In early 1969, the Rolling Stones were almost as good as they were ever going to get. They had just released a highly successful album called Beggars Banquet. Before the end of the year they would record a haunting song called “Gimme Shelter” featuring a brilliant backup singer named Merry Clayton. The song would become a kind of soundtrack to the last half of the Vietnam War; the title of a famous documentary film about Altamont; and it has since devolved into a cheap trope, a flaccid cliché without which half of Martin Scorsese’s films would lack a soundtrack. The trope has even worked its way down into Sons of Anarchy.
The Stones had made $17 million in the previous three years and they were broke – or at least they were broke for rock stars. Keith Richards couldn’t come up with a down payment on a house in Chelsea. According to music critic Joel Selvin “Bill Wyman was writing bad checks.” So shortly after Woodstock the group decided to do its first American tour since 1966.
History is all lies. You must have noticed this. Woodstock is now remembered as a “free concert” and a sort of high water mark for hippie values like cheap, bad drugs and glib hypocrisy. Actually, Woodstock’s promoters sold 186,000 tickets for $18 each which amounted t a lot of money in 1969. The Stones also wanted to get some of that big time cash and the result was a mostly poorly planned concert tour that ended up in the general vicinity of what was then the center of the rock n’ roll world – San Francisco.
The Stones’ obvious greed annoyed San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason who wrote: “The Rolling Stones tour which is now coming up is another such case (of concert inequity). We all want to see them. They put on a good show, but the prices they and their managers demand (guarantees such as $25,000 and up a night against take home percentages running over $59,000) are exorbitant. The Stones’ managers offered Ike & Tina an average of $1200 a night to be on the show with them. This is really some kind of artistic and moral crime, in my book.”
The upshot of all this was a “free concert” to say “thank you,” Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah to the “American youth” who lived in the Bay Area for all the money collected from the “American youth” who lived someplace else. The Hells Angels were invited to sit on the stage and drink beer to keep the musicians safe.
The Stones had hoped to make a few thousand dollars or so from a film of the free concert. They offered the job of filming them to acclaimed documentarian Haskell Wexler. He passed the opportunity on to filmmakers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. They were filming when a 22-year-old Angels prospect named Alan Passaro stabbed and killed a young black man named Meredith “Murdock” Hunter.
Selvin has just published a book about the concert titled Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day. It is his 16th book about rock music. It is impeccably researched, an easy read and Selvin seems to have found a few new things about the event. But what you can read in the book will not be revelatory. Selvin thinks the big news is “that the show was almost entirely a production of the Grateful Dead.”
Most people will probably read the book to read about Hunter’s death.
According to Selvin, Hunter had already tried to climb onto the stage once. “One of the Hells Angels grabbed his ear and hair and shook his head. The Angel laughed. Murdock wrenched himself loose and gave the man a cold, hard stare, The Angel smashed him in the face,” Selvin claims “four or five Angels” surrounded Hunter as he tried to escape. “Stumbling, hurt, out of breath, he pulled the gun from his waistband. He didn’t get the chance to even aim the gun. His legs crumpled under him, and he tumbled sideways, the gun in front of him pointed to the ground.”
Passaro stabbed Hunter multiple times. Someone pulled the gun from Hunter’s hand and he “got up staggered a couple of steps, and went down to his knees. Another Angel grabbed his shoulders and kicked him in the head and he fell down face first. Murdock turned over and looked up at the towering, raging Angel.”
“I wasn’t going to shoot you,” he said.
“Well, why did you have a gun” the Angel yelled.
Hunter was dead in moments. Passaro, lived until 1985 when his body was found floating in Anderson Lake in Santa Clara County. He had $10,000 in his pocket. Apparently, the moment of their violent collision will never die. What it means – if it means anything at all – after almost 47 years depends on you. Two years ago, before Selvin started his book, USA Today remembered Altamont as “rock’s darkest day.” Not the day Spandau Ballet released “True” or the day Billy Ray Cyrus released “Achy Breaky Heart” but the day Meredith Hunter died.
Obviously that moment – or day, or tour, or movie or whatever the historical Altamont now is – is still important enough that editor Matt Harper of Harper Collins asked Selvin to write the book. In its review of Altamont two days ago The Daily Mail said Selvin’s book told the “dark truth about Mick Jagger and his notorious gig.”
The Daily Mail be right. This volume might be for truth seekers. But the appeal of this book may also have more to do with nostalgia for that lost, dark time than for any new truths about it that have just now been discovered – or invented. We live in an age of technological wonders, zero tolerance, and political correctness. And all recollection happens in the here and now. So ultimately Selvin’s book about Altamont may say more about today than it doers about the day before the day before yesterday.