PORTRAITS IN CARNAGE: THE END OF THE ROCK FESTIVALS
Excerpt: THE COVERT WAR AGAINST ROCK
By Alex Constantine
I’m very proud to be called a “pig” – Ronald Reagan
Five months after the drowning death of Brian Jones, a music festival held near San Francisco turned murderous, smothering Aquarius and its political anthems with a handful of apocalyptic screen images, “restless youth” seemingly devouring itself. The Rolling Stones were the centerpiece of the hellish fiasco at Altamont on December 6, 1969. The band would forevermore be tainted by the surreal violence of Gimme Shelter, the documentary film that chronicled the disaster, and so would the counterculture the Stones had done much to inspire.
The festival was conceived in the first place to redeem the group’s flagging image. The press had laid into Jagger and crew, emphasizing their greed. “The stories of the Stones’ avarice spread,” journalist Robert Sam Anson reported, and critics pointed to Mick’s $250,000 townhouse, the collection of glittering Rolls Royces, “and [they] wondered how revolutionary `a man of wealth and taste’ could be. A token free appearance would still those critics. The concert, problems and all, was going to happen. For the Stones’ sake, it had to.”
The group’s management set out to select a site for the event. They consulted Jan Wenner, the editor of Rolling Stone, who sent them to several professional concert promoters, and they in turn put them in touch with famed San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, fixture of California’s well-heeled “conservative” power base.
This was the first Big Mistake. Belli was summed up at his funeral in July, 1996 by Bishop William Swing, in a eulogy stitched with irony in the context of Operation CHAOS, at Grace Cathedral. Over the infamous attorney’s pale cadaver, the Bishop bid farewell to Belli:
A man of law against the chaos of life,
A man of chaos against the laws of life.1
A cartoon that appeared after Belli’s death in the San Diego Union Tribune was an eloquent expression of his ethical standards. It depicted St. Peter on the telephone, reported in, “I’ve got a guy here claiming he was struck and injured by one of the Pearly Gates,” and there, smiling like an angel, stood a well-groomed soul identified by the nametag on his briefcase: “M. Belli.” 2 The San Francisco Chronicle bid him farewell with a letter to the editor that appeared on the Op Ed page: “Melvin Belli helped establish the principles of the plaintiff attorney: avarice, immunity to logic, self- aggrandizement and perfect contempt for the interests of society.”3
He was not only an ambulance chaser par excellence. The legendary Melvin Belli was one of the CIA’s most trusted courtroom wonders until hypertension and cardiovascular disease claimed him on July 9, 1996. His client roster included Jack Ruby, Sirhan Sirhan, Martha Mitchell and Jim Bakker. His first high-profile client was Errol Flynn, who, according to documents released under FOIA to biographer Charles Higham, was an avid admirer of Adolph Hitler, recruited by Dr. Hermann Friedrich Erben, an Abwher intelligence agency, to spy on the United States. The FBI, Higham discovered in the midst of poring through the many boxes of FOIA documents dropped on his doorstep, pestered Flynn and the studio employing him over his wartime association with a Nazi, “but there was little doubt that Will Hays and Colonel William Guthrie, a high-ranking Army officer on the studio payroll as Jack Warner’s troubleshoot in all matters connected with politics, were responsible for the cover-up… Hays and Guthrie managed to smother the numerous inquiries that began seriously to threaten Errol’s career.” 4 Melvin Belli, Flynn’s attorney, could also be counted on to button his lip, and he did repeatedly as a CIA-Mafia legal counsel in a number of assassination cover-ups.” 5
It was Melvin Belli who chose the speedway at Altamont for the festival. “As a staging ground for a rock concert,” Anson concluded, “especially one expected to draw 300,000 people or more, Altamont could hardly have been worse. The raceway, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, was small, cramped, and difficult to reach. Its acres were littered with the rusting hulks of junked automobiles and thousands of shards of broken glass. In appearance, it had all the charm of a graveyard. Worst of all, though, the deal for its use had not been sealed until the final moment. Whereas Woodstock had taken months to prepare, Altamont had to be ready within twenty-four hours.” 6
The second Big Mistake of Altamont was the hiring of Ralph “Sonny” Barger and a contingent of Hell’s Angels to keep the peace.
