John McMillian : Gimme Shelter: Altamont and the Underground Press

Hell’s Angel takes the cue. The contrasting coverage of the disastrous Altamont rock festival by the Berkeley Tribe and the San Francisco Examiner tells us much about why the underground press became such a force. Image from morethings.com.

When America was up for grabs:
What media coverage of Altamont teaches
us about the Sixties underground press

By John McMillian / The Rag Blog / February 24, 2010

[The following is an excerpt from John McMillian’s excellent new book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, published in January 2011 by Oxford University Press. Much has been written about the underground press and its seminal role in the Sixties cultural revolution, but this may be the definitive work on the subject. To say nothing of the fact that it’s a very exciting read!]

“STONES CONCERT ENDS IT,” blared the front-page headline of the underground Berkeley Tribe, dated December 12-19, 1969. “America Now Up For Grabs.”

The Rolling Stones concert that the Tribe described was supposed to have been a triumphant affair. Coming just four months after half a million hippie youths drew international attention by gathering peaceably at Max Yasgur’s farm, some had even hyped the free, day-long event — which was held at Altamont Speedway, some 60 miles east of San Francisco, and which also featured Santana, the Jefferson Airplane, and the Flying Burrito Brothers — as “Woodstock West.”

But this was no festival of peace and love. As almost everyone knew, the idea for the free show only came about after the Stones were nettled by criticisms that they had alienated fans with exorbitant ticket prices and arrogant behavior on their 1969 American tour. What’s more, Altamont proved to be a dirty, bleak space for a rock festival, almost completely lacking in amenities for the 300,000 concertgoers. Asked to guard the performers — allegedly in exchange for a truckload of beer — the Hell’s Angels went on a drug-and-booze soaked rampage, assaulting countless hippies with weighted pool cues and kicks to the head.

When the Stones finally started their set after sundown, they found it impossible to gain momentum; they could only play in fits and starts, as the Angels roughed up spectators and commotion swirled around them. Albert and David Maysles’ classic documentary, Gimme Shelter, captured Mick Jagger nervously trying to soothe the crowd: “Brothers and sisters, come on now. That means everybody — just cool out.” “All I can do is ask you — beg you — to keep it together. It’s within your power.” “If we are all one, let’s fucking well show we’re all one!”

But Jagger’s entreaties were in vain. Just as the Stones were starting “Under My Thumb,” the Angles set their sights on an African-American teenager in a flashy lime suit: Meredith Hunter. By one eyewitness account, the whole thing began when a heavyset Angel was toying with Hunter, laughing as he yanked him by the ear and by the hair. Then, when Hunter pulled himself away, he ran into a pack of perhaps four more Angels, who started punching him.

Trying to escape, Hunger whipped out a long-barreled revolver and held it high over his head; in an instant, an Angel plunged a knife between his neck and shoulder. Autopsy reports confirmed that Hunger was tweaking on methamphetamines when he was killed. His last words, supposedly, were: “I wasn’t going to shoot you.”

Ever since, writers and historians have found it tempting to describe Altamont as a generation-shattering event, the proverbial “end of an era.” If the early Sixties was a time of gauzy idealism, characterized by JFK’s youthful vigor, righteous lunch-counter sit ins, and the first flush of Beatlemania, then the Altamont disaster ranks alongside the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots, the Manson Family murders, and the Weather Underground’s townhouse explosion as evidence of the era’s swift decline.

Less well known, however, is that the trope arose in the underground press. “Altamont … exploded the myth of innocence for a section of America,” wrote 21 year old George Paul Csicsery (now a respected filmmaker) in the Tribe’s lead article. Just a little while earlier, he said, it had been “cool” for large groups of youths to assemble at parks and rock festivals. “People would play together, performing, participating, sharing and going home with a feeling that somehow the communal idea would replace the grim isolation wrought on us by a jealous competitive mother culture.”

But on the bleak, dry hills around Altamont, the feeling was entirely different: “Our one-day micro society was bound to the death-throes of capitalist greed.” The Angels’ violence had “united the crowd in fear” while Jagger strutted the stage like a “diabolical prince.” To Csiscery, the concert was a metaphor for a society on the brink: “Clearly, nobody is in control. Not the Angels, not the people. Not Richard Nixon, or his pigs. Nobody.”

Elsewhere in the Tribe, readers could find several more pieces on the Altamont debacle, all of them written by participant-observers, all of them done in a familiar, even informal style. Several writers made liberal use of the editorial “we” (as in, “We’re turning into a generation whose thing is to be an Audience, whose life-style is the mass get-together for ‘good vibes.’”) Others sprinkled their reports with song lyrics, hallucinatory images, or whimsical asides.

The Tribe also featured an elliptical poem about the Altamont debacle, as well as a comic strip by the artist Greg Irons that skewered a local radio station for irresponsibly hyping the event and then fulminating against it after things went bad. Almost all of this material struck a portentous tone; the Tribe’s radical politicos and youth-culture aficionados who caravanned to Altamont came away feeling grubby, mortified, and concerned. “I realize some people just had a good time,” said one writer. “Me, I saw a guy get killed.”

Altamont received front-page attention in the San Francisco Examiner, too, but nothing like the blanket coverage that was found in the Tribe, and besides, the Bay Area’s leading evening paper completely missed the concert’s significance; its reports and analysis could not have been more wrong-headed.

On December 6, the Examiner stressed that the biggest problem associated with the concert was the traffic headache it caused on Interstate 5/580; it specifically added that the police reported “no violence.” The next day, the paper mentioned that one person had been killed, but in fact four people died: two were run over by a car while sitting at a campfire, and another drowned in a swift-moving irrigation canal while zonked out on drugs.

