Altamont, part one: That Dick Cavett interview…

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and imagination. Apologies ahead of time if this feels like a little too much of a teaser – this tale will be at least 2 parts, possibly 3. The upside however is I will be writing part 2 on Wednesday night… come hell or high water…. or another thunder storm knocking out my Google Mesh system, like it did this Wednesday just passed. I did have something else in mind for this week’s topic, but I was watching recordings of the Dick Cavett show on YouTube a few weeks ago and this jumped out at me. The episode in question was filmed in 1972. In one scene Dick is backstage at Madison Square Garden just prior to a show by the Rolling Stones. This was their first tour back in the USA since 1969. Dick Cavett is interviewing Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, and he clearly has a topic on his mind that he must discuss.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?”
Wyman replies he is just tired. Cavett asks him would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett goes in for
“You’re still protected from the…” at which point Wyman either lets Cavett know his pause was an enjambement…. or maybe he just doesn’t want to talk about who he is still protected from, telling him he is just a little tired this tour.
Not done yet Cavett asks “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?” Wyman replies
“Just the energy…”
Dick Cavett changes tack somewhat. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause
“No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know”
“Was there much of that this time?”
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.”
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble”
Then Dick Cavett moves in, subtly in his deindividuation “the guys in the group” but all the same, he’s moving in for the kill just as surely as Tom Cruise’s Lt Kaffee swooped in on Jack Nicholson’s Col Jessup in A Few Good Men. This is his “Did you order the Code Red?” moment.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?”

“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”

Now this little segment made me sit right up and reach for the tablet. Ok play that right back. Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to an unknown other as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall the February 20th 2003 concert at the Station night club, Rhode Island where a fire started from malfunctioning pyrotechnics, set fire to the club, causing the deaths of 100 people and injury of a further 230? It puts me off.

What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is that he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There is a look on his face like that day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards had similarly gone on record to downplay the incident, but it was rumoured that during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security”, oh and we are not talking about the police, sought revenge.

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were all on the bill too. The Grateful Dead were supposed to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to get up there. Marty Balin, vocalist of Jefferson Airplane getting punched out by security was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin”.

“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness”.
I can get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”

Sorry folks, I did warn you – quite a long intro and we’ve only just scratched the surface. I will be back to do part two THIS COMING WEDNESDAY!!! If my Google mesh has another freak out I will be typing this on the free Wifi at the Mobil station if I have to. Next episode talk of greed, security, free beer and the tragic story of the young man in the green suit, one Meredith Hunter.

This Tale is part one of a four part series. To read the rest of this story click here for parts two, three and four.

This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

Originally posted 9th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

3 thoughts on “Altamont, part one: That Dick Cavett interview…

  1. Pingback: Altamont Part Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want | Tales of History and Imagination

  2. Pingback: Altamont, Part Three: A large visible space… | Tales of History and Imagination

  3. Pingback: Altamont, Part Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter. | Tales of History and Imagination

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