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(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. 

Living Theatre

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(Pictured: let this shot of a happy festival-goer, taken at Knebworth, England, in the 70s, stand for all the naked hippies who enjoyed all of the festivals everywhere, and who are somebody’s grandparents today.)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the Mar y Sol Pop Festival in Puerto Rico which, like other festivals of the era, was staged in half-assed fashion and was fortunate not to turn into a greater debacle than it did. I wrote about it during my 2008-2012 tenure with CBS Interactive and the website of radio station WNEW. I repeated the post here in 2013; this reboot revises and adds some hyperlinks. 

By the spring of 1972, the bloom was off the rock festival rose. yet eager promoters were still willing to try putting them on, and fans would attend if they could. In April 1972, the Mar y Sol festival attracted about 50,000 fans to an oceanside site in Puerto Rico.

A festival planned for the previous November had fallen through—and Mar y Sol nearly did, too. New promoter Alex Cooley had chosen Easter weekend for the festival—an extremely important weekend in heavily Catholic Puerto Rico—and Puerto Rican officials, who had welcomed the idea of Cooley’s involvement at first, were suddenly not so supportive. The week of the show, a judge issued an injunction against the festival on the grounds that drugs were being sold at the site, only to reverse the injunction a day later and let the festival go forward.

About 25,000 people had arrived by Friday March 31. On April 1, the day’s headliners included B. B. King and the Allman Brothers Band; on the 2nd, Alice Cooper and Emerson Lake and Palmer performed. Faces and the J. Geils Band were the top stars on Monday the 3rd; Black Sabbath was also scheduled that day, but they were unable to get to the festival site from the airport on the gridlocked roads. Other performers were sprinkled throughout the weekend, including an unknown from New York State named Billy Joel, whose set wowed the crowd, even if nobody can remember clearly whether it was on the 1st or the 2nd.

The vibe at the festival was ominous: armed gangs roamed the grounds, one concert-goer was murdered in a fight gone wrong, and several people drowned in the ocean. The biggest enemy was the sun; the festival medical tent saw more cases of sunburn than anything else. And by the end of the weekend, island authorities had had enough. Cooley had to be smuggled off the grounds because he was the subject of an arrest warrant. About 3,000 people had come down from the mainland, taking advantage of combined flight-and-ticket offers. It took three days to get them all home, because the fine print hadn’t made clear that most of the return flights would be on standby.

A report on the festival in Creem magazine that summer captured the end-of-the-world feeling of Mar y Sol: “More than once during the three days, in fact we were to feel like a yellowing photograph in Life magazine; a living theatre re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans.”

A compilation album of music from the festival was released officially, but it’s long out-of-print. A portion of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s set was released on their From the Beginning box set; this bootleg is supposed to be the whole thing; Billy Joel’s performance has also been bootlegged. There was a plan to film the concert a la Woodstock, but it didn’t happen. When I first wrote this post, YouTube had what was what purported to be film from the show, although it was soundtracked by bands that did not appear there. And in any event, my typically shoddy research process has been unable to find it today.

“A living theatre re-enactment of hippiedom 1968 staged for the benefit of curious Puerto Ricans.” That’s a very perceptive comment from a writer of the moment. We know now how far the wheel had turned by early 1972, but it’s harder to assess the currents of history while they are carrying you along. It was probably easier when the subject was rock festivals, after a year or more of states and municipalities trying to legislate them out of existence. Perhaps, after a dedicated festival-goer had spent one too many weekends in one too many fields, where there was too much sun and too much dope and not enough drinking water, he or she might feel like they, and the world, had just gotten too old for it.

Fresh Air, Nature, Music, Love, Fun, and Water

I have been corresponding with a reader who attended the Iola People’s Fair in 1970. In our most recent exchange, he sent along a couple of interesting items. The first is this pen-and-ink drawing modeled after the psychedelic concert posters made famous in San Francisco and elsewhere, made to promote the show. (As always, click to embiggen.)

A few years ago, I heard from a guy who claimed to have drawn a publicity poster for the event. I don’t think this is the same one, although my old link to that publicity poster goes somewhere else now so I can’t say for sure. He said that he was paid $15 for his work, but that he was lucky to have been paid anything, because none of the bands ever got paid.

Some bands at Iola were indeed not paid; I am skeptical of the claim that all of them were not. It’s hard to imagine that some of the national acts would have quietly accepted getting stiffed; a guy as famously combative as Buddy Rich almost certainly would have not. If he actually played the gig, of course. Publicity for this kind of show often listed performers who never appeared and did not list performers who eventually did. We know, for example, that Iggy and the Stooges were at Iola but had not been mentioned in the publicity. (I would very much like to assemble a definitive list of the bands that performed there.)

