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Livermore History - Altamont Concert

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Page 1:  Summit School
Page 2:  Summit Hotel, Altamont Library
Page 3:  The Concert at Altamont, and it's connection to American Pie
See Also:  Railroads, Altamont SP railroad station
 

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See The Altamont Concert connection to Don McLean's American Pie below

 


The Altamont Concert, December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway.

 

The Altamont Concert connection to American Pie

In this area when you hear the word "Altamont" the first thing that comes to mind is windmills.  Other thoughts are of the Altamont Pass, a major corridor to the central valley.  The way to get to Tahoe, Yosemite, and the path to I-5 to Sacramento and Los Angeles.  In recent years a major commuter route, as the "Bay Area" expands to Tracy and beyond.

It is also the path of the original transcontinental railroad, as is Livermore, Pleasanton, Sunol, and Niles Canyon.  There are currently no tracks on the transcontinental right of way through the Altamont, but it can still be seen, especially from the ACE Train, which takes the Union Pacific tracks that roughly parallel the transcontinental railroad right of way.  If you ever get a chance to take the Ace Train through the Altamont, it is worth the trip.  The train stops in Tracy and Lathrop.  eLivermore.com has a gallery of  photos from the Ace Train in the Altamont.  The drive on Altamont Pass Road (instead of 580) is also well worth it for the scenery.

 

Outside of this area, Altamont is famous for its wind power, but is probably more famous for the Altamont Concert, held on December 6, 1969.  It is not fondly remembered.  It is always at or near the top of the list of Rock and Roll Tragedies and referred to as "The Day the 60s Died".  It is for this that Altamont is chronicled in several film documentaries, and in the song "American Pie" by Don McLean.

"American Pie" has probably been analyzed more than any other contemporary song.  Don McLean has been quiet on the subject, preferring to leave it to individual interpretations.  This has lead to its mystique and legendary status.  He has stated that yes, the opening stanzas are about Buddy Holly, and that there is no truth to the urban legend that the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper was named "American Pie".  There are many interpretations of the song on the web, and almost all of them attribute the the second half of the 5th verse to the Altamont concert.

"And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that satan's spell

And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw satan laughing with delight

The day the music died
He was singing..."

 

The following very brief description of the concert is based on a variety of sources on the web, and reviews of the documentary "Gimme Shelter'.  See the references below for more detailed information and context of this event.

The Altamont Concert was set up by the Rolling Stones as a free concert at the end of their very successful North American tour, attempting to be "Woodstock West".  The Stones had not played at Woodstock.  The concert was originally slated for San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, but moved to Sears Point when it was realized that the attendance would be too large.  It moved again to the site of the Altamont Speedway, with the speedway being contacted less than 24 hours before the concert.  100,000 people were expected.  About 300,000 showed up.

In addition to the Rolling Stones, there were performances by Santana, Tina Turner, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  The Rolling Stones were the final act.

There was a lot of violence at the concert, caused by very poor planning, overcrowding, the security situation, and other factors.  About 850 people were hurt, and an 18 year old man was beaten and stabbed to death in the front row as the Stones played.

Three other people died, but this was afterwards, and not of violence.  Two men were run over by a car as they slept in sleeping bags in a field.  Many people spent the night in the surrounding fields and cars were everywhere.  Another person drowned in the California Aqueduct.

The Altamont concert is seen as the end of the 60's culture.  Everything that Woodstock was, or appeared to be earlier that same year, Altamont was not.

 

So back to "American Pie".  Interpretations have Mick Jagger as satan, especially with the song "Sympathy for the Devil" which was played at the concert during much of the violence.  "the flames climbed high into the night" refers to the bon fires that were lit in the area.  The "sacrificial rite" was the young man who was killed.  "The day the music died" generally refers to the plane crash in the song, but here may also refer to this event.  Again, see the references below for more details.

 

The documentary movie "Gimme Shelter" is mainly about the Altamont concert, but also chronicles other parts of the Rolling Stones tour.  It was being filmed at the time with the cooperation of the Rolling Stones.

The song "New Speedway Boogie" was written and performed by the Grateful Dead shortly after the concert.

In 1999 there was a hand painted sign along 580 approaching Tracy going east that seemed to be trying to drum up support for a 30 year anniversary concert.  It never happened, as this is an event that people did not want to remember, let alone repeat.

 

The Altamont Concert is often referred to as being "in Livermore."  The Altamont speedway is in Alameda county (just barely), and the area has a Livermore address and zip code.  The telephone numbers in the area are also Livermore exchanges, which means they are served by the Livermore switch.  The Speedway is about 7 miles from the Livermore city boundary, and about the same from Tracy.

The Altamont Raceway is now very active, with races every Saturday.  Their web site does not make mention of the concert.  It does state that the track has been in existence since the 1930s, and changed to its current configuration in 1963.  The current owners bought it in 1994 and brought back a full season of racing.  It can be seen from the freeway when driving through the Altamont pass on 580 just as 580 and 205 split, on the south side.  Update 2009: The Altamont Raceway is currently closed.

 

There is more to the story then has been chronicled here.  The purpose of this article is to provide the connection to Livermore, the concert, and the song.  See the references below for the details of the concert, and what happened, from various viewpoints.

References, and additional information.

An Interpretation of the song American Pie, with the Altamont references.

An interesting tale by someone who went to the concert.  On a site called "Hippy Haven"  Read the linked page and the next one for Altamont info.

Information about the concert can be found by doing an internet search for "Altamont Concert" through your favorite search engine.  There are a variety of descriptions.

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