Forty years ago I woke up in the mud at a Rolling Stones concert.
It was in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Dec. 1, 1969, on the final day of the West Palm Beach Pop Festival. Rain had fallen for three days straight and temperatures dropped into the 40s, which is nut-numbing cold by Florida standards. The site was a dragstrip halfway out to Lake Okeechobee, and kids were burning old tires to keep warm, hoping that the thick black smoke wasn’t as toxic as it looked. The usual arsenal of south Florida remedies proved useless against the bitter elements, and by the time the Stones came on around 4 a.m., most of the 40 thousand people had given up and gone home.
Unless they were in jail. The Sheriff of Palm Beach County, William Heidtman, was a notorious thug known for bashing the heads of striking sugarcane cutters and dragging his young wife along on porn shop raids. Richard Nixon was the best man at his wedding. Heidtman wasn’t about to let a bunch of hippies converge on his county without arresting as many as he could.
He converted three school buses into paddy wagons for the occasion, and the National Guard was standing by in case the hippies turned violent. Out at the dragstrip, rumors swirled that the evil bastard had laced the campground area with fire ants and turned gators loose in the canals where hippies might skinny dip.
On the first day of the festival, the sheriff dropped in via helicopter accompanied by Claude Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. Kirk wandered through the crowd personally pointing out victims for the vicious narcs who trailed in his fetid wake like a pack of carrion-crazed hyenas.
According to news reports there were about 50 drug police at the festival, and they made at least 150 arrests. “It’s easy to bust them because they’re so non-violent,” one cop told the St. Petersburg Times.
This was just a few months after Woodstock, and the press in Florida didn’t miss the chance to give readers a glimpse into the bizarre hippie counterculture. An AP reporter observed: A long haired youth of about 19 had a Marine’s tunic and an American flag as a cape. He and his friends passed around a “joint” as the “Birds” played excellent country rock.
Also on the bill were Jefferson Airplane, King Crimson, The Chambers Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, Steppenwolf and the rancid Grand Funk Railroad. I don’t remember any of it, and I especially wish I could recall seeing Janis Jopin and Johnny Winter, two Texas freaks, jam together.
But the main event, of course, was the Rolling Stones. They hadn’t toured since the death of Brian Jones, and fans were eager to see the new lineup with Mick Taylor on guitar. They had finished making “Let It Bleed” before the tour began, and they rolled into Florida straight from a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden where they recorded “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.” Lester Bangs wrote, “I have no doubt that it’s the best rock concert ever put on record,” and Lester didn’t lie.
I do remember that the Stones kicked ass. And thanks to the Internet I can even give you the set list:
Jumping Jack Flash
Sympathy For The Devil
Stray Cat Blues
Love In Vain
Under My Thumb
Live With Me
Honky Tonk Woman
Street Fighting Man
After that my friends and I headed home. We missed the sermon by Arthur Blessit, who usually preached to hippies on the Sunset Strip. A week later the Stones played a free concert at Altamont racetrack in California. You might have heard about that.
This is the part of the story where a deep thinker would draw some kind of conclusion about the death of innocence, the end of an era, etc. But after living through assassinations, riots and the escalation of the war in Vietnam, nobody was innocent anymore. Sheriff Heidtman wasn’t the first vigilante lawman in south Florida, nor the last. And rock festivals didn’t go away – they just became more commercial.
So what did it all mean?
Only that the Rolling Stones were and always will be the greatest rock and roll band in the world. Even in the freezing mud.
Audio file of the Stones’ set (it’s pretty rough):
Pictures from the festival: