Every culture has its signature events. These events represent the best and the worst of that culture and its adherents. For example, many consider the first performances of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps to be an insurrectionary moment in western culture that defined a new division between the old and the new as certainly as the European war which came hot on the heels those performances. In what might be considered a more pedestrian field of endeavor–sports–the first season of African-American baseball player with the Brooklyn Dodgers ripped the racist myths of white professional baseball to shreds and in doing so, marked in its own way a major surge forward in the struggle against the culture of racism in the United States.
The counterculture of the 1960s also has its own such moments. Among them would be the first Acid Tests arranged by the Merry Pranksters, the Human Be-Ins in San Francisco and elsewhere, the Monterey Pop Festival, and of course, the August 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival. Equally as important as the last of those is the Altamont festival that took place on December 6, 1969 at a race track in the desolate regions southeast of San Francisco. It was this concert, they say, that exposed the dark underside of the Sixties counterculture. In all honesty, it is more accurate to say that it was this concert that exposed–along with the Charlie Manson murders earlier that year–that underside to the public at large.
Naturally, much has been written about the events of that concert; the half-assed planning by individuals supposedly hired by the Rolling Stones, the egos of rock stars and promoters and their petty squabbles, the politics of the hip community in the Bay Area, the violence and macho posturing of the Hells’ Angels and some concertgoers and, ultimately, the greed that stardom and capitalism breeds. Although other concerts and festival had their own share of ugliness, it was the press that made or unmade those festivals in the eye of the public, both hip and straight. Monterey and Woodstock got positive press; Altamont did not.
Then again, it didn’t deserve it. That becomes clear in San Francisco rock journalist Joel Selvin’s new book on the concert, Altamont, The Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day. The concert that spawned two songs by the Grateful Dead–Mason’s Children and New Speedway Boogie–and a film titled Gimme Shelter, is finally dissected by a man whose knowledge of the Bay Area rock scene and the culture it both represented and helped create is probably unrivalled by any other living writer. Selvin is the author of at least a dozen other books on rock and other popular music. In my view his newest is rivaled only by another of his titled Summer of Love: The Inside Story of LSD, Rock & Roll, Free Love and High Time in the Wild West. In both of these texts Selvin reaches beyond the music and the performers and gives the reader a look inside the culture the music was such a crucial part of.
Besides providing a fairly detailed discussion of the preparations for the concert, from Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully’s initial visit with Stones personnel in London–where he got busted at the airport with LSD–to the trading of blame for the debacle in front of the stage in the months after the show, Selvin lets it be known that he considers the Stones to be primary culprits in the situation. Asking questions aplenty regarding the management team set up to put on the show and the deals made regarding the filming of it, Selvin’s text makes a convincing argument that it was greed on the Stones part and ego on most every rock promoter’s part that created the potential for the melee that occurred that day in December 1969.
However, placing blame is not the point of the book. Indeed, trying to do so would detract from the colorful tale Selvin puts down in these pages. In telling his story, Selvin reveals the differences between the hippie ethos of community and freedom preferred by the San Francisco counterculture community and the star machinery understood by the Stones, especially their front man Mick Jagger. This understanding serves as a useful metaphor for similar contradictions coming to the fore in the counterculture and New Left communities throughout 1969 and 1970. As the forces of reaction intensified their attacks on youthful protest and counterculture lifestyle events, the forces of capital were also finally getting a handle on how to maximize their profits from the latter while simultaneously remove the political elements from the mix. Selvin’s description of the meetings and manipulations that took place in the lead-up to the Altamont show and in blaming that took place afterwards is almost as close to an insider’s look the average reader will find.
This is what makes this book so good. Not that it blames the Stones, the Hell’s Angels, Bill Graham or the Grateful Dead, but that it reveals a culture at a crossroads. As we understand it now, the monied interests of the entertainment industry were already in control of the wheels of power when it came to rock music and the counterculture. The hippie/freak dream would find itself struggling not only against the forces of the military, the police and the politicians, but also against its supposed allies in the rock business world. There would be those musicians who would jump into the riches head first drowning their misgivings in pleasures only Dionysius would have known, while others would test the waters first, unsure of their allegiances to the counterculture’s hoi polloi. Still others would just stumble on, following a path not necessarily apparent to even them, but creatively forging music and art. Everything seemed to be both a shot and a kiss away.