(Pictured: the Stones and the Hell’s Angels onstage at Altamont. The stage was only three feet high. At one point, a long piece of string was the only barrier between it and the fans.)
I recently listened to a 2022 episode of the great Let It Roll podcast in which host Nate Wilcox talked with journalist Joel Selvin about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont concert. Selvin wrote a book about Altamont in 2016, and here’s a piece of what I wrote about it back then, edited slightly.
In the fall of 1969, the Rolling Stones, strapped for cash, scheduled a brief tour of America for November. They would be followed by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and hoped to cash in with a concert film, a la Woodstock. A free outdoor festival, doubling as a rock ‘n’ roll summit between San Francisco and London, would provide the perfect ending to the tour and the film. What resulted is a story full of twists and turns that ends up a horror show, described in the fascinating new book Altamont: the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.
The Stones played standard arena shows in big cities including Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, and in college towns including Fort Collins, Colorado; Auburn, Alabama; and Champaign, Illinois. But the free festival was supposed to be the capper. It was originally set for Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and the Stones’ appearance (alongside the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane) would be revealed only at the last minute as a surprise. Bu the surprise aspect was quickly scuttled, and then bungling management required the concert to be moved, first to Sears Point Raceway north of San Francisco and then, less than 36 hours before the announced concert date (December 6, 1969) to Altamont Speedway, a broken-down track about 40 miles east of Oakland.
Selvin’s book paints the rolling disaster in moment-by-moment detail—Mick Jagger comes off as astoundingly naive, refusing to permit police on the grounds—along with the out-and-out grifting by some of the participants. For example, a mysterious guy named Jon Jaymes was in charge of transportation and security and signed the contract with the owner of Altamont Speedway, but he wasn’t on the Stones’ payroll or anyone else’s, and it’s unclear how he managed to attach himself to the tour. When Jagger decamped for Switzerland on December 7th with the tour proceeds, $1.8 million in cash, he and the Stones left behind a trail of unpaid bills.
The bad juju that enveloped Altamont was the product of forces that the Stones were capable of unleashing but could not control. Since they last toured America in 1966, the country had changed. Concert crowds were no longer made up of screaming teenyboppers. The news was grimmer—Vietnam was a deeper quagmire and Richard Nixon, the least-trusted politician in America among young people, was in the White House, fostering anger and mistrust. The drugs were heavier: at Altamont, psychedelics and wine were the drugs of choice; in Selvin’s telling, musicians, concert crew, photographers, and a significant percentage of the crowd were tripping all day long. The crowd deserves a share of the blame for the violence that plagued the show. Although the Hells Angels, famously hired to handle security for $500 worth of beer, were accomplished lawbreakers (and were themselves addled by drugs and alcohol), they found concertgoers more than willing to egg them on. Even Meredith Hunter, the man whose stageside murder by one of the Angels was captured by the Maysles’ cameras, was high and looking for a fight.
Well before December 6th, 1969, it was clear that Altamont was haunted. The signs were everywhere. Without the guardian angels or the dumb luck that had favored Woodstock, it was a flashpot waiting for a match.
In the podcast, Selvin notes that the famous $500 worth of beer wasn’t a payment for security but merely a hospitable gesture that grew out of a meeting between concert organizers and the Angels. Also, Altamont was where Woodstock’s luck ran out: Woodstock impresario Michael Lang was the one who convinced skeptical organizers that Altamont Speedway, abandoned, trash-strewn, and grim, would be a fine site for the show.
You should read Selvin’s book, if you haven’t. And you should listen to Let it Roll too. Its mission is to cover the entire history of popular music, from 1800s minstrelsy to EDM. No matter what you’re into, there’s probably an episode that talks about it.
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Selvin had a Sunday night radio show in the Bay Area when I was there around 2005. It was supposed to channel the spirit of free-form station KSAN from the ’60s, and “the jive is still alive” was the tagline. I actually preferred reading Ben Fong-Torres’ radio notes in the Sunday Chronicle.