Let’s begin with the minority report. Keith Richard(s) says that this day’s Rolling Stones gig in Tracy, California, was “basically well-handled, but lots of people were tired and a few tempers got frayed… on the whole, a good concert.”

Pretty much everyone else seems to agree that Altamont was a clusterfuck. That’s right, I used the “c” word. I try to use it only twice a year, so powerful is it. Clusterfuck.

Like so many disasters, it all started with good intentions. Stung by criticism that the high ticket prices on their U.S. tour were counterrevolutionary — everyone had to answer to the radical left in those days, it was sort of the opposite of now — the Rolling Stones wanted to play a free concert in California. This dovetailed with a desire by San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane to do something Woodstock-ish on the West Coast. Says the Wikipedia,

The concert was originally scheduled to be held at San Jose State University’s practice field, as there had recently been a three-day outdoor free festival there with 52 bands and 80,000 attendees. Dirt Cheap Productions was asked to help secure the property again for the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead to play a free concert. The Stones and the Dead were told the city of San Jose was not in the mood for another large concert and the grounds were out of bounds. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was next on the list. However, a previously scheduled Chicago Bears–San Francisco 49ers football game at Kezar Stadium, located in Golden Gate Park, made that venue impractical, and permits were never issued for the concert.

A deal was then made with Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, but that fell apart over financial considerations. Finally on December 5 — about 36 hours before the concert was scheduled to start — the owner of the Altamont Speedway in Tracy offered his site. And so the whole thing was thrown together with great haste and little thought; the decision to engage the Hell’s Angels to provide security, and to pay them in beer, was only the most famous of many bad calls made by the time- and cash-strapped promoters.

Among the things that went wrong at Altamont:

The stabbing death of Meredith Hunter and three accidental deaths: two caused by a hit-and-run car accident, and one by LSD-induced drowning in an irrigation canal. Scores were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage.

There had been deaths at Woodstock too, and bad acid, as well as endless mud and food shortages. But there had been no homicides, and it’s the symbolism of a concertgoer stabbed by a Hell’s Angel that made Altamont synonymous with the death of the Sixties. The fact that Hunter was completely out of his mind on speed and repeatedly trying to climb onstage while carrying a pistol, which means that the Angel was arguably doing his job, became a historical footnote. It’s not impossible to imagine an alternative reality where Mick Jagger gets shot onstage; now that would have ended the decade with a bang.

However you want to slice it, Altamont was a bad trip for everybody, excepting that rare and fortunate(?) individual who thrives on bad trips. Which is where we came in.

And the Dead never even played. Under the circumstances you can’t blame them for chickening out, but you’d think that if anyone could have cooled out the vibe, it would have been them. The Flying Burrito Brothers did their best, but they just couldn’t cut the mustard. If only the Allman Brothers had been around.

So what did The Beatles think of all this? I’d imagine they were glad they had decided to stop touring before something like that could happen to them. When you think about it, it’s amazing there wasn’t more carnage from an entire generation run amok for half a decade.

The only comment I could find was this one from John, who seems to hold the Stones to blame:

The Stones thing wasn’t set up in the same spirit or for the same end as the Woodstock thing, and the Stones thing was completely different in the way it was run and everything. It was a completely different scene. The Stones’ whole image, the whole idea, the thing they put over, wasn’t Woodstock. They have a different way of thinking, a different vibe, and that thing happened because of that.

This is a popular theory, that the lack of planning and general evil vibe brought by the Stones created a uniquely volatile situation. And maybe that’s so, I’m in no position to judge. But it’s hard to look back with a historical eye and not see Altamont as the culmination of the darkness that had been building since the Great Wave broke and rolled back — whenever that was, 66, 67?

Any way you look at it, when the smoke cleared, it was 25 days till the end of the decade. Time to figure out what to do next.

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