First of an occasional series on major FUBARs in music history…
I stumbled across Gimme Shelter on the tube last night and watched it for like the 85th time. It’s the documentary film about the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones Altamont concert debacle, and I came away with the same thought I always have when I watch that movie—what the fuck were the Stones thinking?!? Sure, it was a nice gesture on their part to try to stage a free concert, but the band was very naïve to think that it would be like "Woodstock West" or "Monterey Pop, The Sequel". First off, Woodstock wasn’t as peachy as people make it out to be—the organizers there really pushed their luck and were damn lucky it didn’t turn into an epic catastrophe, and The Stones were just about as lucky that Altamont didn’t turn out worse than it actually was.
The show was destined to be a disaster from the start because they kept changing the location for it. Two or three different sites were considered, including Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, but the concert got moved around for various reasons, and at the last minute one Dick Carter offered up his Altamont Speedway, located about 40 miles east of the Bay Area, in exchange for the free publicity, although I have no idea what the hell for—the speedway was dormant, and NASCAR wasn't a terribly big sensation at the time. Anyway, with less than 48 hours’ notice, the show was moved to a hill outside this racetrack with totally inadequate toilet and electrical facilities, not to mention inadequate accessibility by car for 100,000 people, and it appeared to be every bit the clusterfuck to get to that Woodstock was.
Okay, I have a couple questions. First off, why would you schedule on outdoor concert in Northern California in December?!? The Bay Area is frigid enough in summertime—why in blue blazes would you do an outdoor show during the holiday season? Seems to me that L.A. or sunny San Diego might’ve been a tad more comfy for this one. Secondly, how fucking dumb do you gotta be to hire the Hell’s Angels to provide "security"? Ever hear of that "inmates running the asylum" analogy? Good rule of thumb: Avoid hiring anyone who wants to be paid in beer, but if you do so, do not pay them until after they’ve done the job, not while they're doing it!!!
The concert was just a total disaster, of course. The sound system was totally inadequate for the size of the crowd, and food, water and toilets were an afterthought. Patience became just as scarce as the food, water and toilets not long after the show began, and fights broke out all over, many of them involving the "security people." In addition to the Stones, the bill included Santana, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane, but only the latter two acts (plus the Stones) are shown during the film. The Grateful Dead was also scheduled to play between JA and the Stones on the bill, but when Jerry Garcia got word of the fisticuffs between the Airplane’s Marty Balin and the "security people" (see film) and the nasty vibe of the whole thing in general, the Dead high-tailed it outta there. Oh, did I mention that drugs played a part in all this? Drugs are bad, mmm-kay?
Just to make things worse, the Stones’ set was delayed because bassist Bill Wyman was unable to get to the venue in a timely manner, thus, it was dark and even colder by the time Mick and the boys hit the stage, and the already-agitated crowd and "security people" were downright rabid. As documented in the film, the Stones’ set was marred with constant interruptions caused by fights breaking out right and left in front of the stage. Jagger tried to quell the violence by pleading with the crowd to chill out, but it did little good. The girl right at the edge of the stage staring at Mick with tears in her eyes pretty much reflected the ugliness that went on that night, culminating in the stabbing death (caught on camera) of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter at the hands of one of the "security people". A tragedy, to be sure, but it wasn’t totally unjustified, either. Hunter brandished a handgun—not a particularly bright move for a black guy dressed like a leprechaun pimp in the middle of a huge crowd of predominately white people. Still, I think Hunter could’ve been properly subdued with a proper security force instead of a flotilla of drunken redneck bikers. The film also didn’t mention that there were three other deaths at Altamont—two people were run over by a car, and another person drowned in a nearby drainage ditch (probably that bozo who kept crowd-surfing during the Burrito Brothers' set). Just an ugly, ugly event, as well as a black eye for Rock ‘N’ Roll—so much for all that tree-hugging hippie utopia crap, eh?
Still, the Altamont concert seemed strangely appropriate as more or less the closing chapter of such a turbulent and violent decade.