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Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells…

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of…

by Joel Selvin

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I’m going to take on a new responsibility here, guys! I’ve decided that I’m going to start reviewing the occasional non-fiction book as well as the other genres that I’m tackling. I don’t read non-fiction as much as fiction, but I have been reading enough pretty good stuff that I want to share it with you guys! So I’m starting this off with “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin. I went through a phase in high school where I listened to a lot of rock and roll from the mid to late 1960s, and went so far as to try and dress up like a hippie when I went to school (though admittedly I probably was more akin to an anti-war protester, as my Mom was my inspiration and I went off old photos of her as my template). Hell, my first ever concert was CSNY in 9th grade (also because of my folks). I had heard of the Altamont Concert in passing by my parents and the cultural impression it left, but didn’t know much beyond the Hells Angels stabbing Meredith Hunter to death while the Rolling Stones played. But that’s where Selvin comes in. Because he taught me quite a bit.

What I liked about this book is that it didn’t just cover the concert: it covered events that influenced the decision to have the concert, and the days leading up to it. I had not realized that by the time Altamont rolled around, The Rolling Stones were practically broke. I’ve never lived in a world where The Stones weren’t legends, so to think that at one point they were having monetary problems was mind blowing. They were still kind of living off the image of being a tour that packed in teenage girls, even though they had started to experiment with harder and edgier sounds like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. They hadn’t toured in awhile, and the tour that Altamont was part of was going to be a quick effort to make some cash. I also hadn’t realized that Altamont was basically thrown together in a short period of time, and moved locations in even shorter time. The information that was provided in this book really opened my eyes to how the poor planning happened, and why everything was so haphazard.

Selvin also did a lot of good research about the people who attended this concert, from Meredith Hunter (the victim of the stabbing), to his girlfriend, to other people in the audience who were injured or killed during or right after Altamont. Everyone hears about Hunter’s death, but I had no idea that some drugged out people jumped into ravines, off bridges, and had terrible car accidents. Not only that, a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out by an Angel, and poor Stephen Stills was repeatedly gouged with a bike spoke by another one WHILE HE WAS ON STAGE SINGING. It all seems like such a contrast to Woodstock, which has gone down in legend as a peace, love, rock and roll fest…when in reality, it sounds like it really just got lucky that it didn’t have the same awful stuff that Altamont had. Though admittedly, the Hells Angels played a part in that. But even the Angels Selvin really looked into. While it would certainly be easy to chalk it all up to these guys being violent thugs (and hey, they were), he also makes sure to point out that they too got pretty screwed over in a way here. They were not prepared to work security for such a huge show, and their own biker culture was in direct conflict with the druggie hippie culture, with neither side trying to understand the other (I too would be pissed if I had a motorcycle that a bunch of drugged out kids kept touching and knocking over).

My one qualm that I had with this book is that Selvin, while trying to ease blame off of the usual suspects and showing it as a perfect storm of nonsense, kind of throws the Stones under the bus a little bit. Do I think that the Stones were idiots to agree to this entire thing given how shoddily planned it was? Totally. Do I think that Jagger was disingenuous in his dealings with the press when asked about pricing for their tickets? Yes indeed. But Jagger was twenty six. Richards was twenty five. Grown men, yes, but young, and they had been surrounded by yes men for a few years whose jobs were to shield them from this stuff. It’s not fair to humanize the Hells Angels, who were stabbing, beating, and roughing up concertgoers, and then imply that the Stones were to blame for all the violence. I call bullshit on that. And I also wonder how witnessing this traumatic event, liability in question or not, affected the members of the band. After all, shortly thereafter at least Richards starting doing heavier drugs than he usually experimented with. It may not be connected but it did raise some questions.

Overall, this was an engrossing book that intrigued and disturbed me. I appreciated learning more about this notorious rock concert, and looking into how things can, and will, go wrong, to the point where there’s no turning back. ( )
  thelibraryladies | Jan 8, 2017 |
Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hell Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin is a 2016 Dey Street Books publication. I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

Growing up, I was always fascinated by the sixties decade. So many changes took place in that ten years, so much of it sad and dark, but the music scene was absolutely dynamic and even now, all these years later, the music is a mainstay, still purchased, downloaded, streamed, and listened to every single day. The Rolling Stones went on to become iconic, still playing live shows and creating new music, and still widely respected.

