Saturday, September 15, 2007

Let 'Em Bleed... (Part 2)

((First: another serendipitous moment. Two nights after I posted the Monterey Pop chapter previous to this one, what should show up on Public Television but Pennebaker's film about the festival, which I'd read about but never seen. The festive scenes and people were nostalgic fun, and I was pleased that my memories weren't too scrambled, yet the film offers a confusing chronology not faithful to the event, if anyone cares. But there were so many acts I'd missed and was happy to be reminded of--most importantly Otis Redding backed by the Stax MGs; I should have thought to mention Redding, since he was another performer who exploded onto the scene at Monterey but was then soon killed, in a plane crash.

Now: back to the continuing saga...))

I had hoped to find my essay/review about the Altamont Festival, written right afterward for Fusion, but no such luck. Memory will have to suffice.

When the Rolling Stones' big outdoor concert event was announced as an end-of-tour gesture to American fans, I decided to fly to the Bay Area, and worked it out with rock critic Greil Marcus for a place to stay and a lift to the event. There followed some scrambling by promoters and the Stones, but then the venue was set: a day-long free festival at Altamont Raceway, atop a high hill somewhere to the east of Oakland.

I flew down on the Thursday before, hooked up with Greil (then still the reviews editor for Rolling Stone, I think) and proceeded to my other assignment for the weekend, an interview with John Fogerty and the rest of the red-hot singles band Creedence Clearwater Revival, at the band's Oakland warehouse. That interview eventually became another article (also missing from my files!), but what I recall most was the friendliness of Tom Fogerty and the others versus the grouchy near-silence of brother John, who was the creative force every journalist sought to meet and figure out!

Anyway, Saturday was the main day. Greil drove, and I was just one of the passengers; memory says the others were Lester Bangs, a wild-man critic soon to be even more (in)famous, and Sandy Paton, musician head of Folk Legacy Records. We all had press credentials including backstage passes and planned just to split up and do the day, each getting his own perspective on the performances.

Backstage at the site, I tried to mingle and take notes, hooking up briefly with a drug-dumbed Gram Parsons, then Edgar Winter and his manager (wearing a bathrobe as I recall), and one or two others. Mostly I just tried to observe, planning to head out front for all the music. The stage was a platform on scaffolding, and it was easy for anyone backstage to crawl under and then out into the front-of-stage area, which was not some separate press pit but instead simply the ranks of packed-tight fans--patrolled by the "security" the Stones had enlisted (thanks to the Grateful Dead I think), members of the Hell's Angels.

Out front, things were unpleasant from the start. The closest rows of fans seemed particularly stoned (so to speak) and many of them surly, maybe fueled more by amphetamines than pot. I don't remember the order of groups that played the long afternoon, but Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Jefferson Airplane all had early-on sets.

The tension kept mounting. Every time the audience got to its collective feet, the fans further away pushed in closer, making it harder and harder for anyone in front then to sit down again. The Angels started pushing back, and soon there were actual fistfights, and then bikers swinging pool cues! I remember Marty Balin (or was it Paul Kantner?) recklessly leaping off the stage to try to break up one fight, and I think he got decked. At another moment some raging Angel got knocked into my lap. I started to help him up, then jerked my hands back, fearful I'd get clobbered too. I only lasted a few minutes more, then gave up and crawled back under the stage while the Airplane was still playing.

The rest of the day was a bit of a slog and a blur. I saw the Stones arrive and take refuge in their trailer. And later in the afternoon, I witnessed this unforgettable moment: one fan, a fat and stark-naked Mexican-American (I'd seen him earlier in the crowd out front) had been smashed in the head by someone and brought backstage for treatment. While he was standing there with blood streaming down his face and torso, Mick Jagger happened to stick his head out of the trailer just for a look 'round. He saw this bloody naked guy, stared at him for a good 15 seconds, then shrugged and closed the door.

The sound and the views of the stage were passable, and I watched the Stones' own set that night with interest--I mean, hell, it was the Stones right in front of me, playing for free! I couldn't see much beyond the spotlights, so all the continuing violence and the actual stabbing death of one fan was outside my limited field of vision. The band finished up and made for their waiting helicopter, and I reconnected with the other guys, and we all headed back to the car, surrounded by thousands of other exiting fans.

Comparing notes back in the car, we were all bummed out by a day which had become more of a battle zone than a music fest. The others had not been out front, but had observed some of the violence. Listening to the radio coverage then as we drove back to Berkeley, we learned that the rumor was true: someone had been killed (and there were a couple of births announced as well).

The aftermath (another bit of Stones prescience?) of Altamont's grim events is well-known. The Stones scooted and tried to distance themselves by blaming it all on the Dead and the bikers--no sympathy for any of those devils. Someone was arrested eventually, but I don't remember the outcome of any later trial.

I flew home to Seattle and wrote my review, which detailed the Angels-inspired fights I'd witnessed. And here's the dumbest part: I was so paranoid about that far-ranging gang of bikers and my own possible vulnerability that I asked the Fusion editor to publish my piece under the pseudonym of "Glenn Howard," which is how it appeared.

No one cared much; it soon dis-appeared into the used-to-wrap-fish heap of journalistic refuse--though later Sandy Paton published a book collecting some of his writings, and he talked about my experiences at the festival as well as his own.

As the cliches go, you get what you pay for, there's no such thing as a free lunch, a rolling stone gathers no... 'mont? The band steel-wheels on, 36 years later, Keith the poster-child for drug survival, Mick maybe still whipping the stage with his belt. Mostly the Rolling Stones today just make me yawn; some old geezers really should retire.

So I was present at both the birth and the sort-of death of massive American rock festivals. Missed the biggest one of all but didn't really miss it, if you catch my drift. Haven't gone to any large outdoor concert any time since, until the Fairport Cropredy this year (full of families and good friends rather than stoners). Mostly I just wish the world of rock hadn't evolved as it has. I'm one of the old geezers now too.


max bittle said...

Happy to stumble across your blog tonight. I'm a big fan of the music and culture of that era and am always trying to read and chat with folks who were around back then (I'm only 31). I had a long phone conversation with a Stones crew member who was at Woodstock and Altamont. The contrast between the two must have been a crazy thing to have witnessed. Probably somewhat similar to Monterrey & Altamont. Would love to chat further and hear more stories from back then - feel free to shoot me an email at


IWitnessEd said...

hi. thanks for the news and cues. if you browse through this blog o' mine, you can find scores (well over 300 total) of write-ups on rock, reggae, soul, jazz, blues, and much much more relating to the Rock era and beyond. i'll forward my phone # so we can chat if you like, but your blanket invite leaves my 73-year-old retired brain... well, tired. I think i'll let you lead the crosstalk.

max bittle said...

Ha! Sorry to leave your brain tired. Have an email address handy that I could reach out to? Thanks