The advertisement/info sheet at the left has a more exhaustive list of bands, including many that would have been quite well-known to Upper Midwest hippies. The map showing how to get to the concert location from Stevens Point, the nearest sizable city, would have been very helpful. When I went looking for the site a few years ago, it was fairly remote, requiring me to travel on county roads, town roads, and paths trodden by cows. It’s about 20 miles east of Stevens Point, on the Portage/Waupaca county line.

The ticket prices of $10 in advance and $14 at the gate are equivalent to about $70 and $100 today. The promoters did their best to require paid admissions, although lots of people eventually got in free. From the long list of ticket locations, it looks like the promoters did significant legwork to make tickets available to anybody within a day’s drive of central Wisconsin. This info sheet and the poster above mention Madison-based Earth Enterprises as the promoter, but my past research showed that a company called Concert Promoters International was also involved.

Most of the ticket locations would have been either record stores or head shops. A few of the places on the list are gone but fondly remembered, including Lake Street Station in Madison and 1812 Overture in Milwaukee. (Click that link for some tremendous stories.) “Henry’s Music” in Green Bay, which was actually Henri’s, lasted until 2010. Electric Fetus is still in business in Minneapolis.

The lo-fi nature of this stuff is charming, and highly evocative of bygone times. Imagine having drawn the map, then sticking the map into your typewriter to add the text you wanted, and finally running off copies on a mimeograph machine. Envelopes full of copies were likely sent to the record stores and head shops, and from there they were stuck on message posts, bulletin boards, and windows in towns as remote from little Iola as Flint, Michigan, and Luverne, Minnesota.

I am guessing some of the info sheets also made it to radio stations in the Upper Midwest. Even in the absence of paid advertising (and after all this time, there’s probably no way to tell if there was any), we know that most shows like this were publicized, especially on underground FM stations. But it is likely that pop radio stations talked about it, too, especially in places close to the action: Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Green Bay, Appleton, Oshkosh.

I am grateful to reader Dennis for sharing these artifacts. If you are a late-night old-hippie googler coming across this information for the first time and you have have anything you can add to our collective knowledge of Iola, drop it in the comments, or better yet, send me an e-mail or a Twitter DM.

You can read much more about the Iola People’s Fair, the Wadena Rock Fest, the Sound Storm Festival, and other rock festivals here. Listen to my podcast conversation with an attendee at both Iola and Sound Storm here.

The King in His Castle

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(Pictured: I’m clearing up some odds and ends today, with two bits that didn’t add up to full posts on their own. There is no picture that fits both subjects, so please enjoy this cat listening to music.)

When radio stations opened their weekly package from American Top 40, they sometimes found a memo attached to the cue sheet. It would inform stations of extra commercial time available to them that week, alert them to the presence of a guest host on that week’s show, or remind them of upcoming specials. The show dated February 9, 1974, included a memo promoting a couple of upcoming TV appearances Casey was making. He had a guest role on Hawaii Five-O, but also: “Casey plays a comic Adolph Hitler in a Dean Martin roast of Don Rickles.”

That might be the most 70s sentence ever written. Go and watch it, then come back here and read the rest of this.

Continue reading “The King in His Castle”

Wadena Plus 50

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(Pictured: Leon Russell. The Getty Images caption says he’s at Wadena, Minnesota, but I’m certain that’s incorrect and this shot is from Wadena, Iowa.)

Fifty years ago this weekend, Iowa got its own Woodstock, when the Wadena Rock Fest attracted 40,000 people to a farm in Fayette County, in the northeastern part of the state. I researched the festival on its 40th anniversary, and that research made up part of the first episode of my podcast last summer. This summer, I tried to locate somebody/anybody who’d been at Wadena, in hopes of doing a podcast interview similar to the one I did with Steve Benton about Wisconsin’s Sound Storm and Iola festivals, but I struck out. It doesn’t look like the anniversary is getting much attention from Iowa media; a single piece from the Cedar Rapids Gazette is all that’s out so far, although I suppose there could be more this weekend.

At YouTube, there’s a 37-minute video focused on bands that played the show, interspersed with photos and newspaper clippings. Some of the bands on the bill were on practically every Midwestern bill during the festival era, such as Fuse, with Rick Nielsen and Tom Petersson, future members of Cheap Trick, who had played both Sound Storm and Iola, and Illinois Speed Press, which included future Poco guitarist Paul Cotton. Local and regional bands were a feature of every festival everywhere: Wadena featured Enoch Smoky, from Iowa City, future members of the Iowa Rock Hall of Fame, who played a 25th-anniversary Wadena show in 1995; two Minnesota bands, White Lightning and Gypsy; and from Illinois, the as-yet-unrecorded REO Speedwagon, as well as Chicago-based Rotary Connection and the Shadows of Knight.

There were plenty of blues performers, including Chicken Shack, with Christine Perfect, the future Christine McVie, on keyboards and vocals (see correction below–Ed.) plus Savoy Brown, Johnny Winter, Albert King, and Luther Allison. Savoy Brown and Chicken Shack were not the only British acts on the bill: so was Terry Reid, who turned down the chance to become Led Zeppelin’s lead singer the year before.