But, in 1969, the band was in trouble. They had recently lost Brian Jones, a founding member of the group, and were nearly flat broke. They needed a cash infusion desperately, so a tour of America was hastily put together.

However, the band was harshly criticized for the price of the concert tickets, with many complaining they could not afford to attend the shows. (Unlike today, musicians were not supposed to appear to be business minded, and many felt the music should be very affordable, or free. The music was first, the money secondary, but of course, that was hardly the case, in reality, except perhaps with The Grateful Dead, who preferred a low profile and actually encouraged bootlegging at their concerts. Otherwise, rock stars were absolutely in it for the money, but could not APPEAR to be, which is why the Stones came under fire, especially by the underground, the very people the Stones were hoping to impress.)

All of this led to the hatching of two ideas. One, make a film of the entire tour, something Filmways was willing to work on, and secondly, offer a free concert to end the tour with relish. The free concert idea was pitched to the Stones by Rock Scully, the manager for The Grateful Dead, and the hope was the free event would help soothe the criticism over ticket prices.

Coming off the epic Woodstock festival, the open air, outdoor concert was becoming very popular. Several such shows had taken place with little or no incident. However, Woodstock’s peace and love atmosphere, was largely a myth, although the counterculture claimed it as a victory, proving that an event of that magnitude, despite the conditions, worked just fine, without the heavy hand of the law or overzealous security guards. Many still believe Woodstock was a free concert, when in fact, tickets were sold to the event, but of course the venue was crashed, and ended up becoming the stuff legends are made of.

So, with the ‘success’ of Woodstock, and Monterey Pop, and other such venues, the Stones were hoping to finally become a part of that phenomenon, since they had missed out on all the fun up until now, and were hoping to not only maintain their rock star royalty status, but also be considered cool, by the counterculture.

So, this was the atmosphere leading up to what basically amounted to a massive cluster- ****.

The show was to take place in San Francisco, featuring the bands who were making waves in that area, such as ‘The Dead’, ‘Santana’, and ‘The Jefferson Airplane’. The show was slated to take place at San Jose State University, but when that fell through, Gold Gate Park was picked, and again those plans crumbled, so Sears Point Raceways was chosen, but negotiations broke down there too. So, with time running out, Altamont Motor Speedway was suggested as a possible venue, and organizers agreed to hold the concert there, but failed to notice all its limitations.

The rest is history, as they say, with picking Altamont as the location for the show being the first of many missteps.

The next big error in judgement was taking the ‘The Dead’s’ suggestion of using the Hell’s Angels as security. No one wanted the cops or traditional security guards, Jagger in particular being quite paranoid about a police presence. But, with having experienced issues regarding fans running onto the stage during shows, and the stage area at Altamont being quite low to the ground, some kind of security was deemed necessary. Gerry Garcia and the Dead were familiar with the members of the motorcycle club and had used their help on previous occasions, without any issues.

So, the Angels were hired for five hundred dollars of beer, to surround the stage area, and keep people away from the performers, and an eye on the equipment.

All these decisions, which were hasty and perhaps naïve, all culminated into one of the darkest days in rock history.

Many folks have seen the movie: ‘Gimme Shelter' which follows the Stones on their 1969 American tour, ending with the free concert and death of Meredith Hunter.

While this movie does depict, in vivid detail, the murder scene, and all that transpired that fateful day, it was also edited and toned down, and failed to completely capture the sinister atmosphere, fully.

In stark contrast, this book breaks down the behind the scenes buildup, the organization of the event, the behavior of the Angels, the crowd dynamic, the violence, the copious amounts of drugs consumed, the lack of facilities, food, and water, and first aid areas, and how the view from the hill gave many an entirely different opinion of what transpired that day compared to those who were surrounding the stage area.

Although I am well aware of how things ended up, reading about what was touted as “Woodstock West’, on December 6, 1969, was so intense, I decided it wasn’t the type of thing I wanted to read right before going to bed.

It was spooky how it all transpired with a kind of unstableness in the atmosphere right from the start, one that increased the uneasiness of the bands and the crowd as the day progressed with numerous altercations and outbursts of violence.

