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Once upon a time in Altamont: the music festival to end all music festivals

Philip Matthews examines three new books looking back on the day the music died: December 6, 1969, when the Hells Angels murdered a guy at that Stones concert at Altamont.

“I looked away from Mick and saw, with that now-familiar instant space around him, bordered with falling bodies, a Beale Street nigger in a black hat, black shirt, iridescent blue-green suit, arms and legs stuck out at crazy angles, a nickel-plated revolver in his hand. The gun wavered in the lights for a second, two, then he was hit, so hard, by so many Angels, that I didn’t see the first one – short, Mexican-looking, the one who led me onstage? – as he jumped. I saw him as he came down, burying a long knife in the black man’s back. Angels covered the black man like flies on a stinking carcass. The attack carried the victim behind the stack of speakers and I never saw him again.” – Stanley Booth, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones.

Altamont keeps following the Rolling Stones around. If it doesn’t come up directly, it’s in the wings somewhere, both as the moment when the Stones produced some real darkness to back up their theatrics and the time when they capitulated, when genuine evil confronted them and they didn’t know what to do about it – when they were revealed to be lightweights. Those are just two contradictory variations on the rock story that never stops being interesting.

In December, as the Stones chatted to some journalist from the Guardian, it came up again, 47 years later. The Stones are in an interesting place right now. Their best album since maybe Tattoo You is a blues covers record that takes them back to when they were respectful students of the blues in 1962, even if Mick Jagger is older now than Muddy Waters ever was. They are a museum exhibit as well. Literally. People joked for years that the Stones belonged in a museum, so why not do it for real?  The Stones museum show Exhibitionism is in New York now and will open in Sydney in 2018.

I don’t know if it includes an Altamont display. It probably should. In the Guardian piece, which was about the Stones’ triumph in recording a bunch of blues songs in a few days like they used to, Altamont reappeared like an old ghost or a nagging conscience. What was Keith Richards’ view of it all from this distance? “I think given that there were about half a million people there, I’d say that 499,000 had a good time,” Keef told the Guardian. “One man died, but a baby was born, so the same number came out as went in. If that hadn’t happened, it would have been considered a Woodstock on the coast. All it takes is one sucker with a knife.”

The sucker with a knife was Alan Passaro, a 21-year-old biker in the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels. The Angels were famously paid $500 in beer to act as security at a hastily organised Stones gig at the desolate Altamont Speedway on the outskirts of San Francisco in December 1969. Stung by a San Francisco newspaper columnist named Ralph Gleason who accused them of being greedy, the Stones cynically put on a free peace and love show, a West Coast Woodstock of their own. The Grateful Dead were freaked out by the bad vibes on the day and chose not to play, although Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young all did. But it’s always been about the Stones, because the other part of the Altamont story is that the Stones happened to have a documentary crew with them and the footage, which became the horrific climax of the still-astonishing tour and concert movie Gimme Shelter, helped the cops to identify Passaro and then helped a jury to acquit him a year later.

So when Stanley Booth, a journalist who was actually there, writes in the vivid new-journalism account he finally published 15 years after the 1969 US tour about the “now-familiar instant space” around Meredith Hunter, the 18-year-old stabbed by Passaro, he is talking about footage from Gimme Shelter that is familiar because we’ve all watched it. It was the Stones’ snuff movie. The picture is dark and murky. You see it as you read it, in slow motion: the green flash of Hunter’s suit, the crowd parting, the Angels and the knife.

A still from the documentary film 'Gimme Shelter', showing audience members looking on as Hells Angels beat a fan with pool cues at the Altamont Free Concert, 1969. (Photo by Bill Owens/20th Century Fox/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A still from the documentary film ‘Gimme Shelter’, showing audience members looking on as Hells Angels beat a fan with pool cues at the Altamont Free Concert, 1969. (Photo by Bill Owens/20th Century Fox/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As veteran San Francisco journalist Joel Selvin reveals in his thorough and fascinating new book on Altamont, it is almost a miracle we have that footage at all. The conditions were not exactly ideal. One of the cinematographers hired for the day by documentary makers Albert and David Maysles was accidentally dosed with terrifyingly strong LSD and spent eight hours hiding under the stage. Two other young film-makers, future Star Wars auteur George Lucas and editor Walter Murch, were stationed on a hill a long way from the stage and got just one shot in the movie. The cameraman who did catch the moment Passaro stabbed Hunter, a man named Baird Bryant, had straightened out from the LSD he accidentally took that morning and was filming from the top of the Grateful Dead’s equipment van.

