Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Altamont

Everybody knows about Woodstock. Three days of Peace, Love, and Music that was the joyous climax to the 'sixties. Not as many know about the Altamont Free Festival in California, Woodstock's evil twin, that came to represent the death of the 'sixties. You can guess which one I went to, this is my story.



I couldn't figure out how it all turned out so bad. This was supposed to be Woodstock West! It was supposed to be a bit of Heaven here on Earth, and it turned into Hell. And stayed that way for an uncomfortably long time.

It all sounded so good when I first heard about it. The time was about the first of December,1969. I was living on the streets in San Francisco, and the word went out through Haight Ashbury and all the hippie community that there was going to be a free concert that would rival Woodstock, which had happened 3 ½ months earlier. Put on in Golden Gate Park by The Rolling Stones and featuring The Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash & Young. That sounded like the place to be!

But before I tell the story I need to tell how I came to be there and what my situation was. I ran away from home in Asheville, NC on Labor Day weekend of '69, when I was 17 years old. Long story. I was a geeky, awkward, bullied teenager. Didn't fit in anywhere. But I had discovered flower children and the hippies from TV and magazines and record albums, and realized that I was supposed to be one. But believe it or not the '60s didn't happen in Asheville until the'70s. Since I couldn't find any hippies to join I decided I'd have to go out to California where the flower children were. So instead of starting my senior year of high school I loaded up my old Corvair and headed for the West Coast.

After abandoning the car in the Mojave Desert I began a six month career of hitchhiking and riding freight trains up and down the Coast. I was broke most of the time except for the month I spent picking apples in Washington State. When I wasn't on the road I lived on the streets of various cities, especially San Francisco. It was a wild time! Although the hippie movement hadn't even started back home in Asheville, on the West Coast it was getting kind of burned out and ragged. Haight Ashbury, the home of the flower children, was being taken over by junkies and speed freaks. It had become a dangerous area, especially after dark. Some of the old timers were left, but many had fled to small villages along the coast away from the city.

So it wasn't the Utopia I had imagined, and I had some growing up to do. (I remember overhearing someone say about me: “He ain't ready for this world yet!”) But by the time I heard about the concert I had survived for 3 months, and although I had just turned 18 I felt like I had aged at least 3 years.

The idea for a free concert originated with The Grateful Dead, who had been doing concerts in the Park for years. They suggested the idea to The Rolling Stones, who eventually took over the planning and direction of the event. The preparations, and the eventual concert, turned into total chaos. Of course I didn't know all the details at the time, just rumors on the street and confusing announcements on the radio. The concert was supposed to be in Golden Gate Park, a beautiful location. But the permits were refused, so it couldn't happen there. Then we heard it was going to be at the Sears Point Raceway north of town. The stage and facilities were all being set up. Then that fell through. It was two days before the event and they didn't have a location. There was gloom and despair, nobody thought it could be pulled back together that quickly.

But the next day when I was in a Volkswagen with some hippies who had given me a ride it was announced on the radio that the concert was being moved to the Altamont Speedway and was still going to happen the next day. Alrighty then! It was on, and I was excited!


I wanted to get on the road right away, so I headed over to Alfred's to pick up my backpack. Alfred was one of the most unique characters I ever met, and will require a story of his own. For now I'll just say that he had an art gallery / apartment where he sometimes let homeless hippies crash for a few days. He had become a trusted friend, which was rare as gold for me at that time. I got my stuff and told Alfred about the concert. He just shook his head and said to be careful. I glanced at a map long enough to figure out what highway went in the right direction and got going.

I walked 2 or 3 miles to the nearest freeway ramp. When I arrived in the mid-afternoon there were already about 20 people lined up trying to catch a ride. The law in California was kind of crazy. It was illegal to walk on the freeway itself, you had to stay at the bottom of the ramp. Hitchhiking was illegal. If you stuck out your thumb you'd get arrested. But if you stood there with your hands at your side and looked hopeful the cops would (usually) leave you alone. So I stood there smiling at the cars as they went by. Some people were getting rides but more were coming to take their place. After about 3 hours I was getting discouraged, but a VW van stopped, the side door opened, I hopped in, and we took off. On my way!

The first thing I saw was an old hippie sitting cross-legged in the floor rolling a joint. He looked up and said: “This is some Vietnamese Black, I think you'll like it.” I had only smoked a couple of times but had acquired a taste for it. After this one was passed around the van a few times I was on my way indeed! The 3 or 4 people in the van were friendly. The were going to Altamont to work in the medical tent during the concert. So all I had to do was sit back and enjoy the 50 mile ride!

It was well after dark when we got to the gate at the Altamont Speedway. The crowd wasn't supposed to get in until the next morning, but since the guys had come to work they were let through. I just kept my mouth shut and rode in with them. After they got parked they wished me well and I was on my own again.

