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Altamont: After the Bleeding Stopped

Writing about an event that you were involved in a half-century in the past is dicey business.  This is especially true when there was no contemporary press coverage of your piece of the affair to check against and you’ve either drifted out of contact with principal participants long, long ago or they are, well, rather dead.  

It’s not as if the event itself, the disastrous Rolling Stones free concert at California’s Altamont Speedway was not extensively covered in all its painful detail at the time. It was even documented in the iconic film Gimme Shelter.  Multiple cameras captured the chaos on and in front of the stage as Hells Angels “security guards” scuffled with band members and charged into the crowd to pummel anyone they perceived was threatening them or was otherwise “out of line” with pool cues.  A man was stabbed to death by a trio of Angels during the Rolling Stones’ climactic performance.  Altamont immediately became the media counterpoint to Woodstock’s “3 Days of Peace and Music” held four months earlier near New York City. 

Though I hesitated to sort through my memories and write about the concert for its 50th anniversary because I lack more details than I’m comfortable with, underground press chronicler Ken Waschberger encouraged me.  “Just say what you remember,” he wisely advised.  So here goes. 

My role at Altamont was to coordinate the post-show grounds cleanup. In truth, it was my own big mouth that entangled me with the whole mess. In 1969, I got involved in the music and countercultural scene in Kansas City, successfully negotiating the Mother Love Tribe’s weekly Sunday park concerts with the Parks and Recreation Department while working on the local “underground” paper, the Screw (later renamed Westport Trucker). 

It had been an absurdly busy year. I was also, as time and circumstances allowed, helping out a local rock band; romancing a lady; finishing high school a year early, and successfully obtaining the objective of a law suit against a local school district on behalf of some of the inmates left behind. In the midst of this, I was called out at the very last minute to lend some minor assistance at the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair north of New York City. I arranged for a colleague to handle my last two scheduled park concerts and caught a plane to LaGuardia.

After helping at Woodstock, I went to San Francisco to work with a local San Francisco production company, the Family Dog, but with the real objective of relaxing and getting myself “grounded” between concert seasons in Kansas City. This was my third brief stint with the Dog since 1966 and I did whatever odd tasks their revered founder, Chet Helms, had for me. Chet put me up in their relatively unused green school bus parked below the sand dunes and beside the Dog’s music hall on the Pacific coast.  The bus’s exterior was well faded from the sun and sea air and the interior required quite a bit of cleaning and reorganizing, but it couldn’t have been a sweeter set-up.  

That fall, I’d proudly recounted to Chet, the Grateful Dead’s Ron McKernan and Phil Lesh, It’s a Beautiful Day’s David LaFlamme, and others what a marvelous job Mother Love had done keeping KC’s Volker Park in shape despite the crowds.  Since everyone wanted to hear about Woodstock (it was kind of a mix of curiosity and San Francisco “Woodstock envy”), I’d also relayed my experience working it. These stories put me on the radar. 

Originally, the Rolling Stones concert was supposed to be held at Golden Gate Park. The second planned location, the Sears Point Raceway near the Dead’s ranch in Novato, also fell through. In the middle of this location turmoil, I got a call from Rock Scully, one of the Grateful Dead’s managers. He said he heard grrr-aaat things about my work and would like to know if I’d be willing to coordinate the grounds cleanup at the new Altamont Speedway location. 

I explained to Scully that I had nothing to do with any grounds work at Woodstock; that my principal function, shared with two other fellows (one of whom had disappeared almost immediately), was keeping an eye on the unused lighting equipment under the stage and shooing people off the elevator frame when equipment had to be moved. With the exception of just one lengthy stint when I helped get helicoptered-in food supplies up to the far crest of the bowl where Hugh Romney’s diligent Hog Farmers and other volunteers were preparing food for the masses, I’d very briefly outside of “the citadel”* perhaps only four or five times.  I also informed him that only two or three of the 15 Volker Park shows I did before Woodstock were attended by more than 10,000 people (which, in truth, was an exaggeration because I should have said 5,000).  

But Scully literally wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and pressed hard.  He even put Grateful Dead front-man “Pigpen” Ron McKernan on the line.  His brother had done me some favors “way back” in ‘66-‘67 (no, they weren’t drug related) and Ron brought it up in an effort to push me into agreeing!  Good cop - bad cop?  I liked Ron but this seemed more like bad cop and bad cop. 

I knew that, due to the last-minute problems associated with moving the production roughly a hundred miles from Sears Point, it would be a big task. Others at the Dog were asked to assist and, like me, reluctantly agreed only because it was the Grateful Dead doing the asking.  One good friend, ace sound man Lee Brenkman, had mixed feelings but saw it almost as a duty.  I consoled myself with the thought that my work would not truly start until the day after the show and looked forward to, for once, just being a spectator.

