Altamont Free Concert 1969

Foreword from Deniz Tek:

The late 60's saw the advent of the big outdoor rock festival. Monterey Pop was probably the zenith of the phenomenon. The most famous of them, Woodstock, gets generally good revisionist press. It was heralded as a shining example of peace and love, and a "functional spontaneously organized community". (Despite being planned, far from spontaneous, and regarding functionality, the Army had to bring in food and water by helicopters).

Mick Jagger

Still, the sound there was good, and nobody got murdered. Goose Lake, our big festival in Michigan, was more like the scene described below. Altamont, outside the bay area, was the nail in the coffin .... the "dark side" of the Woodstock nation, and a disturbingly negative representation of the Stones, (perhaps unfairly) and of humanity in general.

The documentary film "Gimme Shelter" is an amazingly cogent picture of that unique and strange time ... I have seen it several times and never lose interest in it.

Last November I was visiting my friend Ron Sanchez. It was the 40th anniversary of Altamont. Ron had been there. Having drinks and talking about it late that night, deep in the Montana winter, I asked Ron to write down his memories of that fascinating piece of cultural history ... a story that hasn't really been covered recently from the audience perspective.

Here now is :

Memories of Altamont
by Ron Sanchez
6 December, 1969
Altamont Raceway, Livermore CA

At the end of the first Rolling Stones tour of the USA since 1966, talk of a "free gig in the park" began to circulate. This was quickly nixed by the city fathers. An alternate plan was to hold the show at the Sears Point Raceway, in Sonoma, north of San Francisco. Just two days before the December 6th date, the event was moved to the Altamont Raceway, between Livermore and Tracy, east of Oakland. This last minute change was probably a warning sign that all would not go well, but we and 300,000 others chose to ignore it.

The night before the show, my brother and his friends would be going to see the Dead and Humble Pie (making their SF debut) at the Fillmore West. The plan was for them to drive back to San Jose to pick my girlfriend and myself up with all the necessary supplies and head back up the other side of the Bay to the gig. Visions of Woodstock were still dancing in our heads, and we all expected a day of peace, love and the Rolling Stones.

Altamont is not a place you'd want to go unless you were really into stock car racing. The dry rolling hills of the interior of Central California didn't offer much except wide open spaces. The last minute relocation of the concert meant there was no chance of preparation for 300,000 attendees. The stage and PA were hardly up to the standards one had come to expect. The low stage compounded the problems that were to erupt later in the day.

I remember driving out to this desolate location well before the sun had come up. It wasn't hard to find our destination. Seems like once we got off US 580, we drove as far as we could, then got out and walked. It was pretty surreal. The first hint that all was not well came as we neared the race track. People were headed the other way saying 'things are pretty weird". As if on cue, a couple of longhairs attacked a hapless program vendor screaming that he was a "rip off". Yikes.

The early December weather was warm once the sun was high in the sky. With already more than 100,000 people there, we weren't going to be getting a spot anywhere near the front of the stage. We ended up setting up a little behind the stage, on the left side. On the side of a hill, we did have an ok view.

It's just what we were seeing wasn't your standard rock gig behavior. A lot of people seemed to have decided this was going to be a good time to take a lot of drugs and get really wasted. A guy near us seemed to be going into violent convulsions. His friends pinned him down, shoved some reds down his gullet followed by a large dose of jug wine. This was not an isolated incident.

I'm pretty sure Santana was the first band to play. I managed to doze off, only to be woken by the commotion on stage. Marty Balin, from Jefferson Airplane had waded into a crowd of Hell's Angels in an attempt to stop some sort of violence being committed on a member of the audience. Marty got knocked out for his trouble, and the rest of the band was pretty unhappy. I'm surprised we didn't pack up and leave at this point. My brother and his friends decided to wander off to see what they could see. I don't know what they might have been thinking. A dose of acid probably didn't help their judgement.

