Apocalypse then

Altamont slammed the door on rock 'n' roll's dream of peace and love. An insider remembers.

The Stones performed "Under My Thumb." At that point, Meredith Hunter, the 18-year-old black man near the front of the stage who was stabbed by a Hell's Angel, was probably already dead. Jagger launched into spirited performances of songs like "Midnight Rambler" and "Sympathy for the Devil," never looking back at his fellow Stones, who just picked up the pace and registered no additional emotion about the chaos in front of them.

Few people know or remember that the Grateful Dead were scheduled to perform after the Stones that December night. Standing next to me at the back of the stage were Dead guitarists Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. As we talked, the three of us didn't yet realize that someone had been killed about 30 feet in front of us. Nevertheless, we suspected something was wrong, judging by the looks on people's faces. "It's over, man. It never should have gotten to this," Lesh said, shaking his head in anger, as Weir briefly dropped his head in sadness. They left before the show ended, walking past two Hell's Angels (who didn't seem to recognize them) standing near the stage.

The Tribune, like the other Bay Area newspapers, had planned to run front-page news stories from the wire-service reports about Altamont, but the next day, I got my first front-page byline on a news event for the ages. People were already calling it "the death of the '60s," and it had to do with more than just the end of a decade. Throughout the years, the people who claim to have been at Woodstock have increased to the point that it appears everyone in the nation who's older than 30 was there. But even though Altamont reportedly attracted 300,000 fans, few, if any, ever brag of their presence at the concert, which came to be known as "the hippie Apocalypse."

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, 30 years after "the hippie Apocalypse"
Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, 30 years after "the hippie Apocalypse"

The following year, Jagger allegedly approached Bill Graham with a plan to perform a series of concerts at the Winterland in San Francisco. The Stones wanted Graham to produce it. There's little doubt that Graham saw this as an attempt by the band to get back into his good graces; he accepted their "apology," something the band never offered to people in the Bay Area.

During the first show, I was sitting in the balcony, overlooking the stage in a secluded section reserved for Graham's guests. During Stevie Wonder's opening set, I spoke briefly to Jerry Garcia about Altamont and, in essence, the "bad karma" the Stones had created with that show. When the concert ended, I asked Garcia whether he thought the Stones had redeemed themselves to their Bay Area fans. Not wanting to get into yet another "karma" conversation with a writer, Garcia simply replied with the briefest of smiles: "Sometimes payback is not enough." Little did we know that the karma was basically to continue -- even Woodstock had simply been a precursor to stadium concerts, corporate tour sponsorships, videos, and photo-interview approval. It was an egg to the musical chicken for upcoming generations. No more phoning a number on a press release and getting Mick Jagger on the line.

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