On Altamont: Chip Monck’s Altamont Mea Culpa

Altamont Aftermath
Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor
– Altamont Aftermath

Edward Herbert Beresford “Chip” Monck was the lighting director/production designer at the Fillmore East, Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock (where he doubled as the affable stage announcer warning the crowd that the “brown acid is not specifically too good,” when Jo Bergman, part of the Stones camp, saw his work at L.A.’s Greek Theater during a Joni Mitchell/CSN&Y show that August, and immediately recommended him to Mick Jagger, who was filming “Ned Kelly” at the time in Australia. 
Monck proceeded to provide lighting for the Stones’ ’69 U.S. tour, which included the climactic disaster at Altamont, which happened 50 years ago today.
The craftsman lost four teeth to a Hells Angel pool cue when he tried to retrieve the group’s purple stage rug from the motorcycle gang’s pick-up truck. Monck reflected on that day in a Q&A with Pollstar.
Pollstar: You met with Mick Jagger in Laurel Canyon to go over your production plans.
Chip Monck: The papers flew all over the swimming pool and Mick just said, “Oh fuck it. Just do it.” He tends to glaze over and get disinterested.  It’s difficult. In the first sentence you’ve got to figure out which of his seven personalities you’re talking to.

At what point did you have a feeling Altamont was a disaster?
The idea of a free concert was a [Dead manager} Rock Scully-Keith Richards wet dream, It never was together, so it just continued to fall apart.  The stage was my responsibility and it failed. The original Filmways set at Sears Point Raceway was on top of a hill, so the audience pressure would go back against themselves. When you turn that around, like at Altamont, and have the stage at the bottom of a hill – even though the incline was only about six degrees – you get more pressure than you intended.  The mass was just horrific.

You were too busy with the job to take note of what was going on around you?
I was surely in my own envelope.  The scope of work was such that it had to be done, which I did to a degree.  Unfortunately, if we had known the union operators (for the Super Trooper follow spots) wouldn’t show up, we could’ve used the scaffolding for the spot towers to raise the stage. If we had done that, though, people might have gotten crushed.  If we did have those spots, though, the acts wouldn’t have been blinded, unable to see the stuff which was getting thrown at them. The backlighting reflecting off the crowd’s faces provided enough exposure for the Maysles to shoot the film. 
Joel Selvin’s book says that you were introduced to Jon Jaymes by “Cousin Brucie” Morrow, the famous New York radio disc jockey.
I don’t remember that introduction.  I only knew him when he showed up.  He was just always about. He would ooze into a situation and try to take control by adding his presence and puffing up his visibility.  You often found, when you needed something from someone like that, it was unavailable.
What was your take on Sam Cutler?
Not a great deal. I had a U.K. father, so I was quite well steeped in the manner of rule Britannia.  He was very interested in his stature. He was not production-oriented … We were dealing with the nuts and bolts of putting on a concert. I learned from my mistakes, and you just try not to make the same ones twice. The production crew is just a support mechanism. We provide three fingers under your elbow when you cross the street.  There are no fences or guidelines. You go with the flow while trying to make people as comfortable as possible.
How come you never took the stage at Altamont as you had at Woodstock to calm the crowd?
I was a little too busy trying to keep the equipment in one place as it moved out of my view. 
You famously got beat up by Hells Angels when you tried to get the Stones’ purple stage rug off one of their trucks.
That was unsuccessful  Instead of going to a dentist, I left my wife Barbara in the trailer and went to a liquor wholesaler, and sent a bottle of champagne to Sonny [Barger, head of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels], asking politely if I could have the production property back so I didn’t have to pay for it. 
Do you blame Hells Angels for what happened?
They were put in a very difficult position because they had no instruction. The Dead camp – Scully, Emmett Grogan and Sam Cutler – just assigned the stage to them, giving them a bushel basket full of assorted pills and a truckload of beer.  But if you don’t tell people what they’re supposed to be doing, things happen to go astray.

How about the Stones’ responsibility for the situation?
It wasn’t Mick Jagger’s fault.  The group does what they do, they perform well. They don’t clean up after themselves.  They just walk away. But I don’t know many acts that are concerned about their public, or the simple rules of engagement.

What was the difference between Woodstock and Altamont?
After I had my initiation with the crowd at Woodstock, I learned how to keep them away from the stage by just asking them to back up. They were so fluid that they accepted that direction.  I was subject to their needs. They told me what they wanted. 
At Altamont, it was an entirely different grouping.  It was so unpoliced, even in a courteous manner, that it followed its own path. I don’t know how that was drawn, or why it existed.  I have no idea.  The thing that was somewhat pleasing, after it was all over, that illness of Altamont stayed there. It seemed to become a part of the property; it didn’t escape into concert presentation or assembly again.  A permanent cloud seems to cover that spot. 

What was your takeaway from being involved with Altamont?
I grew up. It’s not all music, love and flowers; it wasn’t as much fun as it was in 1967 with Lou Adler and John Phillips at Monterey. Where everything was precision, with Al Kooper as my stage manager. I have had a great deal of enjoyment in what I do, except every now and then, the clouds come over and it rains. Or hails.
I’ve copped to the fact that I’m really quite responsible for putting people in an unworkable situation.  Another two feet of elevation for the stage would have taken care of the problems. Back then, there wasn’t a concert lighting system, so there wasn’t anybody around to do something. We had 48 hours from leaving Sears Point to build Altamont. We should’ve realized there wasn’t enough time to do it correctly. That snowball had already gotten too big to control.  I placed the stage; I had no idea there would be such uncontrolled pressure.  There wasn’t anything logically or realistically I could do without the proper equipment.  
My hands weren’t tied; they just weren’t big enough. It was my own inability to circumvent the problem. I didn’t have enough clout to putt it out of the shit, and that saddens and distresses me.  It was a long time ago, and there’s nothing you can do about it now.  It was just a very ill-planned situation … with little stars who thought they were more important than the unit that we hoped would stick together. It is what it is… you can’t get away from the fact that it was a distinct and utter failure.  After that, though, the Stones ’70 Euro tour was fucking blissful. We all grew up from the extreme disappointment of Altamont. It took the band out of the garage.