Altamont Memories

The Altamont Free Concert was held on December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, less than four months after Woodstock. Although it had a strong line-up – Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones – it was marred by violence, including the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter during the set by the Rolling Stones. Altamont is often mourned as the death of The Sixties.

Here are some Altamont memories from the musicians who were there, from the archives.

Graham Nash

– performed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Jeff Moehlis: Speaking of big festivals, it seems that we don’t hear so much about when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young played at Altamont, at which things kind of went sour. What are your memories of Altamont?

Graham Nash: Tension, electronic music playing between the acts, the obvious recognition that something dark was going on, the ultimate need to get out of there. We played our set and then left immediately to go to Los Angeles that same night, where we had another show. Not a good feeling about Altamont at all.

For the full interview with Graham Nash, click here.

Jorma Kaukonen

– guitarist for Jefferson Airplane

JM: Not long after Woodstock there was Altamont. What do you think went wrong there?

Jorma Kaukonen: Well, you know, I guess it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback after something like that. I mean, first of all, I’m sure you’ve probably driven up on 580, where Altamont was and is. It’s a wind generator farm now, and that’s what it always should have been. I mean, there were no sanitary conditions, it was just a really poorly thought out place to have any concert, much less a free concert with a lot of big stars and a lot of people going to come. It was poorly planned. I mean, you can assign blame to a lot of people, but when you look at that area today, when you drive over that road from San Francisco, it’s like, “What were we thinking?”

JM: I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Kantner about a year ago, and I was asking him about Altamont. He was talking about how Marty got hit onstage.

JK: He did!

JM: What was the band’s reaction?

JK: If you see the movie, you will notice that [bassist] Jack [Casady] and [drummer] Spencer [Dryden] and I played on until finally, I think, one of us got pushed over the drumset, which pretty much ended that portion of the show. I guess Marty had got in some Hells Angel’s face, and he got hit, yeah. I mean, once again, you know, all those things were just accidents waiting to happen. It’s easy to look back on it. At the time, “Yeah, we’ll do a free concert, that’ll be great!” Poorly thought out, I say from many years later.

For the full interview with Jorma Kaukonen, click here.

Paul Kantner

– singer and guitarist for Jefferson Airplane

JM: What went wrong with Altamont?

Paul Kantner: I think that the normal Hell’s Angels, who even we used – not quite for security but watching out for this, that, and the other thing at shows in the park and other things – didn’t come that day because they were having a meeting. Much of what we had was a bunch of glue-sniffing wannabes, and new Angels who were trying to prove themselves. Then people started mildly bumping into their motorcycles, and they got all out of hand, and had been using too many variations of this, that, or the other drug. And it just descended into what I refer to as “one life that I could have lost.” How many I have, I don’t know, but that was a dangerous thing.

JM: Is it correct that Marty got hit while he was onstage?

PK: He did. Because he told them to fuck off, or something like that. The guy who hit him came back to apologize, when he found out who it was, and said “Sorry I hit you.” And Marty was sort of half waking up, and looked up and said, “Fuck you”. The guy hit him again. “You don’t say ‘fuck you’ to a Hell’s Angel. Don’t you know that?”

I went up and gave some shit to the guy later. There’s this picture of me with this big, huge, eight foot tall guy with an animal hat on his head, and I’m looking up at him with my head back and my glasses on, reading him out like some teacher reading out a high school guy that fucked up. He’s going, “I’m sorry, man” but he could have just as easily popped me. I didn’t say “fuck you”, knowing what not to do. I just gave him the principal attitude, and he apologized for it. And I said, “don’t let it happen again.” Then he invited me back for a party at the Hell’s Angels house after the show, and I said I had to go back to San Francisco.

JM: So was it one of the Hell’s Angels that hit Marty?

PK: I’m pretty sure it was one of the Hell’s Angels. It may have even been the guy I was reading out.

For the full interview with Paul Kantner, click here.

David Crosby

– performed with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

JM: You’re one of the few artists that performed at three of the watershed concerts of the 60’s – the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, Altamont. Why do you think those events are still holding so much fascination for us all almost 50 years later?

David Crobsy: Well, they were big and adventuresome concerts. You know, they get larger with age. Things kind of aggrandize themselves as you move away from them in time – they get larger. They assume legendary proportions.

At least Woodstock was a lot of fun. Some of the others were not, at all.

JM: Well, I can understand that about Altamont.

DC: Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking of [laughs].

JM: I would say that a lot of people don’t even realize that you guys [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young] played at Altamont. Are you willing to share any memories of that event?

DC: It was a mess. The biggest mistake was made by the guys who were The Grateful Dead’s management back then. They thought it’d be cool, because they knew a lot of Hell’s Angels – and we were all friends with the Hell’s Angels back then – to hire the Hell’s Angels as security. That was a huge mistake.

And afterwards, a really interesting thing happened. The press and everybody was getting down on the Hell’s Angels, saying “They’re so terrible”, “They killed this guy and it was an awful, terrible, brutal thing.” And they interviewed me for it, and I said, “You know, if you don’t want the tiger to eat your lunch guests, don’t invite the tiger to lunch.” I said, “The Hell’s Angels fight. That’s a large part of who they are and what they do. So they do fight, and they like fighting, and that makes them a very bad choice for security for a concert.” Especially a completely uncontrolled crazy concert like that.

But the mistake was in the people who asked them to do a job they were entirely not suited for. And I stuck up for them. I said, “They’re like inviting a tiger over. If it eats your lunch guests, then it’s your fault.” [laughs] As a result, they put my picture up in the home chapter of the Hell’s Angels in Oakland for a long time. I don’t think it’s still there, but it was for a long time. I was the only one that stuck up for them.

For the full interview with David Crosby, click here.

Stu Cook

– bass player for Creedence Clearwater Revival

JM: I understand that you attended Altamont, although you didn’t perform there.

Stu Cook: I flew in with Santana. We helicoptered in and I spent the whole day there taking photographs, experiencing the event. I just happened to be in the crowd when that fella got killed. It was just pure panic there. We got out of there. I remember The Stones were still playing when we said, “We gotta get out of here.” There were playing a great show. I’ve seen The Stones maybe fifteen times, and it was one of the best concerts. The tension in the air was so thick that the only thing that kept the lid on was The Stones performing magnificently. If they had succumbed to the bad vibes that were going on, who knows what might have happened. It was really one of the best shows that I can recall.

It was a really interesting experience. I’m glad that I went as a private citizen rather than as part of the band, because I don’t know how we would’ve handled the craziness that went on that night.

For the full interview with Stu Cook, click here.

Chris Hillman

– guitar, bass, vocals for Flying Burrito Brothers

JM: The Flying Burrito Brothers played at Altamont.

Chris Hillman: That was the worst rock festival ever, OK? It goes from Monterey, which is idyllic, peace and love, to Altamont, within a two year period, to murder. It pretty well covers the spectrum. Right around when Altamont happened was the end of The Sixties. That was it. Not literally, but figuratively. The end of The Sixties. The experiment was over.

I can’t tell you how horribly ugly that day was. I played, and I got off the stage and I got out of there as quick as I could. I knew something bad was going to happen. When we played, the Burritos, we actually calmed the crowd down. We had them calm as can be. And then we got done, I left, so I don’t know, it got pretty bad after that. The Stones took forever to get onstage. It was not a good day. There’s a lot of books on that, if you ever want to revisit that.

For the full interview with Chris Hillman, click here.


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