You know that moment at live shows when the lights suddenly drop and it’s showtime? That tingly feeling in the pit of your stomach? That’s the way Joel Selvin’s new book Altamont starts; it is a rush right out of the gate. Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully is flying into England to discuss a free concert with the Rolling Stones, his pockets stuffed full of illegal substances and it’s trouble ahead, trouble behind.
In, by far, the most detailed account of the doomed festival, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and The Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day examines everything in that title and more. The idea, hatched by Scully with support from the Dead and their compatriots and connections, is enthusiastically embraced by the Stones. The band had just debuted their new lineup in the infamous Hyde Park show immediately following Brian Jones' death, in July 1969 and were seeking a bigger stage.
Early on, the book makes clear that the Stones are feeling the need to be tested. The world of live rock and roll is not what it was the last time the Stones had toured the States. Woodstock, San Francisco, newer and more experimental bands and expanding audience expectations had changed the game. A half hour set played over squealing and screaming girls who weren’t really listening wouldn’t cut it any more. The Stones had missed out on Woodstock and did not want to be further left behind the growing musical revolution.
Jagger, in particular, has his eyes on the prize and is clearly looking for that big statement, both financially and artistically, to end the upcoming North American tour with — no pun intended —a bang. In fact, it is the money from an intended film of the free concert that pushes the event to the unfortunate oil-stained heart of darkness.
Scully and the Dead had suggested a concert in Golden Gate Park’s panhandle, something they’d done many times before and planned on bringing out the Stones as a surprise guest, on their turf and within the rules of the game they knew. Jagger apparently hated the idea of a secret and broke the news at a press conference, thus scuttling the “surprise” factor and the only viable way to do the show, and hijacking the whole idea for the sole benefit of the Stones. The concert is moved to Sears Point Raceway until that location also falls through (48 hours before showtime) due to Jagger’s unwillingness to split film profits. Altamont — a little-used stock car race site — is offered up and, although no one thinks the concrete, rusted-vehicle and glass-filled site in the desert is appropriate, they are simply out of options and out of time. Unfortunately, the location also brings with it a more volatile Hell’s Angels contingency than the SF crew the Dead had relied on and recommended; Jagger was adamant that there be “no cops,” no matter the venue. Bad planning and bad juju — mixed with the bad drugs that were awash at the concert— make very bad bedfellows.
In preliminary planning talks about the concert, Jagger dismisses food, water and medical concerns, saying “Practical realities can be addressed at a later stage.” Those words, of course, would come back to haunt him in ways he couldn’t have imagined. Those realities would never be considered, as the Stones and “their people” (particularly the shadowy Jim Jaymes) arrogantly ignored and dismissed the Dead/SF cadre of people who first came up with the idea and could have facilitated it in the way it was originally imagined. Hubris and greed trumps peace and love every time.
Selvin’s account spares no detail, nor the rod for any of the participants, but dumps the blame squarely on Jagger. The Stones would make both their bones as “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” and their money from the tour and the film, Gimme Shelter. They would also leave behind stacks of unpaid bills, rental cars strewn across the country and employees abandoned with no money and no way home. And they would never speak to the slain Meredith Hunter’s family.
As Selvin tells it, these authors of “Paint It Black,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Sympathy For The Devil” looked straight into the face of real danger and evil at Altamont and decided they wanted nothing to do with it. “Jagger made the fatal error of believing his own hype. He bought into the myth of Woodstock but also believed he could do it better. He was coming to San Francisco for a coronation.” As Altamont makes clear, however, there is always a price to be paid. An essential read.
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