Monday, October 20, 2008

History Of Festivals 14: Altamont

ALTAMONT 6th December 1969

Last week, we touched on the bikers at Bath 1970 getting Fairport Convention to the stage on time by clearing people out of their way with motorbikes. But that sort of mild bullying was playground stuff compared to the mad, thrilling horror of Altamont 1969.

Everyone knows, or thinks they do, about the death of Meredith Hunter at the hands of Hell’s Angels during the Rolling Stones set at Altamont Speedway in December 1969.

39 years on, it’s almost impossible to fully apportion the blame, to sort out the motives of the people involved. Was it wise to hire the bikers as security just as had been done at The Human Be-In, Monterey Pop and Hyde Park fests? Would they have been there causing even more trouble if they hadn’t been hired? Was it on the Stones’ insistence, or the Grateful Dead’s? Were they really paid with $500 worth of beer?

Why did 18-year-old Meredith have a handgun at the concert? Was he getting hassled by the Angels because he was black and with a white girlfriend? Was he planning to shoot at Mick Jagger, as some have claimed? Had he fired a shot? Did he even have a gun?

The only thing you can really say for certain is that, having stabbed Meredith once, and taken him to the ground, he shouldn’t have been stabbed a total of five times (coroner’s report) and kicked / beaten to death, which ain’t much to say about the end of a kid’s life, but there it is.

The murky legal aftermath saw Angel Alan Passaro cleared on grounds of self-defense; there was talk of a second assailant, scared witnesses, the whole sorry nine. The case was not finally closed until 2005.

Anyway… so other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

The Altamont Speedway Free Concert of December 6th 1969 was set to feature a line-up of Santana; Jefferson Airplane; The Flying Burrito Brothers; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead and the Stones. Now that is a bloody good line-up isn’t it? Hey and its free so you and me are both going, right? Too right we’re going dude and we're gonna get real high. What’s the worst that could happen man?

The venue was only chosen 48 hours before the event – amazingly slack preparation for an event that 300,000 would attend. And the racetrack was a run down bleak place, appropriately enough only now used for demolition derbies. Facilities were minimal. It should never have happened. A free festival put together in 24 hours was a recipe for disaster and disaster was what they got.

The festival was advertised on local rock radio stations on the Friday and even as early as Friday night people were turning up in their thousands. A lot drinking heavily and whacked out on STP, a combo that is guaranteed to end in tears even if you’re just sitting watching TV let alone if you’re in a desolate speedway track with a gang of angry Hells Angels.

A Saturday dawned, streams of hairy people, looking like refugees from a nuclear war, trudged in lines up to seven miles long to get to the racetrack. By 11am there wasn’t a foot of space within 75 yards of the hastily built stage. Chip Monck was the best stage manager in the business at the time but with so little time available the stage he built only seven feet high and easily climbed by anyone with a mind so to do. It should have been at least 12 feet. He knew it could be a problem. He was right.

In retrospect, other than hiring the Angels, maybe that was the single biggest mistake. Loaded fans surged towards the stage – check out the great Gimme Shelter documentary for footage – and, to be fair to the Angels, they had legitimate concerns about the stage being stormed, over-run. Backstage a man, out of his mind on acid had run at Jagger shouting ‘I’m going to kill you’ which y’know, is like totally uncool brother, so everyone was jumpy from the get go.

Even during Santana, the first band on, there were already fights breaking out. Of course the fact that they’d been drinking beer and wine that was spiked with acid didn’t exactly help matters.

Second band on were Jefferson Airplane opening with ‘We Can Be Together’ to try and tone the mood down. But during ‘The Other Side Of This Life’ fights broke out, pugnacious singer Marty Balin tried to intervene and was promptly knocked unconscious by a biker. Paul Kantner understandably concerned that one of his singers was sparko stopped the music and pleaded with the Angels to stop beating people up only to have the microphone confiscated by one of them.

It took ten minutes to clear the stage before Airplane could resume their set. The show must go on. Now everyone was scared that a long gap without music might make the crowd even more restless so the Flying Burrito Brothers were ready to go as Airplane came off.

It worked. For a while. Their brand of proto country rock soothing jangled nerves. However the medical tents were over-run with people crazed on bad acid consumed in the spiked wine that was being passed around. Doesn’t sound very hygienic that does it?

CSNY were up next. Violence erupted again as the Angels beat up tripping people who were out of control. Like, dude that’s really not helping my buzz, I was hoping for naked chicks not naked aggression, maaaan.

The Dead refused to follow them as scheduled due to the excessive violence and later Robert Hunter wrote ‘New Speedway Boogie’ for the Workingman’s Dead album about the day. But The Stones had to play. God knows what would have happened if they hadn’t.

The Stones made everyone wait a long, long time before taking the stage, as was their wont in those days. They wanted all the lights out apart from a spot on Mick, it’s said that they even had the medical people turn out their torches. The vibe, at least that captured by the film-makers (young George Lucas was one of the cameramen!), is dark and ugly and thrilling.

