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Week in Rock History: Altamont Ends in Tragedy

Plus: John Lennon dies and Graham Nash forms a supergroup

December 5, 2011 12:30 PM ET
rolling stones altamont
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones perform at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California.
Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This week in rock history, Graham Nash left the Hollies to form a supergroup, the Altamont Festival ended in violence, Bob Dylan hosted "Night of the Hurricane" and John Lennon and Roy Orbison passed away. 

December 7, 1968: Graham Nash leaves the Hollies to form Crosby, Stills and Nash
As frontman of the Hollies, one of the most prominent bands of the British Invasion, Graham Nash learned his way around cheery rock hooks and slickly layered harmonies; he anchored their breakthrough Stateside single, 1966's "Bus Stop," and several more hits. These skills helped when he split from the Hollies in December 1968 to start a supergroup with an entirely different sound.

Crosby, Stills and Nash were the second acts of three internationally famous faces: David Crosby hailed from the folk-rockers the Byrds and Stephen Stills came from Buffalo Springfield. The new group's music leaned closest toward the Byrds' material, with gentle harmonies and interwoven guitars, and they were signed quickly to Atlantic Records by its legendary founder, Ahmet Ertegun. CSN's self-titled debut was an immediate hit when it was released in 1969, launching two top singles, "Marrakesh Express" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."

The group has continued to record their counterculture folk sparingly but fairly consistently ever since. Neil Young has been known to throw his vocals and surname into their mix, as well.

December 6, 1969: The Altamont Festival ends in violence
Called "the concert that ended the Sixties" by dismayed music fans, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a grim, ungovernable failure.

The concert, held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, was organized by the Rolling Stones as a West Coast equivalent to Woodstock and a free, fan-appreciation conclusion to their American tour. They brought in other major acts of the era, including Santana, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The Stones' management also hired the Hells Angels for security, but that backfired; as evidenced in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, the Angels had little interest in maintaining order at the event.

Altamont was a hostile environment from the start – Mick Jagger was punched in the face within moments of his arrival, and the Grateful Dead fled before their set. Things really descended into mayhem during the Stones' headlining performance. One fan, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, attempted to rush the stage and was stabbed to death by the Hells Angels. Three more people died that evening: two from a hit-and-run car accident and one by drowning in an irrigation canal. It was a devastating day for the audience and performers alike.

December 8, 1975: Bob Dylan hosts "Night of the Hurricane" at Madison Square Garden
Bob Dylan's joyous Rolling Thunder Revue – a nationwide, caravan-like tour that included Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and more ­– was one of the most ingenious concert draws of 1975. Its final date was, unsurprisingly for Dylan, a topical event: a benefit concert for the imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, for whom Dylan wrote the song "Hurricane" that year, which took the side of those who believed Carter had been wrongfully convicted of triple homicide.

Dylan's fundraising concert, held at Madison Square Garden in New York, featured appearances by supportive celebrities, including Roberta Flack and Muhammad Ali, plus Carter himself, who called in from prison. Dylan and his Revue delivered impassioned takes on his hits "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," "It Ain't Me, Babe" and, of course, "Hurricane," and the show raised over $100,000 to pursue Carter's release. It was one of Dylan's most significant benefit efforts since the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, and it eventually ended as he'd hoped: Carter was freed without bail in 1985.

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Song Stories

“Madame George”

Van Morrison | 1968

One of the first stream-of-consciousness epics to make it onto a Van Morrison record, his drawn-out farewell to the eccentric "Madame George" lasted nearly 10 minutes, combining ingredients from folk, jazz and classical music. The character that gave the song its title provoked speculation that it was about a drag queen, though Morrison denied this in Rolling Stone. "If you see it as a male or a female or whatever, it's your trip," he remarked. "I see it as a ... a Swiss cheese sandwich. Something like that."

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