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POP MUSIC : The Day the Music Got Stomped : The Rolling Stones' concert at Altamont was envisioned as a perfect close to the '60s. But bad planning, bad drugs and a violent death made for a concert nobody wants to remember.

November 13, 1994|Chuck Crisafulli | Chuck Crisafulli is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

It was supposed to be the West Coast's answer to Woodstock--a free, unfettered music festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Co-sponsored by the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, the event was envisioned as a perfect way to sing goodby to the '60s.

But when the relocated concert took place at the Altamont Speedway east of the city on Dec. 6, 1969, it quickly sank into the annals of rock history as a colossal disaster.

Twenty-five years later, the legend of Woodstock is brighter than ever, and people flocked back to a repeat festival this August to try to relive some of the magic.

Nobody's talking about Altamont '94.

Parking, sanitation and medical facilities were grossly inadequate when the speedway crowd swelled to 300,000. Most of those people were cold, uncomfortable and unable to see the stage. Bad acid made the day even more hellish for many.

And late in the evening, as the Rolling Stones finished playing "Under My Thumb," a young man named Meredith Hunter, 18, was stabbed and beaten to death in front of the stage.

Many of the principals involved in Altamont, including members of the two sponsoring bands, refuse now to even discuss the event. Others, however, are willing to look back--and the memories remain unsettling.

"It was the ultimate nightmare," recalls Chris Hillman, a founding member of the Byrds who played at Altamont with the Flying Burrito Brothers. "It was the other end of the scale of what happened at Woodstock and at Monterey Pop--the dark side of the experience. There wasn't anything redeeming about it, and it should never have happened. I was scared to death the whole time I was there."

Stephen Stills, who performed at both Altamont and Woodstock as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, agrees.

"We'd rather have people forget we were at Altamont," he says now. "We played half a set and got out of there fast--like scalded cats. I had my guitar in one hand and Neil Young's wife in the other because Neil had two guitars. We just ran to the helicopters, because it was obvious that something bad was going to happen."


The Rolling Stones wanted to end their U.S. tour that year with a great day--a free concert in the park. Working with the Grateful Dead, they assembled a concert bill that included the Burrito Brothers, the Jefferson Airplane, CSNY and Santana.

At a tour press conference, Mick Jagger announced that the show would be "creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings."

But preparations for the show only began a month before it was supposed to happen. It became clear that Golden Gate Park would not be usable, and the week of the show, preparations were finally made to have the concert at the Sears Point Raceway near Novato, north of San Francisco.

Stage construction was almost completed when those plans fell through. Rather than call off the show, the Rolling Stones turned to well-known San Francisco lawyer Melvin Belli. Though he didn't have any experience with rock festivals, Belli agreed to help the Stones find a site.

"They came up to my office and asked if there was anything I could do," Belli remembers. "I got busy on the phone and called the mayor and the chief of police and everybody else around town. Finally, I got them the piece of property in the Altamont Pass. As we were pulling it together it seemed to be quite orderly. I thought it was going to be proper.

"I was negligent in not getting insurance for the property, because the landowner got sued by quite a few people. It was a wild experience. I don't remember if I charged the Stones anything or not, but I know I enjoyed working with them."

As the ill-fated show day dawned, the hastily transported stage, lights and sound system were still being reconstructed at the speedway. Some of the players had a sense of dread about the concert before even getting to the site.

"It was a wet, gray morning, and I'll never forget thinking, 'This feels like a weird day,' " says Hillman. "The Flying Burrito Brothers had been asked to play because Gram Parsons was tagging along a lot with Mick and Keith (Richards) back then. We jumped at the chance to be a part of it. But it was a bad day from the start.

"We got into a car accident on the way over. Then we had to park a mile away from the stage and carry our instruments through the crowd, which was scary. When we finally got backstage it was total chaos. No order at all. You'd always hear hectic talk backstage at any big show or festival, but this was nonstop horror stories."

Chaos had been a part of the Woodstock festival a few months before Altamont--there had even been accidental deaths there. But the New York state festival was immediately celebrated as a triumph of good vibes. Yasgur's farm was a place where a crowd of strangers had come together as a community, and where craziness and confusion had been transmuted into Aquarian ideals of peace, love and harmony.

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