ABOUT THE BOOK:
In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert in San Francisco, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s.
In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth--until now.
Altamont explores rock’s darkest day, a fiasco that began well before the climactic death of Meredith Hunter and continued beyond that infamous December night. Joel Selvin probes every aspect of the show—from the Stones’ hastily planned tour preceding the concert to the bad acid that swept through the audience to other deaths that also occurred that evening—to capture the full scope of the tragedy and its aftermath. He also provides an in-depth look at the Grateful Dead’s role in the events leading to Altamont, examining the band’s behind-the-scenes presence in both arranging the show and hiring the Hells Angels as security.
The product of 20 years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, and featuring 16 pages of color photos, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.
Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin is a 2016 Dey Street Books publication. I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
Growing up, I was always fascinated by the sixties decade. So many changes took place in that ten years, so much of it sad and dark, but the music scene was absolutely dynamic and even now, all these years later, the music is a mainstay, still purchased, downloaded, streamed, and listened to every single day. The Rolling Stones went on to become iconic, still playing live shows and creating new music, and still widely respected.
But, in 1969, the band was in trouble. They had recently lost Brian Jones, a founding member of the group, and were nearly flat broke. They needed a cash infusion desperately, so a tour of America was hastily put together.
However, the band was harshly criticized for the price of the concert tickets, with many complaining they could not afford to attend the shows. (Unlike today, musicians were not supposed to appear to be business minded, and many felt the music should be very affordable, or free. The music was first, the money secondary, but of course, that was hardly the case, in reality, except perhaps with The Grateful Dead, who preferred a low profile and actually encouraged bootlegging at their concerts. Otherwise, rock stars were absolutely in it for the money, but could not APPEAR to be, which is why the Stones came under fire, especially by the underground, the very people the Stones were hoping to impress.)
All of this led to the hatching of two ideas. One, make a film of the entire tour, something Filmways was willing to work on, and secondly, offer a free concert to end the tour with relish. The free concert idea was pitched to the Stones by Rock Scully, the manager for The Grateful Dead, and the hope was the free event would help soothe the criticism over ticket prices.
Coming off the epic Woodstock festival, the open air, outdoor concert was becoming very popular. Several such shows had taken place with little or no incident. However, Woodstock’s peace and love atmosphere, was largely a myth, although the counterculture claimed it as a victory, proving that an event of that magnitude, despite the conditions, worked just fine, without the heavy hand of the law or overzealous security guards. Many still believe Woodstock was a free concert, when in fact, tickets were sold to the event, but of course the venue was crashed, and ended up becoming the stuff legends are made of.
So, with the ‘success’ of Woodstock, and Monterey Pop, and other such venues, the Stones were hoping to finally become a part of that phenomenon, since they had missed out on all the fun up until now, and were hoping to not only maintain their rock star royalty status, but also be considered cool, by the counterculture.
So, this was the atmosphere leading up to what basically amounted to a massive cluster- ****.
The show was to take place in San Francisco, featuring the bands who were making waves in that area, such as ‘The Dead’, ‘Santana’, and ‘The Jefferson Airplane’. The show was slated to take place at San Jose State University, but when that fell through, Gold Gate Park was picked, and again those plans crumbled, so Sears Point Raceways was chosen, but negotiations broke down there too. So, with time running out, Altamont Motor Speedway was suggested as a possible venue, and organizers agreed to hold the concert there, but failed to notice all its limitations.
The rest is history, as they say, with picking Altamont as the location for the show being the first of many missteps.
The next big error in judgement was taking the ‘The Dead’s’ suggestion of using the Hell’s Angels as security. No one wanted the cops or traditional security guards, Jagger in particular being quite paranoid about a police presence. But, with having experienced issues regarding fans running onto the stage during shows, and the stage area at Altamont being quite low to the ground, some kind of security was deemed necessary. Gerry Garcia and the Dead were familiar with the members of the motorcycle club and had used their help on previous occasions, without any issues.
So, the Angels were hired for five hundred dollars of beer, to surround the stage area, and keep people away from the performers, and an eye on the equipment.
All these decisions, which were hasty and perhaps naïve, all culminated into one of the darkest days in rock history.
Many folks have seen the movie: ‘Gimme Shelter' which follows the Stones on their 1969 American tour, ending with the free concert and death of Meredith Hunter.
