Book Review: Altamont by Joel Selvin

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Nearly half a century has passed since the 1969 disaster that was California’s riotous Altamont Speedway Free Festival, the bizarro-world Woodstock that claimed the lives of four of its attendees.  The racetrack where five of the world’s most notable rock bands played to an audience of delirious acid trippers and rowdy biker gangs now sits abandoned at the border of Alameda and San Joaquin counties, visible from Interstate-580.

For a generation of West Coast music fans, memories of Altamont have refused to go away. In 1970, the classic concert documentary Gimme Shelter transmitted the horror of the day’s events to the wider world, establishing the failed concert, alongside the Manson murders of the same year, as the symbolic end of the hippie era, uncovering the latent madness and violence within the drugged innocence of the flower children.

In the comprehensively researched Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day (Dey Street Books), the veteran rock critic and Potrero Hill resident Joel Selvin points out the significant bias of Gimme Shelter, which was produced in partnership with its subjects, the Rolling Stones. Selvin, who wrote a weekly music column for the San Francisco Chronicle from 1972 to 2009, lays most of the blame for the free concert’s fiasco at the Stones’ feet, but not before creating the most complex and detailed portrait yet of the backstage chaos and cultural volatility that climaxed at Altamont.

Selvin may not fully untangle the mess of managers, promoters, drug dealers, and hangers-on who populate his chronicle of the wild days before the rock and roll business became “a smooth science,” but his Altamont is a fascinating tale of two bands: the Rolling Stones of London and the Grateful Dead of San Francisco. “Without question,” he writes, “San Francisco was the center of the rock music universe in 1969.” It was a place where “impromptu performances” by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane “had the hippie girls dancing barefoot in the park.” Presiding over the Haight-Ashbury scene was a group of authentic countercultural saints led by Jerry Garcia.

Meanwhile, half a decade after the British Invasion, at the height of their artistic powers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were cash-poor, preparing to embark on a price-gouging U.S. tour. But they’d heard about the free concerts in Golden Gate Park, and, with the help of the Dead, planned one of their own, a calculated gesture of generosity to cap off a month of sold-out arena shows.

In Selvin’s view, the concert that became Altamont was essentially an act of cultural appropriation, with dire consequences. Eager to restore their status at the vanguard of youth culture after missing Woodstock, the Rolling Stones latched onto the free-concert model pioneered by the Dead, but their agenda was more pragmatic, their approach careless.

Their aggressive negotiation tactics cost them their preferred San Francisco venue.  When the company that owned their next choice, the Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, realized that the Stones’ planned “charitable concert” was in fact a profit-driven enterprise—insofar as it existed to serve as the centerpiece for their major motion picture, Gimme Shelter—they demanded a large fee, plus film distribution rights.

At the zero hour, the Stones changed the site to a bleak East Bay landscape of “rusted cars, oil stains, and broken glass.” Where Sears Point had come equipped with “parking for one hundred thousand cars, toilets, concession stands, water, electricity,” and a security force, the Altamont Speedway was merely “a dump at the end of the earth.” With just 36 hours remaining, there was no time to upgrade its facilities, and the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club—hired as security by the Stones, in imitation of the Dead, with whom the outlaws of the San Francisco chapter were on friendly terms—was trusted to supervise a crowd of 300,000. What the Stones didn’t realize was that, by changing the event’s location, they’d moved the concert outside the jurisdiction of the “relatively civilized bunch” of bikers who had helped out at previous San Francisco festivals.

Selvin hopes to humanize the Angels, long scapegoated for the violence at Altamont, but the barbarism of the San Jose chapter in particular—which attacked both concertgoers and performers—is inescapable. In his blunt prose, Selvin conjures a spooky sense of foreboding as his multi-pronged account of the day—which jumps impressively from one perspective to another, incorporating musicians, fans, journalists, filmmakers, and the Hells Angels—closes in on the infamous murder of the black teenager, Meredith Hunter. Although Selvin’s history contextualizes the concert within a hippie movement already tainted by the time of Woodstock by the proliferation of poorly manufactured LSD, political disagreements, and racial strife, his book also elaborates on Altamont’s ghoulish legend; its “bad vibes.” The Dead picked up on them; they bailed on Altamont before ever taking the stage.

Ironically, in Selvin’s opinion, Altamont was also the Rolling Stones’ finest hour as performers. For all his disapproval, he gives the Stones’ one-of-a-kind greatness its due, and notes that, at Altamont, they “played as if their lives depended on it.” The terror of the concert created a real-world instantiation of the otherwise playful satanic visions of Jagger and Richards; the band “channeled their fear and anxiety into the music. Jagger’s vocals were razor-edged, not the kind of loopy exaggerations he often lapsed into at large concerts.” For once, he “was singing like he meant it.” The Stones went darker than they’d ever wanted to go, and never went there again.