stage looked up at him with tears streaming from her eyes. Unsure of what to do, Jagger broke into a rooster dance until the end of the song, when the fighting began again. Finally, he said, "Uh, people, who's fighting, and what for? Who's fighting and what for. Why are we fighting? Why are we fighting? We don't want to fight, come on. Do we want — Who wants to fight?"
Keith Richards pointed at someone down below and yelled, "Look, that guy there, if he doesn't stop it, man — Listen, either those cats cool it, man, or we don't play." Then an Angel yelled into the mic and threatened to turn the whole bus around: "Hey, if you don't cool it, you ain't gonna hear no music! Now you wanna all go home or what?"
"Don't let's fuck it up, man," Jagger urged. "Come on, let's get it together. I can't do any more than just ask you, than to beg you to keep it together. You can do it; it's within your power. Everyone, Hells Angels, everybody. You know, if we are all one, then let's show we're all one," he pleaded.
The scuffling subsided until "Under My Thumb," the Stones comically misogynistic hit from 1966. As the band ground out a slow and fierce version of the song, a man standing next to the head of the Frisco Angels chapter started writhing in the throes of a bad acid trip. In retrospect, his demonic facial contortions seemed to be warning the crowd of impending doom.
At the end of the song, another scuffle began down in front.
"We're splitting, man, if those cats don't stop beating up everybody in sight," said Keith Richards. "I want 'em out of the way, man."
An Angel ran over to tell Richards, "A guy's got a gun out there. He's shooting at the stage."
What the band couldn't see — but what viewers of the documentary Gimme Shelter would see in chilling detail — was that a man had just been killed. While no one seems to remember a gun actually being fired, what is known is that Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man who was at the concert with a white girlfriend, Patty Bredahoff, and a group of Angels got into a scuffle. As the rest of the crowd in the immediate vicinity stepped back and formed a sudden clearing, Hunter reached within his lime-green suit jacket and drew out a pistol. Alan Passaro, a 21-year-old Hells Angel, came flying at Hunter, swinging a knife in a lethal, over-handed motion, and stabbed him in the right shoulder blade. Passaro wrestled him to the ground and stabbed him again, this time in the back. Hunter's body was ushered off to the side, much like the bodies of other injured parties from the violence of earlier in the day. The Stones, unaware of what had just happened, continued their set, debuting the song "Brown Sugar" while Hunter lay dying. When doctors arrived, Hunter was pronounced dead at the scene, and his corpse was flown away by helicopter.
Hunter was just one of four people who died at the Altamont. Around midnight, festival goers Mark Feiger and Richard Savlov were killed when the driver of a Plymouth sedan plowed into a campfire and hit them and several others. Meanwhile, the body of a "John Doe" was found after he slid down an irrigation canal on the speedway grounds and drowned. By one estimate, 850 suffered injuries in the fighting and chaos. As Cutler would recall nearly four decades later, the scene at Altamont "got completely out of hand. It was a peculiar version of American madness."
Immediately afterward, the media rushed to make sense of what had happened. Stefan Ponek of KSAN Radio in San Francisco hosted a show the following day to report on the deaths and violence and mayhem. Sam Cutler called in, trying to defuse the situation, but Barger's call to the station resulted in a rambling diatribe against the Stones ("This Mick Jagger, like, he used us for dupes, man"), and the hippie fans who had not given the Angels a wide-enough berth: "Ain't nobody gonna kick my motorcycle …. When you're standing there looking at something that's your life, and everything you've got is so much invested in it, and you love it more than anything else in the world, and you see somebody kick it … you're gonna get him. And you know what? They got got."
Rolling Stone magazine would help create the infamy of Altamont, erroneously reporting that Hunter was killed during the performance of "Sympathy for the Devil." Its description of the scene rendered it into something out of the Dark Ages: "Flickering silhouettes of people trying to find warmth around the blazing track reminded one of the medieval paintings of tortured souls in the Dance of Death …. It was in this atmosphere that Mick sang about how groovy it is to be Satan. Never has it been sung in a more appropriate setting." The Berkeley Tribe bemoaned, "Bringing a lot of people together used to be cool. But at Altamont … the locust generation came to consume crumbs from the hands of an entertainment industry we helped to create … Everybody grooved on fear." Michael Lydon's article in Ramparts concluded, "At Altamont in December, the dark side snarled its ugly answer to Woodstock's August joy …. We all seemed beyond the law at Altamont, out there willingly, all 300,000 of us, Stones and Angels included, and on our own."
Passaro was indicted for the murder of Meredith Hunter but acquitted on the grounds of self-defense. In 2007, former FBI agent Mark Young revealed in a BBC documentary that the Angels had plotted to assassinate Jagger on the property of his Long Island home in December 1969 as "retribution" for the Altamont incident. According to Young, the murder plot involved the Angels rowing out to Jagger's home by the Long Island Sound, but a storm short-circuited their attempt. "As they gathered the weaponry and their forces to go out on Long Island Sound, a storm rolled up, which nearly sunk the watercraft that they were in, and they escaped with their own lives."
Was Altamont, as some have written, the death of the '60s? David Dalton writes, "Altamont has become 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." The free concert held in Livermore has come to represent the antithesis of the Aquarian Exposition at Bethel. But like most labels, this is a huge oversimplification. "Woodstock was no more peace and love than Altamont was. They were the result of the same disease: the bloating of late sixties mass bohemia. 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 seeds of Altamont had been sown throughout the year, if not throughout the entire decade. The Airplane had sung of anarchy and the Stones of violent revolution, and in the last month of the last year of the decade, they came face-to-face with the culture that they had helped to create. Rockers, bikers, lovers, radicals, peaceniks, and psychedelic stoners — they had been at Woodstock, too, had been there in one form or another throughout the sixties. These were The People, the people who were all one, the people who would never be all one again.
Excerpted from 1969: The Year Everything Changed, by Rob Kirkpatrick, published by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Copyright 2009. Find out more at www.robkirkpatrick.com.
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