While this movie does depict, in vivid detail, the murder scene, and all that transpired that fateful day, it was also edited and toned down, and failed to completely capture the sinister atmosphere, fully.
In stark contrast, this book breaks down the behind the scenes buildup, the organization of the event, the behavior of the Angels, the crowd dynamic, the violence, the copious amounts of drugs consumed, the lack of facilities, food, and water, and first aid areas, and how the view from the hill gave many an entirely different opinion of what transpired that day compared to those who were surrounding the stage area.
Although I am well aware of how things ended up, reading about what was touted as “Woodstock West’, on December 6, 1969, was so intense, I decided it wasn’t the type of thing I wanted to read right before going to bed.
It was spooky how it all transpired with a kind of unstableness in the atmosphere right from the start, one that increased the uneasiness of the bands and the crowd as the day progressed with numerous altercations and outbursts of violence.
This book is very detailed and organized, touching on all aspects of the situation, not just how the concert came to be, how it was put together, the horrible decisions and even arrogance that lead to disaster and tragedy, but also detailed the aftermath of the event and how it basically shut down the hippie movement in one felled swoop, with the Manson murders putting the nail in the coffin.
Who got the blame? How did these events change the Stones and their music? Did anyone ever pay for the death of Meredith Hunter? Was Hunter aiming to kill Mick Jagger?
There were several other deaths that day, including a drowning, and a couple of fatal car accidents, as well as several births.
The fallout of this event reverberated through the rock community with ‘Rolling Stone Magazine’ stepping up to the plate, skewering everyone associated with the situation, and pulling no punches.
From that day forward things began to change in America, with the revolution basically coming to an end, with rock music becoming big business with corporate America, and peace and love fading into obscurity as the country moved into a new era, leaving all pretense of innocence behind, to be replaced by a need to put the turbulence behind them and return to having fun, dancing under mirror balls, unencumbered with the weight of war, violence, and rioting. The sixties generation woke up and realized their hopes for utopia were nothing but a pipe dream and it was time to face reality, grow-up, get an education, a job, and become productive citizens.
That wake up call, was due, at least in part to Altamont and the death of Meredith Hunter. This book chronicles the entire charade from start to finish, offering new insights into the mindset of the Stones, the attendees, the Angel’s, the divisions in the underground movement and the hippie community, and the country as a whole.
Even if you think you know all there is to know about this story, this book will take you back to this pivotal day in history, and will have you living it as though you were actually there. I even felt claustrophobic at times thinking about that wall of bodies shoved up against the stage and the sheer force a crowd of 300,000 people all stoned, drunk, or tripping on acid.
It’s actually a miracle things didn’t become much worse. I no longer find this era of time quite so fascinating. Instead, I feel a little embarrassed for those who find themselves immortalized on film and in photographs, dancing around naked, dirty, scruffy, stoned out of their heads, and generally making fools of themselves, acting like lunatics. Geez, I’d hate to think my parents, kids, or colleagues would ever see me looking that way or behaving in such a manner. However, to be fair, had I been of that age in the sixties, I probably would have been right there with them, at least to some degree.
However, this book is indeed a very shocking portrayal of a historic event that ended in tragedy and is absolutely riveting. This may be one of the best books I’ve ever read in regards to rock history. Many such books attempt to water down events and still try to sell the whole counterculture as romantic and nostalgic. This book throws cold water on all that and does so unapologetically, pointing the blame in more than one direction, but letting the facts speak for themselves.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about the sixties, the music scene of that era, the real true story of Altamont, the Stones, and all who were present on stage and behind the scenes, who ended up taking blame and who walked away without taking their fair share of it.
While many hard lessons were learned that day, there have still been several heartbreaking tragedies surrounding rock venues, from riots, to the crushing and trampling of bodies, to faulty stage equipment, pyrotechnics, over capacity crowds, to the onstage assassination of Dime Bag Darrell, many of which could have been prevented if the proper planning and safety precautions had been taken. But, Altamont was the first concert to have such a terrifying event take place.
This book is not for the faint of heart and pulls no punches, which garners my utmost respect for the author and the obvious amount of time and research put into this book.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic Joel Selvin started covering rock shows for the paper shortly after the end of the Civil War. His writing has appeared in a surprising number of other publications that you would think should have known better.