Selvin wasn’t at Altamont – he writes that he declined because he saw the Stones a month earlier in Los Angeles in “one of the greatest rock shows I have ever seen” – but he has interviewed more than 100 people who either went or had some connection to it. His almost forensic account dispels many of the myths and shifts the perspectives. Despite the story Keith Richards still tells, there are no records that a baby was born at Altamont, and four people died that day, not just one. Besides Hunter, two men in their early twenties were run over by an “acid-crazed maniac” in a stolen car. The fourth death was an 18-year-old who drowned in a canal nearby.

The shambolic, borderline criminal organisation of the concert is covered in detail. Jagger didn’t want cops because he was anti-cops, so the Stones loosely followed the Grateful Dead’s example and hired Hells Angels. The stage was only four feet high (at Woodstock, it was 15 feet high) making it impossible to keep the surging crowd back. The speedway was awash in bad LSD, diluted in bottles of juice handed to unsuspecting concertgoers.

But perhaps the best thing Selvin does in his book on Altamont is to resituate it as a San Francisco story rather than just a Stones story. The Grateful Dead played a key part in the organisation of the show and were forever altered by its ugliness. Selvin suspects that the Dead’s acoustic direction on albums like American Beauty was a response to the trauma and he argues that the suicide of Terry the Tramp, a Hells Angel with close links to the Dead, took Altamont’s death toll to five. Stories are told of other bands that played that day, some of whom didn’t even make it into Gimme Shelter – there is a nice anecdote about Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hot-wiring a pick-up truck to get to the show.

Selvin makes a lot out of the circumstances of the Stones. They hadn’t toured the US in three years. Everything had changed and San Francisco had come to them as rumours. The crucial figure is Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully who turns up in London two months earlier, carrying pot and LSD. This is the Altamont prologue: Scully spent a weekend in the cells before ending up at Richards’ place, and it was there, minds altered by what Scully still had on him, that they came up with the idea of a free show in Golden Gate Park. “Rock spun golden tales of life in the Wild West, better living through chemistry, a land beyond the sea with rock and roll in the parks and magical marijuana growing in the woods. Richards was intrigued.”

Mick JAGGER and Keith RICHARDS, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performing live onstage (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performing live onstage in Newcastle, England in 1973 (Photo by Ian Dickson/Redferns)

Vanity Fair journalist Rich Cohen devotes no fewer than 27 pages of his Stones history, The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones, to that one day: December 6, 1969. Cohen is in his forties and first covered the Stones in Rolling Stone magazine in the 1990s, and the point of his title is that the Stones have always been there, like the sun and the moon. The legends of the old times are passed on through interpretations of writing by Stanley Booth, Robert Greenfield and others who were embedded on Stones tours in the 60s and 70s, along with fresh interviews with old characters. The mythology is laid on thick (the Altamont chapter is called “Thanatos in Steel”), but the book is marvellously written and you approach the Altamont scenes with an appropriate sense of dread.

“The Altamont Speedway itself seems hexed,” Cohen writes at the end of his Altamont chapter. “Considered a great track by experts, it’s always given spectators the creeps … The bathrooms smell like sulfur, lingering evidence of the devil.” All sorts of morbid occult legends have become attached to the darkness of Altamont and Cohen is open to them – it is a crucial part of the Stones mythology he digested as a kid. Of course it’s meaningful that Jagger wore a shirt with the Greek symbol for “omega” on it during the 1969 tour. Omega, man: it means the end.

“This was code, a message relayed in the euphemistic way of Kenneth Anger, Aleister Crowley, the Book of Revelation. In the Bible, omega, the last letter in the alphabet, stands for the end of time – the Four Horsemen, Judgment Day, the world on fire – as alpha stands for the beginning. By emblazoning it across his chest, Jagger was announcing himself, on a frequency received by lunatics, as God and Devil, Christ and Antichrist.”

While it may not mean that much to Selvin that the Stones had just played “Sympathy for the Devil” when Hunter was attacked, it means a lot to Cohen. And it means a lot in the Stones mythology that has grown over time. A false story circulated that the song played as Hunter was killed, as though it was an obvious soundtrack to human sacrifice.

Cohen: “Mick Jagger had long pretended to be the devil. Then one night he threw a party and the real devil showed up. The Stones have never recovered.”