I started out just wandering around the site. It was pretty desolate. The concert wasn't going to be in the Speedway itself but in a huge bowl-shaped area next to it. Short, withered grass, and no trees. There were a few other people who had gotten in early but I mostly had the place to myself. The only lights were where a crew was working to set up the stage. They had taken it down that morning at the previous location, hauled it over to the new site, and were working through the night trying to put everything together. Stage, sound system, scaffolding towers for speakers and lights. Situated at the bottom of the bowl, the stage was only 39 inches high. I guess that's all they had time to throw together, but it would cause huge problems the next day. But it looked good enough at the time. I walked down to watch the crew for awhile. I remember leaning with my elbows on the stage thinking: “All I have to do is stay right here and this will be my spot for the concert!” But a still, small voice in my head said: “It my get a little hectic down here. Maybe I should get back a little farther.” For once I listened to that voice, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made! I picked a spot near one of the light towers that seemed a safe distance away and rolled out my sleeping bag. Alfred, who didn't usually feed his hippie guests, had given me a pack of precooked hot dogs. I ate a couple of those, which tasted wonderful, and lay down to try and get some sleep. I was thankful for my sleeping bag, it got down into the upper 30s that night! I woke up a couple of times, watched the stage crew, munched on a hot dog, and slept some more.

The next morning the flood gates opened and a stream of people started coming down the hill into the bowl. The stream became a river, and the bowl began to fill. I never saw so many people! The peace rally I marched in the month before had about 100,000, but it wasn't like this! By the time it was done the crowd at Altamont was estimated to be 300,000. I couldn't count, but there seemed to be plenty! 




 They would find a spot, spread out a blanket to sit on, and get out their picnic supplies. Food, wine, drugs... For those who didn't have enough drugs there were dealers wandering through the crowd hawking their wares like peanut vendors: “Pot! LSD! Speed!” Some carried signs with what they were selling. Not a cop in sight. I didn't need to buy anything. There were plenty of joints and jugs of wine being passed around. I watched one guy sitting near me with a bag of pot and a pack of papers. He'd roll a joint, light it & take a big hit, then hand it off to a neighbor. Then do another one! So I got as high as I'd ever been just from taking a puff or a drink of what was passed to me. I was too naive to realize it at the time, but I was lucky I didn't get dosed. A lot of the wine, or orange juice, or whatever being passed around was spiked with LSD. That was bad enough, but some of the acid being sold and used was bad quality, or mixed with methamphetamine, which is a bad combination. Even veteran acid-heads were having bad trips, and the medical tents were getting busy.

I realize that all the drug use, including mine, is a controversial subject. But this was the hippie culture during the 'sixties, and it was just part of the way things were. Some people took LSD and became enlightened. Some took heroin and became addicted. Too many died. So I'm not trying to glorify what was going on, or my part in it. Just honest history.

Around noon the first band came on. I got distracted somehow and didn't catch their name. They started out a little ragged, and I wasn't paying much attention. But they got better and I started listening. I didn't recognize them so I asked a guy next to me. “Oh, that's Santana.” It was the first time I had heard the name, but I didn't forget! So far I, and the crowd around me, were having a good time. But that was about to change.

About a half hour into Santana's set they had to stop the music because of a fight in front of the stage. It was to be the first of many. I couldn't see clearly from my location, but some of the poor event planning was having it's effect. For stage security the Stones had hired the Hell's Angels. For $500 worth of beer! What could possibly go wrong? Fueled by bad drugs and alcohol some of the crowd were getting out of control. Pushing to the front & creating a disturbance or getting on the stage. The Angels responded as you would expect, punching, beating people with pool cues, and their trademark move – throwing people to the ground and stomping them. I first realized what was going on when I heard a thunderous roar. There was a solid line of Hell's Angels riding their Harleys down through the tight packed crowd to the front of the stage. People had to scramble out of the way or get run down. I was really glad I hadn't kept my spot at the stage, but the mood of the concert was ruined. This whole thing was supposed to be about peace, love, and harmony, but instead was becoming about anger, violence, and fear.

The Jefferson Airplane came on, but the fights were getting worse. The stage announcer tried to calm things down, Grace Slick of the Airplane kept trying to sooth the crowd, but things were out of control. Especially the Hell's Angels. One of them punched Marty Balin, the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, in the face and knocked him out. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young tried to play, but their hearts weren't in it. It was like playing background music for a riot! When The Grateful Dead arrived for their set and saw how bad things were they got back in their helicopter and left. I don't blame them! I would have left too if I'd had a way. The concert location was in the middle of nowhere, and the highway was closed for miles, choked with abandoned cars. I was there for the duration, and had to ride it out the best I could.

