What Went So Wrong at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival?

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was the brainchild of Spencer Dryden and Jorma Kaukonen (of Jefferson Airplane), and was the culmination of a few events. Firstly, The Rolling Stones were coming to the end of a successful tour, but had been criticised because their tickets were too expensive – a free concert could be the perfect way to balance those scales. It also fed into the same ideals as Woodstock that was held earlier in the year, even being known by some as Woodstock West.

Secondly, The Rolling Stones had held a free concert at Hyde Part in London in July of the same year which went ahead with minimal complications, recreating it in America made perfect sense. Finally, The Rolling Stones were filming a documentary, called Gimme Shelter, which was intended to show their tour wrapping up, but the events of the Altamont Speedway Festival made it infamous, “the ultimate rock & roll horror movie” (Rollingstone.com)

Altamont Speedway Free Festival took place in California on Saturday 6th December 1969.

Altamont poster
[Photo credit, thejamwich.com]

The line-up boasted some big names, including The Rolling Stones, Santana, Tina Turner and The Grateful Dead, but unfortunately, it went down in history for all the wrong reasons.

One of the inciting problems was the location. San Jose State University practice field was the goal, as it had previously held a three-day outdoor festival for 80,000 attendees. It seemed ideal, until they were told another large event wasn’t wanted at that time and the field wasn’t available. Next option was the Golden Gate Park. This venue allegedly fell through as the police were unwilling to cooperate due to existing conflict with the hippies.

Sears Point Raceway was the next possible location, but the owners wanted $100,000 in escrow from The Rolling Stones. They were unwilling to comply, and this option was ruled out as well.

It almost seemed like the event might not go ahead. With about thirty-six hours until the festival was due to start Dick Carter suggested his Altamont Speedway. It wasn’t an ideal location, but it was the best option available.

The entire event was put together quickly, and by inexperienced people. Equipment was scarce, the stage was make-shift and subsequently much closer to the crowd than usual, “There was no site, there was no sound system. There was no staging..There was no crew. There was no nothing… The hippies that the Grateful Dead marshaled behind this were idealists and innocent in some ways. They just figured that they could do it.” (forbes.com).

Reports from the crew on-site said there was no one in charge, no one leading the event. To make matters worse, once the event got underway the peace and love ethos of Woodstock was MIA as the medical teams were overwhelmed with reactions to bad drugs. This wasn’t people relaxing with a beer or a joint, this was serious reactions to impure drugs, that had been cut with any number of things “health professionals at the medical tent were dealing with numerous people experiencing freak-outs” (forbes.com).

Security was the next big issue. Instead of professional hired security with relevant training and insurance, the Hell’s Angels were hired to maintain the peace and keep attendees off the stage during the show. For their time, they would be paid $500 worth of beer, which they insisted on receiving at the start of the day. The Angels claim their only responsibility was to keep people off the stage – which they did.

Reports from throughout the day suggested that as the Angels drank more, they became increasingly rowdy and disruptive. Fights broke out between the Angels and festival attendees, included, but not limited to, the Angels hitting people with pool cues.

The Hell’s Angels with pool cues
[Photo credit, Forbes.com]

The Grateful Dead, who were due to be the penultimate act before The Rolling Stones, left before their set due to concerns for their safety when they learnt Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin had been knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel. Mick Jagger was also attacked, being punched in the face by a member of the audience as he arrived on site.

Four people died that day, two in a hit-and-run, one drowned and the fourth was eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter attending with his girlfriend. During The Rolling Stones set, he was beaten up by the Hell’s Angels. As a reaction, Hunter pulled a gun, and was fatally stabbed by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro. It was argued that Hunter was heading towards the stage with the gun and Passaro’s actions were to protect the band. Alternatively, it could be that Hunter was heading towards the Angels that had just attacked him who were, incidentally, between him and the stage. Hunter was never able to give his testimony, but the incident was caught on film and was included The Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter. Passaro was later acquitted in court.

Throughout the set, The Rolling Stones frequently stopped, asking the crowd to calm down. In interviews, they’ve said they felt ending the show early would have made things much worse. Mick Taylor said, “I was really scared … I was frightened for all of us, particularly for Mick because he had to be very careful what he said all the time, very careful” (Rollingstone.com).

Most people, bands, attendees, and staff alike, left the site that evening, so come morning, all that was left was disappointment and rubbish. Like other aspects of the event, the cleanup hadn’t been well organised, and took volunteers a few days of limited resources to complete. They even started dismantling and burning the perimeter fence for warmth at night.

The day after
[photo credit, Forbes.com]
The day after
[Photo credit, Forbes.com]

Alongside the Manson murders, the Altamont Speedway Free festival signalled the end of the carefree 60s for many, being the “day when everything went perfectly wrong.” (Rollingstone.co.uk). If just one aspect had been different, might the day not have gone so disastrously? Perhaps if more time had been spent organising, an experienced crew hired and proper stage sourced, perhaps if the Hell’s Angels had been paid in money and been sober during the day, perhaps if it had been held at the first, second or even third venue choices. Perhaps, it didn’t matter, the original Woodstock had its fair share of issues: “The Woodstock myth is pretty fragile, and don’t blow on it too hard because it’ll just crack under pressure.” (Forbes.com).

References: Forbes.comRollingstone.comRollingstone.co.ukHistorynewsnetwork.org

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