They didn’t bring lawn chairs to Altamont.
The modern-day rock festival has come a long way. In a remarkable comeback, thriving, massive outdoor music festivals have sprung up across the country over the past couple of decades—from Coachella to Bonnaroo, Lockin to Lollapalooza. These are multi-million dollar productions with $9 bottles of water and metal detectors at the gate that cater to adventurous music fans willing to endure the crowded conditions and inevitable hardships, even if their tickets include deluxe camping accommodations, although “deluxe camping” may be an oxymoron along the lines of “jumbo shrimp.”
This October, the Rolling Stones played before the giant crowd out in the desert in Indio, California, as part of the Desert Trip festival which also features baby boomer favorites The Who, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and Roger Waters. The fans feasted on gourmet food, expensive wine, slept in customized RVs and spent thousands of dollars on VIP tickets and amenities. There was probably more call for antacid than acid.
But Altamont, the Rolling Stones nasty grandfather of today’s corporate affairs which took place on December 6, 1969, still casts its long shadow over all of them. No matter how many millions came to see the Rolling Stones in Rio de Janeiro or how historic the band’s free concert in Havana may have been, the Stones will never lose the stain of Altamont. And no matter how many successful, monetized giant outdoor rock festivals take place without incident other than sunburn, there will never be one without somebody making a bad joke about using Hells Angels as security guards.
The Angels, after all, were what made Altamont infamous, when a member of the biker gang, hired for $500 in beer to act as the festival’s “security,” killed Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old African American attending with his pretty blonde white girlfriend, in front of the stage while the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb.” The violence that day was captured by ++documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles ++ [http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/03/28/how-grey-gardens-auteurs-made-us-squirm.html] and memorialized in the film Gimme Shelter, which froze Altamont in the collective consciousness, fixing the event as the bloody blotch on the peace and love era.
But Altamont wasn’t the end of anything. It wasn’t the end of the ’60s. It wasn’t the end of the counter-culture. It wasn’t the end of the movement. It wasn’t even the end of huge concerts in open meadows. In short order, the music business codified the experience, made appropriate course corrections and as soon as 1973, a massive concert at Watkins Glen, N.Y., with the Grateful Dead, The Band, and the Allman Brothers drew some 650,000 fans, the largest paid audience in rock concert history. The beast had been tamed, but not without casualties.
While few back then could have envisioned $1,500 tickets for three days of music or massive parking lots with shuttles serving cocktails on the way to the festival site, Altamont lingers over any festival where more thought was put into the cell phone recharging station than into the number of bathrooms. Only with Altamont, the stakes for those misplaced priorities were tragically high.
The year of Altamont was the year the rock festival blew up, and ever since then, there have been lingering questions both uncomfortable and unsettling about the role that money should play in these massive festivals. Back in 1969, more than a dozen multi-day events at racetracks and football stadiums were held across the country. The most famous, of course, was Woodstock, but many of the same acts from Woodstock fanned out to similar festivals in Atlanta, Denver, Atlantic City, Seattle, New Orleans, Dallas, and elsewhere. Though all of these were paid affairs, the myths that surrounded Woodstock quickly complicated the role of money in these festivals. Though Woodstock is remembered for being a free concert where peace and love carried the day, it was originally a ticketed event that became free only after concertgoers broke down the fences surrounding the venue.
Still, the festival defined a generation and the counter-culture. When the Rolling Stones arrived in the United States that fall to begin the band’s first American tour in three years, they discovered an exploding rock scene, rich with popular new acts as diverse as Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; but they found themselves on the outside of the decade’s most formative cultural event. So the Stones decided to star in a festival of their own. Not only would this be the appropriate climax to the band’s historic 1969 U.S. tour—it would be free from the start.
This idea of the free concert was flawed from its inception. While Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully—in a haze of late-night pot smoke in London—had initially suggested to Keith Richards the idea of a free outdoor concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the concert gathered much of its eventual momentum after the Rolling Stones faced an avalanche of criticism in response to their U.S. tour, which set box office records for demand and ticket prices. The pricey tickets were not a deterrent to most fans, but they put the band square in the cross hairs of a counter culture that was trying to figure out whether music was about making a statement or making money. The high cost of tickets led to several columns against the band by the influential San Francisco Chronicle music critic Ralph Gleason, who hammered them for taking advantage of their fans. Always aware of the public perception around them, the Stones zeroed in on the free concert as a way to quell the controversy. Unlike Woodstock which became free only through an act of destruction, the Stones’ free concert would be a gift to their fans.
Of course, the Stones weren’t actually giving and getting nothing in return. What they were getting was the final act of the concert film they’d only begun producing during the last shows of the tour. Filmmakers David and Albert Maysles were hired by the Stones shortly before their sold out dates in New York City and the film was financed by the band as a commercial enterprise. So commercial in fact, that originally Mick Jagger made the Maysles guarantee they could push the film through post-production quickly enough to beat the competing documentary about Woodstock into theaters the following spring.
