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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.