This week marks the 36th anniversary of what arguably was the nadir of the history of rock 'n' roll -- the 1969 Altamont Concert.
It wasn't supposed to be that way, but Altamont -- held a mere four months after the muddy but triumphantly feel-good Woodstock Festival -- became known for unchecked egotism, greed, managerial ineptitude and, as one commentator put it, "a fundamental lack of concern for humanity."
The Rolling Stones were touring the U.S. in support of their hit live album, "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out," and the culmination was to be a free concert at Altamont Speedway, an early version of a NASCAR track, near San Francisco. The backing bands were Bay Area favorites, including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, Santana and the Flying Buritto Brothers.
There were problems from the outset. The original site was San Francisco, but the city told concert organizers to take a hike when it became obvious that there would be far too many people to accomodate safely, tens of thousands of whom had already arrived from all over the country and had camped in city parks in anticipation of the next Woodstock. The Altamont site, which lacked adequate toilet and medical facilities, among other shortcomings, was chosen a mere 20 hours before the concert.
But the big problem was . . . the Hell's Angels.
Astoundingly, at least in retrospect, members of the notorious motorcyle gang were hired by the Rolling Stones for concert security. The Grateful Dead had a longtime relationship with the Hell's Angels and had used them for security without any problems. The Stones also had used the Angels for security at a free concert in London earlier in the year, but these bikers were for the most part harmless and not like the American Angels, who were violent drug users.
The Hell's Angels were paid $500 for security at Altamont-- in the form of free beer. Not surprisingly, they probably drank more alcohol, smoked more dope and dropped more acid than anyone else. Who then was going to keep security in line?
Part way through Santana's set, there were several violent incidents in the crowd, which was packed tightly against the makeshift stage. The Hell's Angels confronted the perpetrators with their weapon of choice -- pool cues -- and for good measure hurled full beer cans at them.
During the Jefferson Airplane's set, Marty Balin got knocked out by a Hell's Angel during a scuffle near the stage. When Paul Kantner told the audience what the Angels had been doing, a gang member grabbed a microphone and started threatening him. Another fight was barely avoided.
By the time the Stones took the stage, the Hell's Angels were out of control.
Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man, was near the stage and regretably was packing a knife and a gun. Hell's Angels attacked him with pool cues. Stones lead singer Mick Jagger was singing "Sympathy for the Devil" as Hunter was beaten to death. Jagger belatedly realized what was going on and called for an ambulance. He and the Stones wanted to stop playing, but realized that would result in even more violence.
Three other people also died at Altamont. One drowned and two got run over as they slept in their sleeping bags.
The Grateful Dead, who were only tangentially involved in organizing the concert, nevertheless blamed themselves for the tragedy. Band leader Jerry Garcia called Altamont "a nice day in Hell." Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter subsequently wrote "New Speedway Boogie," a brooding anthem which appeared on the Dead's seminal "Workingman's Dead" album but was seldom played live in later years.
The closing lines from "New Speedway Boogie" are a fitting epitaph for Altamont:
Now I don't know but I was told
In the heat of the sun a man died of cold
Do we keep on coming or stand and wait
With the sun so dark and the hour so late?
You can't overlook the lack Jack
Of any other highway to ride
It's got no signs or dividing lines
And very few rules to guide
I spent a little time on the mountain
Spent a little time on the hill
I saw things getting out of hand
I guess they always will
Now, I don't know but I've been told
If the horse don't pull, you got to carry the load
I don't know whose back's that strong
Maybe find out before too long