12/07/2009

Pleased to Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name: The Rolling Stones at Altamont

At the end of 1969, when I was sixteen, The Rolling Stones took it upon themselves to offer a free concert in the Bay Area. They were hoping to create a joyous gathering that would equal the peaceful and easygoing spirit of the huge festival that had been held on a farm near Woodstock, New York, during the summer of that year. Instead, the riotous show that The Rolling Stones offered on December 6, which I attended, turned out to be quite different from the Woodstock Festival. It was, from its bad beginning to its violent end, a nightmare of drugs and mayhem.

In late November of 1969, The Rolling Stones were finishing an extensive tour of the United States, their first string of appearances in American venues since 1966, and their latest album, Let It Bleed (containing "Gimme Shelter," "Midnight Rambler," "Monkey Man," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," among other hard-edged tracks), was being released. Their frame of mind at that time was strong and confident (in hindsight, perhaps overly confident), and they benefited from having a new guitarist, Mick Taylor, who had stepped in after the departure of Brian Jones (who perished a mere month after he left the band). The Rolling Stones clearly intended their outdoor performance at the Altamont Speedway, a formidable undertaking that was ill-conceived from the start and arranged in a careless manner, to be a celebratory showcase for themselves.

It was rock'n'roll, it was The Rolling Stones, and it was free. Everyone in the Bay Area who was under the age of thirty wanted to be there. On the morning of the concert, before sunrise, I set out for the speedway with my girlfriend, Melissa, and a few other friends, riding in a Volkswagen van that was driven by the boyfriend of Nancy, Melissa's best friend. We had assumed that we would be part of a sizable crowd, but we were not prepared for what we saw when we arrived. Although the start of the show was hours away, thousands of people were already there, and thousands more were streaming in from throughout the Bay Area and beyond. I had never seen that many people gathered together at one time.

We found an open patch of ground for ourselves, on a hillside to the right of the stage, and settled in for what we knew would be a long day. I had a distinct feeling of foreboding as soon as I began to survey my surroundings. Everywhere I looked, in every direction, I beheld a mass of disheveled people drinking alcohol from bottles, smoking marijuana, and swallowing pills. Some of them were in an unstable condition, wandering aimlessly and acting strangely. If the crowd was this unruly in the morning, before the concert itself had even commenced, how would people behave as the day wore on? I looked forward to hearing the music of The Rolling Stones, but I was perturbed by the unbridled revelry that I saw on all sides.

The Rolling Stones had foolishly decided that security for the concert would be handled by members of the Hells Angels, an infamous gang of tough motorcyclists. It was a highly questionable decision on their part, supposedly made after The Rolling Stones received friendly advice from The Grateful Dead, and it later brought full measures of regret, scandal, and condemnation. I was extremely nervous at seeing the burly bikers, clad in black leather and displaying bad tempers, as they roamed throughout the site, uttering crude threats and pushing stoned hippies out of their way. It appeared certain that their bellicose activities would lead to serious trouble before the day was over.

An array of famous musicians preceded The Rolling Stones onstage during the day: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (The Grateful Dead had been scheduled to appear, but apparently they were distressed by the unstable conditions that they observed at the Altamont Speedway and refused to play.) When Jefferson Airplane performed, there was a skirmish at the front that resulted in Marty Balin, one of the vocalists with the band, jumping down into the crowd. He was briefly absent from the stage, after being knocked out by a biker. It portended a threat of danger that spread as the music, and the dissipation, continued through the afternoon.

Evening finally descended, and a general uneasiness prevailed. As darkness took hold and the air grew colder, campfires dotted the hills, heightening the primitive mood of the occasion. People sat, or stood, close to one another, huddling in an attempt to keep warm. I kept my arms tightly around Melissa. We were a new couple, still finding our way with each other and happy to be as close as we could be, but I was growing fearful for our safety. I wondered what sort of problems might be in store for the rest of the concert. Most of the crowd had been there all day, and many people had passed into a stupor hours earlier, but the appearance of The Rolling Stones was eagerly awaited by those of us who still were awake and knew what was coming.

At last, a wave of excitement swept out from the stage, and suddenly the dark chill was shaken by the feverish clatter of "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The ragged chords burst from the loudspeakers and echoed across the hills. Looking down from my perch on the hillside, I could see a figure in red and black, prancing and wiggling in the spotlight. It was Mick Jagger, resplendent in all his fey and lascivious glory. To one side of the frenzied singer was the lean shape of Keith Richards, gripping his electric guitar, writhing and bobbing, shooting white-hot riffs into the steady drumbeat provided by Charlie Watts. On the other side, Bill Wyman dourly plucked his bass and Mick Taylor studiously played his guitar, adding to the overall force of the high-powered sound.

As the first minutes of their performance unfolded, the unpleasant happenings of the afternoon were forgotten. The Rolling Stones were able to get through "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and their second song, "Carol," but after that everything onstage began to fall apart. Another fight broke out near the front of the stage, distracting The Rolling Stones and frightening the crowd. The problems continued and quickly became worse, and during their third song, "Sympathy for the Devil," the music trailed off and ceased, and the show came to a full stop.

My friends and I were puzzled by the disturbance. We were too far away from the stage to have a direct view of what was going on down there, seeing only an outbreak of frantic motion in the audience, but we could hear the distinct voice of Mick Jagger, as he asked, "Why are we fighting?" When he pleaded with the restive crowd to refrain from any further acts of provocation, the sharp tone of fear and annoyance in his nervous words was unmistakable. The Rolling Stones, it seemed, had blundered badly, considerably overreaching themselves, and they were now stranded in a no man's land of outright desperation.

After long moments of confusion, the music resumed. Then, during "Under My Thumb," everything stopped again. When Mick Jagger announced a new song, it turned out to be "Brown Sugar," being played in public for the first time, and destined to be one of their most famous tunes. When The Rolling Stones had concluded their unlucky set with "Street Fighting Man," they retreated from the stage without delay, wanting to remove themselves from harm, and made a hasty escape in a helicopter, while many thousands of weary survivors, my friends and I among them, began to disperse into the night. One of the girls with us had injured her ankle and could not walk, so we had to carry her back to the van. We all felt as if we had been through a war.

I arrived home several hours later, completely worn out and deeply unsettled. I was weary, famished, and angry. I could not understand how a musical gathering could have gone so horribly awry. It seemed that I had witnessed an attempt at self-destruction by my own generation, an attempt that nearly had succeeded. It soon was reported that Meredith Hunter, a young man in the crowd, had been waving a handgun in the direction of Mick Jagger, with the apparent intention of shooting him. Members of the Hells Angels responded swiftly and brutally to the danger, stabbing and beating Meredith Hunter, who was killed on the spot.

The Rolling Stones returned to England, stunned and mortified by the madness and murder that had spoiled their day of glory at the Altamont Speedway. They had hoped to leave behind their misfortune, but a heavy degree of blame was assigned to them, casting a deep and malign shadow over their already unsavory reputation. In the years that followed, The Rolling Stones moved onward, achieving even greater fame and attempted to shrug off the lingering burden of that infamous day. The concert at the Altamont Speedway, however, came to be regarded as the final chapter of the 1960s, a sad and shameful end to a colorful decade that once had carried a promise of hope, togetherness, and understanding.

Five Decades of The Rolling Stones here