This book is very detailed and organized, touching on all aspects of the situation, not just how the concert came to be, how it was put together, the horrible decisions and even arrogance that lead to disaster and tragedy, but also detailed the aftermath of the event and how it basically shut down the hippie movement in one felled swoop, with the Manson murders putting the nail in the coffin.

Who got the blame? How did these events change the Stones and their music? Did anyone ever pay for the death of Meredith Hunter? Was Hunter aiming to kill Mick Jagger?

There were several other deaths that day, including a drowning, and a couple of fatal car accidents, as well as several births.

The fallout of this event reverberated through the rock community with ‘Rolling Stone Magazine’ stepping up to the plate, skewering everyone associated with the situation, and pulling no punches.

From that day forward things began to change in America, with the revolution basically coming to an end, with rock music becoming big business with corporate America, and peace and love fading into obscurity as the country moved into a new era, leaving all pretense of innocence behind, to be replaced by a need to put the turbulence behind them and return to having fun, dancing under mirror balls, unencumbered with the weight of war, violence, and rioting. The sixties generation woke up and realized their hopes for utopia were nothing but a pipe dream and it was time to face reality, grow-up, get an education, a job, and become productive citizens.

That wake up call, was due, at least in part to Altamont and the death of Meredith Hunter. This book chronicles the entire charade from start to finish, offering new insights into the mindset of the Stones, the attendees, the Angel’s, the divisions in the underground movement and the hippie community, and the country as a whole.

Even if you think you know all there is to know about this story, this book will take you back to this pivotal day in history, and will have you living it as though you were actually there. I even felt claustrophobic at times thinking about that wall of bodies shoved up against the stage and the sheer force a crowd of 300,000 people all stoned, drunk, or tripping on acid.

It’s actually a miracle things didn’t become much worse. I no longer find this era of time quite so fascinating. Instead, I feel a little embarrassed for those who find themselves immortalized on film and in photographs, dancing around naked, dirty, scruffy, stoned out of their heads, and generally making fools of themselves, acting like lunatics. Geez, I’d hate to think my parents, kids, or colleagues would ever see me looking that way or behaving in such a manner. However, to be fair, had I been of that age in the sixties, I probably would have been right there with them, at least to some degree.

However, this book is indeed a very shocking portrayal of a historic event that ended in tragedy and is absolutely riveting. This may be one of the best books I’ve ever read in regards to rock history. Many such books attempt to water down events and still try to sell the whole counterculture as romantic and nostalgic. This book throws cold water on all that and does so unapologetically, pointing the blame in more than one direction, but letting the facts speak for themselves.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to learn more about the sixties, the music scene of that era, the real true story of Altamont, the Stones, and all who were present on stage and behind the scenes, who ended up taking blame and who walked away without taking their fair share of it.

While many hard lessons were learned that day, there have still been several heartbreaking tragedies surrounding rock venues, from riots, to the crushing and trampling of bodies, to faulty stage equipment, pyrotechnics, over capacity crowds, to the onstage assassination of Dime Bag Darrell, many of which could have been prevented if the proper planning and safety precautions had been taken. But, Altamont was the first concert to have such a terrifying event take place.

This book is not for the faint of heart and pulls no punches, which garners my utmost respect for the author and the obvious amount of time and research put into this book.

4.5 stars ( )
  gpangel | Jun 30, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0062444255, Hardcover)

In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert in San Francisco, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s.

In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.

Altamont explores rock’s darkest day, a fiasco that began well before the climactic death of Meredith Hunter and continued beyond that infamous December night. Joel Selvin probes every aspect of the show—from the Stones’ hastily planned tour preceding the concert to the bad acid that swept through the audience to other deaths that also occurred that evening—to capture the full scope of the tragedy and its aftermath. He also provides an in-depth look at the Grateful Dead’s role in the events leading to Altamont, examining the band’s behind-the-scenes presence in both arranging the show and hiring the Hells Angels as security.

The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, and featuring sixteen pages of color photos, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 30 Jun 2016 19:17:08 -0400)

In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones' infamous Altamont concert in San Francisco, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s. The product of 20 years of research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, this is the ultimate account of the final event in rock's formative and most turbulent decade.… (more)

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