Back in the day I had a relationship, let’s call it mutually beneficial, with the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. They were always violent, but in a way that at the time could still be excused as a sort of outlaw raffish behavior that was, far more often than not, measured and considered and under control of the hierarchy. No one got killed unless they had violated one of the Club’s few rules, and then only if they were blatant about it. It was to be sure a form of law outside the law, but the kind of illegality that demands absolute honesty within the group, rational and clear and even-handed. The kind of people, one might say, that you could do business with.
But by the summer of ’68 things had started to change, much for the worse. Methamphetamine had begun to do its damage, driving minds already fragile in their socialization beyond the bounds of reason, to a point where the smallest imagined slight would result in violent outbursts. What had been mostly a hobby sort of drug dealing, enough to pay the bills, provide a little walking around money and stoke some wild partying, turned into big business. With serious dollar amounts came serious enforcement of territory and rights, and what earlier would have been settled by edict from the top or at worst a fistfight was now being dealt with by bullets, and bodies were dropping like flies.
I found myself in the middle of complexity far greater than I wanted or needed, knowing much more than I should and becoming the focus of interests who did not have my benefit in mind. One thing and another it seemed best to get the hell out of Dodge and that’s what I did, severing all ties and promising to keep my head down and mouth shut as I fled the state. I’ve made a lot of stupid decisions in my life, but leaving all that when and how I did was definitely one of the smart ones.
By just a year later, in the fall of ’69, the Club had disintegrated to the point of near-anarchy, with far too many new members who came in with no agenda other than making lots of money and behaving however they wished without any sense of consequence. Gone were the days of controlled thuggery, when a hierarchy made decisions and were heeded. The once-cohesive organization shattered into factions, each one pitted against the other while remaining united only in their contempt for anyone not in the Club. Violence was no longer rare but a daily event, and killing for little or no cause something that happened at an escalating pace, done without remorse.
It was in this atmosphere that the Rolling Stones brought their act to a concert at Altamont Pass, a peaceful and beautiful if stark area in the hills above and to the East of San Francisco Bay. In a set of decisions that rapidly spiraled out of control, the Hells Angels were contracted to provide stage-side security. It was a decision made in complete ignorance by dilettantes and dabblers who had no idea what they were dealing with, and disaster was the result.
Tomorrow, Sunday November 29, Oakland Tribune reporter Jim Harrington revisits Altamont and brings out information from some of the organizers that has not previously been openly discussed. It is a valuable cautionary tale, about the dangers inherent in embracing powerful forces without full awareness of their workings and intent. I highly recommend reading and thinking about this nightmarish happening, for anyone who might ever contemplate forming an alliance with the unknown.