It’s hard to believe this now but there was a time when Jagger had real edge. The myth says that all of Jagger’s flirtation with the dark side in 60s London – producing an abrasive Moog soundtrack for a Kenneth Anger film, appearing on the cover of a Process Church magazine, reading The Master and Margarita, starring as a shape-shifting recluse in Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s drug-saturated Performance – collapsed on that one night in California. In the Selvin account, Jagger is greedy and opportunistic, as well as naive. In the Cohen account he is worse, a dilettante. Yet he is also brave in a way he never is in Selvin’s version. Did he keep playing in the knowledge that some guy in the crowd had a gun? Cohen claims that Hunter was a speed dealer with an Oakland gang called the East Bay Executioners and he may have been setting up to shoot Jagger or the Angels.

Cohen reproduces this bit of dialogue between the dying Hunter and his killer.

Hunter: “I wasn’t going to shoot you.”

Passaro: “Why did you have a gun?”

Hunter was simply “a badass motherfucker”, Cohen writes, and maybe Passaro even saved Jagger’s life that day. Did Hunter have it coming to him? If you want it darker, imagine how dark things would have got if it was the Stones who were killed at Altamont. Cohen quotes tour manager Sam Cutler, left behind after the Stones went back to Europe with the money, who said, “One speed dealer got killed by another at a concert and somehow the Rolling Stones were responsible.” And Passaro was acquitted, Selvin reports, because no one could argue with the fact that Hunter pulled out a gun, even if he never fired it. It was all there in the film.

Mick Jagger with a Nazi swastika and the word Destroy on his T-shirt.

Mick Jagger live onstage in Texas, 1978, with a Nazi swastika and the word Destroy on his T-shirt. (Photo by David Cooper/Getty Images)

Before the Stones started playing, the Hells Angels had noticed “the jazzy-looking black cat with the cute white chick,” as Selvin puts it. The Angels weren’t exactly multiculturalists. Selvin doesn’t expand on the potential meaning of the Stones choosing to debut “Brown Sugar” in the wake of Hunter’s death, but Stanley Booth was alert to it:

“It was a song of sadism, savagery, race hate/love, a song of redemption, a song that accepted the fear of night, blackness, chaos, the unknown …”

Of all the times and places they could have picked to first play that one to a crowd. But was Jagger really the Prince of Darkness or just a very naughty boy? His unconvincing “just cool out” patter, caught forever in Gimme Shelter, suggested he was way out of his depth. This was his last show of the 1960s and his street fighting man act stopped there. The next time the world saw Jagger, he was a South of France socialite.

“When the Aquarian Age ended not with a whimper but a stabbing at the Rolling Stones’ 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway, Jagger no longer had any use for an image of himself as the Prince of Darkness,” journalist Peter Bebergal writes in his recent account of occultism in rock, Season of the Witch. Bebergal’s argument in this book reminded me of Camille Paglia’s inspired idea that the Rolling Stones, like Romantic poets, were personifications of pagan forces long suppressed by Christianity. For Bebergal, rock itself is a revival of ancient mystery cults. Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and Black Sabbath are his big three, but as lucid and erudite as the book is, it is hard to make a claim that occultism’s influence persists in “almost every aspect of rock music” when your best current examples are Jay Z and Madonna.

Still, Bebergal is generally a wise writer on these esoteric matters and there are useful observations in Season of the Witch. “The question of whether or not the supernatural is real is irrelevant,” he writes. “The occult doesn’t need arcane forces to give it reality. It only needs a means of transmission and a willing audience.” In other words, it only works on you if you want to be fooled. Plenty did, though, especially when they had a head full of LSD.

I want to say that a sceptic like Selvin looks at Altamont decades later and sees only greed and squalor rather than a spooky demonic aura, but even he is susceptible at times to the frequencies of astrologers and other lunatics. He remembers that the Woodstock organisers had consulted the star charts. Perhaps the Altamont organisers should have done the same, he writes. Had they done so, they would have seen that “on Saturday, December 6, the moon was in Scorpio – the forecast was heavy days, evil tidings, acts of violence. From the beginning, there was blood on the ground.”


Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day (Dey St, $60) by Joel Selvin; The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones: On and Off the Road with the World’s Greatest Rock Band (Headline, $40) by Rich Cohen; Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (Penguin, $32)y Peter Bebergal.

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