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The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont: Let It Bleed

Page 4 of 19

The scene back there was dense with groupies (most dazzling: Miss Mercy behind her raccoon-ring eye makeup), and celebrities (a toss-up between Tim Leary, who went forth, gamely flashing smiles and peace signs in the direction of violence; and manager/promoter/entrepreneur Steve Paul, gloomy in his blue bathrobe, muttering dire presentiments), not to mention writers and photographers.

Out front, the battle was rejoined during Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's desultory performance (the rest of the band had played only after David Crosby had urged them to in the strongest terms). The Angels, at one point, amassed a fairly spectacular charge, pool cues flailing whoever got in their way. At the end of their set, several stretchers were sent into the audience and bodies were passed overhead and across the stage to the Red Cross area. Those who were carried out and those who departed under their own steam were quickly replaced, as it became obvious that the next set was going to be the Stones.

Despite balloons and pennants and a few other picturesque touches (like the big polyethylene walk-in bubble/dome some co-freaks had set up), the physical atmosphere at Altamont was singularly ominous and depressing. The more people arrived, the more clear it was that this was nowhere in particular; just a patch of land, covered with bleached-out long grass and sticker burrs. Nothing had been done to make it the least bit festive. And the later it got, the worse the air became — filled with a rancid combination of fog, dust, smoke and glare. A squinty grey light made everything hard to look at.

The 300,000 anonymous bodies huddled together on the little dirt hills were indeed an instant city — a decaying urban slum complete with its own air pollution. By the time the Stones finally came on, dozens of garbage fires had been set all over the place. Flickering silhouettes of people trying to find warmth around the blazing trash reminded one of the medieval paintings of tortured souls in the Dance of Death. The stench of the smoke from tens of thousands of potato chip packages and half-eaten sandwiches brought vomiting to many. It was in this atmosphere that Mick sang his song about how groovy it is to be Satan. Never has it been sung in a more appropriate setting.

The hill on the concert side of the west fence was packed almost as tight with people as center stage area. People tended to fade into one another after awhile — unless there was something especially strange or loud about them that made you remember they were real and not just part of a huge movie set.

There was the young mother in blue blouse with Peter Pan collar and pleated skirt, looking like she'd just stepped out of a Hayward model home, who pushed ahead of her husband. In one hand she carried a baby only a few months old. She'd nudge the person ahead of her with the baby, smile and look wide-eyed at them as they turned to see who was pushing — and then she'd push right through.

Just a few feet from the fence and about 100 yards from the stage was a freak cat about 25, wearing wire-rimmed glasses, trim black goatee, T-shirt and jeans. With him was a big cat, blond, with mustache.

They were drinking from a gallon of Red Mountain Vin Rose. "It's got two tabs of mescaline in it," the blond guy told someone who asked for a drink. "Organic. Good stuff, too. We put it in this morning."

"Good thing these people ain't on reds and wine," Goatee guffawed at about 4:45 when Cutler came to the stage and announced:

"The Rolling Stones won't come out till everyone gets off the stage."

"If they'd been on reds and wine, you bet he wouldn't been sayin' it like that."

Then about a dozen Angels, mostly officers, some carrying double, ploughed through the crowd on their bikes. An admirer in the crowd offered a shaggy Angel a swig from his wine bottle. The Angel, sporting clean new colors, stopped, dismounted, grabbed the gallon in both hands and put it to his lips for just a moment, handed it back and putted on off — a lotta show for a little sip of wine.

"We come down on our bikes," said Sonny Barger later, "because we were told we were supposed to park in front of the stage, and so like when we started coming down through the crowd everybody was outta sight got up and moved and we come down in low gear and didn't try to run into anybody or do any of that kind of thing. Everybody got up really nice, some people offered us drinks on the way down and like . . . we must have come into approximate contact with at least a thousand people and outta them thousand people we had trouble with one person . . . one broad jumped up and said something that pertained to a four letter word and then Angels and one of Angels stopped his bike and he had his old lady on the back and he said, 'Are you gonna let them talk about Angels like that?' and she jumped off the bike and slapped the other broad that said that that was in the crowd and got back on the bike and we proceeded down with no problem. We pulled up in front of the stage and parked where we were told we were supposed to park."

The flaw in this story, according to Sam Cutler and Rock Scully, is no one told the Angels to put their bikes down in front of the stage.

It got cold. Then it got colder. Time passed. More time. The Stones were waiting, like they always wait. Tuning up, they said. But really, there was something else going on, and it tied in with the whole superstar sensibility in which the Stones increasingly enwrap themselves. They were waiting for it to get really dark out, so the banks of spotlights would set them off to the most dramatic effect possible.

Suddenly, the lights glowed on, a cold-fire red gleaming on the Stones, as they wedged between the Angels onstage to their places. Jagger's demonic orange and black satin cape/robe gleamed wickedly. Into "Jumpin' Jack Flash," rather haltingly. To open up a little dancing room for himself, Jagger had to ask the Angels to step back a few paces. There must have been a hundred people — who knows? maybe 200 — on that stage, and Jagger was performing in a small pocket at center stage, like it or not.

"Carol" was a little better, but stiff.

"Sympathy for the Devil." They stopped in the middle. A skirmish had broken out at stage left. This was the knifing/stomping of Meredith Hunter, perhaps 25 feet from where Jagger pranced and sang, then stopped. To one observer 20 feet to Jagger's rear, the glint of the long knives was clearly visible. So, if the Stones were looking, they saw it too. The same observer spoke with several others who were onstage (as did Rolling Stone), and none, except for the onstage Angels, claim to have seen a gun.

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