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Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

The Altamont Story
(Excerpt from the book Bill Owens)
My first job at age thirty, was a photo journalist working at the tri-weekly Livermore Independent Newspaper. My wife, Janet, and I rented a house for $120 a month and moved to Livermore, California. Three days later, my son Andrew was born. My new job paid $110 a week, and we could survive.

The newspaper gave me five to fifteen assignments a day photographing everything from rotary club meetings to high school basketball games. I was fast and could take a photograph, process film, and make a print in less than fifteen minutes (I printed off a wet negative). I loved learning the draft of photography, and it wasn’t long before I could call myself a photojournalist.
In the fall of 1979, I got a phone call from my friend Beth, who was a freelance photographer who worked off and on for the Associated Press. She said the AP wanted to hire me for the day (Saturday) to cover a rock and roll concert in the Altamont hills. This area consisted of rolling hills, cows, and a dirt race track. The big news was that the Rolling Stones were going to give a free concert. The bad news was that it was going to be guarded by the Hells Angels (the Angels were known to be a rough bunch; many have been in prison). The Altamont concert was going to be the West Coast’s response to Woodstock. Everybody was thinking sex and drugs and rock and roll. The newspaper had a flexible structure and they would cut me free for the day as long as I provided them with photos of the concert.
That morning Beth showed up with Bob from the Associated Press. We discussed how we would photograph the concert. Our plan was to be the first news photographers to transmit images of the event. This way, every Sunday newspaper in the country would have our photos. We didn’t know if the UPI (United Press International), Newsweek, or television stations were covering the event (it turned out that they weren’t).
Beth and Bob went in his car, and I drove my motorcycle along on the Patterson Pass Road to the Altamont hills. Traffic had come to a halt by ten o’clock that morning. People had parked and abandoned their cars in the middle of the road. They joined hundreds of others walking toward the racetrack. I soon parked my motorcycle and joined the crowd.

Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

Altamont Photographer Bill Owens (Copyright 1969)

When I arrived at the racetrack, the stage and sound towers had been set up. I climbed up on the tower to the left of the stage and could see a couple thousand people seated on the hillside waiting for the concert to start. It was the perfect position from which to photograph everything that was going to happen that day. I had two Nikons, three lenses, thirteen rolls of film, a sandwich, and a jar of water.

Around noon, the first band, the Jefferson Airplane, began to set up. The crowd had grown to thousands of people pushing against the stage. When people tried to climb up onto the stage, the Angels would shove them back into the crowd. People were getting injured in the melee. The band and the Hells Angels began to argue over how to do crowd control.

A fat Mexican guy took off all his clothes and tried unsuccessfully to climb up on the stage. Two Hells Angels with pool cues jumped off the stage and beat him to the ground.

The concert had turned into a disaster, but somehow the band began to play. Soon an Angel type with a pipe wrench climbed my tower and told me to get down or he would break open my “#$%^*&@” skull. What went through my mind was that he had seen me taking photographs of the Angels and wanted to destroy my cameras and film. I flashed my press card. He didn’t care and threatened to throw me off the tower.

I packed my cameras and slowly climbed down from the tower. I was finished shooting, as I was out of film. In four hours I had shot thirteen rolls of black and white film and a couple rolls of color. I now wanted to get back to my darkroom and process my film for the AP. It took over an hour to walk through the crowd (later estimated to have been 300,000 people) and find my motorcycle. Back at the newspaper office, Bob was already in the darkroom and had transmitted his images of the concert (Beth would stay to the end of the concert that night and photograph a Hells Angel murdering a guy on the stage! This was filmed by the Maysles brothers and later turned into a documentary).

As I processed my film, I told Bob about the Angels and the chaos going on at the concert. At first I couldn’t find the images of the Angels beating the fat guy with pool cues. When I found those images, Bob looked at the film and said the negatives were too thin and would make photographs that were too dark for newspaper reproduction. I went home to be with Janet and our new baby.

The next day, I was able to print the images using a No. 5 paper that could handle the contrast. I made good, solid images of the violence at the Altamont concert and sold them to Rolling Stone and numerous national magazines. I was afraid to use my own name in the photo credits, as I feared the Angels would come and murder me. Beth’s photographs did show the man who did the murder, and he was later arrested and sent to prison.

Unfortunately, Beth and I loaned our film to a young couple producing a book on the concert. Their house was robbed, and all was lost except for a couple rolls of color film.

BILL OWENS
Photographer, Brewer, Distiller & Raconteur
A photographer known for his 1972 classic Suburbia, Bill is now making digital movies and has a few more books up his sleeve. He is a father, a brewer, a gardener, and founder of the American Distilling Institute.  Favorite toy: My Daisy BB gun. Other interests: I wrote How to Build a Small Brewery,  and then I founded three pub breweries. My best-known beer was Pumpkin Ale. I published American Brewer Magazine for 17 years. Collections: Wheelbarrows, Radio Flyer wagons, whirligigs, and antique lawn sprinklers. I also own a 12-pound cannon ball from the Civil War. I collect folk art, mostly carved wooden animals. My favorite is an owl by Felipe Archaleta. I’m in the process of buying back my childhood.

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