Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination, in it’s new Wednesday timeslot. Tonight I am picking up where we left off on the Altamont Free Concert of December 6th 1969. Last week I took you through a shaggy dog tale about a 1972 television interview on the Dick Cavett show which caught my attention (FYI if you ever find yourself with a little time to kill his show makes for great watching). Tonight I want to look into how, and why the concert came about.
Now, when you think big, open air concerts in 1969, generally people think of another gig – one which has taken on legendary proportions – a little thing which came to be known as Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly had to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain people danced, got high – some involuntarily, put flowers in their hair. It took on the aura of being the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.
Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-pottys. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been a huge food problem – there was none put on. There was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. Pete Townshend beat up a stage invader with his guitar. In the aftermath the people of Bethel got rid of their town supervisor for letting the concert go ahead, at their first opportunity. They were not happy with all that peace, love and music. A couple of musicians playing the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however – not long after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to talk about staging a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. While spit-balling ideas the idea to include the Grateful Dead – another band to play Woodstock – and The Rolling Stones – if anyone is unsure who they are? They were arguably the 2nd biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, was suggested. Both bands signed up. The Stones likely because they had been criticized for their high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA (this was to be a free concert, thus buying them some atonement). The Grateful Dead? Well they gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They had played the other two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. They also had, by most accounts a shocker of a set at Woodstock, so maybe this was to be their atonement for that?
With very little time to get the concert together the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in the actual state of California) had a large practice field that had put on large concerts, but were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park had been mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the acts on the bill. There was a scheduling problem however – The night of the 6th December Kezar Stadium – which is located in a corner of the park, was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears – if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21. This presented a logistical nightmare, to have two large activities going on there at the same time. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but they run into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front. Second, the owners were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, perhaps best known now as the creators of a lot of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my favorite of this list – Green Acres. Filmways also wanted to film and distribute the concert – but the Rolling Stones were filming a documentary film of their own, which came to be known as Gimme Shelter, so that was a no-go.
On the 4th December 1969 Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Perhaps feeling beggers can’t be choosers, or should that be You Can’t Always Get what You Want? Altamont became the site for the gig. Logistically it was far from perfect – like Woodstock it had far too few toilets. Unlike Woodstock – oh I should add, at Woodstock there were medical tents galore – full of people who had cut feet, and many kids on bad acid trips, and legend has it a few kids who had burnt their eyeballs from staring into the sun while high – there was little room for medical tents at Altamont.
The stage was too low, something which meant that security would have to be situated, in force up front of the stage – just to stop fans from falling forwards onto the stage.
Now, onto security – As much as Mr Wyman had criticized the police presence up front at concerts on the Dick Cavett interview that started this tale, it would be The Hells Angels who were to provide security for the concert. They were hardly new to this kind of work, and had done security for many of the acts other shows before without incident. However a couple of other things may have added to the mix to make Altamont the mess it was. First, their agreement to handle security was pretty loose. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stated
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”. There is a good chance they had no idea how much they would be required to do, at the poorly set out venue. They also agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now – a fair amount really if provided in bulk, say in kegs?
OK, we’ve hit the 1,000 – 1,500 word mark, I will pick this up next Wednesday. It totally jumps out at me this topic, Spring Heeled Jack, and John Frum are all longer form and really should have been made as podcasts – after this one (and by my reckoning there will be 2 more parts, what actually happened, and a look into the real story of Meredith Hunter) I’ll start doing some shorter topics… then on the weeks in between the Podcasts! Just to update I am recording ‘Rough Men Stand Ready’ this weekend, hope to get the revamped ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ done early next week, “Shoot you are only going to kill a man” I hope to have ready to go by the following weekend. Hopefully a few more scripts written ahead of launch too… these are only working titles by the way.
See you all next week, meantime please like, share, comment. – Simone
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode
Originally posted 12th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow