8 Dec 2019

'The Rolling Stones were never the same band after Altamont'

From Sunday Morning, 11:09 am on 8 December 2019

It's been 50 years since the infamous December 1969 free concert by the Rolling Stones at Altamont Speedway.

It was a gig that is remembered for all the wrong reasons, including the death of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed by a Hells Angels member.

Altamont - Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger at Altamont - there was no front of house lights - only back lights - so the Rolling Stones could see the mass toxic psychosis and violence. Photo: Beth Bagby

The story behind the catastrophic concert doesn't paint the Stones in a particularly flattering light.

Veteran rock writer Joel Selvin is the author of the book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day.

He told Jim Mora that many unfortunate things coalesced on that day.

“Altamont was such a toxic combination of greed, innocence and an incredible convergence of symbolic things, you know, the killing of Meredith Hunter, the black guy with his blonde white girlfriend by the racist Hells Angels in front of the Rolling Stones in December of 1969. You know, it's all so fraught with symbolism I'm afraid.”

Despite all the signs that the free concert, which aimed to continue the buzz of Woodstock earlier in the year, would be a disaster – the organisers pushed on.

“The amazing thing, I kept waiting for them to have a lucky break, a good bounce, you know, just something to go right in the whole planning of this thing, and nothing went right – nothing. And people yet nevertheless ignoring that press forward and persist.”

Selvin believes a mixture of hippie naivete and rock god arrogance fuelled this mistaken confidence that it would all come together.

“There was a kind of arrogance of power coming from the Rolling Stones camp where they felt like that they were omnipotent and anything that they commanded could be made possible.

“I think the myth of Woodstock was very prevalent in the air, it had only been a few months. All those elements combined plus a lot of cultural and sub-cultural and political and even astrological things were all converging on the Altamont raceway on December 6, 1969.”

The concert was originally to be held in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, Selvin says. It was to star The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane with the Stones announced as surprise guests a day before the show.

The Grateful Dead had a relationship with the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels, who had provided security for previous rock concerts.

“The San Francisco chapter was considerably more civilised than the other chapters. They did business with the rock bands, they hung out backstage, there were there was a sense of camaraderie with the San Francisco Haight Ashbury community by the San Francisco chapter.

“Not so the San Jose chapter, which was a brand new group that was formed six months before after a vicious turf war. And San Jose is like 60 miles south of San Francisco, but it really wasn't part of the of the hippie subculture was much more still like, you know, Archie comic books.”

It was the San Jose Hells Angels chapter who were stood in front of the stage while the Stones played armed with pool cues, Selvin says.

“And a lot of those were prospects, not full members, and they were trying to impress the initiates with their derring-do and wherewithal with those pool cues. “

As the Stones launched into ‘Under my Thumb’, Hunter tries to get on the stage, the Hells Angels start beating him up and Hunter pulls a gun.

“Hunter was an 18-year-old African American and he met this girl Patty Bredehoft a very pretty young Berkeley girl blonde and they had a relationship - he was known as Murdoch and used to hang around the park across the street from Berkeley High and sell marijuana in $5 match boxes to people - you know a street guy.

“And he's been out the whole night before, running around with a friend of his, shooting speed and you know, doing who knows what, they get to the concert they walk off from where he leaves the car he turns around says ‘Hang on a second’ goes back to the car and pulls out a hand gun his girlfriend didn't know he even owned.”

Fast forward to the concert, Hunter is being beaten by four Hells Angels, he pulls the gun and another chapter member Allen Pissaro sees this and stabs Hunter in the neck and back.

A dying Hunter was carried to the stage, Selvin says.

“A couple of guys managed to pick up his body and stagger all the way to the stage. They put it down on the stage right in front of Keith Richards, and everybody on the stage is at that moment aware of this.

“They've denied that for 50 years, but I have very good witness testimony to the opposite. And I have a photograph of it, so it happened.”

The whole concert was marred by violence and what the argot of the day would have as a bad vibe, Selvin says.

“I suspect a vast percentage of that audience was on drugs. There were a lot of really savage psychedelics circulating that day. And a lot of people that I spoke to reported getting accidentally dosed, because it was circulating around in orange juice containers and stuff like that, several people on the film crew reported being dosed accidentally.

“A lot of people backstage got dosed. And out there in the crowd I think, you know, it had to have been tens of thousands of people on psychedelics.

“I think that the role of drugs in Altamont is one of the unexplored elements of the equation. And in many ways, I think there was a mass toxic psychosis going on there. In sort of street parlance, you know, everybody was on a bad trip. It was not a groovy vibration. It was a bad trip.”

Received mythology is that the innocence of the 60s died at Altamont, Selvin doesn’t buy into that.

“Altamont wasn't the end of the 60s, it was December of 1969, but it wasn't really the end of anything. It wasn't the end of the counterculture. It wasn't end of the underground, it wasn't the end of the Rolling Stones, it wasn't the end of the Hells Angels or the Grateful Dead - it wasn't even the end of free concerts in the park.

“So I don't know where we come up with summing up this whole incredible decade of torment and tumult and turbulence as saying that this debacle, this catastrophic concert was the finale of the 60s. I don't see that at all.”

Although it did mark a point at which the Rolling Stones withdrew into themselves, Selvin says.

“After Altamont they were a changed band,they were never the same band. I don't think they were ever as fearless and fierce and unyielding again.

“And that was the Stones in October of 1969 at the crest of that tour, at that the cusp of some kind of extraordinary greatness, where, you know, a little bit like Icarus and Daedalus, they got too close to the sun.”