Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Gimme Shelter (1970)--The Rolling Stones & "The Long Ugly Shadow of Altamont"

We don't police things. We're not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun." --Sweet William, Hells Angels Member, 1969. 

"When I think about that kid getting murdered at Altamont, I think, it could have been me."--Mick Jagger   




From an article by John Burks in a  February 1970 issue of "Rolling Stone" magazine, called "Rock and Roll's Worst Day" (December 6, 1969).


The violence," Keith Richards told the London Evening Standard, "just in front of the stage was incredible. Looking back I don't think it was a good idea to have Hell's Angels there. But we had them at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead. "The trouble is it's a problem for us either way. If you don't have them to work for you as stewards, they come anyway and cause trouble. "But to be fair, out of the whole 300 Angels working as stewards, the vast majority did what they were supposed to do, which was to regulate the crowds as much as possible without causing any trouble. But there were about ten or twenty who were completely out of their minds -- trying to drive their motorcycles through the middle of the crowds.

"Really, the difference between the open air show we held here in Hyde Park and the one there is amazing. I think it illustrates the difference between the two countries. In Hyde Park everybody had a good time, and there was no trouble. You can put half a million young English people together and they won't start killing each other. That's the difference."


Of course, most of the 300,000 spectators who came to Altamont--a rundown racetrack about forty miles from San Francisco in a large bowl surrounded then by grassy hills of no particular visual allure-- that weekend weren't involved in any violence, and there was no fatalities caused by violence at the major music festival near Woodstock, New York, in the Summer of that turbulent year, 1969.   A  difference--the major difference--between Woodstock and Altamont was the presence of several chapters of the San Francisco Bay Area "Hell's Angels". 

The Hyde Park Concert, a memorial of sorts for founding Stone member Brian Jones who died mysteriously a few months before the "Gimme Shelter" Tour--utilized a British chapter of the biker club.  But the American chapter was much more savage. The Stones had  seen some rough business at their concerts before--their first band manager, Andrew Oldham, used to try to get people in an uproar by sureprticiously knocking a policeman's hat off to incite other members of the crowd to get rowdy (as if Mick Jagger's star power and theatricality weren't enough.) But even the police in America wanted little as possible to do with these bad asses. Whoever recommended the Angels to "The Stones" or The Grateful Dead group--who ok'ed the presence of the gang as some type of security, then refused to show up after the violence broke out--made a terrible mistake in thinking that a beer-soaked  and hard-drug addled bunch of self-proclaimed outlaws with Nazi insignias tat-toed on their bodies-- would mix well with a group of free spirited rock lovers and hippies. 

 Dozens of people--men and women-- were clubbed and beaten by the Angels and one man, Meredith Hunter , was stabbed to death after he foolishly brandished a  long-barreled gun.  (A jury in Oakland, California, later determined that the man accused of the killing had acted in self-defense.  Two others died after being run over by apparent accident,  one man was found drowned in an irrigation  ditch.

A later friend of mine, who had hitch-hiked fifty miles to the concert while being all of  fifteen, saw the dead man being pulled from the water. Luckily she was far enough away from the stage to not experience the extreme behavior of the Angels.

She is still a major Stones fan, and saw them play on their last US tour when it stopped in the Bay Area.    

  The last time I drove by the Altamont Pass area there was nothing there but a jagged cluster of giant turbine windmills catching a bit of natural power on the treeless hillsides.   You wouldn't anything had ever happened there--all Altamont is a little bit of boring wind-blown nothingness.  Were, for many,  that it had always been so.       


  1. This event - or Watergate, depending - marked the End of the Sixties. It was huge in its day, and it's huge now.

    Good post, Doug!

  2. I agree, Astra, Watergate was the real end of the Sixties for me.

    I remember this on the local news back when I was nine and growing up in San Jose. I saw the film on television a couple years later, and a couple times since. Thanks.

  3. My history seems to be confused here. Watergate happened in early to mid 70's,The 60's were well over by then. Kent State made sure of that

  4. The Rolling Stones were being a tad irresponsible. They hired an outlaw gang for security. What did they expect


    I have built a blog about this stuff and it keeps getting bigger - I think you guys will enjoy the star trek video in the comments - I never get tried of watching it

    ROCK ON !

  6. You're right, Fred, the Watergate thing was between 72-74 of course. It just seemed to me that Nixon'sd resingnation was the capstone to an era of roughly a decade that began with the JFK assassination--a sort of period of youthful rebellion and conservative "law and order" counter-reaction that kind of just losr its momentum after August of 1974.

    You could make a strong case for a lot of points where teh Sixties ended culturally. It seemed to me to go a couple years past the Seventies to me. The Altamont ugliness was just at the chronological end of the period so some might choose that or another point or event.

  7. I guess their manager really didn't so his homework if you ask me.-- And, yes, The Stones bear some blame here, as the documentary film I think points out. They should have got together (all these mega-groups) and got proper security together. or just called the damn thing off.
    The stage was set up very badly as well, too close to the crowds and too low for people to see well from the back; that contributed to the chaotic nature of the mix of performers, Angels, and the crowd. Nobody really was in charge of security; that's the final rub.

    Other bands were there, too, of course and what were the Bay Area groups like the Airplane thinking? The other thing to me is "where the heck was the Alameda County Sheriffs when all this was going down for hours???" The violence had begun hours before The Stones took to the stage. I guess I'll have to get more details on this, but the main points I've blogged about seem to be what most sources agree upon.

