While researching a book on The Rolling Stones' 1963-1973 era this year I interviewed veterans about the Stones' November 1969 US tour. We also discussed the notorious Altamont Raceway Park appearance in Northern California on Dec. 6, 1969.
I’ve never viewed this ill-fated fiasco and moment of mayhem as a finale curtain ending the dreams and schemes of the sixties that are constantly cited in articles and books.
Like so many others, I saw plenty of memorable and inspiring live music afterward during 1970-1980 and devoured a slew of records that continue to inform and guide me.
I attended two ’69 concerts in Inglewood by the Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King and Terry Reid at the Fabulous Forum in Southern California which made an indelible impression.
I didn’t have any qualms paying for two $7.50 tickets. It was a double shift full day’s work for me at the West Los Angeles College Library in Culver City where I earned $1.75 an hour. It paid for my coveted ducats.
The first show started on Nov. 8 at 11:45 pm and the second one spilled into Nov. 9 ending at 5:15 am.
The Stones had already done a free concert with a successful July ’69 recital in London’s Hyde Park before arriving in the United States that fall. The idea of a non-fee event pervaded the US tour, and it was decided to mount one in the Bay Area.
When the city of San Francisco refused area permits, Gold Gate Park was one potential venue site, and when a location near Sonoma at Sears Point Raceway fell through at the last minute, the concert was hastily moved—only a day and a half before the scheduled starting time—to Altamont, a motor speedway southwest of San Francisco.
There were immediate problems owing to logistics, and some with the Hells Angels, who were hired for security. One injured Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin during their afternoon set.
Surveying the chaos and madness, the Grateful Dead decided not to play and share the stage with the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and CSNY.
“It was very obvious from the very beginning that this was gonna be fucked,” Graham Nash stressed to me in a 2007 interview.
“First of all getting in there, there was no way we could get into Altamont. It was insane. So my friend Leo Mokota, who was our tour manager, hot-wired a car. He and us, and the lawyer, Melvin Belli, made it into Altamont. But it was fucked from the start.
“First of all, the music that they played between acts was electronic music. The Grateful Dead didn’t play. And we were only there for Jerry [Garcia]. ‘Cause it was Jerry that called [David] Crosby and said, ‘Hey man, we’re gonna do this Woodstock West, man, you gotta be a part of it. We’ll all be there, man.’ We played and not even sure how well we played. Maybe 45 minutes or something and we got the fuck out.”
“Listen,” Chris Hillman mentioned to me in a 2007 interview, “in 1969 I’m walking on stage at Altamont with the Burrito Brothers and David Crosby is walking off after a set with CSN&Y, and we’re looking at each other and going, ‘What’s going on here?’ And he said, ‘It’s not good.’”
Large portions of the story has been left untold, and in Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, author, award-winning veteran journalist and former San Francisco Chronicle music editor Joel Selvin provides a comprehensive account, filled with never-before-revealed details about the gesture from the Stones, plus the machinations, mishaps, assorted agendas, and show business negotiations leading up to it and the repercussions that followed.
“Some kind of mass toxic psychosis was underway,” Selvin writes. “Long before the Angels killed a young black man, Meredith Hunter, in full view of the performers and the crowd, blood was already on the ground.”
Dr. James Cushing of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo English and Literature Department, who hosts the weekly radio program Miles Ahead on The Rock 97.3-KEBF-FM station in Morro Bay in Central Coast California, theorizes about Altamont, which followed the 1967 Monterey Pop International Festival and the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival in 1969.
“1968 was a heavy political year—King and Kennedy being killed, the Democratic party collapsing in Chicago, Nixon winning the election, the war dragging on and on and on, and the sense that the counterculture was failing in its attempt to build a new America.
“1969 was Nixon’s first full year as President and the ugliness at Altamont expressed a hopelessness that seems now connected with Nixon’s cynical self-serving narcissism.
“The ancient ritual of Dionysus involved the ritual stabbing of a goat, who was understood to function as a stand-in for the God (who must die to be reborn) and an offering to him. Rock festivals are already Dionysian events, but Altamont got a little too authentically ancient for the modern conscience—an actual African-American man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death, in front of a Dionysian band whose rise to fame had involved loving attention to and respectful appropriation of the music of African-American men. It’s an awful irony.”
