Thursday, March 1, 2012

Altamont Speedway Free Festival

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was an infamous rock concert held on Saturday, December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, between Tracy and Livermore. Headlined and organized by The Rolling Stones, it also featured, in order of appearance: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act. The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform, but declined to play shortly before their scheduled appearance due to the increasing violence at the venue. “That's the way things went at Altamont—so badly that the Grateful Dead, prime organizers and movers of the festival, didn't even get to play,” someone was quoted in Rolling Stone.

Approximately 300,000 people attended the concert, and some anticipated that it would be a "Woodstock West." Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles shot footage of the event and incorporated it into a documentary film titled Gimme Shelter (1970). The event is best known for having been marred by considerable violence, including one homicide and three accidental deaths: two caused by a hit-and-run car accident and one by drowning in an irrigation canal. Four births were reported during the event as well. Scores were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage.

The concert originally was scheduled to be held at San Jose State practice field since there had just recently been an outdoor free festival with fifty-two bands and eighty thousand people in attendance for three days, Dirt Cheap Productions was asked to help secure the property again for the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead to play a free concert. The Stones and the Dead were told the city of San Jose was not in the mood for another big concert and the grounds were out of bounds. Then Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was next on the list. However, a previously scheduled San Francisco 49ers football game at Kezar Stadium, located in Golden Gate Park, the weekend of December 6–7 made that venue impractical, and permits were never issued for the concert. The venue was then changed to the Sears Point Raceway, but after a dispute with Sears Point's owner, Filmways, Inc., over film distribution rights, the festival was moved to the Altamont Raceway at the suggestion of its then-owner, local businessman Dick Carter. The concert was to take place on Saturday, December 6; the location was switched on the night of Thursday, December 4.

In making preparations, the Dead's manager Rock Scully and show co-producer Michael Lang helicoptered over the site before making the selection, much as Lang had done when the Woodstock Festival was moved at the last moment from Wallkill, New York to Bethel, New York.

The move resulted in numerous logistical problems including a lack of facilities such as portable toilets and medical tents. The move also created a problem for the stage design; instead of being on top of a rise, which suited the geography at Sears Point, at Altamont the stage would now be at the bottom of a slope. The Rolling Stones' stage manager on the 1969 tour, Chip Monck, explained that "the stage was one metre high – 39 inches for us - and [at Sears Point] it was on the top of a hill, so all the audience pressure was back upon them". Because of the short notice for the change of location, the stage couldn't be changed. "We weren’t working with scaffolding, we were working in an older fashion with parallels. You could probably have put another stage below it … but nobody had one," Monck said.

Because the stage was so low, members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, led by Oakland chapter head Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, were asked to surround the stage to provide security.

Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, who had already been punched by a concert goer within seconds of emerging from his helicopter, was visibly intimidated by the unruly situation, urging everyone to "Just be cool down in the front there, don't push around." During the third song, "Sympathy for the Devil", a fight erupted in the front of the crowd, at the foot of the stage. After a lengthy pause and another appeal for calm, the band restarted the song and continued their set with less incident until the start of "Under My Thumb". Some of the Hells Angels got into a scuffle with Meredith Hunter, age 18, when he attempted to get onstage with other fans. One of the Hells Angels grabbed Hunter's head, punched him, and chased him back into the crowd. Death of Meredith Hunter

The Rolling Stones were aware of the skirmish, but not the stabbing ("You couldn't see anything, it was just another scuffle", Jagger tells David Maysles during film editing), and felt that had they abandoned the show, the crowd may have become even more unruly, leading to riots and other chaos.

In 2003, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office initiated a two-year investigation into the possibility of a second Hell's Angel having taken part in the stabbing. Finding insufficient support for this hypothesis, and reaffirming that Passaro acted alone, the office closed the case for good on May 25, 2005.

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