It was cold by California standards—in the thirties—but we didn’t care. We layered on sweaters and stood in line an hour to pick up Let it Bleed, my mom waiting in her Mercury across the street, flipping through the paper while she kept an eye on Patti and Ellen and me. She loved Patti and Ellen, it was me she didn’t trust because of the thing with the pot, but if she had known Patti was dating Meredith, she wouldn’t have even let us hang out at all. Mom was pretty liberal, so when she was going to say something racist she said it like she was only being practical. “It’s the way of the world, Denise. Some people take grave exception to a black man with a white woman.” Obviously I didn’t tell her about Patti and Meredith.
Patti was brave and free, like truly free, not just posing, and Meredith was so sweet. They say boys are behind girls maturity-wise in the teen years and I think I could see that with Patti and Meredith—there was something so innocent about him, artistic and fun, like everything was playacting, from the way he dressed to that stupid gun. Only a boy would do something like that, bring a gun, all flashy and shiny and unloaded, to a concert thinking he could protect people.
Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away. It’s just a shot away.
We piled into the back seat of Mom’s car and gazed at the cover. It was that crazy cake on a record player, layers of tire and pizza and film canister, cheesy little Rolling Stones figurines standing in the top cake layer like bride and groom, but this cake was for celebrating the feeling we had when we got the record home and dropped it on the spindle. Like we were receiving the gift of our own lives and times handed back to us wrapped in the eternity cloak of art. It’s hard to explain what it was like to hear that music for the first time knowing that we’d be in the crowd seeing the Rolling Stones live the very next day. Breathing the same air, vibing on the music and the people. Everybody said the only thing wrong with Woodstock was that the Rolling Stones weren’t there, and I’d been feeling so jealous of everybody that made the cross-country trek to Woodstock—my big sis and her friends—that when the Stones announced their show—free show, even—just a hop skip and a jump eastbound on the 580—we were going. We’d been hearing about it for awhile—at first they said it was going to be at Golden Gate Park but there was some trouble. Rumors varied, but finally, with the concert two days away, they said Altamont, Altamont Speedway, for sure this time. I don’t know if the Stones timed the release of Let it Bleed to be the day before Altamont, but if I had to guess I’d say no, since I don’t think anybody knew when that show would be until right before it happened and kids were pouring into the Bay area by the thousands, ready for the show wherever it may be.
Our way of being ready was this: listen to Let it Bleed all night until we had it memorized, then we’d get up early and head to the show. We’d be there all day, get good spots for when the Stones took the stage, and when they played the new songs we’d be ready to groove, to sing along, we’d know it all, and we did. We went straight to my room and sat on the rug. I pulled the record player between us and plugged it in while Patti tore the cellophane of the front and slid the black disk out of the paper sleeve. It was my record, so it should’ve been me doing the honors, but Patti had these delicate fingers and knew how to handle a record with the pads of her fingertips, get the tone arm in position, lower the stylus, so the job went to her. As the opening of “Gimme Shelter” started, we sat cross-legged, heads together, and studied the back cover, grinning.
Meredith got to borrow his mom’s boyfriend’s car, a ‘65 Mustang the color of champagne. He picked us all up at Patti’s house, smiling as he pulled up. We had all been up since early decking out for the event—putting on false eyelashes is no easy task and I was determined to have them. Ellen wore a paisley dress and Patti trumped us all with a suede mini skirt and a crocheted vest her mom had just finished making. But Meredith won the fashion show. He looked amazing, in a lime green suit with this black silk shirt underneath and a black felt hat. “They’re going to think we’re Sly and the Family Stone,” I said, scooting into the back. “They’re going to give us backstage passes.”
We debated the best songs from the new album on the way. There wasn’t a weak song on it, but to me, “Gimme Shelter” was immediately and obviously the best song in the history of rock and roll, of all music, of the human planet and the universe, but Patti had it bad for “Live With Me,” and “You Got the Silver,” I think because she and Meredith were feeling all that romance. They’re great songs, of course. Then, Ellen. Her picks surprised me. She’s this tall brunette with alabaster skin and no butt. She already looks like the matriarch of a really rich family. Her expression is naturally stern and she looks like somebody who does everything right, but for her, “Midnight Rambler” and “Monkey Man,” those raunchiest of songs, were hers. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was pretty philosophical and deep, and we reminded each other that Mick Jagger had attended college and was no dummy. I wish I knew which songs Meredith would have favored. He hadn’t heard the album yet and didn’t care about the Stones, really—Patti said he’d taken her to a Temptations concert, that was more his groove, and he’d been at Monterey Pop, but he was no Stones fan, more about the peace and the love and the spectacle. You just don’t want to miss a party as big as this was going to be. We headed east to the seedy rural edge of Alameda County listening to KNAN, singing along. They were playing a lot from Let it Bleed and I already knew most of the words. We debated who was hottest in the band and of course it’s Mick, and what would he be wearing tonight? He was so pretty like a girl.
