The Rolling Stones at Altamont: Day of the Angels

“Four people from the throng died violently, three of them by violent accident. The fourth, a still-nameless black man, was kicked and stabbed to death.”


Day of the Angels: Let It Bleed!
December 11, 1969

ALTAMONT SPEEDWAY, Alameda County, California — All across the scalded brown hills looming above this seedy, out-at-the-elbows drag strip located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco in the monotonous, sepia-tone wastes of the Livermore Valley, there hung in the already polluted air the mingled odors of burning grass and patchouli oil, that heady, almost suffocating body scent so favored among the now nameless nomads who used to be called the hippies.

In the course of the day — last Saturday — four babies were born in the midst of the multitudes assembled here, and an undetermined number of expectant mothers suffered miscarriages.

That evening, four people from the throng died violently, three of them by violent accident. The fourth, a still-nameless black man, was kicked and stabbed to death in full or partial view of a crowd that various professional head-counters put at between 300,000 and 500,000 people — quite possibly the largest throng ever assembled for a rock music event anywhere in the nation, including Woodstock.

The immense crowd had come together, on less than a full day’s notice, for the long-promised and often-canceled free Rolling Stones concert, first planned for Golden Gate Park, then scheduled at another equally remote racing strip in Sonoma County on the coast. On again, off again, it seesawed for a time, and here comes your 19th nervous breakdown.

As soon as the Altamont site was selected on Friday, the hordes began to arrive by the tens of thousands, virtually in tandem with the fleet of rented trucks ferrying in electronic equipment for the sound system and raw lumber for the stage. Early arrivals staked out choice vantage points in the parched grass near where the stage was being frantically erected in the natural amphitheater adjacent to the race track stands. The overnight campers found (1) no public water supply, (2) no stable food concession, and (3) scanty sanitation facilities. On Saturday, I saw men and boys by the score urinating against a fence near the long queues leading to the line of portable johns.

With some friends, I arrived at the mingle, mangle, and jam of the amphitheater well before noon. We’d had to walk four miles after a grinning California highway patrolman directed us into a parking space on a feeder road off U.S. 580 with the good-natured crack, “Rock festival to your right. It’s outasite.” Along the march route to the performance area, dope of all shapes, sizes, and colors was being openly dropped, smoked, bartered, and sold. The only police in sight were the far-too-few highway patrolmen, who were concentrating exclusively on directing the nightmarishly snarled traffic. Over a squad car radio came the report that a nude man had leapt into the line of traffic from an overpass on the highway, and required ambulance assistance. “I’m Mick Jagger’s brother — ball me,” a stoned kid bawled, groping at a passing girl’s breasts. With a panicky look, she shoved him away and hurried on.

In the crush of the amphitheater, my friends and I found a place to sit perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the bandstand. I scanned the crowd with zoom-lens binoculars. The sheer magnitude of the gathering was awesome and, as the day progressed, not a little disquieting. In the main, the audience struck me as benign, passive, and unutterably stoned. But more than once, I had the troubling feeling that if the mammoth crowd was itself capable of feeling anything on a mass gut level, the mass gut immediately devoured its own feeling, swallowed up by its very enormity. It wasn’t a good feeling to feel.

Sam Cutler, the Stones’ Cockney road manager, took the mike a few minutes before noon to plead access for a truck attempting to deliver music equipment. “If all the cowboys will get off the Hertz van, please…” A cluster of kids clung to the sides of the truck in order to get into the already perilously packed area near the stage; only a scattering of the easy riders dropped off as requested. Cutler shrugged and said, “All right, then, let’s all have a party.”

The speed-oriented rock band Santana opened the program. During the group’s second number, which sounded depressingly like its first, someone hurled an empty wine bottle at the stage. Slivers of glass rained across the platform. The band’s guitarist broke off playing and savagely cursed the heckler. An unidentified stage functionary took the mike to request that the Hell’s Angels come onstage to serve as a security force. The Angels didn’t hesitate; strutting and preening in their colors, lugging cases of beer with them, they swarmed onto the platform in a cadre 40-odd strong. At that precise instant, nobody — Sam Cutler included — could have had any way of knowing it, but the “party” was already well on the way to being over.

After a characteristically lengthy delay, the Jefferson Airplane followed Santana. Nothing, but nothing, went right for them. To begin with, they sounded maddeningly off-key. Then, just as they were beginning to pick up a little altitude, a nude black man, obviously freaked out, somehow managed to clamber up on the apron of the stage. An Angel braced him, and the black man clumsily threw a punch that didn’t connect. Four Angels kicked and beat the man to his knees and, still flailing at him, dragged him off stage. There was ominous surging and shoving in the tight-packed throng near the platform. Grace Slick crooned over and over, “Please sit down, people, please sit down.” The band continued to play a mechanical semblance of “The Other Side of This Life,” with Grace lividly improvising: “Find yourself someone to love, but don’t fuck him around.” At the song’s conclusion — it just sort of went away after a while — Jack Casady, trembling with emotion snapped caustically, “Will the Angels please note that when somebody’s freaking out, you don’t help him by kicking the shit out of him. I’d also like to announce that Marty Balin was punched unconscious in that little comic number you just saw staged and I’d like to say—”

At the rebuke, the Angels charged bullishly into the band. It was a sick, scary moment as fists flew and bodies blurred in a confused tangle. When the pandemonium ended, only Grace was left untouched. Sam Cutler grabbed an open mike and requested that all “unauthorized people” — meaning the Angels — leave the stage immediately. The Angels defiantly stood their ground. Somehow the Airplane managed to get through “Volunteers of America” — dedicated “to all those people who wouldn’t let us play in Golden Gate Park” — before abandoning the stage.

