The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside
Story of Rock’s Darkest Day" by Joel Selvin; Dey
Street (368 pages, $27.99)
you go to a Rolling Stones concert these days, the last
thing you’ll probably worry about is whether you’re
going to make it out alive. You will get gouged by the
beer vendor, but there’s little if any danger.
those who flocked to a desolate speedway in Northern
California on Dec. 6, 1969, there was plenty of danger
— and for those near the stage, horror — to go
around. Any rock fan schooled in the ’60s knows what
happened: A contingent of Hells Angels serving as
security for the festival administered beatings to fans
and musicians alike and stabbed to death an 18-year-old
man just yards from Mick Jagger as he finished singing
"Under My Thumb."
tragedy has been chronicled in several books and most
memorably in the 1970 documentary "Gimme
Shelter." But Joel Selvin’s "Altamont: The
Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels and the Inside Story of
Rock’s Darkest Day" provides rich new details
about the origins of the show and the quest by Jagger
and the Stones to stage the free concert.
book chronicles the motivations, naivete and chemicals
that led to what’s been popularly seen as the nadir of
the Woodstock generation. In fact, Selvin makes the case
that Woodstock, staged just 3 1/2 months before
Altamont, laid the groundwork for the disaster.
Stones had been out of the American limelight and had
missed the free festival in upstate New York. Meanwhile,
the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane had ascended
and were playing free festivals in their hometown of San
Francisco, which, Selvin argues, had become the center
of the rock universe in late 1969.
account begins with the Dead’s manager Rock Scully
traveling to London to share his drug-addled vision with
Keith Richards for the Stones to play a free show in
Golden Gate Park. The Stones had just played a similar
show in London’s Hyde Park, one in which they had used
the tame British chapter of the Hells Angels for show
security without a hitch.
author does a good job taking readers through the Stones’
first U.S. tour in three years and the recording of Let
It Bleed during that concert run. At the same time, he
outlines how Jerry Garcia relished the idea of the
Grateful Dead headlining a festival with the Jefferson
Airplane, only to have the Stones appear unannounced at
makes the case that Garcia saw such an event as marrying
Haight-Ashbury to the London rock scene, a
trans-Atlantic communal experience. (Upon arriving at
Altamont for their gig, the Dead would take in the
mayhem and elect to leave.)
50 years removed, it’s hard to comprehend the chaos
that ensued in the preparation and staging of the show.
Throughout the Stones’ tour, Jagger teased the public
with talk of a free concert. Even after the show was
announced, two potential sites fell through. With just
36 hours to go, the concert — with an expected crowd
of 100,000 — was moved to Altamont.
and sound towers were erected overnight as a crowd began
gathering and setting fires for warmth. The stage was
lashed together with twine and stood only 4 feet tall,
compared with the 15-foot version at Woodstock that had
served as a barricade against the mass of humanity.
Instead, Selvin writes, a piece of string separated the
crowd from the musicians.
who has covered pop music since 1970 for the San
Francisco Chronicle and written extensively about the
’60s music scene, conducted more than 100 interviews
with musicians, Hells Angels members, police, stagehands
and medical staff. That said, the book at times feels
thinly sourced, as the author surrenders attribution in
service of the narrative.
narrative accelerates in the second section of the book,
as Selvin details the ominous vibe that builds
throughout the concert. The omnipresence of alcohol and
psychedelics among the 300,000 attendees, the lack of
bathrooms and medical facilities, and the Hells Angels,
paid in $500 worth of beer, made for a hellish mix. By
the time the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin was
knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel during the band’s
set, it’s clear that for those who were near the
stage, and for those on it, it was essentially a hostage
last third of the book focuses on the aftermath,
including the police investigation of the murder of
Meredith Hunter and three other deaths: a drowning and
two auto-related fatalities. In addition, Selvin
describes the reporting that went into a comprehensive
account weeks after the killing from a new publication,
Rolling Stone. While it’s clear that no one truly was
in charge, Selvin ultimately lays much of the blame for
the tragedy on the Stones, citing the band’s greed,
hubris and naivete.
of accounts have been written about the concert, and the
moment of Hunter’s death was captured on film for the
world to see. But Altamont serves as a valuable
document, cutting through the hallucinogenic haze of the
times to provide greater understanding of an American