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The Rolling Stones & Altamont 1969 Pt. 1

Written by Robert Byrne All Rights Reserved © Void Magazine.

December 9th 1969 is an infamous date in the history of rock and roll for all the wrong reasons. What was originally capped as Woodstock in the West turned out to be a disastrous non-policed bloodbath and crime fest. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a counterculture rock concert in the United States held just outside of Livermore, California with an approximate number of 300,000 people in attendance. Those 300,000 flocked to Altamont in the hopes of seeing history in the making but instead were left scarred by the events that took place during the event.

The attendees were hoping to catch a glimpse of the bands that were playing a set at the event. The bands that chose to feature at this event were (in order of appearance) Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby Stills, Nash & Young and headlining that powerful lineup for a free festival was the show’s main pulling power – The Rolling Stones, who chose to feature at this event due to the controversy surrounding the band as critics and fans around the United States claimed the Stones’ ticket prices for their United States tour were way too high and expensive. So to make things right the Rolling Stones felt they owed it to their fans and America to organise a free festival for the music enthusiasts around the USA. One last gig before the band packed it in and completed their USA tour. That one last gig left a scar on the band and affected their reputation negatively. Bad press surrounded them and pinned them as a group of careless delinquents, despite their true intentions of bringing folk together in a positive way to celebrate music as a collective.

Allow me to take you on a journey through Altamont 1969. Hippies, rockers and all in between made their way to the barren wasteland that was the Altamont Speedway. Originally to be held at the picturesque San Jose State University but due to complications between the state and the organisers, the concert was forced to take place in Altamont where there were now 4 days to prepare for the event.

There’s a lot that goes into preparing an event and most of it was forgotten about. No Public toilets, no medical centre, no walkways, no lights and in this case what was needed the most was policing. This event had not got enough. Due to the time frame that the event organisers had to deal with the stage design was a massive problem, instead of the stage being located on top of a rise which characterised the geography at Sears Point (the original venue), At Altamont, the stage would now be at the bottom of a slope. The stage in question was one metre high (39 Inches) There was no scaffolding involved or building equipment, upon reflection “You could probably have put another stage below it…but nobody had one,” Monck, the manager of the Rolling Stones said.

Safety for the performers was at an all-time low, with a stage being 1 metre high, no backstage area and 300,000 people surrounding the stage at all times without any area between the stage and the audience. You can question how the performers could even perform without being interrupted by crazed fans running onto the stage and putting the performers in danger. To combat this possibility the Rolling Stones management hired non-other than the Hell’s Angels to secure this event. To my surprise, the Angels had a clear record of being the security for events with the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane without any incident happening but this was not the case in Altamont. The Hell’s Angels were paid with $500 dollars worth of beer and their original orders were to make sure nobody tampered with the generators, but on the day the original orders overflowed into almost policing the event and protecting the stage and the acts.

The situation progressively deteriorated. The first act on the stage, Santana, gave a performance that generally went … smooth; however, over the course of the day, the mood of both the crowd and the Angels became progressively agitated and violent. The Angels had been drinking their free beer all day in front of the stage, and most were very drunk. The crowd had also become antagonistic and unpredictable, attacking each other, the Angels, and the performers. According to Mick Jagger in his book “Everybody’s Lucifer” the crowd seemed to calm down to any degree during a set by the country-rocking Flying Burrito Brothers. However, Denise Jewkes, lead singer of the local San Francisco rock band the Ace of Cups, six months pregnant, was hit in the head by an empty beer bottle thrown from the crowd and suffered a skull fracture. The Stones later paid for all of Jewkes’ ambulance and medical services. As a result, The Angels proceeded to arm themselves with sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains to drive the crowd further back from the stage.

Do you think this disaster can get any worse? Well yes, it can… After the crowd toppled one of the Angels’ motorcycles, the Angels became even more aggressive, even towards the performers. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane jumped off the stage to try to sort out the problem, only to be punched in the head and knocked unconscious by an Angel during the band’s set. When Jefferson Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner sarcastically thanked the Angels for knocking the singer out, Angel Bill Fritsch took hold of a microphone and argued with him about it. The Grateful Dead had been scheduled to play between Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones, but after hearing about the Balin incident from Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, they refused to play and left the venue, citing the quickly degenerating security situation.

This is the beginning to a captivating story of the most infamous festival in rock and roll history. Part II COMING SOON

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