Friday, April 11, 2014

Hell's Broke Loose in Altamont

"...on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

When a gang of bad-juju biker thugs swinging pool cues and shoving shivs into drugged-up fools are ostensibly "security" at the Rock festival, it's time to holler, "Feet, beat the retreat!"--at least that's what I decided late in the afternoon of December 6, 1969, at Altamont Speedway in the Northern California foothills 30 or 40 miles east of the East Bay urbs. (Probably not much more than a hundred thirty miles north and east of the sleepy coastal town of Monterey, but worlds apart in time and species.)

In the wake of Monterey's blissed-out Pop Music festival, would-be copycat events--large or small, outdoors or in--were mounted at venues across America. The middle
portion of Western Washington was especially active, hosting two "Sky Rivers" and a "Seattle Pop" ahead of that culminating woolly mammoth, the merry music, muddy mayhem, massed-(counter)culture manifesto known as Woodstock. (Forgotten fact: there actually was an earlier fourth event, held in advance of Monterey Pop, a mini-fest hosted by Sonny and Cher and staged at Seattle's Green Lake Aquatheater.)

The Old World was stirring too, with the new Rock Music shaking Europe's cultural roots, students rioting in the streets of Prague and Paris, and the Rolling Stones doing their damnedest to prod London past No Satisfaction and Devil Sympathy on to Street Fighting meant to stretch from Carnaby to Fleet. By 1969, Brian Jones had
been ousted from the group he'd help create and had soon after that drowned. Suddenly the outdoor concert the other Stones had been planning became a Hyde Park-sized wake for Jones--which was followed over the fall by the band's first big-venues tour of the States, Madison Square Garden to Miami and the L.A. Coliseum to... um, somewhere in the San Francisco area, a free all-day concert-slash-festival added by the boys at the last minute as a big "Thank You" to America. Sharing the billing would be Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers (led by Gram Parsons, Keith Richard's latest amigo for drinkin'n'druggin'), and the Grateful Dead.

A mammoth free concert with such a potent line-up called for a sizable security force too, but the last-minute negotiations to settle on a site, and the massive overnight staging effort required after that, meant that some "creative" approach to security would be needed. Participants and critics and fans alike have argued ever since as to who should get the blame for what ensued...

Several months after Monterey Pop I had begun doing some minor writing for the Rock mag that had started a couple of weeks before that festival; Rolling Stone (as was, early on) seemed content to accept my sometimes esoteric record reviews, and I was soon writing too for Boston's equivalent mag titled Fusion and for Seattle's underground newspaper, The Helix. I was scheduled to do an interview piece on Creedence Clearwater Revival for Fusion on December 5th and was able to secure
Press credentials for the Stones' bash too. Rolling Stone's Greil Marcus and his lovely wife offered to put me up, and I flew down to the Bay Area on December 4th.

We were four jolly journalists in the car driving east on show day--Greil, his friend Langdon Winner, me, and Sandy Darlington (later the owner/producer of New England's excellent Folk Legacy Records). We joined the miles of cars ascending to the Speedway: the sun was out, and two or three hundred thousand Rock fans were gathering, like iron filings to a magnet or, more accurately, lemmings drawn to the cliff edge.

Once admitted backstage, we each set off independently, planning to compare impressions later. I wandered about taking mental snapshots and talking with, among others, Burrito Brother Gram, Johnny Winters' twin brother Edgar, and (I think) their manager, whose name I've forgotten but who was stylishly garbed in boxer shorts and a kimono. Even more dapper was the birthday suit worn by a stoned fat Latino guy, who was stumbling about confusedly like a curly-nobbed Humpty Dumpty on stilts. (This lad reappears later.) I didn't realize it then, but I was seeing a sad representation of the Altamont audience.

Around 2 p.m. I heard Santana warming up on stage and crawled under and through the metal platform and out to the area right front of the stage near one stack of amps. People had been sitting on the ground, but now no one could hold a space without standing up and then being pushed forward, packed tighter and tighter. There was no area reserved for the Press, just a crushing, unruly crowd, the milling front ranks of a sweeping downward hillside avalanche of tens of thousands. And these weren't the happy hippies of Monterey Pop and San Francisco Be-Ins; this was a hostile mob of restive zombies, cloudy- or empty-eyed, mean dispirited creatures zonked on acid, meth, bennies, poisonous grass... who knows? But shoving and dissatisfied and spoiling for a fight.

They soon found it.

This much is known: the Grateful Dead had friends among the Frisco contingent and likely recommended them. The Stones had used a mild-mannered motorcycle club as security at a London event... Hyde Park, was it? The Bay Area headman--headsman? skullman?--and the Stones' advance man-cum-road manager reached an agreement: in exchange for $500 in beer, a phalanx of Hell's Angels, some thirty or so, would protect the stage and the Stones from any overeager encroachers. Armed with fists, knives, biker-chains, and sawed-off pool cues (whipping overhead they looked plenty damn full-length to me), and fortified by beer and bottles the Angels were ready to rumble.

From my vantage point and notes jotted down: (1) Santana's set, oye como va, amigos, brings minor scuffles only, weapons not yet required. The mob's leading
edge subsides, grumbling quietly.

(2) Minimal turbulence for the Flying Burrito Brothers' brand of catchy Country Rock. A few of the walking dead actually attempt to dance.

(3) The afternoon drags on. More thirst. (Water bottles were not yet appendages in 1969.) More warm beers. More mystery drugs. More zombie jamboree.

Now (4) Jefferson Airplane takes off, propelled by Grace Slick's edgy whine. The phony revolutionaries re-engage the zonked. Two Angels insist on riding their bikes through the crowd left of stage. The fights are real, pool cues whirling through the late afternoon light. The naked fat guy gets clobbered in the face and is led away, his nose streaming blood. I'm feeling the crowd's sullen paranoia myself...

Too much happening. Grace harangues the fighters, then Marty Balin leaps off the
stage trying to stop one brawl and gets coldcocked for interfering, knocked unconscious for a minute or two. I'm crouched down near the amps thinking seriously about scooting under the stage when suddenly one long-haired Angel is knocked straight diagonally down into my lap. I start to help him up, then jerk my hands back, afraid his snarling attention will shift to me, but he scrambles up back into the brawl, and I scurry on my knees straight through the metal works, very glad to be clutching a Press pass.

Backstage the chaos is better controlled--roadies and technical worker-bees bustling about, medical volunteers tending to the casualties from drugs and the fighting out front, still small clusters of curious musicians and their groupies, photographers and journalists and other hangers-on standing about, blocking the paths between tents and trailers, trading rumors, a few of which will prove to be true: some woman has given birth... the Grateful Dead arrived but, told about the continuing violence, decided that distance was a wiser course than performance...
the Stones have been delayed and may not be coming at all...

No sign of my car mates, so I drift about alone, eavesdropping on the hushed conversations and scribbling impressions of this weird and heavy day, as late afternoon yields to twilight and then to night. It will be a tense and seething two-hour wait before "live" music resumes.

So far, so bad.
* * * *
In still-to-come final Part 3: casualty numbers rise, the film Gimme Shelter demands attention, and the naked fat man almost sings.

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