Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy With the Rolling Stones at Altamont

By Saul AusterlitzVulture.com

Darkness came early in the Bay Area in December, and with its arrival, the temperature fell precipitously. Some of the crowd had been overdressed for a warm day in the sun; now, most of the crowd was underdressed for what was proving to be a very chilly evening. It got colder here in eastern Alameda County than it ever did in Berkeley or San Francisco. All across the speedway, small tongues of fire lapped into the sky, with paper bags and trash set ablaze to provide some much-needed warmth. Across a shallow ravine from the stage, there were hills ringed with wooden fences, and fans had begun to disassemble them, tossing the fence posts onto bonfires. The air filled with the oily, acrid smell of burning garbage and creosote.

The concert’s hasty setup meant there had not been time to put up the arc lights, the assembly of which required a crane that never arrived. Instead, the boxes containing the arcs had been forgotten under the scaffolding. Now, those same boxes were being ransacked by freezing concertgoers, who tossed them directly onto bonfires to keep warm. The $7,000 arc lights burned unnoticed inside the boxes. Chip Monck, who had ordered the arc lights, would not know about the damage until they were already serving as tinder.

The wait after the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s set had extended for an uncomfortably long time. The Rolling Stones stayed in their trailers as darkness fell, and the crowd was left to stew, smoking joints and popping pills and sipping from bottles and cans to keep warm. The hope, unjustified by anything that had taken place so far that day, was that the star power of the Rolling Stones would be enough to calm the tensions in the crowd, to soothe all hurts with the balm of their fame. During the hour-and-a-quarter wait for the Stones, the backstage lights remained off, hampering the efforts of the concert’s medical staff to care for the injured. The lengthy delay before the Rolling Stones emerged only worsened the hostility in the crowd, and the sense of siege for those concertgoers trapped closest to the stage.

Two groups of young men faced each other, almost close enough to shake hands, or at least exchange greetings. On the one side, in their backstage trailer, a British rock group selling a persona two parts prince-of-darkness allure and one part hippie goodwill, all held together by a furious two-pronged guitar attack; on the other, surrounding the stage, a clan of California bikers, increasingly bitter over the thankless job they had been tasked with and sorely tempted to lash out violently. The Rolling Stones and the Hells Angels stared at each other from across a vast gulf, separated by mutual incomprehension. No word went between them, the Stones hoping for an improvement to the situation in the crowd and the Angels waiting for some hint of what might happen next. In the meantime, the Angels began pushing fans back anew, clearing out about forty feet of space between the stage and the audience.

Soon, more Angels came blazing in on their motorcycles, pushing concertgoers out of their way to form a path through the overcrowded thicket close to the stage. One fan, presumably thrilled by the Angels’ unbridled display of power, clapped each biker on the back as they rode by. One Angel stopped his motorcycle to take a lengthy swig from a jug of wine proffered from the crowd.

The band was still in their tiny, airless trailer, the smell of stale smoke filling their lungs as they grimly assessed the diminishing goodwill of the day. Having stayed up the entire night, Richards was drained and anxious to conclude the show. People poked at the windows, shouting and pining for a glimpse of the Stones. The band hoped to play an abbreviated set, then call a halt to the misbegotten concert and send the fans home. The Rolling Stones asked the Hells Angels to escort them to the stage, but Sonny Barger and the other Angels were turned off by what they saw as the band’s antics. Why had they waited so long to play before a clearly violent, dyspeptic crowd? Barger did not like what he saw as an unnecessary delay, intended, as he saw it, to heighten the dramatic tension on an already unbearably tense day. The Hells Angels would no longer serve as bodyguards to “a bunch of sissy, marble-mouthed prima donnas.”

Patti Bredehoft and Meredith Hunter returned from the car and made their way back toward the front, where the Rolling Stones were about to take the stage, accompanied solely by their bodyguard Tony Funches. Bredehoft was afraid of the crowds, having already seen the Angels mauling concertgoers, but Hunter was intent on staking out a spot near the band. The crowd was fierce. No one wanted to cede an inch of space. No one wanted to lose out on their hard-fought proximity to Mick and Keith and the Stones, won with an intrepid spirit and the stubbornness that came of standing in the same crowded space the day long, as the sun arced over the Livermore fields and disappeared behind the horizon. Shoves and sharp elbows met their every step, demonstrations of intent by a crowd that had endured more than their share of discomfort and downright terror in the hopes of seeing history in the making.

The Rolling Stones finally appeared, and for a brief moment, a sense of relief spread through the speedway. The Stones would undoubtedly cool off the overheating crowd, get them back to concentrating on the music, and return the focus where it belonged. “Oh, babies,” Jagger addressed the crowd. “There’s so many of you. Just keep cool down in front and don’t push around. Just keep still, keep together.” Jagger, resplendent in a red cape knotted around his neck and a ruffled orange-and-black silk shirt, had the presence, and the confidence, it seemed, to instantly reorient the crowd in the direction he wanted.

Astonishingly, the Rolling Stones were still expected, under these alarming circumstances, to play a concert, as if this were another night at the local basketball arena. Richards, his rhinestone-studded orange shirt left unbuttoned, his black sunglasses clipped to his T-shirt, fingered the opening notes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and the rest of the band fell in, determined to bash their way through this. Some fans believed the band deliberately tanked its performance, hoping to deflate some of the frantic energy of Altamont with a mediocre gig, but the Stones sounded fairly solid on this night, given the unprecedentedly adverse circumstances in which they played. Bill Wyman’s bass was mostly inaudible, and Charlie Watts’s drums were poorly miked, but the night belonged to Richards, who played with a restrained frenzy.

After “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” came to its fiery conclusion, a young man with long blond hair tried to climb onto the stage, and was brutally confronted by the Angels, who swarmed around him. They punched him repeatedly, and one Angel kicked him in the face. He was soon motionless, spread-eagled on the ground, surrounded by a crowd so densely packed that there was no room for him to move, or for anyone to assist him.

The Stones’ laid into their cover of Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” a blues rave-up they favored on many of their ’69 tour dates, and immediately followed it with Jagger chugging from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s placed at his feet. “I’d like to drink one to you all,” Jagger chuckled, trying on a broad Southern accent for size. Richards picked up on the moment and launched into the stop-and-start riff of a jagged “Sympathy for the Devil.” A young woman next to the stage longingly held up a bouquet of pink roses as an Angel glowered next to her. The flowers still looked fresh, but their leaves—the ones almost touching the biker—were already seen to be wilting.

Even the Stones’ performance could not change the composition of the toxic stew down below the stage. The audience, thrilled to spot Jagger, surged forward once more. There were calls to clear the stage of everyone other than the performers, but the Angels flat-out refused, preferring to tell others to move. “Off the stage,” a biker, his eyes rolling back into his head, his teeth grinding, ordered. The bikers formed a wedge in front of the band, primed to leap into the crowd on the slightest provocation. The band, flummoxed in its attempts to move the bikers away, reluctantly pressed the Angels into service for the task of clearing others off the stage. The Angels’ excessive shows of force, flinging others from the stage, inevitably led to more scuffles breaking out, both on the stage and elsewhere.

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