The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont: Hype In The News

Once again, the hype of the Love Generation triumphed over its own reality.

Audience members look on as Hells Angels beat a fan with pool cues at the Altamont Free Concert at Altamont Speedway in California.
20th Century Fox/Michael Ochs Archives/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
January 21, 1970

If this was a Kingdom of Young People, as one of the songs suggested, it was one that was civil and fun. As spectators shouted repeatedly during the concert, "We're really getting it together."

– San Francisco Examiner, December 7th, 1969

The media of the San Francisco Bay Area, with a few exceptions, were programmed strictly for Woodstock West — they knew what to expect and whatever happened they knew what their story would say. The catch-phrases were all there, having been pinned down by Time Magazine months before, following the Woodstock weekend: "peace and love," "marijuana passed through the crowd as sacrament," and of course, most importantly, "good wishes." Since it was undeniable that one man was actually murdered at the concert, a certain minimal adjustment was made, as if that event had been the result of some sort of unpredictable act of God, like a stray bolt of lightning.

The national mass media were set for another Woodstock, too — and when it didn't happen, they looked the other way, rather than explore the ugly mistakes of Altamont. Confronted by the bad vibes in the photos it gathered unto its breast, Life Magazine decided against doing the story. So did Newsweek. And elsewhere — as in the New York Times — the story was given coverage, but without much insight.

One hard and familiar lesson of Altamont is this: when the news media know what the public wants to hear and what they want to believe, they give it them.

At 3 AM Saturday, KFRC announced that Woodstock was "Altamont East," and the public wants traffic jams, give 'em the biggest traffic jam ever, despite the fact that there were no traffic jams. You coud drive at sixty-five miles an hour from Altamont to Livermore and back, twenty miles in all, with KFRC, 610 on your car radio, informing you that traffic was backed up twenty miles in either direction and that access was completely closed off.

If you carried a portable FM at the concert itself you could hear Stefan Ponek of KSAN joyously proclaiming "good vibes" and "peaceful gathering" while Hells Angels beat dozens into the ground before your eyes and the crowd around you pushed, shoved, and cursed your very presence.

Some of the radio stations in the area were seriously committed to the event, in spirit and, in the case of KFRC, financially. KFRC hired a helicopter for the Rolling Stones (so they could get promo photos) and both KFRC and KSAN broadcast appeals every hour — sometimes every half-hour — for workers, for food and equipment. Now there is nothing wrong with this — but it seems incontestable that this sort of hype, promotion, public service, whatever one choses to call it — made it that much more inevitable that expecations, and not events, would define the "news."

The news section of the San Francisco Chronicle does not publish on Sundays; instead the Bay Area receives news courtesy of the stolid San Francisco Examiner. Thus on the day following the concert, those who had been there and those who had not were greeted by a half page photo of young girls dancing and a giant headline which read: "300,000 Say It With Music." Inside, a full page of photos — two crowd shots and a nude wine-drinker who was later beaten up (no mention of that) — was headlined "We Should Be Together." The story that accompanied the photos followed the headlines; while the first paragraphs noted the four deaths and one injury, the basic thrust was: "But for the stabbing, all appeared peaceful at the concert . . . The listeners heeded the advice of the Jefferson Airplane: "We should Be Together."

Once again, the hype of the Love Generation triumphed over its own reality. The Examiner's reporter was even able to re-structure one of the day's most chilling events, the beating of Marty Balin. After reporting one "scuffle" which "momentarily marred" the good feelings, he wrote: "The action brought a gentle rebuke from the Jefferson Airplane. One told the fighters over the public address system: 'Violence isn't necessary.' Others told the Angels: 'Hostility isn't part of this. Don't spoil the day.' The Angels backed off. Their leaders told them to 'cool it.' The rank and file Angels did."

The Examiner story contained no other reference to Angel violence, before or after the action involving the Airplane, save for the account of the murder at the head of the report. It was Woodstock with one stray stabbing — no real difference. There was no accurate sense of the mood of the crowd, the stage crew, the performers or the Angels — and while the story was filed some time prior to the actual performance of the Stones, one wonders if it would have been substantially more correct had the reporter been able to wait out the concert.

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