Cultural history is a complex web to unravel, a field of integrated experience existing at the intersection of current events, arts traditions, and historical interpretations. Spanning both the heights of human achievement and the depths of our depravity, culture, especially in times of upheaval and social change, can become fractious and frayed, the terms by which we once defined our understanding of Art, Beauty, and Progress becoming evermore untethered from any unified points of reference.
In the annals of recent cultural history, few dichotomies demonstrate the complexity of trying to understand an era as much as that of the Woodstock Festival and the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Held on Saturday, December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway just east of California’s Bay Area, the Altamont concert is often contrasted with the Woodstock festival that took place less than four months earlier. While Woodstock represented "peace and love", Altamont came to be viewed as the end of the hippie era and the de facto conclusion of late-1960s American youth culture.
Approximately 300,000 attended the concert headlined by The Rolling Stones, and some anticipated that it would be a "Woodstock West". However, the event is best known for considerable violence, including the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter, three accidental deaths, scores injured, as well as extensive theft and property damage.
Altamont went south for obvious reasons (hiring Hell’s Angels as security is but one aspect), summarily described in Rolling Stone magazine on January 21, 1970 as “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity."
More politely put, The Rolling Stones were finishing up their first American tour in two years, promoting their soon-to-be-released album “Let It Bleed”, and the counterculture, high on the success of Woodstock, wanted to repeat the experience. Despite countless shortcomings in planning and facilities, a free concert on the West Coast, the birthplace of the hippie movement, seemed like a fabulous idea. Sadly, as one critic wrote, the concert turned out be "rock and roll's all-time worst day…a day when everything went perfectly wrong."
Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles shot footage of the event and incorporated it into their now infamous 1970 documentary film titled Gimme Shelter. Much of the film chronicles the behind-the-scenes dealmaking that took place to make the free Altamont concert happen, before turning to the 1969 concert itself at the Altamont Speedway, the security for which was provided by the Hells Angels (armed with pool cues). As the day progresses, with drug-taking and drinking by the Angels and members of the audience, the mood turns ugly.
Fights break out during performances by The Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane; when Mick Jagger arrives to the grounds via helicopter, he is punched in the face by an unruly fan while making his way to his trailer. At one point Jefferson Airplane lead male singer Marty Balin is knocked out by a Hells Angel; Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh arrive, but due to the violence, The Grateful Dead opt not to play.
The Stones are shown appearing onstage that evening and opening with "Jumpin' Jack Flash", and are also shown performing "Sympathy for the Devil", as the tension continues to build. Onstage in the documentary’s climax, the usually confident Jagger mostly looks lost and confused, even scared. Perhaps genuinely expecting a peace-and-love-fest, as Jagger looks across the crowd, he perhaps senses the dark current of the counterculture, the wild rush of stark faces soured by the fading power of “peace and love” to overcome the ravenousness common amongst all humanity.
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