“OK.  OK.  I’ll do it,” I told Scully. 

*The citadel was what Woodstock’s red-shirted security personnel called the fenced-in area that they had withdrawn to when the festival’s outer perimeter was abandoned and the event was declared to be free to all.  It encompassed the area immediately in front of the stage; the conglomeration of trailers and facilities to the rear, and wide expanses to both sides that were used as helicopter landing fields.

The Concert

The barren brown hills that marked much of the final drive to the speedway were a far cry from the lush green of the bus ride into Bethel, New York, months earlier, but the crowd at the site was in good spirits, almost festive.  

After setting up camp with some friends about a hundred yards from the stage I went around back to ”check in.” Unlike Woodstock, there was no “citadel” and the backstage area was a disorganized and tightly packed jumble of rental trucks, school and metro-type busses tents, and trailers.  I quickly located the Dog’s green school bus which would serve as my post-show office and storage, but the expected tools were nowhere to be found.  They must be somewhere else or coming later, I figured.

The most unsettling difference between the two events, however was that the stage at Altamont was frightfully low, about three feet. Gravity matters. This design feature had been perfectly appropriate for the elevated ground of the Sears Point site but invited trouble when situated in the low area here as people would tend to be pressed to it instead of back away. I also didn’t like that the Hells Angels’ San Francisco chapter that frequently worked security for the Grateful Dead did not seem to be there in force.  Nor did I see club president Sony Barger who supplied a steadying hand when things began to escalate between the Angles and those waiting in line outside the Family Dog to see the Dead’s side band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, just a couple weeks before.  Instead, Angels from the San Jose chapter and many bikers of undetermined origin hugged the stage area as a considerable amount of beer was passed around. 

A fellow with the band It’s a Beautiful Day who was helping with the staging (it wasn’t singer-violinist David LaFlamme) confirmed that Sony wasn’t there yet and one of the SF Angles said he was dealing with “legal stuff” back in the city but that he’d definitely be coming.  

As the concert started, there were immediately problems. The free Stones concert also featured about a half dozen of San Francisco’s top bands and the first one up, Santana, leaped to a bouncing start but quickly came to a jarring halt.  There was some kind of trouble at the stage but I thought it was probably just a problem with the sound system and wondered if my friend Lee was pulling his hair out. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The gruesome events that went on until well after dark have been recounted over and over elsewhere. I went around to behind the stage three times before the show ended in futile attempts to see if I could be of any assistance.  It was on my first trip back as the trouble escalated that I got the shock of my young life. I was carrying out some simple task with another Family Dog Productions guy (whose name is now forgotten) when we were told that the Grateful Dead were bugging out. They were fleeing the scene and leaving everybody else to deal with the mess they’d organized on behalf of the Rolling Stones!  We immediately turned to each other.  His jaw had practically dropped to the ground and the eyes were popped wide. I must have looked the same to him.  The only reason we were there was because the Dead had asked us.  

Ultimately, I remember only one band --- and one band only --- making it all the way through their set with no interruptions: The Flying Burrito Brothers.  Because bands shortening their sets and because the Stones wanted their performance to be held after dark for dramatic effect, the absence of the Dead created a gap of more than two hours before the Stones went on stage.

At the time, when I learned that the Stones would not go on until it was dark, I naively assumed that there was a bright side to the unexpected moratorium. I believed that the gap would actually provide a “cooling off’” period and the bikers could be delicately gotten under control, off the stage, and reorganized into specific security duties. 

Tragically, the people who were in the best position to carry this off, the Grateful Dead had run for the tall grass and by the time Sony finally roared up with an escort of more SF Angels things were far beyond even his ability to restore order. Instead of cooling off, tensions mounted during the long, long wait and beatings resumed as the Stones started up after nightfall and played on, oblivious for a time that the death right in front of them had even happened. 

The Aftermath

Later that night, after the bleeding stopped, everyone involved in the organization and staging of the show worked at record speed to “get the heck out of Dodge.”  By first light, there were only two abandoned vehicles in the immediate area, a few cars in the far distance, and the Dog’s faded green bus, my “office” for the clean-up.  

Thankfully, the massive throng had come and gone in less than 24 hours and there’d been no rain so the grounds were in nowhere near as bad a shape as after Woodstock.  Nevertheless, the flood of humanity, receding hurriedly in the dead of night, had left enough refuse in its wake to keep a crew fully employed for a couple days. Unfortunately, there was no crew.  

When the Grateful Dead’s manager Scully asked me what I needed for the cleanup, I asked how many people were expected. He’d guessed there would be “50-, maybe 100-thousand” attendees, but it was actually about 300,000. Despite my tender age I’d already been involved --- to varying degrees --- in stuff like this for several years. I told him I would need willing workers, cash for 50 yard rakes plus 20 each of garden rakes and shovels, a truck with drinking water, three-days’ meals catered for 50 people, five porta potties in the work area, tents and cots for 50, and for the Speedway to agree to make their phone(s) available. I also said that we would have to hire a firm with the proper equipment to scoop our piles into trucks that would haul the stuff off for disposal. 

