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The Rolling Stones at Altamont: What Went Wrong?

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Enter (again) Jaymes and Schneider, who have discovered Sears Point International Raceway. Which, it turns out, is owned by Filmways, which also own Concert Associates; the latter had presented the Stones in Los Angeles, and complained about the hard bargain the Stones drove on their contracts. Just when the site is almost set up for the concert, Cutler says, Filmways decides to claim 50 percent of the film revenues. Thus, another deal falls through.

In almost no time, some more wheeling and dealing brought them Altamont. Scully and Cutler arrived at the new site to view it for the first time just twenty hours before Santana's set was to begin. Scully almost croaked right there, but Cutler felt the show must go on regardless of the inherent ugliness of the site, and by 10 AM Saturday, the PA was set up and the stage had been moved over from Sears Point.

That, Cutler felt in retrospect, had been a big mistake; the stage built for Sears Point was to be on a hill-top. It was obviously inadequate for Altamont, but time was too short to build one right.

"One of the biggest mistakes – which we could do nothing about – is that the whole thing would have been very cool if we'd had a twelve-foot high stage, with one set of steps at the back," he says now.

But they never seriously considered cancelling, he admitted, because," . . . the energy that had been going all the time was a kind of buoyant, vibrant energy, and it was also a very powerful one.

"I think it disintegrated because no one knew how to handle the fact that the Stones had decided to come and play for free, quote, quote, in San Francisco. No one knew how to handle it. No one knew how to handle it, and I don't think I knew how to handle it. We did our best. But we got caught up in the bullshit."

The Rolling Stones on the Cover of Rolling Stone

That nobody knew how to handle it was obvious by the manner in which the Hell's Angels completely took over the festival. Even today, Cutler still doesn't like to talk about the Angels; it looks like he's becoming a San Francisco resident, and people in San Francisco don't generally criticize the Hell's Angels publicly because it's neither cool nor healthy.

Or, as Cutler explains it, "I'm not putting the Angels down at all. There's no doubt, for example, that the Angels – that a lot of cats got hurt that didn't deserve to get hurt. Because they were in the way . . . The Angels had a bum trip on 'em. No doubt about that – they like walked into it. There ain't no doubt about that either. Right in the beginning a number of Angels tried to sort it out as best they could and it just got worse and worse for them. And it just got blacker and blacker and blacker. Talk to the Angels. You'll find 20 Angels out of the 300 or however many were there who had a groovy time. They were the 20 who stayed at the Angels bus. The rest of them had a total bummer."

The exact nature of the understanding between the Angels and the concert promoters, if indeed there was any understanding, is still uncertain. Cutler admits the Angels were given $500 worth of beer by the Stones, but insists they were not hired as security. They were told it was going to be a party, and, presumably, the beer was to make them more festive.

According to Cutler, prior to the festival, "I asked how one deals with the different groups in this area. If you're organizing a thing for 300,000 people, how do you deal with 300,000 people? What do the Angels want, what does anybody want out of it? So as part of this process of finding out, we went to see the Angels. Rock Scully and I and Emmett Grogan went to see the Angels.

"Now the Angels didn't want anything out of it. The Angels aren't cops; they wouldn't police an event, and nobody would invite them to."

The obvious question, then, is how they ended up in that role. To which Cutler only replies that they did even though nobody expected them to, and that he didn't want any police in any form for the concert.

"The only Angels I ever talked to were the San Francisco Angels," he claims. "They were coming to a party. And it was clearly understood between them and me and Rock and everyone else that it was a party. That's what we wanted it to be."

But the Angels definitely were given $500 worth of beer – "Five hundred bucks? Peanuts. What's five hundred bucks to the Rolling Stones? Nothing – paid for by the Stones, prior to the concert.

The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007

"The Dead have bought beer for the Angels. The Airplane have bought beer for the Angels, lots of groups have. The traditional way of making it all cool and groovy and calm and nice for the Angels and for everybody else is to get a supply of beer in; the Angels give it out and drink it and have a party at their bus. It's happened before and it's happened successfully. No reason to believe that it wouldn't happen successfully again."

Then why do the Angels claim they were hired as security?

"That's an honest misconception on their part. No one in the whole world can hire the Angels to do anything."

Cutler has now worked himself somewhat into the Grateful Dead circle, and seems to be pretty happy with them. "As people, they are real, there's no bullshit about them, there's no pop star charisma about them," he says.

"It's a sad thing that lots of things that I will say will kind of fuck up whatever kind of degree of friendship that exists between me and the Rolling Stones," he laments. "I guess that with some members of the Rolling Stones that kind of friendship is pretty low and with other members it might be a bit better, but that's life, ain't it? Or that's life with the Rolling Stones, life in the pop melee. I think it's miserable.

"I don't think the Rolling Stones, as a group, have acted honorably. They haven't acted honorably quite simply because of all the shit that's been flying, directed at me, and Mick Jagger has made no attempt, at all, to protect me. Maybe I'm old-fashioned. I believe that if I work my guts out for somebody, and make 'em a lot of bread – which I did for example at Hyde Park – from the Hyde Park concert which the Stones made $400,000 out of, that's what they got for the American film rights. I got not one penny. And I dug doing it.

"The Rolling Stones can get up and say, 'Sam Cutler is a shit,' maybe, but he's not as much of a shit as everybody's made out. Because the whole Altamont trip personally cost me a lot. It cost me, for example, the whole financing of a series of festivals I was going to do in Europe, which in fact while it's been embarrassment, is groovy, 'cause that's the last festival I want to be involved in anywhere. It's the death of festivals. Bloody good thing as well. It can go in some other direction as far as I'm concerned."

Cutler, as his remarks make obvious, was miffed at the Stones. He had sought to see Mick back in London, but his request for a meeting got shuffled aside. Finally, he got to see Jagger for 10 minutes – an "embarrassing" 10 minutes, according to Cutler, because neither could think of anything to say to the other. But Cutler does have ideas about how the Stones might begin to improve matters.

"Well, for the start they should clearly and unequivocally come out with what they're going to do with the money," he suggested. "The Maysles Brothers should quite clearly state that their half of the film is profit. In other words, that the money is not being given to anything, it's not being given to any kind of a charity or anything."

This story is from the April 30th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.


To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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The Rolling Stones perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
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