The Grateful Dead may be icons of the peace and love generation, but a new book reveals the band’s key role in the ill-fated Altamont free music festival, an infamous 1969 concert stained by violence, bloodshed and death.
“Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day” (Dey Street, $27.99), available Aug. 16, by San Francisco pop music writer Joel Selvin is the first book-length account of the disastrous 1969 concert that became symbolic of the flower children’s loss of innocence and marked the ugly end to the idealism of the ’60s. Pulling no punches, Selvin lays the blame for the nightmare of Altamont at the feet of Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.
“The simple truth is that the Stones were in charge of the concert, with Mick Jagger making the calls behind the scenes,” he writes. “Without question, San Francisco was the center of the rock music universe in 1969. And they were trying to latch on to the allure of the San Francisco music scene.”
But the Stones could not have pulled Altamont off without the help and endorsement of the Grateful Dead. It was Rock Scully, the well-meaning but flighty manager of the Dead, who first convinced the Stones to play a free concert in the Bay Area to climax their U.S. tour. And they went along with his suggestion that the Dead’s friends in the Hells Angels provide security.
A longtime rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Selvin puts the story of Altamont in the context of that time, when the Dead, just four years after their founding as the Warlocks, were little known outside the Bay Area.
“They were fresh-faced young pups at that point who had barely left town,” he says in a phone interview this week.
The year before, the band had split from their Victorian digs in the Haight Ashbury and relocated in Marin County. Many of the planning meetings, if they can be called that, for the free show took place at drummer Mickey Hart’s ranch in Novato.
“The ranch quickly became a focal point of the Northern California music scene,” Selvin writes. “Hells Angels, dope dealers and Indian medicine men hung out with the musicians and were welcome. … The mixture of characters on the ranch could not have mirrored the band’s personality better. By the summer of 1969, the Grateful Dead had become a disorganized, anarchistic group of chemically altered contrarians.”
Hastily staged at derelict auto racetrack in the treeless hills beside the Altamont Pass in Tracy, Altamont was just a few months after the Dead, Santana, the Jefferson Airplane and other emerging San Francisco bands had performed in the historic lovefest that was Woodstock.
“This was no Woodstock,” Selvin writes.
Much of the equipment for the concert was flown in by helicopter from the Dead’s Pepto Bismol-pink warehouse in a strip mall on the edge of Novato’s Hamilton Air Force Base, Selvin notes. But that was for the bands. There was hardly a thought given to the needs of the music fans. There was no food available at the site, no water, scant medical care and just 100 portable toilets for a crowd that grew to 300,000 — about the size of the city of Fresno.
But there was plenty of alcohol and bad drugs that everyone seemed to be consuming in copious amounts, Selvin says, especially the Hells Angels, who went on a pool-cue-wielding rampage during the show, assaulting musicians and members of the stage crew and cracking the heads of anyone foolish enough to storm the stage. Selvin points out that the stage itself was only 4-feet high, much too low for an event of that magnitude, and not easily defensible against the surging crowd.
TERROR IN THE AIR
When 18-year-old Meredith Hunter pulled a handgun to defend himself against the bikers, one of them stabbed him five times while his leather-clad cohorts beat him senseless. He died at the scene. The slaying happened within sight of the stage as the Stones played “Under My Thumb.” Selvin recalled hearing the terror in the air in a chilling audio recording of the Stones’ set.
“The band was playing great, but there was no applause at the end of the songs, just screaming,” he says. “You can hear it clearly, even through the music — screams of fear and horror. And when the music stops, there is no applause, but the screaming continues.”
Captured on film, the killing became the horrifying climax of “Gimme Shelter,” a documentary that chronicles the Stones tour.
“The movie is great, but it’s inadequate,” Selvin says. “It wasn’t a journalistic enterprise, although people mistake it for one.”
‘LIKE A PIRATE CREW’
While the Grateful Dead were still scuffling in 1969, the Rolling Stones were one of the biggest rock bands in the world. But they hadn’t played in the U.S. for three years, and desperately needed money.
“They were completely broke,” Selvin says. “That’s why they did the U.S. tour. I saw a folder of unpaid bills from that tour. They didn’t pay anybody. They just left hotels without checking out. They stiffed their travel agents. They were just like a pirate crew.”
The free concert might have turned out differently if it had been staged in Golden Gate Park, as originally planned. The Dead and the other bands responsible for making San Francisco’s psychedelic rock the-sound-heard-round-the-world played free shows in the Haight-Ashbury Panhandle routinely in the halcyon days of the so-called Summer of Love. As a popular local band, the Dead had friendly relationships with officials in the city’s parks department and thought there would be no problem in getting a free show approved for Golden Gate Park.
“They had that wired,” Selvin says.
But the Stones mistakenly believed their growing fame would impress city leaders, and decided to seek a permit for the show on their own through Mayor Joseph Alioto. By that time, though, “the cracks in the counterculture were beginning to show,” Selvin writes. The mayor, who had no affection for hippies, predictably turned down the Stones request.
So, just four days before the free concert was scheduled to take place, the bands were still without a site. That is until someone came up with the idea to use Sears Point Raceway (formerly Infineon, now Sonoma Raceway) in Sonoma County, not far from the Dead’s Novato headquarters. Sears Point was easily accessible and had all the amenities needed to accommodate large crowds. The people who ran the raceway gave their approval, and crews were at work building the stage and setting up the sound equipment. But the track’s new corporate owners, Los Angeles-based Filmways, got wind that the Stones were making a movie of the concert and wanted a piece of the action. When Jagger turned them down, the company withdrew permission to use its racetrack.
The 11th hour At the 11th hour, Altamont Speedway became available. Selvin describes it as “a godforsaken patch of scrubby land.” But it was that or nothing. And they had a scant 36 hours to build the stage and sound system and ready the place for what was to be the Western Woodstock. As we now know, it was a disaster in the making.
Despite the threatening conditions, all the bands on the bill but one played the show — Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers. The Jefferson Airplane struggled through their set even though singer Marty Balin was cold cocked twice by a Hells Angel. When the Dead showed up and saw that a couple of their crew members had been roughed up and heard about what had happened to Balin, they “scurried out of the speedway with their tail between their legs,” Selvin writes. To their credit, he adds, “Rather than run and hide, the Dead absorbed Altamont as a lesson.”
Seeking solace in music, the band released “Workingman’s Dead” four months later. A mostly acoustic album of Americana-style songs, including “Uncle John’s Band,” “Casey Jones” and “Cumberland Blues,” it harkened back to their Palo Alto folk roots and was a radical departure from the improvisational psychedelic rock they’d been playing before Altamont. “Workingman’s Dead” would be ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
“The only thing for them to do was to turn to the warmth and coziness of acoustic music and the ‘Workingman’s Dead’ sound, which was antithetical to what they were doing before,” Selvin says. “I can’t help but see ‘Workingman’s Dead’ as a kind of reaction to Altamont.”