History and documentation have pretty much blamed the Rolling Stones for the Altamont well-intended booking. The reported debacle certainly wasn’t entirely their fault.
San Francisco fixtures and influencers like promoter/entrepreneur Bill Graham and music critic Ralph J. Gleason of The San Francisco Chronicle were especially preoccupied with the price of admission tickets for the Stones’ ’69 tour, and were partially responsible for the negative advance publicity that fanned the consequential smoke signals which engulfed Altamont from the hurried planning to the aftermath results.
“There are no specific guilty parties for Altamont. We were all guilty, myself included,” admitted Gleason.
The 1970 documentary film, Gimme Shelter directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin chronicled the Stones’ ’69 tour.
Two of America's foremost non-fiction filmmakers, Albert Maysles (1926-2015) and his brother David (1932-1987) are recognized as pioneers of "direct cinema," the distinctly American version of French "cinema verité." It is a method in documentary where events are recorded that couple naturalistic techniques without pre-planned set-ups or agenda.
The Maysles team was the first to capture the Beatles' first US visit chronicling the remarkable two weeks in February 1964 that began America's still-enduring love affair with the group in their Here’s what’s happening baby—The Beatles!
Albert was made a Guggenheim Fellow in 1965. His next three films became cult classics. Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970) is the dazzling portrait of the Rolling Stones on their American November 1969 US tour, ending with the concert at Altamont Raceway Park.
In 2009 I interviewed Albert Maysles.
Q: Let’s talk about your Gimme Shelter film.
A: We got a phone call one day from Haskell Wexler who said the Rolling Stones were in town in Los Angeles and they were about to go on a nationwide tour. And they were going to be in New York the next day at the Plaza Hotel. “Maybe you should look them up.” Again, in this particular case, neither one of us knew their music. But we trusted Haskell. “These guys must be interesting.” So we knocked on their door at the Plaza Hotel and we started talking to them. “Well, we’re going to be performing the next evening in Baltimore. You are most welcome to attend.” We went to the show. “Yeah. These guys are good.” And we followed it up by making a deal with them. And we then filmed them at Madison Square Garden. They paid us a small amount to get going. I think it was $14,000.00.
“We did have several cameras. I think there were four of us. That was different. The camera people were people we knew already. They knew my style so everything was consistent from one camera to another. And that worked out beautifully.
“I don’t know how to put it into words to describe Jagger on stage. You just have to see the footage.
“Regarding their live show. It’s interesting. You put the camera in the hands of one person and it’s so cold. And another person, it’s hot. You get the hot cells from what you see on the screen. What is so startling to me is that so many reviewers think that the camera work is just great. When it is so cold that I would dismiss it, but the lighting is right and the angles are right, this that and the other.
“We joined after the tour began and a moment in American history. Mick Jagger was very invested during the process of the movie without in any way trying to control it. That was important. He never said, “Oh, you need to get this. And you need to get that. Do this.” And we had a lot more cameras at Altamont. That was unusual.
Q: Talk to me about being at Altamont and filming it.
A: It was interesting the way the press handled it. There was a very good reviewer in The New York Times, Vincent Canby, in the middle of his review he said “The Maysles must have said, ‘A-ha!’ when they saw that they had captured the killing on film in the editing room.” But the title of his piece, which the editor ascribed to it was, “Making Murder Pay.”
“In fact, I mean it was wrong at both ways. We weren’t doing it just to make the money. Secondly, it wasn’t a murder. No one was able to prove the motivation, whatever that was behind.
“I was on the stage just behind the Stones for most of the filming. I could see them and the immediate audience. A side view, where my brother with another cameraman was luckily on a truck to the side of the stage out of my view, and maybe out of the view of the Stones, but in view of the killing.
“It interesting, very early on, just before the concert began I had myself placed just down below filming the audience in exactly the same spot where the killing took place. So I’m there and I’m filming and the guy just below me with his child gets up and he says, ‘If you don’t leave this place right here, right now, I’ll kill you.’ He may have thought that I was gonna drop the camera on his son. I don’t know what his explanation was. Fortunately, my brother was at the right place and I was at the best place to get the Stones themselves.
Q: After principal filming and you are in the editing stages, the movie sort of becomes a documentary about a documentary, or at least moments where band Jagger and Charlie Watts are commenting about a work in progress.
