At Altamont, How 'Woodstock West' Turned Into 'Rock's Darkest Day'

The Rolling Stones ended their 1969 U.S. tour with a free concert at the old Altamont Speedway in northern California. It was supposed to be a celebration, but it turned into chaos.

A young fan was stabbed to death, allegedly by a member of the Hells Angels, right in front of the stage as the Stones performed. The killing was captured on film because a documentary crew was making the film called “Gimmie Shelter.”

Here & Now‘s Eric Westervelt talks with author Joel Selvin, whose new book looks at rock’s darkest day.

Book Excerpt: ‘Altamont’

By Joel Selvin

Rock Scully had passed through Heathrow Airport in London many times before. Growing up as the stepson of a respected international scholar and journalist, Scully had spent years living abroad, attending private schools and universities in Europe. He was not especially alarmed to be greeted in the almost friendly, official tone of the British passport officer.

“Mr. Scully? Right this way, sir.”

In October 1969, six weeks after Woodstock, it had become increasingly common to see visitors to England arrive wearing long hair and hippie garb, but Scully—the twenty-four-year-old manager of the Grateful Dead, ringleader of the most resolute gang of San Francisco freaks, house band to the dawning of the LSD apocalypse and pioneer explorers of inner space—was a prince among California hippies and looked it. Scully appeared like nothing so much as Rasputin, his scarecrow frame topped with scraggly dark hair and an unkempt wispy beard. He had taken so much LSD, his pupils were little more than molten brown orbs floating in buttermilk. He was dressed head to toe in denim, his feet encased in exquisite hand-tooled cowboy boots. He had the odd feeling he had been expected.

Rock had arrived with Frankie Weir, the formidable girlfriend of Dead guitarist Bobby Weir, close enough to him to have assumed his last name, who was headed to London to take a job with Derek Taylor, press secretary for The Beatles and Apple Records. It was only on the flight to England that Rock realized that his ticket, which had been arranged for him by Lenny Hart, the father of Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who had recently taken over some management responsibilities in regard to the Dead’s business affairs, was one-way. That struck him as odd, but so did a lot of things, and he put it out of his mind. Rock had their ticket stubs in his pocket.

Rock was coming to London to show the Brits how real San Francisco hippies threw free concerts in the park. He was to meet with a production company called Blackhill Enterprises, which only three months before had presented a huge free concert in London’s Hyde Park with the Rolling Stones. The company had invited Scully to meet with them to discuss similar possible concerts with the Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the other leading San Francisco hippie rock band. The Dead and the Airplane were closely associated, and Scully had gone to the airport straight from a meeting at the Airplane mansion in San Francisco to discuss the prospect of the London concerts. In addition to talking business, Airplane guitarist Paul Kantner had handed Rock a small brown vial filled with pure Merck pharmaceutical cocaine. Scully tucked the vial in his pants pocket and headed for London.

The passport official took Rock upstairs and showed him to a small room in Heathrow where two customs officers waited. One of the agents had a newspaper clipping with a headline about the Grateful Dead planning an LSD fest in Hyde Park. They started to paw through Rock’s luggage. The first thing that came to their attention was Rock’s mojo, the eagle feather and bear claw and other Native American artifacts that he routinely traveled with. He had also loaded up on turquoise jewelry and bracelets that he knew the English would love. But when they picked up the Polaroid film canister and shook it, dozens of tiny purple pills fell out and rolled all over the floor.

It was the finest LSD in the world, Owsley Purple, manufactured by Augustus Owsley Stanley III himself, longtime benefactor, resident audio genius, and elixir mixer to the court of the Grateful Dead, the first private party in the world to synthesize the mind-altering compound. More worried about the marijuana in his luggage, Rock had practically forgotten about the LSD. It wasn’t a lot of doses—maybe fifty or sixty. The small pills resembled the tiny jacks of heroin dispensed to addicts in England.

“What’s this? Morphine?” said the customs agent.

The two men whisked Rock away by his arms into an interrogation room and he was quickly stripped to his boxer shorts. The younger man started thoroughly going through Rock’s pants, while the older agent played with the bear claw and the feather, fascinated by the exotic Americana. Then he pulled out another bottle of pills, Rock’s Entero-Vioform, diarrhea medicine. The older agent recognized the prescription. “Do you have a problem?” he asked.

“Yes, I do,” said Scully, “and I actually need to go to the bathroom—right now.”

He reached out and snatched his pants, clutched his stomach, and was led out of the room by the younger agent to a small bathroom. The agent let Rock inside, who closed and locked the door behind him and retrieved the vial of cocaine from the pants’ watch pocket. With one massive snort, he inhaled the contents.

He pulled out Frankie’s ticket stub, tore it into pieces, and flushed it down the toilet. Without that, there was no way the authorities could connect them. He rinsed the empty brown vial in the sink and put it back in his pants pocket. Outside, the younger agent waited to take him to yet another room where now the police wanted to talk with him. They sat him down and started asking questions, but Scully couldn’t speak. The cocaine had completely frozen his larynx. The best he could manage were some distressed, garbled squawks.

They arrested Rock for importing a controlled substance and took him to the Feltham police station, a small jail in a remote London borough adjacent to Heathrow largely used for airport arrests, and as a result a tidy, welcoming neighborhood establishment that did not truck with the usual criminal element but attracted a higher-class clientele. They served Rock tea and left his cell door open, even took him with them when they went on their rounds. He passed the weekend pleasantly enough in custody.

Frankie Weir went to town and worked the phones, beginning a long trail of calls. She raised bail from Lenny Holzer, a New York City scenester who was living in London at the Dorchester Hotel and had first met Rock years before when the Dead played the roof of the Chelsea Hotel. Frankie also called Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and Sam Cutler of Blackhill Enterprises, the rogue concert producer who’d invited Rock over in the first place. In turn, Cutler contacted Chesley Millikin, who was running Epic Records in England at the time and consulting with Rock about landing a record deal for the Dead with mighty CBS Records. Millikin then phoned home to Marin County, California, and spoke with Rock’s new girlfriend, Nicki Rudolph, who flew to the rescue. With money suddenly needed for Rock’s legal defense, Nicki arrived in England the next day, four and a half months pregnant, her bra filled with thousands of hits of acid. The English had little or no access to this quality product, and the California contraband disappeared in one smooth transaction.

Excerpted from the book ALTAMONT by Joel Selvin. Copyright © 2016 by Joel Selvin. Reprinted with permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of Harpercollins Publishers.


Joel Selvin, music journalist and author of “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels And The Inside Story Of Rock’s Darkest Day.”

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