An incisive account of the most infamous concert debacle in rock history.
Most music fans know all they need to about Altamont, the ill-conceived and hastily planned free show near San Francisco for which the Hells Angels provided “security” and killed one man in the process. All of this was chronicled in the classic 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. Veteran San Francisco Chronicle music journalist Selvin (Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, 2014, etc.) acknowledges the film’s power. However, he writes, “the filmmakers used their material brilliantly to tell a story, but they tell only a slender slice of the entire drama and if it is not exactly a lie, it is far from the whole truth.” This book provides context and perspective, showing the sea change in rock that was taking place as the Rolling Stones attempted to reassert themselves amid the increasing dominance of San Francisco psychedelia and the spirit of Woodstock. There are all sorts of culture clashes here: between the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, profiteers and anarchists, drugs and alcohol, hippies and bikers. They all came together at Altamont, a speedway more accustomed to crowds in the low thousands and a last-minute site because the Stones’ focus on their film and its distribution had complicated the process. There are more victims here than the young black man who was killed (and whose killer was acquitted), there are no heroes, and there is plenty of blame to spread around: to the Dead for suggesting the Angels, to the Angels for acting like the Angels, and to at least one suspicious character who claimed to act on the Stones’ behalf. However, Selvin concludes with most of the blood on the hands of the Stones.
The detailing of the actual concert reads like old news, and the sourcing could be clearer, but this is a compelling analysis of an event that hadn’t seemed like it needed anything more written about it.