“Sure, we’ll do a free concert, why not?” – Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards.

“I mean, like people, who’s fighting and what for? Why are we fighting? Why are we fighting? Every other scene has been cool…” – Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger at Altamont.

altamont

As the Rolling Stones take the stage this evening in London’s O2 Arena to mark the 50th year as the greatest rock n’ roll in the world (if not the greatest of all time), there is no way in all this celebration to erase easily the darkest day in the band’s history.

Watching the two-hour HBO special last week, Crossfire Hurricane, and YouTube video clips, one is simply stunned by the brutal savagery of the 1969 free concert staged in a demolition derby track in a God-awful part of California’s East Bay at a horrible time of the year.

Every time I have driven along I-580 between Livermore in eastern Alameda County and Tracy in California’s Central Valley, I think about 300,000 people traipsing along the rolling hills of the Altamont Pass. I also think about how incredibly cold it becomes once the sun goes down in late fall.

Why Altamont?

And why in early December?

Obviously, one can Monday morning quarterback an event that occurred 44 years ago and say how you would do it differently (if at all). Still Altamont is a reminder of the compelling need at times to use the most important two-letter word in the English language: “no.”

Reflecting back to December 6, 1969: Nixon was in the White House. The napalm was defoliating jungles in Vietnam for no certain purpose. Woodstock was a recent “triumph.” The Rolling Stones were completing an incredibly successful U.S. tour (e.g., “Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out”).

Stonesya-yas

Why not give back to the fans with a free gig to compensate for charging a then outlandishly expensive $7.50 a ticket for all of the other Rolling Stones shows?

The more important questions that should have been asked were: where, when, why, what, who and how? Another question: Is no free concert better than a free concert that has the potential to turn disastrous and deadly? That particular question needed to be asked by organizers, law enforcement and in particular, the tour management and even the five-members of the Rolling Stones.

And why in hell were the Hells Angels hired for a truckload of beer to serve as the police force for 300,000? Who was in charge anyway? The simple answer: No one.

Reportedly, the free concert was going to be held on a practice field for San Jose State’s football team, but the City of San Jose was not keen on this idea. Then it was going to be staged at Golden Gate Park, but the proposed event coincided with a San Francisco 49ers home game at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park (e.g., Stones and NFL football fans in the same weekend). No Tumbling Dice.

The next possible venue reportedly was Sears Point Raceway, but the owner wanted $300,000, plus the movie rights to the event that was going to include Carlos Santana, Flying Burrito Brothers, CS&N, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and the Stones.

Two days before the show, the Altamont Raceway was suggested. All that needed to be done was to build the stage (as it turns out: only four-feet off the ground in the bottom of a gully) and manage traffic, logistics, security, sanitation, first aid and provisions for 300,000 intimate friends.

No sweat.

What’s ironic was that Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead proposed the Hells Angels as the security force. When they heard that the violence-prone motorcycle gang had parked their Harleys in front of the stage as a “deliberate provocation” (the words of Keith Richards) and policed the crowd with sawed-off pool cues, they decided to skip the gig and went into hiding.

Four people were killed at Altamont; four were born and hundreds were stabbed and/or beaten up. The only recourse left to the Stones was to threaten to not play until the violence and ugliness stopped. Was that really an option? As they noted in Crossfire Hurricane, they were surrounded, frightened and had absolutely no control over neither the crowd nor their Praetorian Guards, The Hells Angels.

Stones Jagger And  Richards  Eye  Hells Angels At Altamont

According to Stephen Davis’ book, Old Gods Almost Dead, the national media ignored Altamont. “Time and Life, still rhapsodizing about Woodstock, didn’t mention it. The New York Times ran a small story in a late Sunday edition. Newsweek ran a piece three weeks later…”

Certainly, the Stones have not been immune to controversy and screaming headlines during the band’s history (e.g., the drug busts). They have survived it all and stayed together (at least three of the original five) and relevant for five decades and counting. Their brand and legacy is still tarnished by Altamont. Having acknowledged their unprecedented accomplishments one can conclude: Altamont was a chapter in their story that didn’t need to be written.

Somebody, anybody needed to simply say, “No.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dt0ipUCfdlU

http://www.chicagotribune.com/sns-rt-music-rollingstones-pix-tv-update-1l4n0950bn-20121125,0,633285.story

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altamont_Raceway_Park

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altamont_Free_Concert

http://www.squidoo.com/altamont-speedway-free-festival-1969

http://www.hells-angels.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praetorian_Guard

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