Altamont Revisited

Even the Love Generation had its festival of hate

Thirty years ago -- on December 6, to be exact -- the Altamont Speedway, located about a half-hour's drive from Berkeley, California, was the site of a free concert presented by the Rolling Stones. The band's 1969 U.S. tour (its first in three years) had been a huge success, grossing a then-unheard-of $1.25 million, and the Bay Area concert would be a way for the Stones, who'd been criticized for high ticket prices during the tour, to thank their fans. Earlier that same year, the music festival at Woodstock had been a media and generation milestone. Why, then, shouldn't Altamont, featuring "the greatest rock and roll band in the world," become the West Coast Woodstock and a musical punctuation point to the Age of Aquarius?

"Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" was a popular anti-Vietnam slogan and bumper sticker at the time, but this festival offered a new possibility: "Suppose they gave a concert and relatively few media outlets showed up?" That's basically what happened at Altamont when, in less than a week, the Stones, who were on tour promoting their Let It Bleed album, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang, and famed liberal San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli put together the now infamous concert. (To be fair, even though word rapidly spread, city officials only permitted the free show after the Stones' camp agreed not to announce it until 24 hours prior to the event.) Since that time there have been books and articles (one of those screwed-up-and-drugged-out-rock-stars-bring-us-healthy-ratings VH1 Behind the Music specials is probably forthcoming), but the best report of Altamont remains the full-length 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, which was photographed and directed by the Maysles brothers (Albert and David) and Charlotte Zwerin. Yet even that didn't provide a full picture of what happened on that fateful day.

While a freshman at Diablo Valley Junior College in Concord, California, for two days a week I also was the rock-pop music writer at the ultraconservative local newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. At the time the nation took lightly the hippie mantra to "Never trust anyone over 30," yet the Tribune brain trust officially seemed to hate anyone under that age. Ex-Sen. William Knowland, the owner of the Tribune, also hated blacks, though he unwittingly gave the Black Panther Party national recognition via the print war he waged against the extremist political group. In retrospect the only reason I was hired was because of the growing worldwide popularity of Bay Area bands (the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana, et cetera) and the fact that news about them sold papers. I also served another important function within the Tribune hierarchy: Whenever there was an editorial need for someone to go to the Black Panthers headquarters, I became the designated white guy; after all, I'd probably be the paper's least missed hostage.

The violence at Woodstock  99 inspired cynics to dub it "Rapestock," but 30 years ago the Love Generation had its own festival of hate
The violence at Woodstock 99 inspired cynics to dub it "Rapestock," but 30 years ago the Love Generation had its own festival of hate

One day, a couple of weeks prior to the Stones show at the Oakland Coliseum, I received a press release in the mail (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when cell phones, fax machines, and personal computers did not exist) announcing that they were coming to the Bay Area.

Calling the phone number on the release, I was amazed to reach the home of singer Judy Collins, whose then-boyfriend Stephen Stills answered. After a brief conversation, he asked if I wanted to speak with Mick about the tour. Before I could even ask if he meant Jagger or Taylor (Brian Jones's recent replacement), the Stones' singer was on the phone with me.

The result was a long, funny, and fascinating conversation that became a Sunday entertainment cover story, resulting in the only compliment I ever received from my editor. Jagger expressed fears of being out of touch with Bay Area music fans, wondered if the band's greatest hits would still be appropriate to play in concert, asked jokingly if it was too late to join up for the sexual revolution in Berkeley, and was emphatic that he would not sing "Satisfaction" anymore after he turned 40.

When Jagger and company came to Oakland on November 9, 1969, to do a pair of concerts on the same day, the group met with a handful of writers "for a chat and tea" at their hotel. The baby-faced Taylor was shy and nervous; Keith Richards was engaging as he asked questions about the local bands; Charlie Watts was extremely polite; and Bill Wyman was surprisingly animated during casual conversation. Ever the student of commerce and graduate of the London School of Economics, Jagger mostly wanted feedback about whether the band had charged too much for tickets. No doubt this was the last time he would have concerns about the financial status of Stones fans.

Backstage during the Oakland shows, the Stones' mean-spirited road manager Sam Cutler seemed to clash with anyone and everyone, including legendary promoter Bill Graham. Cutler, who later would work with the Grateful Dead, apparently thought he didn't need Graham to put on the Altamont concert, which was in the planning stages. Thus the Bay Area's most respected and competent music figure kept his distance from an event he should have produced.

Even though the concert wasn't officially announced until the day before the show, the local radio airwaves regularly gave updates on the rumored concert's location as it was switched from Golden Gate Park to any big site where permits could be gotten in less than a week. On Saturday morning hippies were hitchhiking on the highway, cars were finding space on the dusty Altamont hillside, and makeshift vendors were hawking the drugs of fashion. In short this didn't appear much different than the many other free concerts that regularly sprung up around the Bay Area. People kept coming as Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash opened the show while the sun was still shining. In the years since, there have been reports that the performers felt an ominous undercurrent earlier in the day, but all seemed right in the universe, at least near the stage, at that point.

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