A: The odd thing is, when we were filming them. Mick said at one point, “At some point after the film was shot they’d like to take a look at it.” It was their idea. And then when Charlotte (Zwerin) was editing it, she said, “let’s call them up on that and let’s film them watching. It would be just great.” It was their idea and her idea and it worked beautifully of course.
“For example, when I was shooting the Stones listening to the playback of ‘Wild Horses, my brother whispered in my ear, ‘Take a look at his Keith’s boots’ and I shot the clothing.
“And then when we showed Mick the film he didn’t say, ‘Eliminate this.’ But he was taken by the horror of the events and he couldn’t give us the release. So we waited six months. We never talked it over with Mick. But my brother happened to meet the producer and director of Performance, Donald Cammell on one occasion. And David told him that we had some problems in getting a release. So Donald said, ‘Let me take a look at it.’ So he saw the film and said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.’ And that’s it. That is how we got the OK.”
Tony Funches was a friend of mine from West Los Angeles College who, in November 1969, was head of Rolling Stones’ security and served as Mick Jagger’s bodyguard.
In the summer of 1969 to 1971 I had a job at the school library around a full schedule of classes. I also received a desired student deferment. It was the first semester it opened. We were taught in bungalows. Some of us felt it was a high school with ashtrays.
It was during September of ’69 that I first made an acquaintance with Tony, Vietnam veteran, boxer and karate black belt holder, who soon became our student body president.
For some reason, I didn’t see Funches on campus again during last quarter 1969 and entire year of 1970. I never knew why.
Needless to say, when I first saw the West Coast premiere of the movie Gimme Shelter in Hollywood with fellow WLAC classmate Bob Sherman, we immediately looked at each other when Tony Funches appeared on screen at their Muscle Shoals recording studio session during a playback of “Wild Horses,” and then later protecting Jagger around the group’s airstream trailer at Altamont.
We both marveled, “Hey! Isn’t that Tony Funches from school?”
Earlier this century Altamont attendee Ron Lando sent me photos of Tony from Dec. 6, 1969, and I asked Ron about Altamont.
“It was a cold, dark and dreary day; the vibe was just awful. I made my way to the back of the stage next to the Stones small trailer where I saw Tony standing in front protecting the Stones. Tony had just broken his arm and was wearing a ‘makeshift’ sling.”
I am grateful and thankful to report that in 2015, before his death in 2017, I re-connected with Tony at the former residence of Jim Morrison in Laurel Canyon. Funches was Morrison’s confidant and bodyguard in 1970-1971.
Homeowners Matt King, and Rob Hill, two friends and fans of the Doors had encountered Tony at a hotel bar in Denver, CO, and when my name was mentioned, Funches quickly demanded my phone number.
When we eventually rendezvoused, Tony was carrying a copy of my Canyon of Dreams The Magic and Music of Laurel Canyon and wanted me to autograph it.
He greeted me comically with “who would have thought the only white guy in the remedial English course at a junior college would end up writing these books?”
We talked for six hours straight, followed by a meal at Barney’s Beanery, a favorite haunt of Jim Morrison.
Afterward, Doors’ drummer John Densmore came by the house and drove Tony off.
Welcome to Hollywood…
I contacted music journalist and esteemed author Stanley Booth and asked him to reflect on Tony.
Booth penned three books essential for any music library: Dance with the Devil: The Rolling Stones and Their Times, Rhythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South and Keith: Standing in the Shadows.
“I was with the Rolling Stones when I met Tony Funches,” emailed Booth. “Steve Stills and some of his crowd had a house somewhere in the vast and mysterious Hollywood Hills, and the Stones had rented it, among other places, for a few days before starting their 1969 United States tour. The first time I was at that house with the Stones, Tony greeted the car we were in at the front gate. He was, as ever, cool, pleasant, quiet, strong, competent. (Also big black and handsome.) I liked him right away and in the years since have never stopped liking him. Tony is one of Nature’s Noblemen. My life has been enriched by his friendship.
“Tony will not be forgotten.”
Tony Funches didn’t really do interviews about the Rolling Stones, has rarely talked on record, but he graciously consented to two interviews I conducted with him from Colorado.
Tony discussed the Stones, the Altamont December ’69, and provided several new and revealing insights into his October-December 1969 life and world with the heralded rock & roll band.
Q: Reminisce about that ’69 Rolling Stones/Ike and Tina Turner/B.B. King US tour.