Mick Jagger looks extraordinary, in a satin half-brown, half-black sort of… blouse, with these crazy long tasseled arm things, and his skinny little bum wiggling in mustard velvet trousers, alongside these hairy-arsed bikers. He appeals, in vain, throughout the set for calm, sounding like a sort of camp drama teacher who has lost control of the fifth form.

“People! Who’s fighting and what for? Why are we fighting,” he pleads. “That guy there (pointing) if he doesn’t stop it man, cool it man, or we don’t play.”

But it’s quite clear that the Stones don’t have much of a choice: there’s no way they could walk off without a riot. The version of Sympathy For The Devil, shown in its entirety on Gimme Shelter, is absolutely brilliant. There’s a real edge to the playing, like they know they are playing for their lives: it’s dark and exciting and urgent. There’s also a sense of ridiculousness, too – Jagger strutting, singing and snarling about being this ruthless and terrible Satanic figure, yet surrounded by these brutish blokes who could snap him like a dry twig and look like they wouldn’t mind trying, who are in their turn his only protectors from a surging, drugged-up mob.

At one point, bizarrely, this huge German Shepherd (dog, not human) trots across the stage. A fat, naked woman fights, really physically fights, her way to the front. All the girls are staring at Jagger, captivated, saucer-eyed. Yet they all look so young, really, just kids swooning at their favourite popstar, not some sort of social or political movement, no less naïve and star-struck as the kids you saw squealing at Beatles concerts five, six years earlier. Jagger is at once transfixing and ludicrous.

There’s loads of aggro all over the place now and it is not surprising that many people wrongly believe that the murder of Hunter took place during this all-too-fitting perfect cacophony of Satanic groove. But in fact it is during the next song, Under My Thumb, that it happened. The band stops, but the full extent of what’s happened is not clear, not least because the Hell’s Angels have formed a ring around the murderous action.

It’s after this that the famous moment between Keith Richards and Angels leader Sonny Barger took place. Keef said they were going off; Barger says he stuck a gun in Keef’s side and told him: “Keep f’ing playing or you’re dead.”

Meredith Hunter was not the only fatality that night: two people were run over, one drowned in a drainage ditch. Bad drugs, bad people, poor organization and massive egos added up to a disaster at what was hoped would be ‘The Woodstock Of The West’.

Altamont, partly through the fascinating and yet macabre Gimme Shelter movie, has become totemic for the death of peace and love. The end of the innocence and the prelude to a decade of excess and self indulgence. But that’s to ignore the fact that there had been bad festivals before Altamont and great ones after. Violence and aggression exist throughout society and when you stick 300,000 people in a racetrack and get them wasted on wine and acid, it’d be surprising if there wasn’t a few problems. I’m also willing to bet some people had a great time because The Stones were on their kick ass best form.

Those sort of pronouncements like “this was the day the Sixties was finally over” and so on always seem a bit of a stretch, but you can see why people have made the case. But, distasteful though it is to say, it’s one of the finest Stones performances. Writer Robert Santelli said when the Stones plugged that day they ‘set forth an avalanche of power and emotion that, in 1969, was rarely reproduced.’

In today’s world of ticketed seats and health and safety and corporate sponsorship and ‘zero tolerance’ policing, maybe we’ve lost sight of the fact that the best nights out, the ones you really remember, are the ones where there’s a crackle of danger, a thrill, a risk. Not to say that many people would have called Altamont a great night out, but safety isn’t everything in life, either. And this was, after all, rock n roll.

There was a bizarre coda earlier this year when it emerged that Hell’s Angels – in revenge for Mick Jagger blaming them for the violent fiasco of Altamont – plotted to murder him a few months later, by traveling to his Long Island home… on a boat! A severe storm disrupted the mission and saved Mick’s bacon. A case of crazy pirate bikers with cutlasses in their teeth and parrots on their hogs: not very pleased to meet you….

Free Stuff

Lots of interesting stuff to win this week

David Gray: A New Day At Midnight & White Ladder.

Two excellent albums by the wobbly-headed strummer.
Picture This- The Essential Blondie collection.

It's Blondie and its their essential stuff. Funny how we thought of them as New WAve at the time. Time reveals a kick ass band who knew how to write a melody. Hanging On The Telephone remains a classic of that era. And Debbie Harry remains as captivating as ever.

Aerosmith: Greatest Hits & Get A Grip
The hits album is the primo 'smith sampler with Drema on, Walk This Way and Sweet Emotino all prsent and very correct. My fave? Back in the Saddle - giddyup cowboy.

Get A Grip is now 15 years old! Ha! How old does that make you feel eh? To me, its like it just came out! Some good rockin' to be had though especially on the splendidly urgent Eat The Rich.

For a chance to win any of these email me with any combo on Aerosmith, Gray and Blondie in the subject box along with your address.

This will be the last draw of free CDs until the first week in December because I'm on holiday for the coming month.

All the other freebies below have now been drawn and sent out. So don't bother emailing me for them - a load of you still do - but you know there's really no point.

Rock on my lovely people.

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