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The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont: Hype In The News

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The sense of the day conveyed by the Examiner coverage maintained itself, in some minds, nearly a week after the concert was over. The December 10th issue of Variety headlined their story "Stones Create Another Woodstock, 300,000 Flock to Cuffo Coast Bash." The story claimed that the concert was costing the Stones $250,000. The Variety reporter also claimed that "those who were on hand for last summer's famed Woodstock Festival in New York labeled Saturday's gathering as an equal." Ron Naso of KFRC News had this to say: "We think it was beautiful. Things went smoothly and people were happy. When you have a big amount of people together a couple of things happen, unfortunately; it's nothing anybody can do anything about." He added, "After all, look what happens in Vietnam every day."

The news staff of the Chronicle is the hippest of any metropolitan daily in the country; they are extremely sensitive to anything involving rock and roll, dope, the draft, and see-through fashions. And they got it right about Altamont — the violence, the audience, the mood of the day itself. They presented with deadly accuracy what had really mattered at Altamont and ignored what had been of no consequence. It must have been a shock for those who had seen no other reports save that of the Examiner to read what the Chronicle had to say about "Woodstock West."

On page four was a separate story headlined "Eyewitness to Chilling Violence," an interview with a cameraman who had watched many of the beatings that took place at Altamont. The photographer, Randy Cook, had come to do a photo essay on "The Brotherhood of Life" (leave it to the Chronicle to find that angle). The story, below a picture of what seemed like an endless line of Hells Angels, described the young man's horror at the indifference to the violence that was shown by most of the crowd.

The Chronicle coverage — inevitably framed by other violent headlines describing other events — cruelly illustrated the spectrum of violence that is dominating the season and the way in which the rock and roll community, its leaders — the Stones — and its followers — the audience — has itself joined that spectrum as a full partner, in terms of what it had created and in terms of what the audience and the stage managers at Altamont showed they would tolerate.

Ralph J. Gleason's column in the Chronicle was the first to point out that the Angels were to be involved. And Gleason's coverage in telling it like it was (see story) was without rival in the dailies.

The Berkeley Tribe and the San Francisco Good Times hit the street Thursday night; both papers devoted most of their news space to Altamont, balanced with coverage of the murders of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of Chicago and the gun battle between Panthers and police in Los Angeles.

The Good Times cover quoted Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland Hells Angels: "Mick Jagger Used Us For Dupes." The stories inside, like those of the Tribe, described Altamont as the end of an era — of the Sixties, of innocent days, and by implication, of the righteous self-confidence of a generation. There was little search for blame — or responsibility — in either of the papers. The Good Times printed a half-page story detailing the statements Sonny Barger had made on the KSAN special Sunday night. Virtually all of the stories presented a similar viewpoint toward the Angels: "They did what they'd been told to do in their own way; if there is anyone responsible, it's us — or those in charge of the concert — who gave them the responsiblity of acting as security. You can really relate to the Angels; they're right up front, no bullshit, no fooling around. If people fucked with them [and that could mean anything from starting a fight to tampering with a bike to talking or being stuck in the wrong place] they ought to know exactly what to expect."

The articles in the two papers presented the fear, the chaos, and the selfishness of the event; those by George Csicsery in the Tribe and Sandy Darlington in the Good Times reflected the finest sense of the disaster that appeared in print. The Tribe, as usual, mostly displayed an above-it-all cynicism: "God, all those people are so fucked not to know what we know" — while the Good Times, also as usual, was thoughtful, direct, and vivid. And the Good Times — and this is amazing — printed the only clear photograph of violence that appeared in any of the local newspapers in the week following the concert at Altamont. The only one. Lots of Wood-stocky pictures all around, for the straight and underground press, but only one photo that presented with any clarity at all just what violence at Altamont really meant. Yes, you could really relate to it. You knew exactly what it meant.

This is a story from the January 21, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.


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