I do have a vivid memory of the Flying Burrito Brothers playing Six Days On The Road, but that's all. Gram Parsons was there. I cant prove that, and I didn't have any sense of time either. At some point I thought I'd walk down to the outhouses for a pee, but one look at the overflowing honey buckets dashed any urgency. A friend from high school who was also there had similar memories:

".....my clearest recollection was going down to the hollow where they'd set up porta-potties. guys (i must presume it was at least mostly guys) had been urinating on the ground rather than wait in line, so it was all muddy with pee. There was a guy wearing nothing but a pair of jeans who was having a very bad trip, and was screaming and writhing around in the mud while people ignored him. I thought, "ugly...so not Woodstock."

At some point several Hell's Angels decided they needed to park their bikes right in front of the stage. The sight and sound of them forcing their way through the packed crowd down in front was plenty disturbing.

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were the next band on stage. Again, there isn't anything I remember about this set, but I'm sure they were sorry they signed on. The Stones decided they wanted to wait until the sun went down before they would play. This meant a very long delay between CSN&Y and the Stones.

Not a good idea when the crowd was already in the early stages of Lord Of The Flies. Before long, bonfires were lit around the rim of the natural bowl we were situated in. This was very unsettling, and gave the proceedings an air of some strange pre-historic gathering.

There was a bit of hope when the Stones hit the stage. From our vantage point, we had a good view of Charlie Watts' head and we could see Mick when he'd jump up. You'd like to think music soothes the savage, but this wasn't going to happen today. By the third song, Sympathy For The Devil, things started to erupt.

The band stopped and Mick pleaded with everyone to cool down. If you've seen the Gimme Shelter movie, you can get a pretty good idea of the chaos ... a very out of control situation. A few songs later, just into Under My Thumb, I saw the most incredible thing I think I've ever seen in my life. In a blink of an eye, the whole crowd in front of the stage flew back 100 feet or more in a cloud of dust.

The crowd let out an audible gasp, wondering what just happened. Again, the band pleaded with the audience to calm down. If they had stopped now, I think things would have just exploded.

They tried to restart things with a debut performance of Brown Sugar. Due to the pathetic PA, I thought I was hearing "Crap Shooter". Amazingly, they continued on with this and another seven songs to complete the set with out any more interruptions. By this time I was sitting on the grass with my head in my hands. I was concerned that we hadn't seen the rest of our group for several hours. Everything going on around us was just not pleasant.

Sitting in the cold and dark with the possibility we might not find our ride home was not my idea of fun. I imagine everyone was happy when the music stopped and a few lights came on at the race track, which was behind the stage. There were no calls for an encore, just the realization it was over and time to go. The Dead were suppose to play, but it was clear that this wasn't going to happen.

Much to my relief, my brother and friends appeared out of the darkness and helped gather up our little camp. It was like a defeated army in retreat as we all made the long long trek to the car. We walked at least two hours each direction. I had no idea where we were, or where we parked. The familiar buzzing of the power transmission lines overhead were the only indication we were nearing our goal.

I don't think I went to many concerts in the next year and with few exceptions avoided the football stadium gigs that were the norm in the 70's. Watching the documentary of the tour and this gig, Gimme Shelter still brings back some very unpleasant memories and emotions. I never went to see the Stones again.

Rolling Stones Set, Altamont

1. "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
2. "Carol"
3. "Sympathy for the Devil" (stopped then restarted because of fights breaking out)
4. "The Sun Is Shining"
5. "Stray Cat Blues"
6. "Love in Vain"
7. "Under My Thumb" (stopped then restarted because of fights breaking out)
8. "Brown Sugar" (first live performance)
9. "Midnight Rambler"
10. "Live with Me"
11. "Gimme Shelter"
12. "Little Queenie"
13. "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
14. "Honky Tonk Women"
15. "Street Fighting Man"

Thanks Ron and Deniz!!!..

1 comment:

Fast Film said...

thanks for the gritty "you are there." I hope this clears up a lot of misconceptions, one of the minor vexations being the incorrect attribution of "Sympathy For The Devil" being the song during which the murder occurred (it was "Under My Thumb," a pretty vile pronouncement in itself.) When I did art direction for the Gram Parsons book, the estate executor relayed that he personally had asked the Maysles if there was any more footage of the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Gram) but was met the reply of someething to the effect of what you saw is all we shot: it was getting too hairy.

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