Week in Rock History: Altamont Ends in Tragedy - Rolling Stone
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Week in Rock History: Altamont Ends in Tragedy

Plus: John Lennon dies and Graham Nash forms a supergroup

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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.

December 8, 1980: John Lennon is murdered
John Lennon’s death at the hands of deranged fan Mark David Chapman was a nonsensical tragedy for his millions of fans around the world. The attack occurred at 11 p.m. outside his New York apartment building, the Dakota, while Lennon and Yoko Ono were returning from a recording studio. Lennon was shot several times by Chapman, who had received an autograph from the singer earlier that day. He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital. He was 40.

Surreally, the first national announcement of Lennon’s death was made by legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell, who interrupted the football game he had been commenting on to say gravely:

Remember this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City – John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the west side of New York City. The most famous, perhaps, of all of the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which, in duty bound, we have to take.

Ono did not hold a funeral for Lennon and Chapman remains in prison.

December 6, 1988: Roy Orbison dies of a heart attack
Enigmatic and gifted, Roy Orbison cut a distinctive figure on the early rock & roll circuit of the Fifties and Sixties. Clad in black leather, hair styled in an inky pompadour, he exuded a toughness that contrasted his arrestingly sincere vocals. A crossover rockabilly star, Orbison’s country inclinations melded with his complex balladry in a string of hit singles, including the enduring “Only the Lonely” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.”

Orbison’s truest asset was his remarkable voice – a pure, warbling tenor that slid into bright falsetto as easily as it dipped into gravelly despair. Later in his career he was a member of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup, in which he happily harmonized with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and other rock legends.

In 1988, one year after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and in the midst of his success with the Traveling Wilburys, Orbison took time off to visit his mother in Tennessee. He died of a heart attack in her home at age 52.

LAST WEEK: David Bowie and Bing Crosby Share a Strange Duet


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