One thing I couldn't ride out was the need to visit a porta john. The only ones I saw were on the top of the hill on the far side of the crowd. It was a major ordeal to get through that many people. I finally got there, but the ordeal had just begun. Because of the poor planning and last minute site change all facilities were either in short supply or missing altogether. There were only a couple of medical tents and a handful of personnel. Between the bad drugs and the beatings they were overwhelmed. (I feel sorry for those guys that had brought me there who came to work in a medical tent!) There was no food and no water. And there were only 100 porta johns for 300,000 people. That works out to 3000 people per john! The lines were longer than I could wait. When I got to the front it was frantic with people pushing and crowding, including me! The john I made it into already had 2 or 3 guys inside, and no room to close the door. I won't describe how it looked or smelled. It didn't matter, I did what I had to do and got the heck out of there! Back across the sea of people, and somehow found my place, with my pack and sleeping bag still there. Whew!

The Rolling Stones didn't come on stage until after dark. I think it was supposed to look more dramatic on the film that was being made. (Later released as the movie Gimme Shelter)


 During the day I had been far enough back in the crowd to be reasonably safe. I could see the crowd swirling around in front of the stage when fights broke out, but it didn't reach back to where I was. So I was unprepared for what happened next. When the Stones came on everybody stood up and crowded towards the stage. I had no choice then, it was either move with the crowd or be trampled where I sat. It didn't stop until everyone was pressed so tightly together there was no more room. Bodies were pushed against me on all sides, and it wasn't a friendly feeling! It was too dark to see, but I could tell the fights were still going on. Those swirls in the crowd I had seen earlier were somehow being transmitted through the tightly packed mass of bodies. We would get shoved back or pulled to the side, and all I could do was move with it and try to keep on my feet. It felt like falling in that surging mass could be fatal!

I was scared. The day had long since stopped being fun, now it was terrifying! It felt evil. I don't know how much of that was my imagination, but part of the image and songs of the Rolling Stones was summoning and glorifying the dark spirits. The “bad boys” of rock doing things for shock value, like the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. Except this time the evil came when summoned and they had no idea how to make it go away. There are scenes in Gimme Shelter where Mick Jagger looks as scared as I was!.



While they were playing a young black man named Meridith Hunter, the same age as me, got involved in the fighting. He pulled out a gun. Instantly a Hell's Angel pulled a knife and stabbed him 5 times. Then he got stomped. He died soon after. It was all caught on film and is in the movie. Of course I didn't know it at the time, but learned about it later. Like the guy that had drowned that afternoon. I just knew bad things were happening, and I wanted it all to stop. It went on and on, but finally it was over. The Stones made a mad dash for their helicopter and got the Hell out of there. The crowd started to spread apart, and I could move again. I felt like I had survived a battle, exhausted and glad to be alive!

I don't remember if I was able to grab my stuff and hang onto it during the crush (unlikely), or if I went back and found it in the dark (also unlikely!). But somehow I ended up having it. Next I had to decide what to do. As much as I wanted to leave, I knew better than to get into a mob of messed up people in a miles long traffic jam. So I just wandered around through the garbage waiting for things to calm down and the crowd to leave. Finally I found a spot that was fairly clear and quiet, and spread out my sleeping bag. I lay down, ate the last of my hot dogs, and fell into a fitful sleep. A lot of people had the same idea, there were bodies scattered all around. Once again I was luckier than I knew. During the night a drug crazed man stole a car and went speeding through the fields. He hit a group sitting by a campfire, killing two and injuring two more. He faded into the crowd and was never identified. So altogether four people died, and many injured. I feel that I was protected, and am thankful for it!

The next morning it had calmed down.


 The other overnighters were finding their way out, and as I mingled in with them I had no trouble finding a ride back to San Francisco. The trip was pretty subdued, I think everyone was out of the partying mood. When they dropped me of I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood. A commercial area with concrete buildings and warehouses, deserted on a Sunday morning. It was a long walk back into downtown, and I felt very spaced out and alone. It was a lot like the lyrics to the Kris Kristofferson song:

Then I headed back for home and somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringin'
And it echoed through the canyons like the disappearing dreams of yesterday
On the Sunday morning sidewalks, wishin' Lord, that I was stoned
'Cause there's something in a Sunday, makes a body feel alone
And there's nothin' short of dyin', half as lonesome as the sound
On the sleepin' city side walks, Sunday mornin' comin' down

So that's my story and my experience. I know it had a big effect on me, and I think it did on the culture as well. The death of innocence, and a hard dose of reality. But we seem to be on this earth to experience good and evil, and I had a role to play as a witness. It was almost 50 years ago, and I've seen a lot since then, both good and bad. But I haven't forgotten.

There is plenty of information about Altamont for anyone interested. To start with watch the 15 minute video at this link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQzNtYsf5D4
 It contains video from the movie Gimme Shelter, and the story told in captions is fairly accurate. 
I was surprised to discover a book about Altamont that just came out last year.  Altamont:  The Rolling Stones, the Hell's Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day by Joel Selvin.  
https://www.amazon.com/Altamont-Rolling-Stones-Angels-Darkest/dp/0062444255
(Of course I bought a copy!)  Very well researched and written, it is the definitive work on the event.  It brought back memories and I learned much that I hadn't known for all these years.  


 
 





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