1969 was a big year.
It was the end of one of the most changing, intense, and breathtaking decades in history.
A man landed on the moon that year. The Beatles called it quits that year (although they wouldn’t announce it until early 1970). Nixon took office, and the first X rated movie won an oscar for best picture (Midnight Cowboy).
But it was truly the end of an era. And two incidents that happened that year were the perfect farewell and preamble.
August 15, through the 17th 1969.
Three days of peace and love.
The very word ‘Woodstock’ has come to symbolize all that a music festival has the capacity to be. Just the scale of Woodstock makes it a historic and remarkable event, if a singular reputation of size alone is enough to secure it’s unique place in music history.
The police estimated that there were a million people on the road that day trying to get to the festival. A million people; 186,000 tickets had been sold; the promoters figured that maybe 200,000, tops, would show. That seemed outlandish, if believable. But no one was prepared for what happened, and no one could have been.
An aspect of Woodstock of which few people are aware is despite how it may have looked, it was a very calculated, organized, and commercial venture. The four principal promoters were incorporated in the state of New York. As an organization, they were powerful enough to supervise the filming of the festival, and arrange for its production and release, with all profits going to them. This was not a charity event. They dealt with the bands and organized payment, transportation, and security. It might be surprising to discover that everyone that performed was paid and paid well.
The festival actually took place in Bethel, New York, on Max Yasgur’s farm about fifty miles away from Woodstock. Woodstock was the original location since that was where Bob Dylan was currently residing.
It was the culmination and eventual poster for the 60’s and it’s peace and love values and culture.
Then only a few months later a literal death knell was stabbed in the back of the 60’s. Along with the 60’s, peace and love were over on December 6th, 1969.
Altamont was a free one-day music festival that became a reality on December the 6th, 1969. From the start it tried too hard to emulate the lore that was Woodstock.
Mick Jagger was the festivals primary organizer, and on paper seemed like a great idea. Why not have a Woodstock west? In the hippie peace and love mecca of California? Make it a free show? What’s more peace and love than that? Even get the cool hippie bands like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby Stills and Nash to play? Then headline the whole thing with the world’s greatest rock and roll band who were just a little mad at themselves for not playing Woodstock in the first place? What could go wrong?
Problems plagued the event from the very beginning. The simple task of deciding where to hold the concert turned out to be a big problem. Originally the concert was to take place in San Francisco like so many other free concerts before it. Once it was realized that too many people were going to show up, it was moved out of the city, and then twenty hours before the concert, it was finally moved to Altamont. Since people had already arrived from all over the country for this concert, moving it was considered a very risky proposition. The prime concern during the moves was that the staging and sound equipment had to be ready in time for the concerts. And the decision for the stage to be low instead of having an extremely tall stage like at Woodstock would end up being a problem, but the real problem was yet to arrive.
Mick Jagger and company decided to hire the Hell’s Angels for security.
The agreed price of their working participation? $500 dollars worth of beer. Great idea.
The Angels’ most popular choice of security weaponry for the day were pool cues, which were used to beat people. The other popular weapon was the beer can. They assumed that the best way to calm an angry crowd would be to throw full cans of beer at them.
When Jefferson Airplane was on stage, singer Marty Balin complained about the pool cues. He was promptly hit and knocked out for a few by one of the hell’s angels. With a pool cue.
After that, The Grateful Dead decided they wouldn’t play.
Then it was The Stones turn. They took as long as possible before taking the stage. They wanted their entrance to be spectacular. They got more than they bargained for.
During the third song,, “Sympathy for the Devil”, a fight erupted in the front of the crowd, at the foot of the stage. After a lengthy pause and another appeal for calm, the band restarted the song and continued their set with less incident until the start of “Under My Thumb”.
Eighteen year old Meredith Hunter tried to get onstage. He was quickly chased away by the Hell’s angels. Then Hunter made the mistake of showing a gun he was carrying. He was stabbed to death in a scuffle that was caught by the official festival film crew.
The Stones stopped playing again with Jagger pleading with the crowd to “cool out”. It was too late. The Stones didn’t know anybody had died and went on…nervously.
By the way, the next song the Stones played was a debut. They had only recorded it days before in Muscle Shoals Alabama.
But Altamont will never be known for that.
It was the end of the peace and love 60’s, and an entrance to the hedonism of the 70’s. And only a few months after the culmination of complete peace and love.
Four people actually died at the Altamont concert: one murdered, one drowned, and two run over. Untold dozens were injured, some severely, and many overdosed on drugs. The crowd left behind a mountain of garbage and litter; out of the 300,000 who attended, only 12 volunteered to stick around the next day and try to clean the place up. The whole experience left everyone, crowd and performers alike, feeling sour, frazzled and distressed.
It wasn’t just the end of a decade. It was the end of an era.