Book: “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin
Publishing Info: Dey Street Books, August 2016
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: In this breathtaking cultural history filled with exclusive, never-before-revealed details, celebrated rock journalist Joel Selvin tells the definitive story of the Rolling Stones’ infamous Altamont concert in San Francisco, the disastrous historic event that marked the end of the idealistic 1960s.
In the annals of rock history, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival on December 6, 1969, has long been seen as the distorted twin of Woodstock—the day that shattered the Sixties’ promise of peace and love when a concertgoer was killed by a member of the Hells Angels, the notorious biker club acting as security. While most people know of the events from the film Gimme Shelter, the whole story has remained buried in varied accounts, rumor, and myth—until now.
Altamont explores rock’s darkest day, a fiasco that began well before the climactic death of Meredith Hunter and continued beyond that infamous December night. Joel Selvin probes every aspect of the show—from the Stones’ hastily planned tour preceding the concert to the bad acid that swept through the audience to other deaths that also occurred that evening—to capture the full scope of the tragedy and its aftermath. He also provides an in-depth look at the Grateful Dead’s role in the events leading to Altamont, examining the band’s behind-the-scenes presence in both arranging the show and hiring the Hells Angels as security.
The product of twenty years of exhaustive research and dozens of interviews with many key players, including medical staff, Hells Angels members, the stage crew, and the musicians who were there, and featuring sixteen pages of color photos, Altamont is the ultimate account of the final event in rock’s formative and most turbulent decade.
Review: I’m going to take on a new responsibility here, guys! I’ve decided that I’m going to start reviewing the occasional non-fiction book as well as the other genres that I’m tackling. I don’t read non-fiction as much as fiction, but I have been reading enough pretty good stuff that I want to share it with you guys! So I’m starting this off with “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and Rock’s Darkest Day” by Joel Selvin. I went through a phase in high school where I listened to a lot of rock and roll from the mid to late 1960s, and went so far as to try and dress up like a hippie when I went to school (though admittedly I probably was more akin to an anti-war protester, as my Mom was my inspiration and I went off old photos of her as my template). Hell, my first ever concert was CSNY in 9th grade (also because of my folks). I had heard of the Altamont Concert in passing by my parents and the cultural impression it left, but didn’t know much beyond the Hells Angels stabbing Meredith Hunter to death while the Rolling Stones played. But that’s where Selvin comes in. Because he taught me quite a bit.
What I liked about this book is that it didn’t just cover the concert: it covered events that influenced the decision to have the concert, and the days leading up to it. I had not realized that by the time Altamont rolled around, The Rolling Stones were practically broke. I’ve never lived in a world where The Stones weren’t legends, so to think that at one point they were having monetary problems was mind blowing. They were still kind of living off the image of being a tour that packed in teenage girls, even though they had started to experiment with harder and edgier sounds like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. They hadn’t toured in awhile, and the tour that Altamont was part of was going to be a quick effort to make some cash. I also hadn’t realized that Altamont was basically thrown together in a short period of time, and moved locations in even shorter time. The information that was provided in this book really opened my eyes to how the poor planning happened, and why everything was so haphazard.
Selvin also did a lot of good research about the people who attended this concert, from Meredith Hunter (the victim of the stabbing), to his girlfriend, to other people in the audience who were injured or killed during or right after Altamont. Everyone hears about Hunter’s death, but I had no idea that some drugged out people jumped into ravines, off bridges, and had terrible car accidents. Not only that, a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked out by an Angel, and poor Stephen Stills was repeatedly gouged with a bike spoke by another one WHILE HE WAS ON STAGE SINGING. It all seems like such a contrast to Woodstock, which has gone down in legend as a peace, love, rock and roll fest…when in reality, it sounds like it really just got lucky that it didn’t have the same awful stuff that Altamont had. Though admittedly, the Hells Angels played a part in that. But even the Angels Selvin really looked into. While it would certainly be easy to chalk it all up to these guys being violent thugs (and hey, they were), he also makes sure to point out that they too got pretty screwed over in a way here. They were not prepared to work security for such a huge show, and their own biker culture was in direct conflict with the druggie hippie culture, with neither side trying to understand the other (I too would be pissed if I had a motorcycle that a bunch of drugged out kids kept touching and knocking over).
My one qualm that I had with this book is that Selvin, while trying to ease blame off of the usual suspects and showing it as a perfect storm of nonsense, kind of throws the Stones under the bus a little bit. Do I think that the Stones were idiots to agree to this entire thing given how shoddily planned it was? Totally. Do I think that Jagger was disingenuous in his dealings with the press when asked about pricing for their tickets? Yes indeed. But Jagger was twenty six. Richards was twenty five. Grown men, yes, but young, and they had been surrounded by yes men for a few years whose jobs were to shield them from this stuff. It’s not fair to humanize the Hells Angels, who were stabbing, beating, and roughing up concertgoers, and then imply that the Stones were to blame for all the violence. I call bullshit on that. And I also wonder how witnessing this traumatic event, liability in question or not, affected the members of the band. After all, shortly thereafter at least Richards starting doing heavier drugs than he usually experimented with. It may not be connected but it did raise some questions.
Overall, this was an engrossing book that intrigued and disturbed me. I appreciated learning more about this notorious rock concert, and looking into how things can, and will, go wrong, to the point where there’s no turning back.
Rating 8: A very well researched book about a shitshow of a rock concert that has become notorious. Selvin gave more info than I expected, and told me many new things about Altamont, all messed up and disturbing.
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