A: The Stones always supported black talent. I’ll give Keith and Mick props on this. Along with Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor, Ian Stewart, all of the Stones very early on, when I became associated with them, had no problem standing on their hind legs in front of me and extolling the virtues of all these artists that they had idolized as kids. And that impressed me quite a bit to hear that coming from them.
“Before the ’69 tour in Hollywood, we saw Little Richard when he played the Whisky a Go Go. Mick and Keith jammed at Thee Experience with Bob Diddley and Mick saw Chuck Berry at the Whisky. Mick and Keith and the entourage went to the Ash Grove to check out Taj Mahal.
“I was with Mick and Keith when all the overdubbing and mixing were going down on the track ‘Gimme Shelter’ at Elektra Studios on La Cienega and then also at Sunset Sound.
“I remember The Ed Sullivan Show taping at Television City in Hollywood. Little Richard was in the audience. We also went to the Whisky to see Hugh Masekela and the Chicago Transit Authority,” he recalled.
Q: How did you even get this security job?
A: I got out of the Air Force in very late 1968 and it started with a guy named Donnie Branker and West Coast Productions. Even before I met you in late summer 1969 at West Los Angeles Junior College I was going into a pawn shop in my Leimert Park neighborhood because I was working at Southern California Gas and their storage facility. I was partying enough on the weekends I’d blow my pay check, which was a healthy, too, by the end of the week, so I’d go into the pawn shop and hock my watch for gas money to get to work on payday. And that’s where Donnie worked for his mother-in-law. So I started watching Donnie’s back at some little shows he was doin’ up in Antelope Valley, and that turned into West Coast Productions. In the course of all that, school started and I was still doin’ the stuff with Donnie.
“And then Bill Belmont [from Fantasy Records] came down from San Francisco to hang out with [Grateful Dead manager] Rock Scully, who was pal’s with [road manager] Sam Cutler who had done the [Stones] Hyde Park 1969 concert. Belmont told Donnie the Stones were lookin’ for somebody to keep an eye on the house [the former residence of Peter Tork and recently purchased by Stephen Stills] where the Stones were gonna be in October, before their U.S. tour began in November. They all got the word to the promoter Bill Graham, who I had done a few security gigs for at the Olympic Auditorium in L.A.
“So it was serendipity about eight levels removed from the source of several people that I knew or who knew of me. That’s how it all happened out of left field.
Q: How did you meet the Stones?
A: I didn’t have any preconceived notions about them, but my perception of all these folks was still based from living in Crenshaw Village, the projects, the black part of Los Angeles and coming up there, so, you know, all these little white kids running around doing a bad job of playing black music I felt was quaint. So I didn’t have any real opinion about them. I didn’t dislike them or like ‘em, but they were interesting.
“Of course, that changed when you go from abstract not knowing who these people are in to the actual knowing them, who they are and what they are up to. So that was not a difficult transition.
“Initially I had no preconceived notions. But after two or three minutes with them and finding out they are for real. They loved L.A. They had recorded albums here, and they were huge fans of old musicians who I had never bothered to listen to before, so all of a sudden I am getting reacquainted with my own heritage. ‘Damn! These cats are all right, you know.’ So that was a good foot to get off on. I was stepping off correctly.
“Most of the hang and the relationship were based on their personalities turning out to be likeable. Otherwise I’d go back to what I was doin’ before I met them.
Q: You had already been in Vietnam and in jungle wars, seeing friends of yours shot in a river.
A: The world of personal security was a new world for me. Absolutely. I didn’t see it that way. I still saw myself as a Vietnam vet, a student body president at WLAJC, getting a degree, and the expectations of the family, and these other folks just paying me dough to do this, that and the other was laughable. At first I thought it was a joke. They can’t be serious.
Q: What was the first period like being around them, at rehearsals, recording sessions, protecting the house and making sure tons of people didn’t hassle them on assorted levels. They were preparing for the biggest tour in U.S. music history.
A: Mick’s personality in private wasn’t much different than his public persona. Shy, a shrinking violet and all that. Keith was much more the extrovert and I communicated many more times with Keith and of course, with Ian Stewart, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman.