Barger, it has since been divulged, was an informant and hit man on the payroll of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). When Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver fled the country for Algeria, the ATF negotiated with Barger to “bring Cleaver home in a box.” He often made deals with law enforcement in exchange for dismissal of charges against fellow Angeles. Barger was even hired by federal agents to kill immigrant farm labor activist Cesar Chavez, and may well have if Barger hadn’t first been arrested by police into the Bay area on a prior homicide charges. 7
The accusation arose in the death of Servios Winston Agero, a drug dealer. In a surprise courtroom maneuver, Sonny took the witness stand and confessed to his arrangement with local police and federal agents. Over a period of several years, he testified, he had brokered deals with Oakland authorities to give up the location of hidden cache’s of automatic weapons, mortars and dynamite in exchange for the dismissal of all charges against member of his motorcycle gang. This was a deal he had brokered with Edward Hilliard, then a sergeant at the Oakland Police Department’s vice squad. Hilliard refused to comment when questioned by reporters. The defendant admitted for the record that he sold narcotics for a living, forged IDs, and slept with a pistol under his pillow. On several occasions, though, Barger refused to respond to questioning and was fined $3,000 by Judge William J. Hayes for each demurral.
Deputy prosecutor Donald Whyte asked the “spiritual” leader of the Hell’s Angeles, an admitted federal operative, to name officers who asked him to “kill someone.” Barger squired and claimed that he could not recall, exactly, but att5empted several phonetic variations of a possible name. 8 Even in the courtroom, it seems, he was not about to risk retaliation by government contacts.
But the deal was exposed anyway by ATF whistle-blower Larry Shears. The agent told his story to narcotics agents, and they gathered evidence on the murder plan before talking to the press. Shears announced that Barger had been contracted to kill Chavez, an assassination ordered by agribusiness magnates in the San Joaquin Valley. Chavez was only alive, Shears reported, because there had been delays. The first came when AFT agents insisted that certain files first be stolen from the farm union. The arson of union offices was attempted by hired hands, another delay. Confirmation of these allegations came three weeks later when union officials complained to reporters that there had been recent “arson attempts against [farm] union offices. Others have been riddle with bullet holes, and on at least two occasions, attempts were made to steal records in the union offices.”
The next glitch in the Chavez assassination, Shears said, came when the hit man, Sonny Barger, was arrested for the Agero murder. To support his statements, Shears waved a federal voucher at reporters signed by Senator Edward Kennedy, a payment of $10,000 to Shears for services rendered as an informant to narcotics agents and the IRS.” 9
In March 1989, according to wire releases, Sonny Barger was convicted with four other Angels for conspiracy to violate federal firearms and explosives laws in a variety of plots to kill members of rival motorcycle clubs.
Barger and Michael Vincent O’Farrell were sentenced in US District Court, Louisville, Kentucky, for their part in the transport of explosives with intent to kill. Barger and three others were slapped with additional counts for “dealing with a stolen government manual.” Barger was freed on parole three years later. The mystery of his early release was dispelled by the Tucson Weekly in 1996–it seems Barger had a political guardian: “You can talk about the biker tradition,” a law enforcement source explained, “the Harley, the patch that they’ve killed for, but in the end, what’s most important is money. Hell’s Angeles is represented in 18 countries now. They’re probably the largest organized crime family that we export from the US. At the center of this global expansion is Oakland-based International President “Sonny” Barger, who’s had his hand on the throttle of Hells Angels’ money and mayhem machine since the late ’50s, despite occasional prison stints. When Barger was released from prison in 1992, an estimated 3,000 people attended his party…. Some influential people might get bought. I can’t tell you that Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell received any money…. I do know that he used his influence to try to get Sonny Barger out of prison.” 10
Barger’s booze-swaggling, two-wheeling entourage were paid killers. And since the carnage at Altamont, the Hell’s Angels have twice attempted to kill the Rolling Stones. In March, 1983, a witness called himself “Butch,” his true identity protected by the federal witness program, testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee about plots to kill the Stones. “There’s always been a contract on the band,” he admitted under questioning. There were “two attempts to kill them that I know about. They will some day. They wear they will do it.” The vendetta, Butch said, originated with the killing at the Speedway concert, and was motivated by the failure of the Stones to back the Angel prosecuted for the killing. The first attempt to assassinate the entire band took place in the mid-’70s. “They sent a member with a gun and a silencer” to a hotel where the Stones were staying. The hit-man “staked out the hotel, but [the Stones] never showed up,” said the government informant. And in 1979, the Angels’ New York chapter “were going to put a bomb in the house and blow everybody up and kill everybody at the party.” But this conspiracy sank with a cache of plastic explosives, accidentally dropped overboard from a rubber raft. Killing the Stones, he testified, was an “obsession” with the bike gang.” 11
Who in 1969 suspected that the Hell’s Angels was in reality a death squad leader in the pay of “conservative” political operatives? The swastika tattoos and gothic jewelry? Window dressing. The roughing up of peace demonstrators? The shootouts? The terrorizing of small towns? The rapings? The drugs? A refreshing break from the status quo.
