[Note: I originally posted this, yesterday, just before midnight. In researching the data, I stumbled across Bill Owens, a photographer that was at Altamont. He was hired by the Associated Press to cover the concert. I emailed him, reference the two photos of his I posted. I hit ‘publish’ before I found his contact page and statement about photos for sale. In my haste to get this up while it was still Friday, I jumped the gun and quickly made the post private. I asked Bill what the price would be to use two of his pictures. As a photographer myself, I understand copyright issues but, I also recognize the gray area that many a blogger operate in, in the blogosphere….Fair Use (link on that, below). Anyway, this very kind gentleman has allowed my one-time use for this 50th anniversary post. He also provided me with a copy of an interview, conducted by Tony D’Souza in April 2019, covering his Altamont experience and other questions regarding his career. I will post an excerpt and attach the full interview, below. ~Vic]
Fifty years, ago, today, a free rock concert was held at the Altamont Speedway in Tracy, California. Described as “rock and roll’s all-time worst day, […], a day when everything went perfectly wrong“, the event saw violence and four deaths, the most notable being the stabbing of Meredith Hunter.
The concert featured (in order of appearance): Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act. The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform following CSNY but, declined to play shortly before their scheduled appearance due to the increasing violence at the venue.
Approximately 300,000 attended the concert, and some anticipated that it would be a “Woodstock [West Coast verson]”. Woodstock was held in Bethel, New York, in mid-August, less than four months earlier. Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles shot footage of the event and incorporated it into the 1970 documentary film titled Gimme Shelter.
[It’s] not every day that a rock and roll band’s performance, let alone the Rolling Stones’, is accompanied by a knifing, stomping murder within a scream of the stage.
“The violence,” Keith Richard told the London Evening Standard, “just in front of the stage was incredible. Looking back, I don’t think it was a good idea to have [Hells] Angels there. But, we had them at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead. The trouble is, it’s a problem for us either way. If you don’t have them to work for you as stewards, they come, anyway and cause trouble. But, to be fair, out of the whole 300 Angels working as stewards, the vast majority did what they were supposed to do, which was to regulate the crowds as much as possible without causing any trouble. But, there were about ten or twenty who were completely out of their minds…trying to drive their motorcycles through the middle of the crowds.”
The Maysles Brothers, the film company which had shot the whole Stones’ tour, complete with its violent climax at Altamont, had gotten some remarkable footage of Hunter’s killing.
Robert Hiatt, a medical resident at the Public Health Hospital in San Francisco, was the first doctor to reach 18-year-old Meredith Hunter after the fatal wounds. He was behind the stage and responded to Jagger’s call from the stage for a doctor. When Hiatt got to the scene, people were trying to get Hunter up on the stage, apparently in the hope that the Stones would stop playing and help could get through quicker.
Three others […] died (two in a hit-and-run accident, another by drowning) and, countless more were injured and wounded during the course of this daylong “free” concert. It was such a bad trip that it was almost perfect. All it lacked was mass rioting and the murder of one or more musicians.
All these things happened, and worse. Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.
Bill Owens took iconic photos of the Hells Angels beating concertgoers with pool cue sticks at the Rolling Stones’ performance during the Altamont Speedway Free Festival four months after Woodstock on December 6, 1969. Altamont, which included violence almost all day and one stabbing death, is considered by historians as the end of the Summer of Love and the overall 1960’s youth ethos. This series of photos include panoramas of the massive, unruly crowd, Grace Slick and Carlos Santana on stage with the press of humanity so close in, they’re clearly performing under duress.
Of that day, Owens has written: “I got a call from a friend, she said the Associated Press wanted to hire me for a day to cover a rock and roll concert. I road my motorcycle to the event. I had two Nikons, three lenses, thirteen rolls of film, a sandwich, and a jar of water.”
Owens was so fearful of retribution by the Hells Angels that he published the photos under pseudonyms. Some of the negatives were later stolen…Owens believes by the Angels. He continues to have conflicted feelings about Altamont. He had no interest in violence and took no pride in photographing it.
In 1972, Owens released a book of black and white photography called Suburbia, also, now, an American icon. Irascible, stubborn, funny, grouchy, ornery and deeply rooted in small town life, Owens is built like a middleweight puncher and wears his hair as though he was a Marine. Indeed, Owens was never a hippie but, a clean-cut newspaper photographer, husband and father, who joined the Peace Corps to serve his country and “do good.” Turning 80 this September, Owens has also had noted careers as a craft beer brewer and pub owner, a magazine publisher many times over and, is now a distiller. His books include Suburbia, Working, Leisure and many others. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim and two NEAs. His work is collected in leading museums the world over, including the Smithsonian. Recent coverage of Owens includes an April retrospective in the New York Times (link above) of his Altamont photos for the event’s impending 50th anniversary. The photos are available for viewing at Owens’ website (link above and below).
I first met Owens at the defunct Rostel Gallery in remote and far northern Dunsmuir, CA, in late August or early September of 2008 (I remember because my daughter had just been born and the event was the first outing of her life), where they were showing images from Suburbia. These are images of people embarking on a new, modern way of life that they look excited by, but also confused, as though technology and the modish styles of the time were costumes they were still getting comfortable in. Owens’ photograph of a young suburban boy wearing cowboy boots, carrying a toy rifle and riding a Big Wheel, “Ritchie,” has always haunted me, though I couldn’t say precisely why.
Continue reading the interview HERE (PDF)
Death of Meredith Hunter
Let It Bleed (Rolling Stone Magazine January 21, 1970)
Rock & Roll’s Worst Day (Rolling Stone Magazine February 7, 1970)
Altamont Rock Festival: ’60s Abruptly End (Livermore History March/April 2010)
Altamont Rock Festival of 1969: The Aftermath (Livermore History January/February 2011)
Biggest Rock Concert Ends (The Bulletin December 8, 1969)
Bill Owens Site (Associated Press Photographer at Altamont)
Ruling On Fair Use (American Photography May 3, 2019)
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