“Mick was always so busy with ‘business stuff,’ or acting like he was scared to death that somebody was gonna pop out and snap his neck that we really didn’t warm up. We didn’t dislike each other but he was busy doin’ other stuff and didn’t have the opportunity to really interact that much in the course of me doing my gig. Which is what all I was interested in doing.
“But my primary view of myself at the time was that I dropped out of school long enough to do this tour and I would have enough cash to stash and wouldn’t have to sweat the next semester. It was $75.00 a week. This is 1969.
“The first few weeks I would stay on the property outside, in my Volkswagen. At first I didn’t think performers like the Stones needed security. Sam Cooke didn’t have it. But a lot of them should have but didn’t. But that wasn’t for me to call.
Q: What was the scene like up at the house before the tour started the first week of November ’69.
A: Remember, at the time I wasn’t scribbling down notes. And half the time I was half fried from this stuff I was gettin’ from Sam [Cutler] and Keith, mainly Keith. He liked to smoke pot back then. And late at night I was pulling long hours up there at the top of that hill.
“But between Keith and that outrageous hash Sam and Keith had, it’s hard to remember everything. (laughs).
Q: You were with Mick and Keith when all the overdubbing and mixing was happening on the track “Gimme Shelter” at Elektra Studios on La Cienega.
A: Yes, and also at Sunset Sound.
Q: I know Mick Taylor visited Flash Records. But didn’t you talk to the band about the 5-4 Ballroom in downtown L.A. where Dinah Washington, Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters and James Brown had played. Did you guys make it down there?
A: They knew about the 5-4. And in fact, I told them, “You are not going in there. It’s upstairs, there is one door in and one stairway up and one stairway down. Once you are inside if the bullets start flying you got nowhere to go except fall over the balcony or get trampled by everybody tryin’ to run down the stairs. So forget about the 5-4. Do you understand me?”
“It was 54th and Slauson. It is a junior morgue. And anybody can get dead there in a blink of an eye.
“Etta James used to play the 5-4. Jumped off the bandstand. In fact, broke her wrist on one of the women in the audience, wrapped her hand up, climbed back up on the stage and finished her set. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying? Keith. You aren’t going to the 5-4 Ballroom. Period.’
Q: We were both at the formal debut of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour at the Forum in Inglewood, California. I stood in line for many hours to buy tickets. You were on the side of the stage that night. I suspect it was not lost on you that the band you are working for, and the only security person and minder, were seeing the group at an 18,000 seat arena, literally a mile or two from where you grew up.
A: I would go in the limo with the band to all the shows. Sam Cutler said, “You’re going with us.” “Why? What for?” “Because I told you.” “OK. Whatever.” Yes, the place was close to home, and at that time, I lived in the jungle, off of Coliseum and La Cienega. Where Fedco was. Walking distance, well no, but very close.
“I was mostly thinking about good weed, and good dough to stash and pay bills, you know. Remember: I was always waiting for the Veterans Administration to send me my checks as a V.A. student.
Q: Could you comprehend that the Stones were really giving a forum to black culture in making sure performers like B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner were their opening acts on the U.S. ’69 tour. Both of them lived in LA.
A: They always supported black talent. I’ll give Keith and Mick props on this. Along with Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor, Ian Stewart, all of the Stones very early on, when I became associated with them, had no problem standing on their hind legs in front of me and extolling the virtues of all these artists that they had idolized as kids. And that impressed me quite a bit to hear that coming from them.
“The Stones are tied to the musical legacy of LA Modern and Kent Records. Ike and Tina along with B.B. King had been on both of those record labels.
“They are a product of LA but no one but you and I talk about this. They know the town as well as anybody else. Look at the album credits in the sixties and early seventies. Although nobody associates them with LA and Hollywood. Partially, because when they are in L.A. it is done very quietly. And look at the PR machinery. Rogers & Cowan, or Gibson and Stromberg or any of those power houses that get it going and say “the Stones have arrived.” No. They’ve been here for months but they were just under the radar. You know what I mean?
Q: 1969 was a time before the media was totally obsessed with celebrities. I know Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin came to the New York dates at Madison Square Garden.
A: At Madison Square, Leonard Bernstein came to a show. All the glitterati of Manhattan, besides Hendrix and Janis. Everybody was bowing and I’m putting up with it ‘cause it ain’t on me. It’s up to Mick who tells [tour manager] Ronnie Schneider, who then tells Sam Cutler where to start and stop. When it finally came time to clear the dressing room to get on stage, Sam would give me the look and I’d just say, “Everybody out!”
