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Was Altamont really the end of the hippy dream?

For history, the appearance of the Rolling Stones in Altamont on December 6, 1969 has remained like the nadir of the Californian utopia of the sixties. A nightmare experienced by some 300,000 flower children, resulting in four deaths: three by accidents plus a young black man killed by Hell's Angels, next to the stage, before the cameras of David and Albert Maysles' team, a horror that was reflected in the documentary Gimme Shelter, that alternated that footage with Mick Jagger's taciturn reaction to the car night filming.

In the long half century that has passed, the main reference testimony has been that of the Maysles brothers. However, it turns out that there was at least one other filmmaker there, possibly a hobbyist with an 8mm camera. It has just been announced by the Library of Congress, which even stores home-made tapes. His material was forgotten in Palmer Films, a San Francisco laboratories that closed long ago. It went unnoticed because it was labeled “Stones in the Park”, which led us to suppose that it came from the group's concert in London's Hyde Park, on July 5 of that same year, which was filmed and broadcast by Granada Television, under the title precisely of The Stones in the Park .

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When digitized it was found to be 26 minutes of (silent) images of Altamont, shot with shaking hands but intentionally mounted. One suspects that the filmmaker was on the hook and had access to the stage. They contain excerpts from performances by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and, late at night, the Rolling Stones. The Grateful Dead gave up playing: Jerry Garcia's environment was involved in the main mistakes made and the band chose to distance itself from what would be described as “the disaster of the Rolling Stones in Altamont”.

This is how the magazine Rolling Stone summarized it on the cover of its next issue. The main staff of the mainstream counterculture attacked Jagger and the deplorable organization: “What happened in Altamont was the consequence of diabolical self-centeredness, great incompetence, economic manipulation and, in essence, an insensitive attitude towards the human race”. Behind that statement of charges was the high politics of rock Olympus, the tortuous relationship between Jagger and Jann Wenner (responsible for Rolling Stone), detailed in Joe Hagan's gritty biography of the founder of the publication, Sticky Fingers (Spanish edition: Neo-Sounds, 2018).

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Poster of the 1969 Altamont Festival.

Justified accusations, on the other hand, but consistent with the mirage of the Woodstock festival, which had unfolded four months earlier. Jagger wanted to dilute the controversy over the high price of his tour of the United States – tickets ranged from three to eight dollars – with a free show that would also function as a climax for the documentary commissioned from the Maysles . But Woodstock's own golden myth also hid impure motives: it was a free event due to the promoters' inability to manage crowd access. Although Max Yagur's farm was an Eden compared to the Altamont dryland, in the vicinity of a racing circuit without infrastructure for 300,000 people.

For the record, viewers knew. In the Maysles movie we see them arrive with blankets, provided with food, drink and — we suppose — the substances of the moment. In the now uncovered shots we see a multiracial audience enjoying themselves, beautiful faces dancing and even relaxed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards savoring the performance of a Gram Parsons displaying a thorax. Nothing out of the ordinary until the brave Marty Balin, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane, sets out to try to stop one of the many beating that the Angels gave for whatever reason.

Thousands of fans turned, like those in the picture, to enter early through any gap in the fences. Bettmann (Bettmann Archive)

Choosing such an inhospitable site could have been an emergency solution, brought about by the Woodstock Effect, in the naive hope that the crowd could organize and instinctively create a model community. The thing to sign the Angels of Hell as security can only be described as stupid. The Dead and other hippie leaders sympathized with the Sonny Barger gang members, who had not yet become a criminal organization; They accepted that order, paid with an open bar of beer. Their reactions tended to the unpredictable: they could attack protesters against the Vietnam War, for “lack of patriotism,” or gorging on LSD in a acid test promoted by novelist Ken Kesey.

The fable of the wolf taking care of the lambs. Few of the victims rebelled. Conspicuous in his lime green suit, an 18-year-old black boy named Meredith Hunter felt mistreated by bikers and reacted by pulling out a revolver. He did not shoot: a few minutes later, he bled to death. Only one of the aggressors was prosecuted and the jury accepted that he acted in self-defense.

Strictly speaking, none of those involved were part of the counterculture. But in the days that followed, it was time to flagellate himself and thus the story of the end of Hippism prevailed, reinforced by books and documentaries. In reality, the events that deflated that balloon had already happened. I'm talking about the Manson Family murders, although it would take months for the perpetrators to be identified. That was a shock : the realization that the movement of peace and love sheltered monsters.

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