Barber: Infamous Altamont concert was nearly held at Sears Point Raceway. Here's the inside story
The music died 50 years ago Friday. The crazy thing is how close it came to dying in our arms, at the raceway in the rolling hills of southern Sonoma County.
On Dec. 6, 1969, the Rolling Stones headlined a concert at Altamont Speedway that changed the course of rock ’n’ roll. Hastily arranged and poorly planned, it was suffused with incredible music, but also with dehydration and cold, drug overdoses and violence. By the time Altamont was empty again, four men were dead. One, frying on LSD, drowned in an irrigation ditch. Two were killed by a hit-and-run driver who plowed into their campsite. And Meredith Hunter, 18, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hells Angels, who had lined the stage as a security team and initiated much of the chaos.
Don McLean’s ballad “American Pie” was the first rock song I memorized all the words to. It’s an extended allegory, and “the day the music died” was Dec. 6, 1969. It was less than four months after Woodstock, but seemed to conjure little of the joy and togetherness.
In Esquire magazine, Ralph J. Gleason wrote, “If the name ‘Woodstock’ has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, ‘Altamont’ has come to mean the end of it.”
Now substitute “Sears Point” for “Altamont.” Our local track nearly became shorthand for the dark descent of the Summer of Love.
“I have thought about that many times, particularly as I heard Ken (Clapp’s) stories about how close they came to hosting, and what a potential disaster it was,” said Steve Page, president of the ?motorsports hub now known as Sonoma Raceway. “It could have been the end of the facility.”
Some say it was the Grateful Dead who came up with the idea of a “Woodstock West” in the Bay Area. Some insist it was Jefferson Airplane. In any case, those groups recruited the Rolling Stones, Carlos Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - a superstar lineup.
The problem was finding a venue. Attention focused first on San Jose, but the city nixed the idea. San Francisco? One hangup was that the 49ers were scheduled to host the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium on Dec. 6, making Golden Gate Park impractical. The bigger issue was then-mayor Joseph Alioto, who was fed up with the Haight-Ashbury scene and refused to issue permits for a hippie mega-concert.
Less than a week from showtime, the music had nowhere to play.
That’s when Craig Murray, one of Sears Point International Raceway’s co-founders, offered up 120 acres near the junction of highways 37 and 121. On Wednesday, Dec. 3, Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler announced that Sears Point would host the concert. A banner headline in The Press Democrat the next day read: “Sears Point ‘Woodstock West’ May Bring 300,000 Rock Fans.”
The mobilization began almost immediately. “Our season was over and things were pretty quiet,” Ken Clapp told me by phone. “I came to work one morning, and I saw all this activity going on.”
Bands like the Rolling Stones and CSN&Y had large support teams, but this thing was coming together piecemeal.
“They were shy on manpower,” Clapp said. “But when I went up there that (Thursday) morning, all these hippies were putting up tents and stuff, and my observation was the hippies were not part of the operation. They were groupies, you might say. Big trailers with all the equipment hadn’t been unloaded yet. This was 8 a.m.”
Clapp, now 80, is a stock-car legend who is currently chairman of the West Coast Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame, among other roles. He was there for the Sears Point groundbreaking in 1968, and by ’69 he was a vice president at the facility. He remembers the concert prep as if it happened yesterday.
“You go up the straightaway on the dragstrip, then a slight incline into the carousel,” Clapp said. “Then beyond that, oh, another eighth of a mile, and there’s a high area there. That’s where they were gonna put the stage. So you’d be looking up at the stage if you were in the audience. They would have had their backs to the start/finish line.”
Local law enforcement began mapping out traffic control and the manager of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce said his group was looking into setting up a soup kitchen or providing medical care. Another Sears Point VP, Steve Castoldi, had already cooked up a slogan: Rock today with the Rolling Stones, roll tomorrow with Parnelli Jones.
The Press Democrat reported on Friday, Dec. 5, that 100 or so people had hopped the fence in hopes of securing good seats.
And then it all crashed to a halt.
While there was plenty of disagreement (and some lawsuits) in the aftermath, the general explanation goes something like this. In 1969, Sears Point was owned by Filmways, a production company best known for TV comedies like “Mister Ed” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The Rolling Stones, as it turned out, had backed out of a show at The Forum (the Los Angeles Lakers’ former home in Inglewood) that November, leaving the promoter holding the bag. That promoter was Filmways.