Friday, December 28, 2007

Ethan Russell - Let It Bleed

On my study wall I’m lucky enough to have hanging the greatest picture in rock and roll. It’s a photograph of the greatest rock and roll band in the world taken at one of rock and roll’s greatest disasters – the Altamont concert in December 1969. This is it.

The photographer who took this picture is Ethan Russell and he sent me a signed copy. I treasure it more than most everything else I’ve collected over the years. If his name doesn’t immediately strike you his brilliant photography has probably impressed you if you’ve been a fan of rock since the sixties. He took the iconic shots on the cover of the Who’s ‘Next’, it was his photographs of the Beatles on their ‘Let it Be’ album, he took many other iconic shots of Linda Ronstadt, the Stones, James Taylor, BB King…the list goes on.

But just why is that photograph so great? There are maybe 50 fans staring up at Mick Jagger who is on a stage that was barely four feet off the ground. Those fifty people are the very tip of a huge iceberg of a crowd numbering somewhere close to 500,000 people. The Altamont free festival was the Rolling Stones idea of creating some kind of west coasts Woodstock. By the time they got back to California, after completing their coast-to-coast US tour, for the December 6 concert it had already been re-scheduled at several different locations. Twenty-four hours before the concert it was finalised at the Altamont Raceway - 50 miles east of San Francisco. It was an 80-acre plot; the biggest crowd they had ever handled was 6,500.

It was thought that something like a quarter of a million fans could show up; by early evening around 5,000 people were there. By midnight about 25,000 fans had arrived. As the gates were opened at 7am on Saturday it was a little above freezing - within half an hour the hills were packed with people arriving from all directions. Soon there was a 30-mile traffic jam, drivers abandoned their cars and walked. Doctors and psychiatrists had been hired to help with anticipated drug problems; there turned out to be numerous bad trips, many as a result of yellow pills given away as organic acid – something of a contradiction in terms.

Helicopters shuttled performers into the site, where Hell's Angels acted as security guards (probably the greatest miss-match in the whole history of rock and roll). The show was to open with Santana, followed by Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones

Santana opened three hours late at around 1 p.m. and trouble started almost immediately. Hell’s Angels set upon a young guy; as an encore they beat up a couple of naked people and then leapt on a photographer and smashed his camera into his face, they then set about him with pool cues. Drenched in blood he collapsed and was taken care of by the Red Cross. As Santana started their third song around 40 Hell's Angels mounted the stage, carrying cases of beer. After the Angels ran across the stage to beat someone else up Carlos gave up; they managed just four numbers. After a long delay, Jefferson Airplane went onstage; they were badly out of tune. A naked spaced-out black guy clambered onto the stage only to be beaten senseless by the Angels. The Airplane's Marty Balin tried to intervene but was knocked to the ground. Jack Cassidy their bass player shouted "Will the Angels please note that when somebody's freaking out, you don't help him by kicking the shit out of him. I'd also like to announce that Marty Balin was punched unconscious in that little comic number you just saw staged and I'd like to say..." That’s all he could manage, the Angels charged into the band, and when they’d finished only Grace Slick was left untouched; the Airplane left the stage.

The Flying Burrito Brothers then played and their set went off peacefully. By the time Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were due to play the whole stage was covered with Angels. It was doubtful whether many in the audience could see very much given the fact that it was so low. Soon after CSNY started the Angels charged the crowd, swinging pool cues at whoever was in their way. At the end of the set, stretchers were sent into the audience and bodies were passed across the stage to the Red Cross area. Next up were supposed to be the Grateful Dead, but it was decided that the Stones should go on first (In the end the Dead never got to play at all) It was around 4.30 p.m and already getting dark. Dozens of fires were lit on the hillsides, and people were packed together tighter than ever. Just when it seemed it couldn’t get any worse about a dozen Angels ploughed through the crowd on their motorbikes, and parked in front of the stage.

The Stones opened their set with 'Jumping Jack Flash', for a while things seemed almost calm. As they started playing 'Carol' there was panic as shouts of “Fire” were heard. The Angels response was to hurl themselves into the crowd and beat up a few more people. To help quieten the mood they played a slow blues instrumental before 'Stray Cat Blues', 'Love in Vain' and 'Under My Thumb', soon another fight started. Mick said: "Why are we fighting? Why are we fighting? We don't want to fight at all. Who wants to fight, who is it? Every other scene has been cool. We gotta stop right now. You know, if we can't there's no point"

The Stones restarted 'Under My Thumb' and a black guy in a green suit got involved in a scuffle with five or six Angels. Within minutes he was close to death. Menace was everywhere and Mick who was clearly frightened said. "Brothers and sisters, come on now! That means everybody just cool out! We can cool out, everybody! Everybody be cool, now. Come on…”Keith then said: "Either those cats cool it, man, or we don't play. Keep it cool! Hey, if you don't cool it, you ain't gonna hear no music!” An Angel grabbed a mike and shouted 'Fuck you!’

The first doctor to reach Meredith Hunter, the guy in the green suit, said: "It was obvious he wasn't going to make it. He had very serious wounds. There was no equipment there to treat him. He needed to be operated on immediately" Onstage Mick was getting increasingly edgy, and his voice showed it. "We're splitting; we're splitting if those cats don't stop. I want them out of the way!" The Angels onstage crowded round him, and were extremely menacing. Many in front of the stage began the start up their engines. Mick said: "Please relax and sit down. If you move back and sit down, we can continue and we will continue"

The Stones finally managed to finish 'Under My Thumb' before playing 'Brown Sugar' for the first time ever on stage. After four or five more numbers they did ‘Satisfaction’ and as it ended a helicopter pilot came onstage and told them that his was the last helicopter, and he was leaving, with or without them in ten minutes. They played 'Honky Tonk Woman', and ended the show with 'Street Fighting Man', (not their greatest ever song selection!). They piled into the helicopter with their women and friends, in all there were about twenty of them. It was a miracle that he even got the ‘copter off the ground and the Stones back to San Francisco.

Altamont was as complete a disaster. It was the day the Sixties ended.

Ethan Russell has just published a brilliant book entitled ‘Let It Bleed’ chronicling not just Altamont but the whole of the Stones 1969 tour of America. It is without question one of the best books not just about the Stones but also about rock and roll. His photography is sensational; his research meticulous, and the sheer size of the book grabs you and envelops you in its grand sweep. You can read Ethan’s foreword HERE and you can buy the book HERE.

Ethan I salute you, you’re one of rock music’s true originals. I’m also bloody jealous that you were there, but most important of all is the fact that you survived to tell us all the tale of when rock music mattered


Trooper Thompson said...

I remember reading a good book, which focused on this tour, culminating with the Altamont disaster - 'The true adventures of the Rolling Stones' by Stanley Booth, that I'd recommend.

Richard Havers said...

I'd agree. I really good read.

Trooper Thompson said...

You got me thinking:

r morris said...

Great post, Richard. I'm going to have to buy the book.
The Sixties weren't all they have been cracked up to be. My 60's memory is standing on 14th Street at Nixon's inaugural parade and watching hippies beat on people with peace signs before the National Guard showed up. I was nine years old and scared shitless.

The peace movement had become infiltrated by violent groups, and Martin Luther King's civil disobedience had been replaced by the Black Panthers.

r morris said...

Yikes. $650 for a deluxe edition. How much do you suppose the layman's edition will cost for the masses?

jams o donnell said...

It is an excellent photo and a great post Richard. Happy New Year