Hi all welcome back to my series on Altamont. Last week we looked at how the concert came about. Tonight I want to look at what actually happened at The Altamont Free Concert. The easiest way I can think of breaking it down is to think of the elements as a recipe for disaster.
First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking to find Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont? Not really. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane described the feel
“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.” And yes, it looked it, just check out the photos from the first two weeks.
Next toss in a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there is nowhere near enough in the way of toilets or medical tents. The stage could not be built up to a reasonable height, so it sat just four feet off the ground, in a dip. There were no security barriers to keep the concertgoers at a safe distance so someone took a ball of string and ran a single piece of string – not even thick string but a piece of twine – chest high, in front of the stage. To make up for the lack of barriers the Hells Angels were placed out front and centre to stop people getting too close. Initially this was by pushing them back, which escalated to punching and kicking, then on from there.
Now add to the mixture an expectation of 100,000 people, exceeded by twice this number. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels having to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.
Now last time I mentioned the Hells Angels were paid in beer, and by all accounts they were mostly drunk early on in the day, leading to impaired decision making. Early on in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed got passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of people tripping all over the place, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff at the venue treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day, leaving many a concert goer strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene. Now mix ingredients.
I don’t think I could give a blow by blow account of the day. The short version though. Santana, the first act up got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely gotten started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, and by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to try to cool things down, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd.
“Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit”
Sarcastically he addressed security “I’d like to thank you for that.”
A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel by the name of Bill Fritsch, himself apparently a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in an art film called ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and retorts
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.”
Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.”
Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.”
All the while Hells Angels trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.
Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what had just happened, and they decided they had seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.
Everyone calmed down again while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. Now to paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence would be wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and then six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. As the violence erupted during the following sets. People were beaten with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point dragged across the stage by her hair. A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.
As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett guest Bill Wyman – he had missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going to get out there and play regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set, the helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene
“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.
Ok folks, final part next week – As always, like, share, please comment 🙂 – Simone
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode
Originally posted 20th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.