jagger_foam_400Forty 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
Midnight Rambler
Gimmie Shelter
Live With Me
Little Queenie
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:


Charles Walston

Charles Walston

A veteran of Florida and Georgia journalism and a renowned roadhouse musician, Charles Walston is now a speechwriter in Washington.

  1. Saw the Rolling Stones in 1974 in Knoxville, TN and it remains to this day the seminal concert of this old rocker’s lifetime of concerts. There have been a lot of great ones along the way, but there was musical magic that night. The play list was very similar to the one listed above. Get Your Ya-Yas Out ranks among the top two or three live albums ever, even after all these years.

  2. Thanks for that revealing flashback. I deeply regret that I didn’t catch the Stones until 20 years later during the Steel Wheels Tour of ’89. Everything in our worlds had changed by then. Everything except the Stones’ live shows, which remain defining, even life-altering events no matter where they fit in the time capsule. Steel Wheels was a commercial deal, indeed. And how surreal to watch Mick & Co. rocking out on the hallowed college football turf of Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. A rock ‘n’ roll memory for a lifetime. Just like yours. Just like all of ’em.

  3. An unsentimental view, yet you convey the magic well. You have a natural ear for the melody of language.

  4. The festival was very unique, the Stone didn’t tour with the troupe that was was touring doing Woodstock, Texas Pop, Miami Pop 2, Atlanta ETC. Jimi Hendrix was at most of those events . He didn’t make Palm Beach because of his drug arrest in Canada. Therefore who to headline Like Jimi? Hmm, The Stones, they were paid $100,000 and were not booked until the last minute (2 Weeks before) . It was indead the most important period of The Stones Evolution, Brian Jones had just died Mick Taylor changed there sound , well the rest is history. Yes the festival was great and it really had the best of The Rock Bands at that time, not much Folk Music like Woodstock. It was hard work to play this gig it was in the Everglades basically, with mud and limited access. The bands remember this one!!

  5. Charles Walston

    A couple of things I want to clarify.
    1. The picture is not from this show. Even Jagger couldn’t work without a shirt that night. See pictures from this show at the link provided.
    2. The source of the information that Nixon was best man at the sheriff’s wedding now tells me it was actually Claude Kirk’s wedding. Same difference as far as I’m concerned. Birds of a feather flock together.

  6. I feel incredibly lucky to have gone to three Stones concerts in my lifetime and a couple by the Dead. It helps to have those nights in memory as one gets older and body parts complain and one approaches the Medicare years. Coming of age in the 60s – early 70s was a gas gas gas.

  7. Tom Baxter

    Those kids burning tires to stay warm, a week before Altamont, and the sheriff who took his wife on porn raids… and the sick thing is, we call those the good old days.

  8. And yet, and yet. Why was it that when Bob Deans covered a Stones concert (was it in Tokyo or before he left Atlanta?), the editor excised his reference to the boys as “without close second the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world”?

  9. I’m a Floridian that was on the run (still am) from the swamp & its contents during the time of the pot festivals. I happened to be tripping at a pot festival somewhere in the middle of heavily forested area in Louisiana when they were saying things from the stage like “We got some people here you haven’t heard of but, we think they’re pretty far-out. ….some guys called Santana, and It’s a Beautiful Day…have a good weekend.” I think the Who was there……maybe that was the woods in Georgia. Who knows?
    It was all wonderful. Hey, Baxter, those Were the Good old Days!!
    You hit the nail on the head about the cold and the crazy law in FL., Walston.

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