The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont: Let It Bleed

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According to Keith Richards, it did go pretty well. On his arrival in London, he told a United Press reporter that Altamont "was basically well-handled, but lots of people were tired and a few tempers got frayed."

It is impossible to speak of the music that went down without placing it in the context of the violence, the fear and the anxiety, which, during the course of the day, peaked to higher and higher points of refinement and climax.

As Santana was setting up, a chick toward the front of the stage was telling her old man: "It's weird. They consulted the astrologers before setting the dates for Woodstock, but they couldn't have consulted an astrologer about today. Anyone can see that with the moon in Scorpio, today's an awful day to do this concert. There's a strong possibility of violence and chaos and any astrologer could have told them so. Oh well, maybe the Stones know something I don't know."

The violence was not long to follow. (It had already begun earlier, of course, but to have it going on while the bands were playing was a new twist.) Between the first song and the second, one young-looking fellow tried to pass nearby to get on stage. He was wearing a blue and yellow sports shirt, jeans and had long straight blond hair over his ears. As he tried to get by some Hell's Angels he was kicked in the face by an Angel's booted feet and pulverized with punches and lay spread out on the ground unable to move or be moved, there were so many people jammed up to the stage.

A lot of photographers kept right on taking their photos through the worst of it, right up close, without getting hassled. So did the movie crews, but then they had Angels for bodyguards.

Not every photographer was so lucky, though. John Young, 24, who moved in with his Leica to capture some of the bashing, wound up with 13 stitches in his head. The Angels were beating a couple of naked people to the ground during Santana's set. In moments, the nudies were up again, and Young started taking pictures, when the Angels resumed bashing them.

An Angel spotted him — out of some ten or twelve photogs immediately surrounding him — and demanded: "I want your film or you get hit." Young kept shooting, and the Angel leapt at him, smashing the camera into Young's face. Down he went. When several Angels began pounding him, Young rolled into a protective ball. "It felt like they were hitting me with a hammer and a broken bottle," Young said later. Observers said it was pool cues.

The Angels, many of them, were carrying — and applying to a lot of non-Angel heads — loaded pool cues, saw-offed (usually) to a length somewhat longer than a billy club. About the length, in fact, of the cattle prods that we've all seen in photographs of redneck brutality against black people in the South.

Eventually they got around to removing the film from his camera. Drenched in blood — hair, face, neck, shirt back and front — Young ran 50 yards into the crowd, then sort of collapsed until the Red Cross took him to their tent, where they cleaned him up, administered novocaine, and stitched him up.

"I'd never seen a Hell's Angel before," explained Young, who's from a small town in Maine, "and I didn't really know they could do that." After the patchwork, he was able to watch the rest of the concert. He took no more photos.

Santana began their next song, but were interrupted by the Angels' running across stage to the right to beat someone up. Santana finished their set amidst very uptight vibes around the stage.

The next group up was the Airplane and by the time they came on it was standing room only for about seventy-five yards from the stage but everyone slowly sat down when the people seventy-six yards from the stage yelled.

Sam Cutler announced that a woman had given birth and clean sheets and diapers were needed and within minutes the stage was beseiged with them. Then Cutler introduced the Jefferson Airplane and they began their set with "We Can Be Together" and ended the set with "Volunteers of America." In between there was a disturbance with some Hell's Angels and members of the audience and Marty Balin was knocked out by a punch from one of the Angels when he tried to intercede in the disturbance. Paul Kantner began to make a speech about the event and was challenged by a Hell's Angel who grabbed a microphone and the people began to boo. Another Hell's Angel came up to Kantner and a fight almost broke out between them but was cooled down before any punches were thrown on stage and they went into a song. When it ended, Grace Slick was rapping softly into the microphone about what was going down with the Hell's Angels and everyone else. It was almost too much to take in. An Instant Re-Play would have been useful, the action was so thick and heavy. Consider the symbolism alone:

With all the grandeur of Bert Parks inviting last year's Miss America to step forward, the Airplane had asked, "Will the Hell's Angels please take the stage."

Then came that "up against the wall motherfucker" song, with its soaring (old-fashioned) harmonies, Marty Balin's voice riding high and clear over the ensemble, the Jefferson Airplane celebrating the forces of chaos and anarchy, proud to be part of that trip. Very, very proud.

Then Marty saw a black man getting swallowed up by the forces of chaos and anarchy — in the form of the Angels, half a dozen of whom were thumping the shit out of him. At some point near the start of "Somebody to Love," Balin jumped in to break it up. He at least laid a hand on an Angel. It is said he threw a punch, and maybe said, "Fuck you!"

During the second half of "Somebody to Love," Marty Balin lay unconscious, having gotten himself blasted by an Angel. The rest of the band played on. Balin's absence, in musical terms, scarcely mattered. The sound was so bad you couldn't tell the difference.

It was at just about this point that the Angels' position became clear. They were in charge of the stage. They had taken it that morning. It was theirs, musicians or no musicians. What the fuck, wasn't nobody tough enough to take it from them, was there? The Stones? Not likely. It had become, to a disturbing degree, a Hell's Angels Festival.

Nothing profound happened musically during the Flying Burrito Brothers set. It seldom does. But somehow the simple verities of their countrified electric music soothed the warriors. There were no fights. As luck would have it, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards chose to emerge from the backstage trailer where they'd been holed up to have a look at the stage and the audience during this period of calm. They strolled about, wound up onstage, smiling, for a bit. Then back to the trailer, where, in true superstar fashion, Jagger was signing autographs (on album jackets, and even draft cards). Whenever they ventured any distance from the smallish white trailer, it was behind three or four burly Angels.

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