There was quite a brouhaha last summer over the 40th anniversary of Woodstock which occurred in August, 1969. But very little was mentioned about the event four months later which brought an abrupt end to the “Woodstock Nation.” I am speaking, of course, about the concert at Altamont on December 6, 1969. I missed out on the bliss and glory of Woodstock but I got to experience first hand the bad vibes and creepiness of Altamont.
The psychedelifiles in the audience will recall that after the unexpected serendipity of “three days of peace, love and music” in Bethel, New York, the idea of free concerts began to gain momentum across the country. The Rolling Stones jumped on the band wagon by proposing a free concert in the San Francisco area. Golden Gate Park was to be the original venue but the city fathers wisely voted thumbs down on that idea. So the Stones were forced to regroup and find another bay area location.
I’m still not sure why the month of December was chosen as this is a typically damp and gloomy period, even by California standards. And I’m not sure why the Altamont Speedway was chosen either. Altamont was no bucolic Bethel with nearby forests and lakes to frolic in. No, Altamont is located in the midst of some of the most burned up, overgrazed, barren country this side of Barstow. But the initial hype sounded pretty good with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead and, of course, the Stones expected to show up.
At that particular time I was living only a few blocks from Golden Gate Park, sharing a tiny little house on Geary Street with three other guys as we all attended classes at San Francisco State College. By late November, our living arrangements and our academic careers were coming apart at the seams. So I spent most of my time at a lady friend’s house across the bay in a really seedy section of Oakland. The idea of a free concert seemed like a little ray of positive energy in what was turning into a downbeat cycle of my life. Besides, I was a huge Grateful Dead fan so there was little thought of not going.
On the morning of the concert Elizabeth and I left Oakland in a cold darkness, and headed east to find this “Altamont”. On the way out, we smoked a little dope and ate a little mescaline as a preparatory measure. Less than forty minutes later, we could see the traffic funneling off of the freeway into uninhabited terrain. We followed suit. At this point, people were just parking wherever they could and then walking. Toward what I wasn’t sure. But we fell right in line.
And we walked. And walked. And walked.
For perhaps two miles or more, we walked....over dried grass, bleached cow bones, and dried manure. We followed the hordes over hill and dale until we peaked out on the bowl like rim of the Altamont Speedway where several thousand people had already gathered. We found a place up on the edge of the crowd and just hung out, getting high and waiting for the music to begin. I’m not sure what else we did to pass the time but I do remember a kind of sinister pall that seemed to hang over the event.
Eventually the music started. I remember when Santana came on stage. I could barely see them through the my camera’s 300mm telephoto lens, but I could hear them. The trouble really began during Jefferson Airplane’s set when there was obviously some kind of scuffling going on down near the stage. Singer Marty Balin got decked by a Hells Angel and the band quit early. The Grateful Dead refused to even play.
Those of us up in the nosebleed seats knew that something was going terribly wrong down below but we didn’t know exactly what. But if ever the term “bad vibes” meant anything, the mood of the concert embodied it. Elizabeth and I decided to leave just as darkness was settling in and the Stones were taking the stage. By that time it didn’t matter and we knew we had a long walk back to the car. It was probably a day or two later that I learned of the murder of one poor soul down near the stage. A profound disappointment all around and a sober death to the 1960s.
Fortunately for me, I was able to move forward taking more of the spirit of Woodstock with me than the disillusionment of Altamont.