A supplier from Berkeley donated 1,000 hits of LSD laced with speed to Barger’s Altamont security force, and the Angels toted along several cases of red wine and a generous supply of barbiturates. The concert commenced at 1 p.m. with a set by Santana, and before long the beatings began. By the time Santana ripped to a close, the first casualties limped into the first aid station. There were broken arms, open wounds, shattered jaws and ribs, and bad LSD trips that left joy-seekers screaming in terror. There were so many of these that the Thorazine cache ran dry within a few hours, leaving the overdosed untreated.” 12
The Jefferson Airplane played songs about social unity and revolution and a flung beer bottle fractured a woman’s skull. She reeled, fell, stood and collapsed again.
Jagger arrived in helicopter. Anson writes: “Kids got up, yelled, and started running, bursting past the Angeles to get close to him. Jqagger emerged, smiling, waving, calling greetings, with Timothy Leary at his side flashing the peace symbol.” 13
Jagger hurried to the safety of his trailer. The Angels resumed beating concert-goers. A photographer was told to stop shooting the violence and give up the film. He refused and an Angel smashed him in the face with his camera.
Crosby, Stills and Nash preceded the Stones, but the escalating violence forced them to cut their set short. The Stones would not play until the sun went down and delayed their appearance some 90 minutes, aggravating the macabre tension of the event. The Angels, riding on electric currents of met amphetamine and lysergic acid, bludgeoned the audience with lead-filled pool cues. At long last, Jagger strutted across the stage, sporting a red, white and blue stovepipe hat, silver pants, black boots, an Omega symbol emblazoned on his chest.
The Rolling Stones packaged the occult education they had received from Satanist Kenneth Anger. “The top hat,” explains Anger biographer Bill Landis, “was snatched from the legend of [Bobby] Beausoleil,” The Mansonite killer of L.A. guitarist Gary Hinman. “The Crowleyan personal power tripping” was amplified by “pop iconography and massive amounts of cocaine to fuel Jagger’s attempt at incarnating Lucifer.” 14
The Stones managed to lumber through “Jumpin” Jack Flash” and “Carol,” but “Sympathy for the Devil” was accompanied by howls from the crowd directly in front of the stage. Jagger urged the audience repeatedly to “cool down, cool down, now…” Another outbreak accompanied “under My Thumb.” The source of the commotion was the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter,18, who pulled a gun and reportedly took aim at Jagger.
“As Mick peered out,” Ben Fong-Torres recalls, “there were kids staring at him in incredulous silence, mouthing the word, `Why?'”
