Both the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones were tarred by their association with Altamont, the notorious free concert held December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway east of the San Francisco Bay. The accusations and counter-charges have swirled since that night, when a perfect storm of bad planning and other factors produced a concert that was a nightmare for many—and perhaps most—attendees.
Captured by the Maysles Brothers for their documentary Gimme Shelter, the Stones concert was marred by repeated brawls and clashes between the Hell’s Angels and audience members and even Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, who played before the Stones. The violence culminated in the murder of Meredith Hunter, who allegedly flashed a gun and was quickly surrounded by Angels, beaten, and finally stabbed to death by Alan Pasarro, a member (or prospective member) of the Angels’ Oakland chapter. A trial ended in an acquittal.
The Dead did not play, but were blamed by many for suggesting the Angels serve as security and for encouraging the idea of a free concert generally. In the aftermath, the Dead picked up the Stones’ tour manager, Sam Cutler, and Robert Hunter wrote a brilliant lyric reflecting on the meaning of the event, “New Speedway Boogie,” which Garcia put to music and the band recorded for Workingman’s Dead.
Cutler’s recent biography, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, was just donated to the Dead Archive as part of Dennis McNally’s magnificent research archive and library; the warm inscription from Cutler (and McNally’s thoughtful marginalia) make this a prized book in the collection.
Rock fans and Dead scholars will find much of the book fascinating reading, and Cutler’s prose—and perspective—is thoughtful, and thought-provoking; it is a fine rock memoir, even if his own account of Altamont is not apt to change many minds. His view is vital, however, and he adds several twists on the story, including allegations of mob involvement that echo later developments in parts of the recording industry.
And in a genre in which ghost writers and vapidity are the norm, Cutler’s prose—which is his own—stands head and shoulders above most. He is a survivor, and his epigram—a poem he wrote in 1974—is a powerful statement about many of the themes he weaves together in his meditation on a career largely defined by his work first for the Stones, and then for the Dead:
We murder our dreams;
Then pick them up,
Dust them down,
Adjust their silly hats upon their heads,
Kiss them on the cheeks,
And tell them how glad we are
That they’re still alive.
Less useful, though prettier, is Let It Bleed: The Rolling Stones, Altamont, and the End of the Sixties, a glossy coffeetable book that documents Altamont and the tour that preceded it. Cowritten by a photographer on the tour, Ethan A. Russell, it credits eleven members of the tour with providing interviews, suggests that several had never spoken of the events until this book, and positions itself as the untold, and possibly final, word on the Altamont disaster.
The pictures make for a remarkable story, certainly, but the amount of text generated then and since on the concert, and the records of a full murder trial for Pasarro, mean that a thorough history of the event remains to be told.
Still, fans who have wondered about the events leading up to Altamont, and the nature of the rock touring industry on the cusp of radical change, will find much to engage them here.