Scully promised he would personally ensure that it was on site. As for as the workers, Scully said that could be coordinated with the current version of the old Haight-Ashbury Switchboard and that he’d already talked with them --- he said --- and told me who to contact.  

To make a long story short, I received almost none of the required support. The folks at the Switchboard said that they’d never heard from him or anybody about this. I found it hard to believe that Scully had simply lied to get an agreement out of me, and rationalized that he’d intended to get that ball rolling and had gotten sidetracked.  Though apprehensive, I pressed on and the Switchboard made a genuine effort to enlist at least some volunteers, but at the site itself, there wasn’t one lousy rake or any of the other things Scully promised. 

Extensive improvisation was required to get the job done. Rakes were fashioned from the wooden slats inserted diagonally in the track’s perimeter chain link fence that lined the top of the ridge to the right of the stage. The impromptu clean-up crew, which fluctuated from about 15 to 45-50 people depending on the time of day, compromised principally stragglers who were willing to be put to work.  These were primarily kids who had become separated from their rides. The rest of the stragglers were either those who wanted to linger a little longer or were simply too blasted to arrange a hook-up with others heading back to the city.  There were as many as 250 of them that morning and I’d begun my recruitment campaign the night before.  

We faced an enormous task. First, we gathered the glass and heavy items like abandoned ice chests and a surprising number of shoes into irregularly spaced piles sorted by type --- glass, cans, and miscellaneous--- which included some 30,000 wine bottles (roughly one for every 10 to 12 in attendance).  Then followed the attack on the paper waste. Working individually and in skirmish lines of up to a dozen, much of the refuse had been consolidated into piles by the middle of the third post-show day and luckily, at least while I was there, no significant winds came up to rescatter the paper.

Though one would have to walk a pretty fair distance to the porta potties near the stage, especially if you were working at the far ends of the grounds, the facilities were clean and not overflowing.  Water could be obtained from the speedway office, which was a pretty good hike up and around the track, but there was no shortage of jugs and bottles to put it in.  What we didn’t have was food.  

I would have brought a whole list of contact numbers if I’d known that things would work out this way but, as it was, I had just two: the drummer Mickey Hart’s at the Grateful Dead’s ranch and the Family Dog’s office.  The former was constantly busy (off the hook?) and the latter alternately busy or not answering.  I was, however, able to get the Switchboard’s number from the operator and, true to form, they were apparently able to put out the word on our plight and relief came in the form of a perfectly timed arrival of fruits, vegetables, and hard-boiled eggs for dinner.  Fruits, veggies, baked goods and some desperately need extra rakes were brought the next morning by a small party of ecology-minded students from either UC Berkeley or San Francisco State.

The wooden slats in the track’s perimeter fence were steadily disappearing as they early on were recognized by the stragglers as an excellent source of firewood on the cold nights.  As for myself, and later on an injured kid and his girlfriend, I was able to take advantage of the butane heaters for the stage that had been stored in the Family Dog’s bus. I also put up the Dog’s very distressed soundman, Lee, for two nights since he’d accidentally been left behind during the confused nighttime exit after the show. The stragglers, including my volunteer workers, understandably dwindled at an escalating pace.

Scully showed up at the speedway office three days after the event with a load of ittsy bittsy, triangle-cut ham and cheese sandwiches, a gaggle of reporters and, of course, no tools.  From atop the hill by the track he gathered the reporters and camera crews and waved his arm over the expanse and the --- from a distance --- neat piles of trash dotting the grounds from the abandoned stage and towers and extending out perhaps a quarter mile. 

Scully spoke proudly of the cleanup yet made no effort at all to speak with the remaining kids who had now been at it for several days.  As for me, it was only by luck that I’d been at the speedway office waiting for my ride out when he arrived.  We’d never met each other face to face --- and he made no effort to find me either --- so I used my anonymity to hold back and observe the circus. I made one last trek down to the stage area to tell people that additional food had arrived at the office.  Then I was outta there.

If the Grateful Dead and their management had followed up on supplying the technical support they’d promised, the cleanup would have been a pretty straight-forward task, However, the speedway employees I dealt with firmly believed that all the pushing and the promises by Scully to get me to say “yes” was just so that he could tell the site’s owners during the negotiations that he had things all arranged to clean up the inevitable mess.  After all this time, who really knows?  What I can say is that while many features on Altamont’s 50th anniversary will focus on the violence, I’ll always remember what happened after the bleeding stopped: the chaos, the broken promises, and what the willing volunteers--- unsupported and unknown --- ultimately accomplished there.