There were a couple of early rock ‘n’ roll legends: Little Richard and the Everly Brothers. There were folkies, including Tim Hardin and the duo Great Speckled Bird, to be known before long as Ian and Sylvia. And there was the rest of the lineup: Mason Proffit, the Youngbloods, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Poco, Lee Michaels, Leon Russell, the Chambers Brothers, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Guess Who.

(Proviso: these bands were all mentioned in the initial publicity for the show. That doesn’t guarantee they actually played, although most if not all certainly did; some Wadena publicity said that the Who would be there, and they were not. That doesn’t mean there were no other acts who played and have gone unmentioned. Now-obscure regional acts likely performed too, such as the Wisconsin band Oz. Setlist.fm says that Hot Tuna, Joan Baez, and the Sons of Champlin were there. A random YouTube commenter says he remembers Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.)

The Gazette story includes about 13 minutes of silent film of the site from the concert weekend. The YouTuber who posted it says that his grandfather shot it; his farm was located about three miles away. (“[Grandpa] said he had people living in the woods for months afterward!”) Some of it was taken from an airplane; that footage gives you a good idea of the dimensions of the 200-acre site. A second, shorter, more colorful (but also silent) clip shows people groovin’ to a performance—possibly Leon Russell.

On one level, the films are almost completely mundane: people arriving and milling around, shots of the stage, lots of tents and lean-tos, cars and vans, people with backpacks and coolers, bikers flying a flag with a swastika on it, a guy lighting up a bong, a topless girl putting her shirt back on.

But on another level, the films are deeply evocative. The world of 1970 had plenty of troubles, and the people in the films—emissaries from a now-lost world—could have told you all about them. The people would be in their 60s, 70s, and 80s now, and some of them didn’t make it this far. But in those films, everything that happened to those people, and to us, in the last half-century (or in however much of the last half-century you happen to have been present for) hasn’t happened yet. They are innocent—without knowing that they are—and forever young. Would that we could be the same.

Festival Summer

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(Pictured: a scene on the road to Woodstock.)

The rock festival era was fairly short. It began in 1967 with San Francisco festivals at Mount Tamalpais and Monterey. Around the country during the next several years, festivals big and small were held, some at racetracks and fairgrounds with a great deal of forethought and regimentation, others ad-hoc with promoters putting up a stage in the country, inviting the tribes to gather, and hoping for the best. By the end of 1970, the era of the multi-day festival passed, as states and municipalities legislated them out of existence. After that, single-day festivals were the norm, such as the Concert 10 Festival in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania in 1972 and the Watkins Glen Summer Festival in upstate New York in 1973. From that point and down unto the present day, festivals were carefully planned and tightly controlled, leaving nothing to chance.

In retrospect, the two most famous festivals, Woodstock and Altamont, left plenty to chance, more than they should have for events attracting hundreds of thousands of people. That Woodstock became a cultural touchstone and not a humanitarian disaster—which is how it was portrayed by some media reports on that August 1969 weekend—was mostly due to good luck. Bad luck was bound to catch up eventually, and in December 1969, at Altamont, it did. But the fires of Altamont were outshone in memory by the glow of Woodstock, and in 1970, there were many attempts to recreate the Woodstock vibe for people who lived thousands of miles from Max Yasgur’s farm. In Wisconsin, the Sound Storm Festival, held in April 1970, was sprinkled with Woodstock-style fairy dust. On the weekend of June 26-28, 1970, the Iola People’s Fair gave attendees a taste of Altamont.

In 1970, Steve Benton of Beloit, Wisconsin, graduated from high school. He played in a rock band. And in that year, he attended both Sound Storm and Iola. In the latest episode of my podcast, Steve shares some of his experiences at both shows. I don’t think we made any groundbreaking historical discoveries in the course of our conversation, but if you’re interested in the festivals, you’ll enjoy hearing Steve’s stories about them. The episode is below.

After you listen to this episode, you might like to revisit the first episode of this podcast, posted last summer, which discusses Sound Storm and Iola as well as the Midwest Rock Festival, held at State Fair Park in suburban Milwaukee three weeks before Woodstock, and the Wadena Rock Fest, a northeast Iowa festival, in the summer of 1970.

You can find all of my podcast episodes at my Soundcloud. Episodes are available at Google PlayTuneIn and Stitcher, and can also be found at Apple Podcasts. If you visit my Soundcloud, you’ll find a link where you can kick in a bit of financial support to help defray the cost of producing the podcast and maintaining this website, if you choose.

Many thanks to Steve Benton for the conversation, and to Dan Bartlett for putting us in touch. If you like this episode, please share it on your social media feeds, and if your platform lets you give it a like or a positive rating, I hope you’ll do that.