Oh, a storm is threatening my very life today.
We got so bored and we wanted to go home. We sat for hours in the car parked along the edge of 580 and watched people pour in. I’d never seen so many people in one place in my life. All kinds, most of them older than us, straight-looking citizens and freaks, blankets over their shoulders, coolers carried between them, big glass jugs of wine passed around and the air green with pot smoke at all times. People were leaving, too, with bad reports.
Sitting on the hood of the car, Meredith called out to this pigeon-toed girl and her boyfriend, “Why you leaving?”
They came over shaking their heads. “It’s a bad scene.”
“Scary. The radio says there’s 300,000 people.”
“The Hells Angels are security. They rode right through the crowd on their bikes. Tasha almost died—they would have run right over her.”
Tasha nodded agreement. “They’re beating the shit out of people with pool cues. Like, wailing on them. And guess how they’re getting paid? In alcohol.”
“Who’s idea was that?” I asked. “Hell’s Angels hate hippies. They hate black people, they hate counter culture.”
“It’s wolves in the hen house. You shouldn’t go down there, man.” The guy looked at us all, but especially Meredith. “It’s a powder keg.”
We were quiet when they left. I wanted to go home so bad—I think we all did but nobody wanted to be the weakling. I was sleepy and hungry and I needed to pee. After a few minutes Meredith got up and opened the trunk of the Mustang and he got out this gun. A shiny revolver, big and kind of blue. He said it was to protect us all in case we got caught up in any bullshit like that couple told us about. He looked at Patti when he said it and I knew he wanted her to see that he’d take care of her.
I was dreaming of a steel guitar engagement
When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea
But you knifed me in my dirty filthy basement
It got dark and cold. Once we heard the Stones were about to take the stage we left the car and pushed in through the crowd until we were up front. The place looked like a Fellini film, bonfires casting light onto scaffolds draped with people, 300,000 people, and burned out cars from the race track dotting the scene. The stage was crazy low, like three feet high with no distance whatsoever between the band and the crowd, the way you find in a small club, and the Hells Angels prowling and beating. It was their stage and they were letting the Stones play. We got separated and I wasn’t sure we’d all see each other again until after the show, but then Ellen and I looked up and noticed Meredith standing up on a speaker box at the side of the stage. We were so glad to see him, so we started making our way over there. We knew Patti was probably right below him.
We saw the Hells Angels pull him down and start punching him. We saw four of them surround him, we saw him pull his gun. We saw the knife come down. Then they pulled him away—the gun was out of his hands and he was no threat but they pulled him away. We found Patti and we stood at their backs and tried to stop them, tried but they stabbed him four times. They knocked him to his knees then they held his head up and took turns kicking him in the face. Then the guy that stabbed him stood on his head for over a minute until all his features were crushed in on his windpipe. The Hell’s Angels wouldn’t let us carry him away on that side of the stage, so this guy helped and we went through the crowd and it took 15 minutes to get to the Red Cross tent. What could they do? They had bandaids, aspirin, tourniquets.
Just a knife sharpened, tippy toe
Or just a shoot 'em dead
Everybody got to go
On the back of Let it Bleed, the cake is broken and ruined. A big piece has been cut out, toppling the band member figurines, who are about to fall into the gap, all except Keith Richards who is kind of sunk in frosting, but who seems unaffected, looking out like he doesn’t notice a thing. The record below is shattered and a piece of pizza has dropped on top of it. There’s a nail sticking out of the tire and a white medical bandage is wrapped around it. I’ve never been able to listen to it again after Altamont, but I hear it all around me anyway. I feel so guilty that if it catches me unawares, when I’m not thinking, I still love it. But I should be forgiven for this. It’s not my fault. It’s one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.