Rant’N’Roll: Altamont: A Rock’N’Roll Horror Story

The first thing you notice upon watching the 1970 film Gimme Shelter is how stoned everybody is. The tension mounts. The Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin gets beat up. The Grateful Dead, upon arrival, hearing of the violence, run away and never even play, despite the fact that they helped plan what was to be Woodstock West (it was their idea to use Hells Angels as security). To their credit, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young do play, as do Santana (who refused to be in the movie) and Flying Burrito Brothers with Gram Parsons. By the time the Stones enter that ridiculously small and low stage which serves as an invite to atrocity, the mood is sour, filled with folks on bad acid, meth, cheap wine and rotgut whiskey. Jagger looks petrified. And then, of course, right in front of their faces…the murder.

All that we know about that horrible day on December 6, 1969, comes from that movie. There’s so much we don’t know. Until now. Joel Selvin, who wrote one of the best rock’n’roll books of 2012 (Peppermint Twist: The Mob, The Music & The Most Famous Dance Club Of The ‘60s), and of 2014 (Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm’n’Blues) has done it again with Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day.

When David Crosby and Stephen Stills taught the Dead how to harmonize, it put the finishing touches on a band that was using the real-life LSD king, Owsley Stanley, as their sound man. The chemist just happened to be a sound genius. They called him Bear. When Sam Cutler of the Stones camp met with the Dead to figure out logistics for a free concert to rival Woodstock just months prior, he came away from the meeting with a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. Cutler knew this had to be done professionally but the Dead camp seemed totally uncommitted to reasonable suggestions. He knew Jagger felt left out not playing Woodstock and he didn’t want to go back with no results. Infamous Hells Angel Terry The Tramp was there and a deal was struck where for $500 worth of beer, the notorious bikers would be hired as security.

Jagger couldn’t be bothered with trifling incidentals like crowd control, sanitation, public bathrooms or medical tents. The Stones, already on tour, told reporters they’d end the year with a free concert. Yet 36 hours before the proposed show, they still didn’t have a site. The old Altamont racetrack, forgotten, fading into obscurity with weeds and broken windows, was the final destination. Workers worked all through a few nights to get it ready. Unbeknownst to them, though, tens of thousands of hippies were already on the way.

The story plays out like a horror novel with a mounting escalation of dread. Stephen Stills is actually stabbed during CSNY’s set, his leg gushing blood. One pregnant fan is hit with a full can of beer on her left temple causing brain damage. With the crowd estimated at 300,000, cops stayed away. The Stones knew they had to go on. Yet the scorched earth of garbage-burning campfires, and the realization that NO ONE was in charge, had them practically peeing in their pants.

Violence right in front of the stage with people getting beat to shit with pool sticks by drunken and high Angels occurred during Santana and the Airplane. The first bit of Stones violence occurs during “Under My Thumb.” The band has to stop the song and plead with the crowd. The concert stops. The Stones don’t know what to do. Sickened, stunned, afraid, baby-faced lead guitarist Mick Taylor suggests they do their new one. So they play “Brown Sugar” for the first very first time. “Midnight Rambler” follows. To make matters even more surrealistic, a big fat naked man waddles to the stage and is beat to a bloody pulp by “security.” A girl walks on stage and is savagely kicked in the stomach by another infamous Angel, Sonny Barger. And then, of course, a fan is knifed to death. The fan, Meredith Hunter, did, indeed, have a gun. So who’s to bless and who’s to blame?

Thus unfolds a story that takes the hippie dream and turns it inside out. Terry The Tramp, inconsolable, winds up killing himself. The concert is erroneously reported upon by San Francisco’s dailies with no mention of the horror whatsoever. This is where Rolling Stone magazine first earns its stripes by reporting the truth. Joel Selvin has done a masterful job by not succumbing to obvious scapegoats. His book will have you up nights.