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The White Rabbit Meets the Hells Angels: Part 1

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair— or just plain old Woodstock to anyone who survived the Sixties— was three days of mud, drugs, and sex. It was billed as an “Aquarian Exposition of Three Days of Peace and Music” that began on August 15, 1969 and was held on a 600 acre farm in upstate New York. In all, 32 acts performed and, by the end of the festival, more than 500,000 attendees had tie-dyed their way by bus, foot, and thumb to be at the “vortex” for the counter culture for this Kodak moment in time, freeze-framed forever in the history of rock and roll music.

Acid flowed freely, free love and sex left a vaginal imprint, as wet and thick as the torrential rains that added to the wilderness wildness of things. It was a moment, captured by the counter culture and is legendary as a peaceful assemblage of near half a million young souls and spirits in unity. So many people descended on this strip of sacred agricultural ground that Arlo Guthrie yelled, “the New York Thruway is closed, man!” and Country Joe McDonald did his own calculation of the crowd by announcing, “there’s about 300,000 of you fuckers out there!”

The festival ended, signalling the end of the Aquarian Dream, for many did not know it at the time but, the Devil was looking for Faustus and some sympathy: I could come in spades four months later at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, when the Rolling Stones headlined a concert promoted by a who’s who of San Francisco, including the Grateful Dead and KSAN disc jockey, Stefan Ponik. (I would listen to Stefan’s show when living in the Haight).  Eventually Ponik became General Manager of a San Fran area radio station that hired me, as Stefan put it during my interview, as “a renegade”.   He said, “I want every rule of today’s radio broken, and from what I can tell and have heard, you don’t listen to management or take direction very well” and I was hired on that basis! Okay, so I’m not a team player. Stefan was one of those radio animals that let you run free, no fences, and, unfortunately, that was how it was at Altamont: no rules, but plenty of beer and Sonny Barger’s Hells Angels loaded for bear on beer and looking for an excuse— any excuse— for anything.

Back to KSAN radio, it was the most radical of the emerging FM stations in the country. It was the musical wheel-well of the San Francisco counter culture along with Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, Winterland Auditorium, and the Matrix. Stefan would host the night show with guests in the studio such as Jerry Garcia and Doug Sahm, Marty Balin, and anyone who was anyone in the San Francisco scene. As Stefan told me at lunch one day, “We’d be smoking and joking and getting loaded up on the building roof while the music was on and then get back in the studio to do our bit. It was a great time: a great time to be alive, and a great time to be in radio, and certainly a great time to be in San Francisco!”

The original locale for the concert was to be held at the San Jose State practice field, but there had recently been another music festival in town with 80,000 people in town for three days, the city fathers decided, they had had enough and cried “uncle!” A hearty NO resounded from the South Bay enclave, so new plans had to be formulated. Next option: why not hold it in Golden Gate Park?  But, let’s face it, a Free Concert vs a San Francisco 49er’s game at Kezar Stadium on the same weekend? Kick off!

Sears Point Raceway was also on the new short list but there was a problem putting up the $300,000 needed in advance for use of the speedway. So, sensing an opportunity— more like wolves in sheep’s clothing— The Altamont Speedway owners offered it’s facility and would do what it took to lock the deal down and dirty.

Then a fateful decision was made. Security at the venue, for a concert this large, needed more than Eagle Scouts to maintain the peace and order and protect the stage area.  And so, Sonny Barger was contacted to negotiate terms for the Hells Angels to act as the 82nd Airborne of the Altamont show. Rolling Stones management actually made the deal on a recommendation from the Grateful Dead who had used them before, albeit not for a show this large. Besides it was said in a later interview by Barger in Rolling Stone, “We don’t police things. We’re not a security force and we go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun.” Payment for services rendered was to be in beer. It was a recipe for disaster on the counter culture horizon.

In a later interview with Stefan Ponik, he stated, “what we learned was although peaceful at first, over the course of the day, the mood of both the crowd and the Angels became progressively agitated, intoxicated and violent. The Angels had been drinking their free beer all day in front of the stage, and most were highly drunk. Fueled by LSD and amphetamines, the crowd had also become antagonistic and unpredictable, attacking each other, the Angels, and the performers.”

It was time for the White Rabbit to meet the Angels of Hell as it fell down a rabbit hole of violence…

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