Biker News & Biker Lifestyle

The untold story of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and Woodstock on the 50th Anniversary

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By Richard Bammer

Several recent (and repeated) TV specials and network news features between Aug. 16-18, and an Aug. 11 New York Times special section, “Woodstock at 50,” all had one thing in common:

Besides the required commentary and memories of the blissful “3 Days  of Peace & Music” near Bethel, N.Y., as the Woodstock Music & Art Fair poster advertised, they all nicely forgot to mention the pool-cue-swinging bedlam by Hells Angels’ “security” that film footage captured, actions that presaged the motorcycle gang’s menacing behavior that morphed into far more horrific violence just a few months later, in December 1969, at Altamont Speedway near Livermore.

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When I first saw the film segment on YouTube, a clip not originally part of Michael Wadleigh’s 1970 documentary, if memory serves, I recall feeling dismayed, shocked that no one — friends and fans of the film to reporters and other media types — had ever mentioned the Angels or what followed after Jefferson Airplane began its 13-song set on Day 3, Sunday morning:

As people begin to dance ecstatically to the drumming of Spencer Dryden, the propulsive bass of Jack Casady, and the ringing, brittle notes screaming from Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar, you can see members of the Hells Angels gesturing and warning people to be cool, to stay off the stage, as others lighted cigarettes and swigged beer from aluminum cans. One of the club members, for whatever reason, wore a wolf skin hat, by turns intimidating and ridiculous.

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About three minutes into the tune, singer Grace Slick, seeing a fracas just steps away from the stage, begins to say, “Easy,” repeating the word, and the music stops. Seconds later, singer Marty Balin jumps off the stage and into the stageside crowd, where, apparently, he was struck in the face. You can hear guitarist and singer Paul Kantner then say that the Hells Angels just “smashed” Balin in the face and “knocked him out for a bit.”

“I’d like to thank you for that,” Kantner says dryly, looking over at some half-dozen Angels onstage, their black leather jackets emblazoned with the club name in red on the back shoulder, the word “California,” also in red, at the bottom.

An Angel who appears to be the group leader, hearing Kantner, stands up and says stridently, referring to a microphone, “Is this on? … You’re talking to me?” … and “Let me tell you what’s happening.”

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Afterward, you can see club members, pool cues in hand and raised, striking people, or swaggering in a threatening manner. At one point, one or two Hells Angels face off with a bearded man in a hat who appears to be trying to calm things down and making an attempt to reason with club members. They knock him severely as he falls to the ground and other festival attendees scatter.

One of the oddest things in the film clip is Slick saying, “People get weird and you need the Angels to keep them in line.” Uh-huh.

She quickly follows that with “You don’t bust people in the head for nothing.” A sensible advisory but one that belies the festival’s much-vaunted “groovy” vibe of peace, love and music, or welcome statements from the man who owned the land on which Woodstock occurred: Max Yasgur. In a roughly two-minute statement from the stage, he said, “I think you people have proven something to the world”; and “This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place” (not true — religious pilgrimages in the Middle East and India attract millions).

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Yasgur did mention “inconveniences,” the lack of drinking water and adequate amounts of food, among them, but he stressed the positive as he ended his remarks. The most important thing was that half a million kids “can get together and have three days of fun and music and have nothing but fun and music,” he said to applause.

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But despite somewhat bogus reports in the New York Times that “the crowd itself was clearly well-behaved” and the quote from a physician that there had been “no violence whatsoever,” the weekend was not a vision of hippie heaven, in which an altruistic spirit transcended rain and mud, bumper-to-bumper traffic, medical emergencies, at least one fatal drug overdose, and the death of an attendee sleeping in a sleeping bag who was run over by a tractor. And then there was the Hells Angels’ literally heavy-handed “security.”

Their actions and behavior at Woodstock were a harbinger of what was to come at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Free Concert on Dec. 6 that same year at the far East Bay racetrack. On that day, a Hells Angel fatally stabbed 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, a black man, as he approached the stage with a gun, a killing caught on film in the documentary “Gimme Shelter.” By some accounts, the Angels were hired by the Stones’ managers, on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, for $500 worth of beer.

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At Woodstock, Altamont and any other mega-festival, the notion of a temporary utopia is a myth and always will be. In the case of the first Woodstock, it came during the Vietnam era, when baby boomers, some of whom had participated in the unpopular war in Southeast Asia, believed those three days defined a generation, as proclaimed in the just-aired PBS documentary about the festival.

While there were many positive things to celebrate, youthful hopes and dreams for a change in the U.S. social and political climates, the backdrop was drugs, alcohol and violence, as it was at Altamont.

The day after Woodstock, the New York Times editorial quoted a line from Shakespeare’s “Henry V”: “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand a-tiptoe when this day is nam’d.”

That may be, but most of the media accounting, then and now, smacks of pure poppycock.

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16 comments

  1. Think there were no R&W wearing California rockers at Woodstock , certainly no more than two ! I’ll ask my ex who was there and near the stage when the planes were on. Now Altamont was a different story.I was there fresh back from my first tour in Nam. There were some weird shit in the crowds that needed to be taken care of, and as usual the Red and White did what was required. This seems to be an anti biker “hit” piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The incident involving Jefferson Airplane did happen but not at Woodstock. It was at Altomont which the writer eludes to. I think the writer was confused about the dates or maybe as you say is just trying to put a negative slant on bikers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If it’s on YouTube why is there not a link?
    If someone wants to claim something is public, without a reference, then no claims they make can be verified.
    If security used pool sticks to stop a disturbance it’s because they didn’t use more deadly weapons.
    I call BS

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was a young 15 year old hippie kid when a buddy of mine and I hichhiked to Altamont the day before. I helped set up the scaffolding for the lighting.we wanted to insure that we got a spot right in front.I saw it all go down.All the good bands in the Bay area at that time played there.Things got wierder and wierder as the day went on towards night and the Stones came on.The club definitely got a bad rap over that.There we’re a lot of really waisted people there,some doing really stupid things like throwing wine bottles at people’s bikes.When you pay people to do a job and guard the stage and then talk shit about how they are doing it there are going to be problems.Anyway as the darkness fell and the Stones played it was like the closest thing I experienced to hell.So if a writer is going to do a piece about Altamont and wasn’t there should get their fucking facts straight!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I went to the Isle of Wight festival not long after Woodstock. About 600,000 people turned up. Problems l remember. Should have taken telescope to see the bands. People tore fences down to burn as there was a bloody cold wind in the evening. Toilets frightening. Otherwise brilliant.

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  6. Regardless of where the incident happened, the author sounds like a sniveler.
    I believe this is the second anti club piece I’ve read on your sight . I will not read anything else you post , for the simple fact it seems you are trying to demean that of witch you emulate.

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  7. Lord have mercy people, give Hollywood a break. He did not write the story. It was automatically imported into his site through the news wire. He did not approve the story or write it. Everyone wants both sides of a story until both sides start getting reported then people get in an uproar. I understand this article was poorly written and the facts were distorted and the events timeline was off, but Hollywood did not write this article.

    Liked by 1 person

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