Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day
By Joel Selvin
[Dey Street/William Morrow]
OK, I’m going to go ahead and assume that all you super-hip readers of Stomp and Stammer already have a pretty good idea of what went down at Altamont: A shitload of people showed up for a free concert that was set up in just 36 hours. The Rolling Stones and a handful of trippy-dippy California bands played. The Hells Angels served as “security.” A bunch of people got beaten up. And one guy pulled a gun on some bikers and got stabbed. It was a real bummer.
Really, it ain’t funny how over the years, multiple accounts of an event crystallize into a more-or-less cogent narrative. It’s as if everyone who was there (and everyone who was not there too, for that matter) works together to co-create and recreate the narrative. With ceaseless iteration, the narrative becomes “history.” And then “history” becomes mythology.
So, it’s been 47 long years since the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. That’s certainly enough time for the aforementioned multiple-accounts-to-more-or-less-cogent-narrative-to-“history”-to-mythology cycle to have elapsed several times over. I’ve heard that story so many times and in so many ways that I’m no longer sure whether it was The Rolling Stones or the Hells Angels pushing that boulder up the hill; whether Sonny Barger was Icarus or Daedalus, and whether Jerry Garcia was Paul Bunyan or Babe the Big Blue Ox – or some delicious ice cream flavor. Neapolitan Dynamite, anyone? Oh yeah, Gram Parsons was involved in there somewhere as well. (Gram Parsons is perfect for mythologizing because he was long since dead as hell before any of us “knew” him or his music. As such, he’s the perfect tabula rasa to project whatever qualities we want to project onto.)
Hey – we can really do the 20/20 hindsight thing even better when we introduce dialectical pairings into the mix. Constructs like good/evil and sacred/profane provide really easy ways to reduce complex events to inane, easily remembered slices of “historical” one-dimensionality.
So here it is. Woodstock was the event where the hippie dream of the 1960s occurred as a magical confluence of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, good vibes, peace, love and happiness, baby. Whereas Altamont was the “evil” festival, the one where the greedy capitalist bastards and the wretched drug dealers preyed upon the innocents and turned the Big Beautiful Dream into “The Day the ’60s Died.” Whatever.
Of course, it’s never quite so simple. With a little luck, better weather and a cleaner batch of LSD, Altamont could’ve been another utopian event, just like Woodstock’s “perfect” microcosmic society. Or if there was more alcohol, bad drugs and riff-raff at Woodstock, utopia could’ve become dystopia (or Woodstock ’99) in a microsecond. Let’s face it. Woodstock and Altamont were both probably bad ideas – miserable events where hundreds of thousands upon unwashed thousands of delusional idiots came to get loaded, to get on top of each other and grunt, to spread disease, get cold, get rained on, stand around in the mud for two days, and barely, kinda/sorta hear an echo of the famous bands that might have actually been playing down that hill somewhere, a few miles away.
Thankfully, rock historian Joel Selvin has seen fit to set the record straight with Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day. This meticulously researched tome really does succeed in terms of delivering a lot of new (or new to me) info about the event. Selvin’s account is a wee bit mired in the old Woodstock = Good/Altamont = Bad reductionism, but it’s not quite so simple. And the devil (or at least Keith Richards) is in the details.
Most interestingly, Selvin’s account explains how the Altamont festival was, for all intents and purposes, set up by The Grateful Dead. The Dead’s connection to Altamont, until now, has been conveniently forgotten and/or swept under the proverbial rug. But it seems that Garcia & Co. had hoped to piggyback off the Stones into a high profile, bigger-than-Woodstock love-fest and subsequently mount a for-profit national tour. The Dead’s motives weren’t entirely altruistic – but then again, the Dead never really were that altruistic to begin with. They just gave lip service to the free love/free festival ethos.
The sound system at Altamont and much of the concert’s infrastructural arrangements (such as they were) were handled by the Dead’s organization. And this was a recipe for disaster. Sure, the Dead had done some free shows for a couple of thousand people in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park with no incidents. But Altamont was HUGE – around 300,000. That’s around two thirds of the population of the city of Atlanta (not the metro area – just the population within city limits), and that’s a lot of folks.
The Stones, like the Dead, gave a lot of lip service to the cheesy peace and love thing – and Mick Jagger had (and has) some big fucking lips. Apparently Jagger was either naïve enough to buy into the hippie shuck and jive, or at least acted like he did. In a press conference before the show, Jagger actually claimed that Altamont would function as an exemplar of how an anarchic society might, uh, “work.” And I guess it did(n’t). Or something.
Anyway, the Stones’ real motivation for doing the show was to solidify their status as the top band in the world and reap big profits from a movie of the concert that they bankrolled. Well, Altamont ended up being a disaster, The Rolling Stones remained the top band in the world, and the movie, the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, became a classic of cinema verite, documentary proof that the Altamont concert was the one time when Mick Jagger lost control of his audience.
Selvin writes: Mick Jagger had never lost control of an audience in his life. Rather just the opposite – he controlled his audience. His confidence had never been called into question. His command and authority had never failed him. Now he seemed lost… Everyone [in the band] knew that leaving the stage was not an option, but the end of the show seemed like a long way away.
Selvin’s Altamont reads like film, if that makes any sense. The author details everything that went down, hour by hour. With 324 pages, the book is a slow build that leads to an excruciating jouissance – followed by a long afterword that resolves nothing and leaves the reader feeling a bit deflated, but still wanting more. The book is broken up into three parts: 1.) contracts and preparation for the concert, 2.) a blow-by-blow account of the concert itself, and 3.) a thorough, thoughtful analysis of the repercussions of the concert and its eventual cultural impacts.
To his credit, Selvin avoids easy generalizations and the pitfall of claiming moral outrage. Altamont, like the festival itself, is something that simply must be endured, a slow, unflinching grind, a gargantuan atrocity exhibition. It’s an agonizing, enthralling, thrilling read that nonetheless leaves the reader feeling traumatized and tired, a bit empty and little dirty.
Altamont works like a rock ’n’ roll holocaust museum. Sure, we visit such exhibitions to recap the “never again” mantra. But the horror is certainly compelling – and that compulsion might be the real reason, we came, anyway.