  8. He certainly seems to be godlike in his playing and his physical stamina.

  9. An excellent blog it is Goodstuff. You are one cool white rabbit. Thanks for the link.

  10. You know it's funny how the Beatles discovered them and they came to be the "bad beatles" in a sense. How as time has passed on since this era and with the exception of Kieth, for the most part they have mellowed out. I watched a special on this and I can stand to be corrected Doug but the Hell's Angels were hired by the band's manager and seemingly the Stones were always known to be to into themselves, I forget the name of the original bass player Bill Wyman never was into what the band was doing and it's literally something that they have surpassed time. I love some of their songs but I never really thought that they would last this long as they have.

    I recall one remark in the early 90's where Mick indicated that "you know when we are out there I could literally say something and everyone would do it it's kind of scary to think of it." It was the beginning of the end of that era but yet they made a come back and have kept on going ever since. It amazes me.

  11. Frank he must be as what he has put his body through...

  12. There was a deal, Jack, but , according to the book "Blown Away"by A.E. Hotchner, there was never any of the band managers who came forward and admitted they hired The Hells' Angels---who were likely coming anyway. But that book was written in the Eighties, so more of the story might be known now. The fact is no act or celebrity could control The Angels. They acted like storm-troopers on bad acid. They should have hired football players, which is what The Beatles manager did when they played San Francisco in 1966.

    As long as it was just rock fans and hippies smoking pot and throwing frisbees around, things were cool. Exclude the Hell's Angels---somehow--and it would have been a few bad drug overdoses but not a history-making nightmare.

  13. Keith Richards looks like he is older than God. I think he died but someone forgot to tell his body

  14. I saw on the tube rocking out with Tina Turner during the LiveAid Concerts--my friends and I all agreed he'd be dead in five years. That was in 1985!

  15. I saw Richards on the tube rocking out with Tina Turner during the LiveAid Concerts--my friends and I all agreed he'd be dead in five years. That was in 1985!

  16. One of the darkest days in the history of the Rolling Stones Doug. The Altamont murder was a precursor of the end of the party, which was finally killed off by Charles Manson, although both events were indeed a 'microcosm' as the voice-over says in this clip. Vietnam and Cambodia were taking their toll, violence was in the air, this was the 'come down' to the 'high' of 1967.

  17. Well put, AA. A lot had changed in America from the pall after the Kennedy assassination to the flowering of a new spirit of young people rejecting a war and the suit-and-tie formalism. Younger people from Berkeley to London and Paris and Prague and a lot of places in between demonstrated in 67-68 that another way was possible. For stopping a war. For ending racism. For letting walls come down. For people to just be happy to be alive and not afraid of what the neighbors might think.
    But, in retrospect, that spirit seemed to ebb away just as quickly in a haze of brutality like this diaster at an old race track in northern California. It also manifested itself from homicidal cultists, conscripted Soviets in tanks, napalm and B-52s, bikers with weighted pool cues and knives. All sorts of angry people commanding a few or an army, all with the same mission: to incite terror and the triumph of the death instinct over the celebration of being alive.

  18. That must have been a terrifying sight, Hells Angels driving into the crowd and the people having no where to go!
    For a band on the stage, they must have felt pretty helpless. There's always a few people who spoil what should be a great time for everyone.

  19. Agreed. How maddening it must have been for those who simply wanted to prove people could gather in peace and enjoy a gift from so many popular musicians.

    Altamont very well could have been remembered fondly as a great moment in rock culture, Cassandra. Instead what was undoubtedly well-entended became a dark memory of extreme hooliganism. I had an aquaintance in California who was died 20 years ago because he made the terrible mistake of getting mixed up with a division of the Hell's Angels.

    Not all motor-bikers club members in America are bad people--some I've read about in my local paper today ("Cruizers for Christ") donated clothes and toys for homeless children in my part of Oregon and their families--the need is especially great this year.

    Some very sketchy-looking people can have big hearts, as you might know; just not this bunch above.

  20. Yes, I agree we can't judge all Hells Angels by the actions of those who just want to create mayhem. Quite often it's just kind of uniform where like minded people identify themselves. I'm afraid in all elements of life there are the spoilers and those who simply get on with the crowd whoever they are and make allowances for each other. I suppose a parent has to hope their child finds the right people.

    Sorry about your friend Doug. The trouble is, sometimes the wrong people seem to be the right ones and we have to get to know them before we find that out, there lies the danger!

    I guess I must have been a level headed teenager, or simply boring, as I could never see the point in drugs. Life seems pretty good to me without any help. I do feel drugs and drink account for much behaviour that ends out of control.

    What a shame Altamont had that chance of memories of wonderful event taken away from them. Let's face it, it could happen anywhere!

    Thank you, Doug.

  21. I never got much out of drugs either, Cassandra. In my experience it has been the straw that breaks the camel's back (for a time at least) for too many people I've cared about.
    If the cops don't get you, it appears, the harder drugs or about of alcoholism leads to rehab and all sorts of bother.

    I've seen people getting by skating on the edge of that crazy world--for awhile. That gave me all the lessons I've needed.

    And, yes, I believe Altamont could happened again most anywhere precautions aren't made. Bad human nature has no respect for borders.