After the concert, reports Anson, “there was a mysterious shake-up in the Angel hierarchy, and the suicide of one Angel who had been particularly close to the rock scene.” Alan David Passaro, 24, one of Barger’s soldiers and an ex-convict, was charged with Hunter’s murder. But Barger himself was unapologetic. “I’m no peace creep by any sense of the word. Ain’t nobody gonna kick my motorcycle.” 15 Passaro, already serving a prison sentence on an unrelated offense when served, was eventually acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
A platoon of cinematographers was assembled by directors Albert and David Maysles to shoot Gimme Shelter, the Altamont documentary. They were directed to concentrate on the violence, not the performances on stage. A recent TV Guide review of the video complains that the crew “focused resolutely on the mayhem and discord.” 16
“Sympathy for the Devil” was the last-grasp anthem of the festival scene in America. A repeat of the disaster was visited upon Louisiana a few months later, when an excess of 50,000 young people turned out for a “Celebration of Life” on the Atchafalaya River. The Galloping Gooses motorcycle club, hired to attend to security, chain-whipped the celebrants, leaving three dead and many wounded. 17
A cancer was growing on the counter-culture.
1. Herb Caen, “Above and Beyond,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 1996, p. B-1.
3. Letter to the editor, San Francisco Chronicle, July 19, 1996, p. A-16.
4. Charles Higham, Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, New York Doubleday, 1980, pp. 91-92. Background on Higham and the government documents released to him come from author’s interviews of Higham.
5. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen reminisced about Belli’s bosom friendship with the screen idol, both of whom had a keen interest in teenage girls: “When he and his close friend and client, Errol Flynn, were out on the town, no young lady was safe. Two Rogue Scholars on the loose, both exceedingly handsome and dangerous to know too well. Every time I saw Mel on eh make I thought of Dorothy Parkers’ line about the girl who lost her virginity sliding down a barrister. One night at Cal-Neva, the Tahoe gambling joint with the California-Nevada state line running through the lobby, I saw Mel crossing that line with a very young girl. Referring to the then-statute against crossing a state line with a minor for immoral purposes, I asked him `Does she know about the Mann Act?’ `Know about it?’ he whooped. `She loves it!” Herb caen, Friday’s Fractured Flicker, San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1996, p. C-1. For background on Melvin Belli’s interaction with the Central Intelligence Agency and the Mafia, see: Constatntine, A., Psychic Dictatorship in the U.S.A. 1995, p. 191. Diamond, S. Spiritual Warfare, 1989, p. 30; Hinckle, W., If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, 1990, p. 200, Johnson, R.W. Shootdown, 1987, pp. 377-8, 394-5; Kantor, S. The Ruby Cover-up, 1992, pp. 224-35, 415-6; Marrs, J., Crossfire, 1990, pp. 414, 424; Pipe, M.C. Final Judgment, 1993, pp. 161, 172-5, Ragano, F. Raab, S. Mob Lawyer, 1994, pp 241-8, 360, Scheim, D., Contract on America, 1988, p. 154, Scott, P.D. Deep Politics, 1993, p. 233.
6. Rogbert Sam Anson, Gone Crazy and Back Again, New York: Doubleday, 1981, p. 141.
7. Account of Larry Shears, ATF agent, alleging that Barge was recruited by ATF agents–at a time when G. Gordon Liddy worked for the ATF, a division of the Treasury Department–to assassinate Eldridge Cleaver; December 17, 1971 news broadcast, Channel 23, Los Angeles, CA.
8. Drew McKillips, Amazing Story by Hells’ Angels Chief, San Francisco Chronicle, December 12, 1972, p. 1.
9. ATF Agent Says He Was Part of Coast Plot to Kill Cesar Chavez, New York Times, January 2, 1972, p. 31.
10. Karen Brandel, Angels in Arizona, Tucson Weekly, August 15, 1996, p. 1.
11. Hotchner, p. 320.
12. Anson. p. 148.
13. Anson, p. 149.
14. Bill Landis, Anger, The Unauthorized Biography of Kenneth Anger, New York: Harper Collins, 1995, p. 177. It is ironic that with Scorpio Rising (1964), Anger the Satanist had launched the popular mythos surrounding the Hell’s Angels. Anger’s cultural oddity, Landis writes, “made them seem more lyrical after all the media reports on gang rapes, chain whipping and stomping they were doing.” (pp. 118-19).
15. Anson, pp. 156-57.
16. Gimme Shelter 1970. TV Guide Movie Database, Internet posting.
17. David P. Szatmary, Rockin’ in Time: A Social History of Rock and Roll, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1987. p. 149.