“But for the stabbing,” the Examiner reported, “all appeared peaceful at the concert… The record-breaking crowd was for the most part orderly, but enthusiastic. The listeners heeded the advice of the Jefferson Airplane: ‘We should be together.’”

Then on December 9, the paper’s editorial writers fumbled to explain why 300,000 youths would even want to attend a free rock festival headlined by the Rolling Stones in the first place. They literally could not come up with an explanation that they deemed fully satisfactory.

Finally, on December 14, Dick Nolan, an op-ed columnist, stressed that the event had been a disaster for the counterculture, but his tone was so priggish and excoriating that it’s hard to imagine very many younger readers taking him seriously. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking,” he wrote. “But to me that Altamont rock fiasco looked like the last gasp of the whole hippie-drug thing.”

There were the Stones, he said, “peddling their idiot doggerel and primitive beat” before that most mindless of animals, the human mob. Altamont was just another manifestation “of the rock-drug-slobbery cult,” to which Nolan could only say good riddance.

This is not a book [Smoking Typewriters] about Altamont, of course. But by quickly glancing at how two local newssheets covered the Stones concert, we can begin apprehending the powerful appeal of the underground press in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Issue of the underground paper, The Berkeley Tribe. Image from zomblog.

Amateurishly produced by a collective of unabashed radicals, the Berkeley Tribe had a fleet of reporters who actively participated in the events they covered. Lacking any pretense of objectivity, they put across forcefully opinionated accounts of events that mattered deeply to them — that grew out of their culture — and they used a language and a sensibility of their own fashioning; their hip vernacular was something they shared with most of their readership.

By contrast, the professionals who staffed the Examiner — the flagship of the Hearst newspaper chain — approached Altamont with a prefabricated template. Their first instinct was to cloak the free concert in gooey, Woodstock-style sentimentalism. Then after that proved untenable, their editorialists proved totally uncomprehending of the rock and youth cultures they sought to explain.

It is little wonder, then, that many New Leftists never bothered to read daily newspapers, at least not when they wanted to know what was going on in their own milieu. Instead, beginning in the mid-1960s, in cities and campuses across the country, they began creating and distributing their own radical community newssheets, with which they aimed to promote avant-garde sensibilities and inspire political tumult.

Amplitude and conviction were hallmarks of the underground press: this is where they set forth their guiding principles concerning the unfairness of racism, the moral and political tragedy of the Vietnam War, the need to make leaders and institutions democratically accountable, and the existential rewards of a committed life.

And their success was astonishing. According to cultural critic Louis Menand, underground newspapers “were one of the most spontaneous and aggressive growths in publishing history.” In 1965, the New Left could claim only five such newspapers, mostly in large cities; within a few years, several hundred papers were in circulation, with a combined readership that stretched into the millions.

In addition to trying to build an intellectual framework for the Movement’s expansion, New Leftists imbued their newspapers with an ethos that socialized people into the Movement, fostered a spirit of mutuality among them, and raised their democratic expectations.

The community-building work that New Leftists brought about in this way was neither incidental nor marginal. Instead, it played a crucial role in helping youths to break away from the complacency and resignation that prevailed in postwar America, in order to build an indigenous, highly stylized protest culture.

Given the obstacles confronting those who have attempted to build mass democratic movements in the United States, this was a considerable achievement. Simply put, much of what we associate with the late 1960s youth rebellion — its size, intensity, and contrapuntal expressions of furious anger and joyful bliss — might not have been possible without the advent of new printing technologies that put the cost of newspaper production within reach of most activists, or without the institutions they built that allowed their press to flourish.”

[John McMillian is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Sate University. His latest book is Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, published by Oxford University Press.]

John McMillian, author of Smoking Typewriters, will be our special guest at a Rag Blog Happy Hour, Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, 5-7 p.m., at Maria’s Taco Xpress, 2529 S. Lamar Blvd., Austin. The public is welcome. John will also appear at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd, Austin, at 7 p.m. Friday for a reading and book-signing. And John McMillian will be Thorne Dreyer‘s guest on Rag Radio, Friday, March 4, 2011, 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP-91.7 FM in Austin, and streamed live on the internet.

Also see:

The Rag Blog

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4 Responses to John McMillian : Gimme Shelter: Altamont and the Underground Press

  1. Steve Russell says:

    At the time of Altamont, I was getting most of my national news from the underground press, so I was not aware of how badly the straight press missed the boat. The take I remember from the get-go was the Tribe's take…and that's the take that seems to me to stand the test of time.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Opinions regarding the HA vary from group to group.
    Hunter Thompson, certainly courageous, chided the HA for what he saw as brutality.
    Here is an excerpt from U tube re Hunter’s being beaten by a HA for criticism of spousal abuse. Draw your own conclusions of the Atones and HA.
    “Confronting an idiot who beats his wife? What makes him in any way a coward for that? Hunter was never a fighter, He used common sense and words to deal with the horrible, ignorant cunts of this world. The way we all should. The pen is mightier than the sword. I wonder what part of your politics that makes you hate him so?”

  3. Anonymous says:

    yo hst was a wife beater himself.
    his objection re hells angels behavior was in regards to a dog beating.

  4. Anonymous says:

    One thing that is overlooked about the Altamont is the total lack of planning. On Thursday the “free” concert was going to be in the Golden Gate Park on Saturday. By Friday morning it was changed to the Sears Point Raceway and by Friday night it was changed to the Altamont Speedway. No one knew where this venue was. We lived in Livermore at the time and cars were parking along the freeway and an ant trail of people were walking what turned out to be 7 miles to the Speedway. It was insane. The freeway was blocked for 24 hours. There were 13 chemical toilets lined up near the Hells Angels school bus not too far from the stage. The Angels were passing out free beer by hurtling cans far out into the crowd.

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