By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
And then came the Jefferson Airplane, the founding fathers, if you will, of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. During their set lead singer Marty Balin suddenly jumped off the stage to help an African-American fan who was being harassed by a Hell's Angel. The drunken Angel then turned around and punched out Balin, knocking him unconscious. Suddenly it dawned on almost everyone near or on the small stage that the Hell's Angels (who Cutler had hired with the approval of the Dead) were the security guards for the event. Granted the Stones had used Hell's Angels as guards during a free British concert in Hyde Park earlier that year, but there was a drastic difference between the Oakland chapter of the motorcycle gang and the more peaceful version in the United Kingdom. While the Angels had always been in line with the carefree Deadheads at Bay Area concerts (the Dead often were touted as the bikers' favorite band), Altamont was overflowing with college and high school kids who'd only seen the often violent bikers in films like Roger Corman's classic The Wild Angels.
As the Airplane quickly left the stage with a bloody Balin in tow, the sun began to set and the atmosphere suddenly seemed ominous. There was a feeling of panic in the crowd; the Angels' favorite weapon of choice at that point seemed to be pool cues. Other than wire-service reporters, scribes from the local newspapers, a Rolling Stone writer, and a few radio reps, there appeared to be an absence of media. (Today, by contrast, an event of this nature would easily have hundreds of television and print reps on hand, ranging from CNN to MTV to Entertainment Whatever.)
The Flying Burrito Brothers were setting up their equipment when I noticed Michelle Phillips, singer-songwriter of the Mamas and Papas, standing nearby on the stage. With her long blond hair, tight jeans, and sexy sparkling eyes, Phillips looked like the all-American California girl. Practicing good investigative journalism, I ventured onto the stage -- which was very low, almost a platform -- and began asking Ms. Phillips questions. She was kind enough to placate my boyish charm without ever asking me why I obviously was too nervous to remove the notebook from my shirt pocket.
My fantasy was abruptly interrupted, however, when a Hell's Angel grabbed Phillips and tried to throw her off the stage. Yanking her arm back, the forceful Phillips pointed at Burrito Brother Gram Parsons, angrily shouting that he was her boyfriend and his band would cut out if "you assholes don't disappear." After a brief pause, long enough for me to see my life flashing before my eyes, the burly Hell's Angel looked down at the still defiant Phillips and said, with gruff respect: "You got big balls, little lady!"
Besides my instant commitment to never write anything negative about Ms. Phillips for the rest of my career, I started to realize this "concert review" had potential to become a major news story. The only problem was the nearest phone was miles away and leaving the area would most likely mean missing the Stones, who were due onstage after the Burrito Brothers.
As other Hell's Angels decided to play policemen -- an irony that would become a deadly omen -- they began shoving everybody offstage who didn't look like a member of the Stones or the Dead. Things were definitely turning violent. Greg Rollie, then the organist with Santana, and the band's conga player, Michael Carabello, suddenly picked me up by each arm and lifted me into their equipment truck, which was parked adjacent to the small makeshift stage. They quickly shut the doors, and the three of us quietly sat in the truck for more than an hour, mumbling a curse when the threats of the Hell's Angels aimed at the crowd outside became too loud to ignore.
Santana -- like the Airplane, the Dead, and Big Brother & the Holding Company -- had helped create the music-love-peace vibe that was now slowly, violently being aborted outside the door. "We have met the enemy, and he is us" was a mantra repeated by one of the kind, concerned Santana members inside the truck.
When the Stones finally came on late that evening, it had grown dark and cold, but the crowd greeted the band with an enthusiastic roar. The Angels suddenly shifted their attention from the few people, myself included, standing at the back of the stage to the student and hippie types moving toward the front.
There's a shot in Gimme Shelter in which a Hell's Angel stares intently at Jagger, who was wearing a scarf, purple tights, and what appears to be a long, extended T-shirt. The Angel's expression indicated that Jagger actually was the person he'd like to beat up ... or worse. (Comments including the word "faggot" were overhead, if memory serves well.) Watching the other Angels hovering around the stage, it soon became apparent that few of them had ever heard the Stones' music before.
Meanwhile Jagger was having a difficult time getting his rhythm. Being closest to the crowd (almost eye-level, thanks to the small stage) he could see the Angels shoving and confronting people. After pleading a couple of times for the people to "Be cool, brothers and sisters," Jagger was surprised to be confronted not by an Angel but by an bandmate. Keith Richards poked his finger hard in Jagger's chest and shouted: "Just keep singing and dancing 'cause that's what you're here to do!" Then Richards pushed the stunned singer aside, grabbed the microphone, and yelled to the crowd: "Cool it or you ain't gonna hear no more fuckin' music!"