Book Review: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

First published in 2016, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day takes a look at the infamous free concert that was held at California’s Altamont Speedway in 1970.

The Free Concert was meant to be a sequel of sorts to Woodstock, with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead, and the Flying Burrito Brothers teaming up with the Rolling Stones in order to give everyone a free day and night of good music and good vibes.  While the music may have good (seriously, what a line up!, even if the Dead ultimately refused to take the stage), the vibes were anything but.  Not only was the concert hastily put together but someone came up with the bright idea of getting the Hell’s Angels to provide security.  After a day that was frequently marred by violence (among the victims was Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin, who was actually knocked unconscious while the band was performing), Altamont came to an apocalyptic conclusion with the murder of a young concertgoer named Meredith Hunter.  The concert may have been sold as a west coast Woodstock but, instead, it become one of the events that is regularly cited as signifying the end of the 60s.

There’s a spectacular documentary called Gimme Shelter, which contains not only footage of the violence while it happened but also features scenes of lawyer Melvin Belli setting up the concert and performing for the camera.  (“I’m opening for the Stones,” he says at one point.)  While the documentary does a good job of showing what happened, it doesn’t dig into why it happened.  Fortunately, Joel Selvin’s Altamont provides a good, in-depth history of not just what happened at Altamont but also how it all came to be.  Selvin explores what led the Stones to holding a free concert in the first place and also how a mix of 60s naivete and greed led to catastrophe.  While the Stones come across as being a bit too detached from the counter culture to actually understand what they were dealing with at Altamont, the Grateful Dead come across as being in denial about the violence lurking underneath the scene.  Meanwhile, the other performers simply try to complete their set without getting sucked in to the bad vibes all around them.  Jefferson Airplane’s performance, which was vividly captured in Gimme Shelter, is revealed in its full horror in Selvin’s book.  (Having forgotten to put in her contact lenses, Grace Slick found herself trying to calm people who she could barely see.)  Of course, as bad as the Airplane’s experience was, they still had no problem leaving their drummer behind when they finally escaped the concert.  Poor Spencer Dryden.  (Apparently, the other members of the band had decided that they didn’t particularly Dryden so why not abandon him with the Hell’s Angels?  Someday, someone will make a very good movie about Jefferson Airplane.)

Selvin not only writes about the bands and the Hell’s Angels but also about some of the people at the concert, many of whom found themselves in a war zone.  Perhaps most importantly, he writes about Meredith Hunter and the life he led before that terrible night at Altamont.  As a writer, Selvin is compassionate but also honest.  Every character, from the famous to the forgotten, emerges from Selvin’s narrative as a complex and interesting human being.  Selvin humanizes the people involved with Altamont without ever trivializing the tragedy of it all.

Altamont is often held up as being the reverse image of Woodstock.  Of course, Woodstock ’99 ended up having more in common with Altamont than with the original three days of peace, love, and music.  Joel Selvin’s book is a fascinating look at how that happened and what it all means.

One response to “Book Review: Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin

  1. Pingback: Lisa Marie’s Week In Review: 9/26/22 — 10/2/22 | Through the Shattered Lens

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