Sympathy for the devil: Joel Selvin’s retelling of a notorious moment in rock and roll history

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day
Joel Selvin
Dey St.

On November 19, 2017, Charles Manson died. The infamous cult leader’s demise closed the circle on what is often considered the end of the peace and love era of the 1960s in America. The horrific murders committed by the so-called Manson family on August 9, 1969, exposed the dark underbelly of the free love, drugs, and anti-establishmentarian hippie ethos. In a 1994 afterword to his true crime classic, Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders, Vincent Bugliosi quotes Joan Didion, who wrote, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe the sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” Though Bugliosi himself feels this outsized mythology is not borne out by available evidence or the historical record, he admits in a note that the combination of sex and drugs, campus unrest, and the waves of violence and social discontent emanating out of the war in Vietnam “provided a … fertile soil for someone like Manson to emerge.”

Along with the Manson murders, another incident late in the same year is also noted by people looking to make a grand sociological statement about the downfall of the Age of Aquarius. On December 6, 1969, Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old resident of Berkley, California, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle club during a free concert at Altamont Speedway in northern California. Conceived as a kind of West Coast Woodstock and headlined by the Rolling Stones – then one of the most influential rock and roll bands in the world, second only to the Beatles in terms of importance and influence – the concert is remembered today essentially for the violence that plagued it, in particular Hunter’s murder, which was captured on film and included in the Albert and David Maysles documentary, Gimme Shelter.

Joel Selvin, a music critic and former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written an exhaustive account of the concert, from its conception through the events of the day itself – which unfolded in a fog of drugs, booze, and violence – to the immediate aftermath and long-term legacy. Selvin’s book is deeply researched and benefits from the virtue of perspective, which allows him to put the early newspaper accounts of the concert into context and provide deeper insights into the various intertwining factors that contributed to the tragedy.

Much of this material is contained in the first of the book’s three parts, which focuses on the chaotic and slapdash planning for the concert. The idea for a free outdoor rock show originated with Rock Scully, who managed the San Francisco–based jam band Grateful Dead, and the Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards. Selvin introduces readers to a sprawling cast of characters, including Scully, Sam Cutler, the British producer who became the Stones’ U.S. tour manager, the Maysles brothers, various San Francisco Hells Angels, and lawyer Melvin Belli, who participated in behind-the-scenes negotiations involving the final location for the concert, but “would ultimately contribute little beyond bluster and posture,” according to Selvin.

So many different characters clutter the opening hundred pages of Selvin’s book that it’s frequently difficult to keep all the players straight; it is often necessary to backtrack or consult the book’s (thankfully comprehensive) index. This confusion notwithstanding, the important figures soon separate themselves from the background crowd. These include Cutler, who enlisted the Angels as security for the event, and decreed they would be paid in $500 worth of beer on the day (which Selvin, employing hyperbole and questionable terminology, calls “one of the most famous financial transactions since the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Indians for $24”).

Equally significant, though largely forgotten among the more sensational aspects of the concert itself (vividly detailed in part two of Selvin’s book), is the impact of Filmways, the company that owned the Sears Point Raceway, which was temporarily settled on as an alternative location for the event. When they discovered the free concert would be filmed as a for-profit venture by the Maysles brothers, representatives of Filmways, which also owned film and television interests, demanded an up-front fee and exclusive rights to distribute the resulting product themselves. Not wishing to sacrifice any profits made off the movie, Stones’ lead singer Mick Jagger insisted the venue change.

This, Selvin argues, was a hugely significant determining factor in the anarchy that followed. Sears Point was, in the author’s conception, much better suited to a large-scale outdoor event such as the one being contemplated:

Sitting at the intersection of two major highways, the thousand-acre raceway was well prepared to deal with large crowds. There was parking for one hundred thousand cars, toilets, concession stands, water, electricity, room for a large backstage area. Security was already in place and police support close at hand. The inside of the track created a huge bowl effect with a twenty-foot rise at the end that, sculpted by a bulldozer, would make a perfect setting for a stage. It would provide a natural barrier between the audience and the stage.

The last point bears repeating. There was no natural place to locate a stage at Altamont, and in the event, the bands performed on a makeshift riser that was elevated a scant four feet off the ground and separated from the crowd of 300,000 rowdy concertgoers by a skimpy piece of string that didn’t even outlast the first band of the day. (By contrast, Selvin points out, the stage at Woodstock was elevated 15 feet above the crowd, providing “a natural defensive barrier” between the bands and the audience.)

Selvin places blame for the day’s events on a combination of greed, hubris, and hype. He reserves particularly scathing criticism for Jagger, whose financially motivated decision to change the venue at the last moment, Selvin contends, was an important aggravating factor in what transpired. “If Jagger had been willing to make a deal with Filmways to distribute the movie, the concert could have also taken place at Sears Point in Sonoma, where the large crowd could have been accommodated, the Hells Angels wouldn’t have been in control, and the staging was already in place.” Selvin arguably puts too much stock in the suitability of Sears Point; it’s impossible to prove a negative, and it’s equally impossible to say with any certainty that if the concert had taken place elsewhere, nothing untoward would have happened. Still, what Selvin does depict is a perfect storm of problems – organizational and otherwise – and poor planning that made the violence at Altamont all but inevitable.

If the viability of Sears Point as a concert venue is open to speculation in retrospect, it is entirely erased from the record by at least one interested observer. In his memoir, Life, Keith Richards places the blame for the change of location on “the absolute stupidity of the boneheaded, hard-nosed San Francisco council,” which refused to grant a license for the use of the original intended venue, Golden Gate Park. That, according to Richards, left Altamont – a location that descended into “a Dante’s hell” after the sun went down.

Richards’s invocation of Dante is interesting in the context of Selvin’s Altamont, as one of the words the latter employs on several occasions is “evil.” On the day of the concert, Selvin writes, “the moon was in Scorpio – the forecast was heavy days, evil tidings, acts of violence.” And later, in the aftermath of Meredith Hunter’s murder: “The whole event had turned into some oblique rite of passage, an ordeal to be endured by band and audience alike. The promise of love had vanished, and in its place, the spectre of evil loomed.” Here Selvin indulges a penchant for grandiosity that elsewhere he largely eschews. Describing the events as “evil” is mythopoetic; the reality, as presented by the author himself, appears much more prosaic, a tragic collision of greed, bad drugs, poor planning, and the kind of mob mentality that threatens any large gathering of strangers.

That said, Selvin is, in his conclusion, relatively careful not to overstate his case. “The events at Altamont,” he writes, “were the result of the convergence of many fissures running through the counterculture, and as such, it was more of a symbol of unresolved conflicts that had been quietly warring in the underground: the reality of money, the lack of leadership and unity of purpose, the role of drugs, and the rejection of authority and the police.” In his afterword, he tilts in the direction of the mythology that has developed around Altamont: “The concert grew in symbolic stature, coming to represent the end of the heady decade of the sixties that had reached a crescendo four months earlier in August with the massive Woodstock festival, the moon landing, and the Manson killings all taking place within days of each other. Altamont was the coda.”

Sympathy for the devil: Joel Selvin’s retelling of a notorious moment in rock and roll history
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