Q: You were in other U.S. recording studios with the Stones, including sessions in Alabama in Muscle Shoals. You watched them cut “Wild Horses” “Brown Sugar” and “You Got to Move.”
A: It was really fabulous. First things first, I had to make sure I had my gig covered, which was really pretty easy. Because it’s easy don’t mean you don’t do it. You do it anyway and make sure you do it well. That being said, I sat around in the studio, often at the console, twiddling my thumbs a lot ‘cause I didn’t play an instrument. How many people can you stuff in one little studio? Ben Sidran was next door to me in the motel. I spent some time hanging out with Ben and other that than, sometimes I was bored to tears in the studio. They were spending most of the time jaw jacking and runnin’ off at the mouth.
“Every once in a while they would get around to recording a few bars of the song. So it was difficult to get the continuity of going, but when they really get on to slappin’ the track together and splicing up all the different tracks and bits and pieces, you could get into groove and romp and stomp and say hey, ‘Hey. This is kick ass stuff here.’
“But again, I fully understood that is what they do, which wasn’t my gig, something apart from them, so I didn’t get those things mixed up.
Q: When the Stones were preparing for the November ’69 tour, what was the house trip like or the subsequent road tour in terms of fans, groupies and music business characters trying to get insider access?
A: Here’s the kick: Vast majority were rich debutante white girls from the suburbs with rich powerful families and blue blood daddies and they had the juice, the poise, the smarts, whatever, and a budget, too, to finagle their way to find out what floor we were on and stuff. The chopped liver hamburger was still stuck in the lobby if they could find the lobby. You know what I mean?
“The closer to the goal the higher the blue blood ratio became. Which was interesting whatever. I had a lot of meals with the band. Not everyone was a vegetarian and no one was doin’ fast food, either. We had incredible food all over the place. It would show up all at once sometimes. There was little control over the dietary intake. (laughs). One guy would order up a rack of lamb and another guy at the other end of the table would order a cheeseburger. And everybody in between were spilling wine all over the table. You could find anything on the table.
“Of course, if you went in during sound check, they had good grub and food, for the crew. You get around the corner in the band’s dressing room and there’s all the vegetarian.
Q: As you look back at the Altamont situation, give me a reflection. The movie shows some aspects of the ill-feted free concert. I know it was a zoo and an insane disaster waiting to happen. You had already been in Vietnam. Maybe that is one of the reasons you survived.
A: You are not reading too much into it, but the insanity of violence doesn’t change whether it’s Vietnam, Altamont or the inner-city. Rural or urban. It doesn’t make any difference. Bullies and events will kill other human beings for no reason. Yes, did it happen at Altamont? Yes. It happened in the whole neighborhood.
Q: But I remember you from college. A serious student, a Vietnam veteran, student body president who knew about planning and execution. You were way older than us teenagers as you went to school on the G.I. Bill.
A: I knew about chaos. I told ‘em. I saw it comin’ way way far in advance. I told a couple of people, and they said, “That’s not what we pay you for.” I was lookin out. “Do what we pay you for and it will be fine.” “OK.”
Q: You were very busy on that December 6, 1969 day. I still think the Stones did a nice thing to try and offer a free concert. Locations changed, not enough time to do pre-production, some other groups didn’t play. More homework was required.
A: 20/20 hindsight, and God bless everybody that tried, but I don’t think anybody in the exalted positions of those calling the shots, the shot callers or deal makers, that put that thing together, of which there were quite a few, there was nobody ultimately in charge. Until the Stones took charge at the last minute. So it lacked the necessary structure to have a person make the final decisions far enough in advance to make it happen.
“It depended too much on the spontaneity of the Aquarius age as opposed to Machiavellian logistics planning far out in front. Which should have had both but it didn’t. It was an utter fiasco and at the time everybody’s egos got in the way of common sense.
“And when it blew up into a class A mess it was because of interference and sabotage from other quarters. Nixon’s plumbers were suspected of having a hand in it. So it was a constructed perfect storm. If alchemists got together and put together a perfect storm of their devising than it was Altamont. You can’t single out one party. Several were involved in it.
