Review of ALTAMONT:THE ROLLING STONES, THE HELLS ANGELS & THE INSIDE STORY OF ROCK’S DARKEST DAY
Dey Street Books
The free concert at the Altamont Speedway given by the Rolling Stones on December 6th 1969 was destined to fail. It was a machine with many moving parts and no operator at the controls. However, contrary to popular belief, the root causes do not just lay with The Stones or the Hells Angels. Lots of people and minor incidents added to the sum total of it’s abject failure. 1969 was the year the tide turned. The peak was Woodstock. After Woodstock, Charles Manson and the concert at Altamont were the signs the tide had turned.
Joel Selvin masterfully lays out the story of what led up to that day and the fallout after. Before his book you could find pieces of the story in other books on the Rolling Stones and the documentary masterpiece Gimme Shelter. However, those were all singular perspectives focusing on the day itself; and some were slanted by the source. Selvin puts the puzzle together and the picture is not what you expected.
In 1969 the Rolling Stones hadn’t toured the US since 1966. They were broke in England, trying to write an album and figure out what to do with the soon to be dead mad genius original member Brian Jones. Since 1967, many new bands had risen to prominence from Cream to Led Zeppelin to Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead. The Stones were questioning their current relevance and they needed money. Bad contracts had them hamstrung in England. Time and again, it’s been proven that touring is the surefire way a band can make money.
The Rolling Stones hauled ass to America. Almost as soon as they landed, the hustlers, dealers and hangers on came out of the woodwork and attached themselves to the circus. The Stones having been out of touch for 3 years gravitated to the bands of San Francisco. That’s what the kids were listening to, those were the bands that were touring, not to mention the bands with experience putting on free shows. This was the network the Stones needed to tap into to get back on top.
The Stones finished the Let It Bleed album soon after arriving in America. They booked a tour which would ultimately culminate in the Altamont spectacle
Now, history usually lays the blame of what happened that day at the feet of the Hells Angels but it’s much more complex than that. If anything they were the convenient scapegoat. It was also more than the brown acid, the shit weather and the audience themselves. Looking at the evidence Selvin puts forth, the blame should be doled out evenly across the board with the Stones rightfully accepting their end. But, as time has proven, The Rolling Stones write their own history.
What I wrote earlier about the machine with all the moving parts and no operator couldn’t be a more apt description of what happened. So many players, minor and major, ensured this train was going off the rails.
With all the sympathy going to the devil.