Rolling Stone Revisits Altamont Festival Coverage

Sharing more rich history in honor of the publication's 50th anniversary

24,000 words spread over 14 pages.
Headshot of Richard Horgan

The second installment of “Rolling Stone at 50,” an ongoing series of articles marking the magazine’s 1967-2007 span, is all about Woodstock and Altamont. David Browne’s look-back is a powerful and vivid reminder of an earlier era.

A small group of reporters from San Francisco, where Rolling Stone was then based, had traveled to upstate New York to cover Woodstock in August of 1969. Four months later and back home on the California coast, the bureau was eager to blanket the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. None of the journalists could have possibly imagined the mayhem that would ensue:

Recalls [Reviews editor Greil] Marcus, “I’ll never forget Jann [Wenner] looking across the table and saying, ‘We’re going to cover this thing from top to bottom, and we’re going to lay the blame. Get going.'” As Wenner says, “Our mission was what Rolling Stone stood for. We weren’t going to pull our punches.”

With [managing editor John] Burks at the helm, the staff fanned out, interviewing witnesses, police and musicians such as David Crosby and Mick Taylor… [Film critic Michael] Goodwin, who had brought a tape recorder to the show, made a small but valuable contribution. When he began hearing a clearly shaken Mick Jagger address the crowd, Goodwin turned on his recorder and repeated into the machine everything Jagger was saying, giving the magazine an accidental exclusive. “We felt a responsibility,” says Marcus. “If we didn’t cover this and get out what had really happened, and what that whole day meant for the culture we’d all been a part of, this event was either going to disappear from history or go down as ‘Woodstock West.’

A 124-character tweet from Coachella, stage-right this wasn’t. The resulting cover story about Altamont ran 24,000 words. Browne’s article follows Andy Greene’s “Rolling Stone at 50” look last month at the magazine’s very first issue.

@hollywoodspin Richard Horgan is co-editor of Fishbowl.