"Suppose they gave a war and nobody came?" was a popular anti-Vietnam phrase and bumper sticker at the time, but this festival offered a new possibility: "Suppose they gave a concert and relatively few media outlets showed up?" That's basically what happened at Altamont when, in less than a week, the Stones, who were on tour promoting their Let It Bleed album, Woodstock promoter Michael Lang, and famed liberal San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli put together the now-infamous concert. (To be fair, even though word rapidly spread, city officials only permitted the free show after the Stones' camp agreed not to announce it until 24 hours prior to the event.) Since that time, there have been books and articles on the subject, but the best report on Altamont remains the full-length documentary Gimme Shelter, which was photographed and directed by the Maysles brothers (Albert and David) and Charlotte Zwerin. Yet even this film doesn't provide a full picture of what happened on that fateful day.
Despite being a freshman at Diablo Valley Junior College in Concord, for two days a week I was the rock-pop music writer at the then-ultraconservative Oakland Tribune. At the time, the nation took lightly the hippie mantra to "never trust anyone over 30," yet the Tribune brain trust officially seemed to hate anyone under that age. In retrospect, the only reason I was hired was the growing worldwide popularity of Bay Area bands and the fact that news on them sold newspapers. I also served another important function within the Tribune hierarchy: Whenever there was an editorial need for someone to go to the Black Panthers headquarters, I became the designated white guy; after all, I'd probably be the paper's least missed hostage.
One day, a couple of weeks prior to the Stones playing at the Oakland Coliseum, I received a press release in the mail announcing that the Stones were coming to the Bay Area. Calling the phone number on the release, I was amazed to reach the home of singer Judy Collins, whose then-boyfriend Stephen Stills answered. After a brief conversation, he asked if I wanted to speak with Mick about the tour. Before I could even ask if he meant Jagger or Taylor (Brian Jones' recent replacement), the Stones' singer was on the phone with me.
The result was a long, funny, and fascinating conversation that became a Sunday entertainment cover story, resulting in the only compliment I ever received from my editor. Jagger expressed fears of being out of touch with Bay Area music fans, wondered if the band's greatest hits would still be appropriate to play in concert, asked jokingly if it was too late to join up for the sexual revolution in Berkeley, and was emphatic that he would not sing "Satisfaction" anymore after he turned 40.
When Jagger and company came to Oakland on Nov. 9 to do a pair of concerts on the same day, the group met with a handful of writers "for a chat and tea" at their hotel. The baby-faced Taylor was shy and nervous; Keith Richards was engaging as he asked questions about local bands; Charlie Watts was extremely polite; and Bill Wyman was surprisingly animated during casual conversation. Ever the student of commerce and a graduate of the London School of Economics, Jagger mostly wanted feedback on whether or not the band had charged too much for tickets. No doubt this was the last time Jagger would have concerns about the financial status of Stones fans.
Backstage during the Oakland shows, the Stones' mean-spirited road manager, Sam Cutler, seemed to clash with anyone and everyone, including legendary promoter Bill Graham. Cutler, who later would work with the Grateful Dead, apparently thought he didn't need Graham to put on the Altamont concert, which was in the planning stages. Thus, the Bay Area's most respected and competent music figure kept his distance from an event he should have produced.
Even though the concert wasn't officially announced until the day before, the local radio airwaves regularly gave updates on the rumored concert's location as it was switched from Golden Gate Park to any big location where permits could be gotten in less than a week. On Saturday morning, hippies were hitchhiking on the highway, cars were finding space on the dusty Altamont hillside, and makeshift vendors were hawking the drugs of fashion. In short, this didn't appear much different than the many other free concerts that regularly sprung up around the Bay Area. People kept coming as Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash opened the show while the sun was still shining. Although in the years since there have been reports that the performers felt an ominous undercurrent earlier in the day, all still seemed right in the universe, at least near the stage, at that point.
And then came the Jefferson Airplane, the founding fathers, if you will, of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. During their set, lead singer Marty Balin suddenly jumped off the stage to help an African-American fan who was being harassed by a Hell's Angel. The drunken Angel then turned around and punched Balin, knocking him unconscious. Suddenly it dawned on almost everyone near or on the small stage that the Angels -- whom Cutler had hired with the approval of the Dead -- were the security guards for the event. Granted, the Stones had used Hell's Angels as guards during a free British concert in Hyde Park earlier that year, but there was a drastic difference between the Oakland chapter of the motorcycle gang and the more peaceful version in the U.K. While the Angels had always been in line with the carefree Deadheads at Bay Area concerts (the Dead were often touted as the bikers' favorite band), Altamont was overflowing with college and high school kids who'd only seen the often-violent bikers in films like Roger Corman's classic The Wild Angels.