“Sam Cutler has been unfairly portrayed, absolutely. Sam was not in the least bit responsible for Altamont. But somebody had to fall on the sword. And it fell to Sam. But by no stretch of the imagination was that fiasco his responsibility. The old saying is “success has many fathers but the fiasco is a lonely bastard.”
Q: In the Gimme Shelter movie, at Altamont, I noticed you had a splint cast on one of your arms, from punching out a Hell’s Angel. You fractured your forearm. But I heard you went to the medical tent and set up your own cast setting? Right?
A: Yes, that’s true. A fractured arm is Boy Scout’s stuff.
Q: Footage shows you hovering around the helicopter that left Altamont with band members. But you did not get into the copter. There were a lot of people and luggage in that air transport vehicle.
A: In the late afternoon we were choppering out a lot of the bands who were either there or very anxious, including Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And ol’ Steve Stills with his fat behind, the chopper had already lifted off, about five feet off the ground, at the time I was flashing on Vietnam, and I don’t like choppers for that reason, but the helicopter is overloaded and I’m afraid the thing is gonna go out of balance and de-capitate two three hundred people.
“Stills can’t climb up to get inside the chopper so I put my hand under his butt and bench pressed him straight up and stuffed his ass into the helicopter. He gets bent out of shape about my hand on his ass and smiles at me. And I said, ‘Fuck you. You can fall on your ass. I don’t give a fuck.” (laughs). We did not get along from then on.
“The movie does not do justice. The format of the medium is a two hour documentary, a B-movie, 50 Foot Woman From Mars. If there was really a story from a musicologist or anthropological viewpoint, it would have to be a mini-series comprising six to eight hours so you could introduce and develop enough of the characters that affected the story so that the total context is explained and people can understand that.
“And then the various characters become secondary to the overall story which is the context that could be illustrated or portrayed or mapped out over a period of time in that great six to eight hours. But are you gonna tell a complete story in two hours? No fuckin’ way. So it is what it is. So what they tried to say in two hours was not complete at all.
“I don’t carry the hassles of Altamont or the tour of 1969. When I hear the Stones on the radio I just smile and keep it to myself. It’s like the tune ‘Stolen Moments’ by Oliver Nelson. It mostly has to do with quiet introspection. This is my giggle I’ll keep it to myself. Let me be outside. There’s no problem.”
The Rolling Stones debuted “Brown Sugar” live on that stage for the first time at Altamont. Contrary to popular belief, there were some people in attendance at Altamont who left with a sense of wonder and delight.
Take into consideration my dear friend actor/poet Harry E. Northup, who was there.
Northup has made a living as an actor for over 40 years, appearing in 37 films, including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Over the Edge (starring role), and The Silence of the Lambs. Harry played Dough Boy in Taxi Driver, and then portrayed Mr. Bimmel in The Silence of the Lambs.
Northup is that rare American actor who is also an accomplished poet with 10 books of poetry including When Bodies Again Recline, published by Cahuenga Press, who in 2019 just celebrated their 30th anniversary.
“I was working as a waiter at the Old World Restaurant on the Sunset Strip,” Northup emailed me in 2010. “My first wife, Rita, & I had arrived in Los Angeles, from New York City on March 5, 1968. That day we got an apartment in Santa Monica & that night, I got a job as a waiter at the Old World. I came to LA to work in the movies. I worked at night & auditioned for movie & TV roles in the day. We hung out at the beach & went to every rock 'n roll concert that we could at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Hollywood Palladium & Venice Beach.
“Rita & I and our 10-month-old son, Dylan, drove to San Francisco, Ca., on the 5th day of December, 1969, in our blue & white Volkswagon van. It had a bed in the back. We slept in it in the Haight. On the morning of the 6th, we ate at Brother Juniper's—I remember seeing a black man, sitting next to us, with a cross cut into the top of his head—& then we drove to Altamont. It was slow going when we got near the Speedway. We parked on the side of the road & walked a long way. We took turns carrying Dylan.
“At the concert, we met 5 long-haired surfer guys & 3 girls we knew from Santa Monica. It was a gray day. It seemed like half a million people were there. We had driven up Pacific Coast Highway many times from Santa Monica to see the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, & the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, among others, in Golden Gate Park & other venues, but had never been at a gathering this large.
