Sunday, December 6, 2009
The 40th Anniversary of the Altamont Tragedy
The sixties were a tumultuous political era, wrought with intergenerational conflicts, and major civil strife. This fact has been obfuscated by the romanticization of several major events in the decade. The most obvious examples were a pair of music festivals, the Monterey Pop Festival, and Woodstock. The Monterey Festival was a fairly small event in 1967, with a peak attendance of around 10,000. Though it does not have the iconic status of Woodstock, it was the first major rock festival, and was seen as one of the catalysing events of the 'Summer of Love. The festival was considered an unmitigated success.
Unlike the Monterey Festival, Woodstock was far from an organizational success. Several major problems, such as a late change of venue, and the loss of several key acts, threatened to undermine the event's success. Moreover, despite the fact that the concert was supposed to be a profit making enterprise, it was overwhelmed by over 100,000 ticketless fans. The total attendance was around 300,000, despite the fact that the municipality had been informed to expect no more than 50,000. This prompted the local township to declare a state of emergency. Despite the potential chaos, there were only two fatalities at the event. One was from a heroin overdose, and the other a tractor accident. Though the event was marred by horrible traffic and sanitation problems, it was considered successful.
Though the 40th anniversary of Woodstock was met with fanfare earlier this year, the anniversary of it's much neglected cousin, Altamont, has been relatively muted. The infamous Altamont free concert was billed as the West Coast version of Woodstock. The only major difference was that it was going to be free of charge. Like Woodstock, there was a late change of venue, and the peak attendance was estimated at around 300,000. While Woodstock has become a symbol for love and peace, Altamont has become a symbol for the opposite. The festival was headlined by the Rolling Stones, who made the unfortunate decision to ask the Hell's Angels to provide security for the event. For those who were unfamiliar with Hunter Thompson's expose of the Angels, this may not have seemed like such a bad decision. In hindsight, it was.
The concert was punctuated by random acts of violence throughout the day. The two most notable being the beating of a fan by Hell's Angels, curiously armed with pool cues, and the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane receiving a knockout blow to the head. Despite the carnage, the Stones took the stage. By the time the Stones began their third song, Sympathy for the Devil, fights began to erupt. The documentary Gimme Shelter, which followed the entire concert, captured the entire scuffle. Mick Jagger attempted to calm down the crowd, joking how every time they played the ominous song, weird things happened. As they continued, so did the scuffle. At this point, the crowd was beyond control. In the documentary, the camera man is standing behind Jagger, who is flanked by Angels, as the crowd gradually enveloped the stage. This chaotic scene culminated in the death of 18 year old Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels after drawing a firearm. It is for this moment that Altamont will forever be remembered.
Though it is conventional wisdom that the chaos at Altamont was entirely the fault of the Hell's Angels, this is a poor interpretation of what happened. Altamont was a tragic experiment in anarchy. Though the Angels aggravated the crowd, they had no real choice. Unlike Woodstock, which did have a significant police presence, Altamont did not. Though most of the victimless crimes were not punished at Woodstock, there were still authority figures to prevent the chaos from erupting. Without that legitimate authority, Altamont was doomed from the start. Even if they had employed a security force other than the Hell's Angels, the situation would still have been unmanageable. With no ability to detain rowdy fans, they were put in a situation where they were often engaging in self defense, rather than policing. This is the lesson that we should all take away from Altamont. Flower children or not, in the absence of a legitimate authority, there is little to prevent minor conflicts from escalating into tragedy. Altamont is to anarchism what the fall of the Soviet Union is to socialism. Though it is not definitive proof that anarchy would be chaotic, it does not bode well. Perhaps in the future, someone will reinterpret these events and prove me wrong. I sincerely doubt this will happen.