When the Rolling Stones toured America in 1969 for the first time , they found a more psychedelic landscape, but also a more violent one. Not only had a lot changed since 1966, a lot had changed since Woodstock four months earlier. Such was the reality of Altamont, the free concert the band decided would top off the tour, which ended up becoming the symbolic end-of-the-sixties as much as Charlie Manson, 5’5 barefoot in his buckskins, being rounded up and charged with murder around the same time.
And just like Manson had been glorified by certain factions of the counter-culture, so had the Hell’s Angels, a notorious gang of outlaw bikers who were considered by some — the San Francisco hippie bands among them — as sympathetic cousins. So much so that, as the concept of Altamont evolved, the Stones, on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead, decided to hire the Angels to “police” the event.
As Joel Selvin writes in his brilliant new book, Altamont: “As far as … the band could tell the Hell’s Angels came with the hippies and concerts in the park; it was all part of this mythical West Coast ethos. The Stones aspired to what came naturally to the San Francisco bands — authenticity. They clearly hoped to borrow some of the currency of the underground, recalibrated, of course, to suit their grand scale. They wanted the whole deal, Angels included.”
This grand scale included a movie deal — Albert and David Maysles’ documentary, Gimme Shelter — which was only fitting for an event that they’d envisioned would top Woodstock. On the surface, it would be a free concert — tentatively to be held in Golden Gate Park, scene of many freak-fests during the past three years — but the film profits would amply compensate any lost wages. Despite this grandiose plan, the Stones had very little hands-on involvement, other than letting an act of hubris — trying to maneuver the permits for the concert outside the purview of the hippies — negate the Golden Gate Park option.
Thanks to this arrogance on the part of the Stones, with three days to go, the site changed, and changed again: the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, which, by all accounts, would’ve been an acceptable venue, pulled out over the film rights. With 36 hours left, fans arriving in droves, and several local Hell’s Angels chapters promised $500 in beer for their services, the only resort was the rundown Altamont Speedway 65 miles west in the dusty scrubs of Livermore.
Selvin describes Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, the original catalyst for the festival, surveying the new site: “He … saw a landscape littered with wrecked cars, abandoned tires…and broken glass. Nothing had gone as planned, and hovering in the air over this bleak scrap of land, he wondered how it had come to this. They were paying the price for the leadership vacuum that had defined things from the beginning and led to this dead-end speedway in the crook of two highways.”
It was a great place for the sixties to die, in other words, especially after the Hell’s Angels murdered a black would-be gangbanger named Meredith Hunter, who’d pulled a revolver, in front of the stage while the Stones performed. The fact it was captured on film solidified the event’s aura. But as Selvin — a renowned Bay Area journalist who attended the concert — makes clear, Gimme Shelter didn’t just document the tragedy, it was, in many ways, the catalyst for it, due to the Stones’ behind-the-scenes machinations and ego-tripping. Selvin pulls no punches in assessing blame to the Stones, while also untangling the myriad details of the concert’s genesis and aftermath.
The event had a Faustian effect on the Stones, sealing their fate as the ultimate rock bad-asses, but also robbing them of their souls. Although future triumphs like Exile On Main Street lay ahead, their music never again would regain its pre-Altamont urgency. It was as if, after that point, looking true danger in the face, and blinking, they chose to become almost irrelevant, a raucous party band with their inflatable phalluses and millionaire dope habits who made no bones about their mercenary intent, and subsequently never again produced work of such epic grandeur as “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Considering the way it would forever change the band, Altamont was perhaps the pivotal event in the Rolling Stones’ career.
Joel Selvin | Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day | Dey St. 358pp
Joe S. Harrington is the author of "Sonic Cool: The Life & Death of Rock N’ Roll.”