In the audience, a rusty-haired kid from Fresno shrugged fatalistically: “The Angels are just red freaks, that’s all. Those dudes used to be heavy, man, but nowadays they’re stone geeks. That’s what reds’ll do to you.”

While the Flying Burrito Brothers rousingly jammed the kicks out of “Six Days on the Road,” the nude black man reappeared at the border of the stage. The Angels made a half-hearted grab at him, but this time some friendly longhairs led him off in the direction of the medical tent.

Since I’d promised to call in a report on the day’s doings to Howard Smith at WABC-FM, I went searching for a phone. I found one — exactly one telephone for perhaps a half million people — in the firm grip of a local radio newsman who explained that he couldn’t relinquish it for a minute because, in addition to his own news chores, he was coordinating the helicopter flights landing and evacuating the performing rock groups. “Sorry pal,” he smiled wanly, and for a lingering moment I almost felt sorry for him.

In the medical tent, I talked to the physician in charge of the volunteer first-aid operation, Dr. Richard Baldwin. A pleasant, round-faced man who looked close to exhaustion, he estimated that his staff had treated 300 bad-trip patients by the middle of the afternoon. “But the concert’s not over, you know,” he added in a soft, rueful tone. At the flap of the tent, a volunteer medic shook his head in wonder: “There’s enough bad dope changing hands in this field to paint and paper the whole Haight-Ashbury. Even bummer brownies. Who the hell ever heard of bummer brownies before?”

On stage, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young began their set unannounced. By now the platform was aswarm with more Angels than ever, despite Sam Cutler’s earlier warning that the bandstand might collapse under their weight. At times, the swaggering bikers and their old ladies obscured the performers from view. Inching my way back to where I’d been sitting in the crowd, I took a quick personal inventory of myself; I was wind-chapped and sunburned and shaken by the fracas onstage and more than a little pissed off that I’d have to drive all the way to Tracey, a ranching town 15 miles away, just to make a simple phone call.

The concert’s organizers had promised to conclude the program before dark, but the sun went down about 4:30 and there was no sign of the Stones. The crowd began to thin out, but not in large numbers. The Angels stood in a solid phalanx across the front of the stage, arms akimbo, glowering at the audience. Cutler announced, “The Stones positively won’t come out to perform while the stage is in its present state.” “Get off the stage, get off the stage,” a sizable portion of the crowd began to howl. None of the Angels budged, and the cry soon faded away.

After another tense delay, Cutler reappeared and surveyed the audience for a long, grave moment before saying simply, “I’d like to introduce your friends, the Rolling Stones.”

It was full dark now, scores of bonfires were flickering on the trash-strewn slopes, everybody present was standing and craning and suddenly the Stones were before us in a dazzling burst of noise and lights, Mick Jagger bumping and grinding in exquisite nastiness and rasping out “Jumping Jack Flash.” For the first time, the day seemed to have some significance. A frail young girl in wire-rimmed glasses standing near me in the crowd sang and danced in near-delirium: “Oh, Mick, I love you — you make me so excited. Everybody in the whole world is watching us — even God.”

After the song, an Angel attempted to block Jagger’s path to the edge of the stage. Jagger stepped around him. “There’s so many of you,” he said, admiringly to the audience. “Stay cool now, and try not to move around too much.”

The prelude to the final trouble came a third of the way through “Sympathy for the Devil.” Apparently angered by hecklers in the first few rows, a half-dozen Angels swan-dived off the stage into the audience and began whipping heads. The music stopped abruptly. In a pleading voice, Jagger, who was wearing a long red robe, cried: “Everybody, brothers and sisters, cool out, listen to me, please cool out.… Is anybody hurt? Who’s fighting, and what for? We’ve got to stop this trouble right now.” After a few confused moments, the music resumed.

At that point, my friends and I gladly left the amphitheater so I could make my phone call in Tracey, which I did, which in turn threw us back into the heart of the post-concert bumper-to-bumper turtle derby headed toward Livermore and the city two hours later. It took us three hours to travel 25 miles. On the radio, we heard that the freaked-out black man the Angels had stomped had made his third and final appearance at the concert stage. The poor bastard had gone off somewhere and gotten himself a piece, and then he’d gone back and gotten himself kicked and cut to death for his trouble.

When we reached the Alameda county line, about a mile north of the amphitheater, I spotted a teenage girl wrapped in a poncho sitting alone on the shoulder of the highway. Something about her posture made me get out of the barely moving car to see if she needed a ride. She didn’t raise her head at the question. “Mister, I don’t need a ride,” she said in a thick, stoned slur, “I need to go to a hospital.” Involuntarily, her hand twitched out from under her poncho. Apparently she’d lit a cigarette some time back, and then forgotten about it. Her fingers were on fire.