“Most of the time, we stayed on the perimeter & danced. My wife loved the Stones. She pranced & pointed & sang like Mick. She had seen the Beatles at Shea Stadium years before. (Harvey Keitel, who was my fellow student in Frank Corsaro's Method acting class in Manhattan, had introduced her to me at the one party that I had given in New York City in the five years that I lived there, from 1963-1968. He also introduced me to Martin Scorsese, who hired me to play the rapist in his first feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door in 1968. Marty hired me to act in his first six features & first TV show. Bette Midler, by the way, sang Bob Dylan's ‘A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall’ at that same party.)
“We shared joints, people gave us food: fruit, juices, sandwiches. Our surfer friends danced, held Dylan. Once, I snaked my way down to the left side of the stage just as the Stones sang, ‘Jumpin' Jack Flash.’ It was electric. I saw a young woman, who kept trying to climb up onto the stage, & at each attempt, a Hells Angel, who wore a wolf's head kicked her in the face. She must have been a masochist, because she kept going back for more. I headed back to our group. We danced & had a wonderful time. The Stones & Santana were tremendous. We felt renewed.
“It was a long slow journey back to our VW. It wasn't until we were driving south on the 5 Freeway that we heard, on the radio, about the killing at Altamont.
“In 1970, I saw Gimme Shelter, by the Maysles Brothers, which showed the violence in all its vividness. In 1968, I had seen the Mayles Brothers' film, Salesman.
"To most audiences, the film reflected an American consciousness and lifestyle more of the 1950s than of the Summer of Love, hippies, LSD, radical politics, and headlines and buttons proclaiming 'God is Dead,' wrote the film scholar, Vincent Lo Brutto. Salesman was about "selling Bibles door to door"—quite the opposite of Gimme Shelter.
“In 1973, I played the Vietnam vet who destroys his own homecoming in Scorsese's first masterpiece, Mean Streets. Scorsese utilized ‘Jumpin' Jack Flash’ on the soundtrack for Johnny Boy's (De Niro's) entrance into the bar.”
Harvey Kubernik is the author of 15 books. His literary music anthology Inside Cave Hollywood: The Harvey Kubernik Music InnerViews and InterViews Collection Vol. 1, was published in December 2017, by Cave Hollywood. Kubernik’s The Doors Summer’s Gone was published by Other World Cottage Industries in February 2018. It was nominated for the 2019 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research.
During November 2018, Sterling/Barnes and Noble published Kubernik’s The Story of The Band From Big Pink to the Last Waltz.
In 2019, The National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. have asked Harvey to pen an essay on the landmark The Band album, now celebrating a 50th anniversary edition in 2019.
Kubernik’s 1995 interview, Berry Gordy: A Conversation With Mr. Motown appears in The Pop, Rock & Soul Reader edited by David Brackett published in 2019 by Oxford University Press. Brackett is a Professor of Musicology in the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Canada.
Kubernik joined a distinguished lineup which includes LeRoi Jones, Johnny Otis, Ellen Willis, Nat Hentoff, Jerry Wexler, Jim Delehant, Ralph J. Gleason, Greil Marcus, and Cameron Crowe.
Kubernik’s 1996 interview with poet/author Allen Ginsberg was published in Conversations With Allen Ginsberg, edited by David Stephen Calonne for the University Press of Mississippi in their 2019 Literary Conversations Series.
Harvey Kubernik is featured in the 2014 book by Jeff Burger on Leonard Cohen Interviews and Encounters for Chicago Review Press. During 2015 the University Press of Mississippi published a Harvey Kubernik interview with D.A. Pennebaker in their book series, Conversations with Filmmakers, edited by Dr. Keith Beattie.
This century Kubernik wrote the liner note booklets to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, Elvis Presley The ’68 Comeback Special and The Ramones’ End of the Century.
During 2019 Kubernik is serving as a Consultant on a new 2-part documentary on the musical legacy of Laurel Canyon. Alison Ellwood is directing the documentary who helmed the authorized History of the Eagles. Executive produced by Frank Marshall, The Kennedy/Marshall Company; Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey, Amblin Television; Craig Kallman and Mark Pinkus, Warner Music Group; Alex Gibney, Stacey Offman and Richard Perello, Jigsaw Productions; and Jeff Pollack. The film is produced by Ryan Suffern, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, and Erin Edeiken, Jigsaw Productions. Broadcast date is first quarter 2020 on EPIX Television).
Gimme Shelter Visuals Courtesy of Gary Pig Gold