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"Don't blame me when the mourning dove keeps callin'
Singin' about the politics of love"

                                                            —Donít Blame Me
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  • Altamont
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Altamont

(excerpt from "Water From Another Time")

      In late October of 1969, I went to my first big rock concert. I had heard bands play at love-ins in the park, and Mary and I had gone to some sort of music festival, but I had never bought a ticket in advance for a major show. I was way into the Jefferson Airplane, and managed to talk Bob from Noe St. into going with me. When the Airplane headlined a weekend series of shows at Winterland, the opening bands were often Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead, and so it was on that night. I didnít know about the Dead, but I do remember a weird-sounding band with two drummers (something I had never heard of) and a crazy blues singer. The Airplane blew me away with stunning vocal harmonies and masterful bass/guitar duet work. On November 15th, the largest anti-war demonstrations yet seen took place in many cities all over America; it was Moratorium Day. No business as usual. In San Francisco, about five hundred thousand people gathered at the Polo Field to listen to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and the Airplane play free for peace. There were also a lot of pompous, boring political speeches telling us what we already knew; for these, the people in my group always sat down. So it was get down and smoke a joint for the bullshit, stand up and boogie for the music. We also went to the paid CSN&Y concert that night at Winterland; David Crosby was unable to sing, as he had given his throat for the cause yelling into the funky microphones at the free gig.

      As November got old, stories began surfacing about a free Rolling Stones concert to be held somewhere in the Bay area. Mick Jagger settled the rumours by announcing in New York City that the Stones would indeed play a free concert at the end of their tour, around the first week in December. When all the local heavies (Santana, the Dead, the Airplane, CSN&Y, etc.) signed on, it became clear that this was the West Coast's answer to Woodstock. Big. Free. Stones. But a few problems developed.

      An understandably nervous Park and Recreation Commission never gave the original venue in Golden Gate Park a permit, so the site was changed to Sears Point Raceway, then to Altamont Raceway at the last minute. Chip Monk's crew from Woodstock had about twenty-four hours to move their half-built stage from Sears Point, so it was now four feet off the ground. To make sure no one messed with the performers, who were practically in the audience, the Hell's Angels were hired (for free beer) as stage security. There was no time to get any food concessions, or enough toilets, or to consider access or medical or what about the cops or anything. Plus the moon was in Scorpio that day.

      Tom drove us out to Altamont in his company pickup truck. Freedom snuggled with Sunshine and me in the back, as she now felt uncomfortable with Tom. We parked on the freeway a couple of miles from the event, just like everyone else, and hiked in. Half a million people had shown up for the big party, creating quite a haze of dust. Once we had chosen a meeting place for after the show, Tom left me with the girls. While we were standing by the backstage fence waiting in line for the toilet, Steve Stills came running by at top speed. He charged up the hill and was gone, but there was a big commotion behind him at one of the backstage trailers. Someone had broken through the ring of security staff and tried to punch Mick Jagger in the mouth. It was not an auspicious start for the day.

      After waiting for over an hour in line at the porta-potties, the three of us made our way up close to the action. There were stage announcements about bad acid and we couldn't find anything we felt OK about dropping, so we mostly drank red wine from a gallon jug that Freedom had been thoughtful enough to bring along from the truck. This was a fortunate choice of depressants for a day that brought out the ugly in everyone. The Angels drove their bikes right through the crowd, since they had no other way to get to the stage without abandoning the bike. This made some folks in the audience a little testy. There were a lot of prospective members present, and they had to show how tough they were and how little shit they would take from some lame-ass hippie whose old ladyís tits they had just fondled. Fights broke out, and cries of "off the Angels" rose from the audience. This did not help matters at all. Neither did the presence of a three hundred-pound man who was having a psychotic experience and running around in the crowd completely naked, screaming something unintelligible but nonetheless frightening for that.

      Back on stage, Marty Balin said something that a Hell's Angel did not like, and the Angel decked him. The crowd resented this (to say nothing of the band), and some people yelled and threw stuff at the Angels and their bikes. Not good. The Angels responded with sawed-off pool cues to the head, and the hassle grew into a really terrifying scene, with cuesticks rising and falling and regular requests over the PA for medical help from some very freaked out stagehands. At one point, the crowd drew back from the stage in fear, creating a pressure ripple that forced Sunshine and me toward some nearby scaffolding. We could see people ten feet in front of us being crushed against the wooden beams, but we were totally trapped, helpless. I became quite frightened, not too far from panic. As soon as we could move, we found Freedom and got further back in the crowd.

      The Dead were supposed to play before the Stones but had decided against it, so we waited without music for about two hours as the weak December went down in the west and the stage lights came on. Things had calmed down somewhat by then, but started up again when the Stones took the stage. Keith said they would stop playing unless the beatings ended ("If those guys donít stop, we arenít going to play anymore"), and Jagger chimed in with "What are we fighting for? Who wants to fight?" but it would have been even worse if they had stopped. They played on. "Sympathy for the Devil" became the inevitable invocation to violence. During "Under My Thumb", a young black man right in front of the stage drew a pistol. A Hell's Angel arced through the crowd and stabbed him several times in the back. The Stones didnít see it happen, kept on playing, and finished the set. The music, and the hideous day, was finally over. "Pleased to meet you; hope you guess my name".

      We made our way back through the orange glow of many campfires to our rendezvous with Tom, and managed to find the truck without a flashlight. We had plenty of time to discuss the day's events, as the freeway was jammed for hours. By the time we finally got home we were completely exhausted. Sunshine and Freedom spent the night in my room, and the next day when we turned on the radio KSAN was having a call-in program about the concert. Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland Hell's Angels, was holding forth at some length about how it was bad joss to kick over an Angel's bike, and how when you pull a weapon, it's like opening a door: Youíd better be ready to deal with whatever comes through that door. An Angel came through this guy's door and snuffed him. 'Nuff said. Other people had different views of "what happened at Altamont", but it was plainly some kind of cultural turning point. There was plenty of talk about the "end of the '60s", but an era doesn't end just because a 9 changes to a 0.