I recently watched Gimme Shelter, the documentary about the 1969 concert at Altamont (near Livermore) where a member of the audience was fatally stabbed by a Hell’s Angels member/security guard while the Rolling Stones were playing. Certainly, if you have any interest in popular music or the 1960s, you’ve heard about it.
Gimme Shelter does a great job of putting that event into context. First of all, it wasn’t just a free Rolling Stones concert; it was more of a music festival, albeit one without all the kiosks and concessions such festivals have these days to occupy fans while they’re waiting. The bands are a who’s who of the top popular music of the late 1960s: Ike and Tina Turner; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and of course, The Rolling Stones, on the end of a successful U.S. tour.
The concert location kept being moved in both place and time, which is always a sign of bad karma. And the ultimate location was far east of San Francisco without public transportation access, and it looks like they had no parking control, since the cars are shown haphazardly parked along the sides of the access road, seemingly for miles. Over 300,000 people show up, and the venue is seriously short of the number of security people it desperately needs. Fans are hanging on the delicate lighting scaffolding, even dancing on top of it, massed around the band trailers, and freaking out on psychelic drugs right and left.
Worst of all, people are constantly getting on the stage. The musicians are consummate professionals, and I’m impressed, because I think that would have been a rough gig for that alone. Mick Jagger artfully dances out of the reach of a fan who clearly wants to jump on him, until security finally catches the fan and hussles him off stage. At another point, another hippie, obviously stoned out of his mind and probably not even aware of where he is, stands right behind Mick Jagger for much of a song. An small army of people simultaneously climbs on stage to join Jefferson Airplane, and in the ensuing fray, Marty Balin (one of the singers) gets punched into unconsciousness. The musicians can do little more than occassionally stop playing to keep things under control, and I’m surprised no stage-jumping hippies have grabbed instruments or musicians as souveniers.
The crowd itself is actually suprisingly like the crowds at rock concerts these days, albeit with (understandably) a great concentration of hippies. I see crowd-surfing, mosh monsters, and true fans. I even see my arch-nemesis, The Humping Girl, except she’s also a hippie, which means that on top of being pushy and obnoxious, she’s also fat and naked. With fascinated horror, I watch her swim through the crowd, ultimately managing, through sheer mass and offensiveness, to push aside two stage-clingers. The camera cuts away, but I like to assume a Hell’s Angels dragged her off when she lifted one massive thigh onto the stage. If I were in that crowd, I know I’d be wanting to kill someone.
So when a tall, thin man draws a gun, the security jumps on him, and in their fear, stress, and panic, he’s visciously stabbed. The Hell’s Angels were at fault, but in their defense, I’d have to say they were ill-chosen, ill-trained, undermanned, and incredibly defenseless against a crowd of that size. It was a sad day in music history, but it proves that you can’t count on keeping 300,000 people well behaved, no matter how much peace, love and understanding you believe in.