Probably like most people who have knowledge of the 1969 Altamont concert, my understanding of it came about as a result of the cultural myth of it being ‘the end of the 60s and the good-vibe hippie movement,’ and from some later viewing of Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers’ documentary film of the event. My understanding of it did not go much further than seeing it as the ‘anti-Woodstock,’ another free concert festival that occurred earlier in that same year.
Joel Selvin’s book, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, is a deeply researched, minutely detailed, account of the event as it unfolds, occurs and concludes; and as a result comes to conclusions much greater than historical myth or a ‘documentary’ film can portray. In fact, it is amazing how many resources were available from that event, even to the point of wonderment that actual attributable quotes are threaded through the book. (I can’t even remember verbatim what I said yesterday!)
The book begins with Grateful Dead manager, Rock Scully’s, detainment at London’s Heathrow Airport, his subsequent meeting with Keith Richards over some California weed, and the ultimate pipe dream of a free California concert to coincide with the Stones’ upcoming tour of the States.
Along the way a multitude of musicians, hangers-on, hippies and Hells Angels are introduced and woven into the complex web that made up the concert that should have been in Golden Gate Park (permits were not issued), but which haphazardly and at the very last minute landed in Altamont. With no one at the helm, only last minute ‘hippie planning,’ bad acid and heavy drug-use in the crowd and on stage, and the Hells Angels ‘contracted’ for security, it was a combination that was bound to fail – it’s actually amazing it wasn’t more of a disaster than it was.
While technically there was not any one person that could be pinned down to be in charge, Selvin points a critical finger at the Stones (specifically Mick Jagger) and their interest in making as much money as possible from the tour – and ultimately the movie of their tour, which needed its climatic ending, the big free outdoor concert at Altamont. He asks why the Stones actually went on to push for the concert to be held. And why they played, knowing that none of the details were in place, and what a mess it was once they got there. Some could say that his conclusions give a lot of credence to a young group of partying musicians who knew little of the musical world and business of the West Coast, and that it’s possible to believe that they just wanted the show to go on…who were they to be able to assess whether details like security, traffic control, food provisions, etc. were in place when they took the stage?
Not surprisingly, a majority of the narrative is told from the San Francisco view. Selvin lives in San Francisco, and ‘has covered pop music for the San Francisco Chronicle since 1970.’ In fact, the book’s tagline should probably also include the Grateful Dead, as quite a few chapters (sometimes into details that seems a bit extraneous) are devoted to ‘the band’s’’ involvement.
According to Selvin, the Grateful Dead were involved in the initial concept, and gave of their resources and connections. They were expected to play but after arriving at the show and witnessing the mayhem, they refused and left.
As history tells it, the night continued its downward spiral. The Stones took the stage. A man was killed right in front of the stage while they played. The incident was documented on film, and became the climax of the film released the next year, Gimme Shelter. The Stones hurried out of the country, never took any responsibility, and made millions from the tour and the film.
Four people died. Many individuals suffered. Many, too, were oblivious of the events until it later came out.
Nonetheless, concluding the book stating that everyone involved took something with them from Altamont that would forever define them, Selvin says of the Dead (because remember, the Dead — maybe as the ultimate embodiment of the hippie movement? — is a big part of his story), “Rather than run and hide, the Dead absorbed Altamont as a lesson. They not only sought comfort in their music, positive energy that would propel them into a brighter future, but the also learned once and for all that they wanted no part of show business — at least as the mainstream defined it.”
Alternately of the Rolling Stones, Selvin writes, “Whatever they lost at Altamont, they would not get back. The Stones would play out their days like tigers in the shade, challenging neither themselves nor their audience. Instead of a cultural force, the Stones settled for being caricatures of themselves, a raucous and colorful but ultimately meaningless side-show, prancing onstage with props, costumes, and elaborate stage sets in cavernous football stadiums, no more simply five men and the music.”
Whoa. So you know where Selvin comes from.
This book is definitely worth a read, and it is extremely well researched. You will be missing the mark if you draw your conclusion of this event and its cultural significance from Gimme Shelter — which is clearly a Stones’ concert movie. While the movie captured the mayhem that ultimately brought more notoriety to the event, movie and Stones’ tour, it is certainly not the vehicle to gain an unbiased way to define a cultural movement or assess the innocence or guilt of anyone involved in the staging of a concert that was bound to unravel into murder and death. For anyone who wants to know more, this book delivers.