On paper what was tabbed “The Woodstock of the West” couldn’t be anything short of amazing.
The free concert on Dec. 6, 1969, headlined by the Rolling Stones with the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane and Santana on the undercard at the Altamont Motor Speedway near Livermore, Calif., became a perfect storm where everything that could go wrong, went horribly beyond that and to this day, remains one of the most ghastly events in music history.
Author Joel Selvin was one of a number of guests on the Jan. 7 edition of Greasy Tracks as he discussed his recently published account of the concert, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and The Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day (Dey Street Books) as a part of a four-hour program spotlighting the 1969 U.S. tour by the Stones, capped by the Altamont show..
The program included music from the tour, outtakes of recordings made during the Stones stay in the United States and, of course, tracks from the Altamont concert. To listen to the archive of the program, click here.
Until Selvin’s in-depth approach to telling the story of the ill-fated concert, the primary go-to sources have been the film Gimme Shelter and Stanley Booth’s book, The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones.
A key, but oft-forgotten fact was the Rolling Stones were co-owners of the 1970 film directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles with Charlotte Zwerin. While it chronicled the 1969 tour, it was done as a money-making venture by the Stones who were well-served by the final product as the Maysles ultimately produced a rather skewed version of the events at Altamont while sadly failing to tell the real story of the lead up to that dour day.
Booth’s account of his time on the road with the Stones wasn’t published until 1984 and also missed key parts of the true Altamont story. It wasn’t helped by the author walking a fine line between indulging hanger on and being a neutral scribe.
Bottom line, neither come close to the detail Selvin provides in his latest tome.
Selvin wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle for nearly 40 years and has contributed to Rolling Stone, Melody Maker and Billboard among other publications. He has authored or collaborated on 16 books, including: Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love and High Times in the Wild West; The Treasures of The Hard Rock; Sly and the Family Stone: An Oral History; as well as biographies on Ricky Nelson and Sammy Hagar.
He has appeared twice before on Greasy Tracks when he discussed his biography of Bert Berns, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues and The Haight: Love, Rock, And Revolution which featured the work of renowned photographer Jim Marshall.
Selvin was invited to attend the Altamont concert by some college friends, but having seen the Stones a month earlier at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., opted not to go, he noted, having been to enough free concerts in the San Francisco area to know what could transpire at this one.
Doomed from the beginning?
The racetrack was hardly a suitable venue for the event. After promoters failed to gain a permit to hold it in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a secondary site, Sears Point Raceway, 45 miles to the north in Sonoma, was secured. By all accounts, it appeared a perfect location. Opened in 1968, the 1,000-acre raceway was located at the intersection of two major highways, had parking that could handle 100,000 cars, toilets, water, electricity, concession stands, established security and police close by.
In comparison, Altamont, whose owner Dick Carter, offered the facility free of charge, mainly out of desperation as he was facing insolvency and envisioned a successful event as a gateway to future concerts due to what he expected as good publicity following the Stones concert, wasn’t even close to measuring up.
At this point, organizers had 36 hours to set up for the concert at a venue about 60 miles outside San Francisco that was better suited for demolition derbies – it had lost its NASCAR affiliation – and was described as an “outlaw track” that boasted its largest crowd at 6,500 people.
Carter was expecting around 20,000 to 30,000 people for the concert as his venue only had about 12,000 parking places. More than 300,000 would ultimately be in attendance with members of a number of Hells Angels chapters providing security. One of the variables that proved to have an incredibly negative effect on the proceedings was the copious amount of alcohol and drugs consumed by those in attendance from the audience to the Angels, workers to organizers.
Another key was the hellish site of the concert.
Selvin described the location: “It was a desolate, remote location on the edge of southern Alameda County, where fierce winds whipped through the scrub and sage grass. They were still building the freeway and the track could only be reached off a small four-lane highway.”
Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, who was behind the initial idea of a Stones-Dead bill, flew over Altamont in a helicopter with Michael Lang, who months earlier had put on the Woodstock Fest.
“Scully looked out and wondered to himself how they could hold a concert in this godforsaken patch of scrubby land,” Selvin wrote. “He looked over the racetrack and saw a landscape littered with wrecked cars, abandoned tires, oil stains and broken glass. He didn’t like what he saw … That’s when he heard Lang speak up: ‘This is perfect,’ Lang said. ‘We can do it here’.”
Other guests shared memories
Two people who will never forget what they experienced at Altamont were Santana drummer Michael Shrieve and percussionist Michael Carabello who will each share some insight of the fateful day and what they saw from the stage.
While Shrieve and Carabello were performing, Robert Altman was in the crowd in front of the stage photographing the event on assignment for Rolling Stone. Images he captured remain some of the most memorable of the fest.
The Stones played three shows at Madison Square Garden during the 1969 tour and Binky Philips, a New York City-based author and musician was in attendance. Years later, Philips contributed liner notes to the reissue of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, the live album featuring tracks recorded at MSG and Baltimore Civic Center as well as portions of the opening sets played by B.B. King and The Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Philips, who took a broken drum stick to the face when drummer Charlie Watts flung it into the crowd at the end of a show, will also be part of the radio feature.
The Stones were a band in transition in 1969. Financially strapped, they embarked on a 24-show North American tour with guitarist Mick Taylor — chosen in June to take over for the fired Brian Jones — on board. Taylor would prove to raise the level of the band’s performances to new levels. Their album Let It Bleed – widely recognized as their best effort to date — which was supposed to be released in July of that year, didn’t officially come out until a day before they took the stage at Altamont. “Brown Sugar,” written and recorded only days earlier at Sheffield, Ala., at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios makes its debut at Altamont.
In the end, the glorious vision the Stones conjured for themselves as the conquering heroes with their elaborate tour/concert production, film crew in tow putting on a free show, turned into a grand-scale disaster. Replete with
rampant violence — including the stabbing death of a gun-toting attendee, while one person drowned and two were killed in a post-concert hit-and-run incident – Altamont’s hellish conditions were hampered by poor sound, wretched lighting, lack of food and water, inefficient medical and police support.
The fledgling music magazine Rolling Stone, barely two years old at the time, established itself with its coverage of the event, stating: “Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.”