But as is so often the case, nothing is truly free. In part, because no concert promoters or venue owners were making any money and, in part, because there was a leadership vacuum in the Stones camp, none of the logistics required for putting on a show of that scale were thought through. The most obvious of these was the actual location for the show, which remained up in the air until 36 hours before the concert was supposed to start. Though Scully had originally pitched the Stones team on the more manageable locale of Golden Gate Park, where the Stones would have appeared as a surprise guest to a Grateful Dead/Jefferson Airplane show, that possibility vanished with one phone call to the San Francisco mayor’s office. Still, that didn’t stop Mick Jagger from announcing at a press conference that the Stones would hold a free concert on Saturday December 6 somewhere outside San Francisco, and as late as the Tuesday before, there was still no location.
That is, until somebody from the Grateful Dead organization stumbled across Sears Point Speedway in Sonoma, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. They reached a provisional agreement with track management on the grounds that this concert was going to be for charity, but the next day the track’s corporate owners, Filmways, Inc., were heard from. Filmways, it turned out, had promoted the Stones concerts in Los Angeles the month before, and still had a bad taste in their mouths from the events. They demanded a rental fee and distribution rights to the accompanying documentary film the band planned to make. They didn’t believe the Stones were doing this for charity. The Stones refused to budge and for 24 hours, the stalemate continued. The stage and sound was largely installed at Sears Point, but the local sheriff made it clear he would not let the show go ahead without the track owners’ permission.
That was when Dick Carter called. He owned a decrepit, almost bankrupt racetrack on the edge of nowhere 60 miles east of San Francisco called Altamont Speedway. The biggest crowd he ever hosted was 6,000 people, who turned up for a demolition derby. While Altamont was grossly ill-equipped to host an event on this scale, it had one thing going for it: Dick Carter offered Altamont for free. All he wanted was the publicity. They had 36 hours before the first act was scheduled to go on stage.
Location was just the start of the practical problems, and even at that early moment, as crews moved the stage from Sears Point by helicopter and assembled it through the night using flashlights, it was clear that the cost for this free concert would be high. More than 300,000 found their way to this remote hillside on the edge of California’s Central Valley, an hour outside San Francisco, only to find there was no running water, no food, and only a hundred toilets for a crowd the size of a major city. Medical facilities were entirely inadequate for a crowd of this size, especially given the large amount of bad LSD circulating. It was near freezing at night and unseasonably warm during the day. As the sun set, a savage wind swept the field and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. The crowd was thirsty, hungry, drunk and high, and jammed together shoulder-to-shoulder. Deluxe camping this was not.
And then there was the stage—just four feet high and held together with twine. No modern-day festival would ever allow bands to play in such conditions, which not only posed a danger to the crowd, but to the artists themselves. At any show a stage is a natural barrier with the crowd, but here the stage would essentially be in the crowd with nothing separating the acts from 300,000 fans except a thin piece of string.
But the most controversial, and most remembered, of these logistical failures was the involvement of the Hells Angels. Questionable as this decision may have been, there was actually precedent for it in both the burgeoning San Francisco rock scene and the Rolling Stones own past. The Angels had been a fixture in Haight-Ashbury’s counter culture since its earliest days in the mid ’60s. Just two and half years prior, the Angels had performed a similar role as security during the 1967 Human Be-in, the historic precursor to the Summer of Love. Likewise, the Stones themselves had used members of the British Hells Angels as security for an outdoor concert in London’s Hyde Park, in July 1969, although those counterparts were pale imitations of the California originals. Furthermore, if the concert had taken place in Golden Gate Park as originally envisioned, jurisdiction would have been held by the San Francisco chapter of the Angels, a group well known to most of the bands and more civilized than more remote franchises like the recently formed San Jose chapter, who were responsible for much of the violence at Altamont.
The end result to all this was a show without precedent, one that is remembered today for these failures, for violence, and for revealing to the burgeoning rock scene the true risks associated with planning such a large scale event. The Maysles’ documentary has remained history’s official record of the catastrophe, even though the film works to absolve the Stones of responsibility, sensationalizes Hunter’s killing, ignores the concert’s myriad systemic problems, and demonizes the Hells Angels. The film says nothing about its own crucial role in the concert. The full horror of the day—and the reckless irresponsibility behind it—remained obscured.
In the aftermath of Altamont, with the dangers of these massive gatherings laid bare, it came as little surprise that money began to take charge. As a commercial proposition, festivals needed to be accountable, people would have to be responsible. Without that, the risks for another Altamont were just too great. Today, aside from occasional impromptu displays for viral marketing campaigns or surprise albums, free concerts by rock’s biggest names are a thing of the past. The music business prevailed and the subculture dissolved into the mainstream. Such events are no longer a tribal rite, but a luxury vacation.
Still Altamont lingers over the rock scene every time large crowds gather outdoors to hear music. The era of peace, love and flowers is a distant bit of history. Rock festivals mean something entirely different today. The idea of getting worked up over an expensive ticket now seems almost quaint—especially when you consider the high cost of bad parking.
Joel Selvin is the author of numerous books about popular music and American culture, the most recent of which is Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, which was published in August.