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
Audience members look on as Hells Angels beat a fan with pool cues at the Altamont Free Concert at Altamont Speedway in California.
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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.

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.


From The Archives Issue 50: January 21, 1970