When the Rolling Stones played and partied in north Palm Beach County


Dressed in a glammy cape, long red scarf and Uncle Sam hat, Mick Jagger surveyed the concert crowd. This couldn’t be what he was expecting. Two days before, he had been fronting a packed show at Madison Square Garden.

Now, only a few thousand people were standing around this rural Palm Beach County race track. It was 4 in the morning. Pitch black. And really cold — temperatures dipping into the low 40s.

Booked as the final act of a weekend festival that was supposed to be South Florida’s version of Woodstock, The Rolling Stones had showed up more than 10 hours late. Fans who stayed got edgy. They were burning trees, fences, bleachers — anything to keep warm.

RELATED PHOTOS: Mud, music and hippies at Palm Beach County rock festival

Jagger, his breath visible in the night air, dropped his usual stage demeanor, and offered some sympathy from the devil.

“I really think you’re a gas for coming and staying all night and really sticking it out because it matters and you know it matters because you’re here,” Jagger rambled on, way past midnight. “I wish I was down there with ya, ‘cause I bet it’s warmer.”

His cohort Keith Richards, true to his piratical nature, stripped down to a thin shirt and soldiered on. But the weather wreaked havoc on the “world’s greatest rock and roll band.” Guitars kept going out of tune. Strings busted. An amp blew.

Jagger didn’t even know where he was.

“Are you having a good time in Miami?” he asked.

“We’re in West Palm Beach, man!” came a voice from the crowd.

It sounded like Jagger just wanted it to end.

“I wish the sun would come out,” he moaned. “Where’s the sun?”

***

The sun never really came out on the Palm Beach International Music and Arts Festival that Thanksgiving weekend in 1969. With headliners Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Sly Stone, The Byrds, King Crimson, Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly and more, it was supposed to be a musical celebration of youth at the Palm Beach International Speedway on Beeline Highway across from Pratt & Whitney.

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But everything that could go wrong did. Rain. Mud. Overdoses. Traffic jams. Undercover narcs. Fake tickets. The race track owner-promoter lost his investment. A 17-year-old was hit and killed by a truck outside the festival grounds.

For most of the weekend, the music was glorious. An amazing lineup, the apex of what is now considered rock’s golden era. Even Wavy Gravy was there, dressed in his Merry Pranksters finery, just like at Woodstock.

But the scene was also a microcosm of the county’s — and country’s — widening generational clash.

The county zoning board, along with the so-called “Palm Beach Committee For Decency,” tried to deny the festival a permit, and were overruled by a circuit court judge. Religious leaders supported the kids, while others predicted catastrophe.

Into this divide strode The Man — county Sheriff William Heidtman. He played the Establishment role so well that false rumors circulated for years about him secretly unleashing red ants and alligators on unsuspecting festivalgoers. He was certainly convinced that 40,000 long-haired degenerates were going to descend into an uncontrollable orgy of wanton sex and illegal drugs.

Heidtman was such a hardcase that Janis Joplin, 10 months from her own drug death, got on stage with a bottle of Southern Comfort and railed at the security tactics. “These cats are lonely,” Joplin said of the police. “We only want love.”

For the Stones, Nov. 30, 1969 was supposed to be the last date of a successful tour in a rollercoaster year. The band’s co-founder, Brian Jones, had drowned in July. Teenage guitar phenom Mick Taylor replaced him, and they took off on a barnstorming tour across America. Writers, photographers and a documentary crew followed their 16-person entourage, the last time anything associated with a Stones tour could be described as small.

Just before arriving, the band had taped the concerts that would become the live “Get Your Ya-Yas Out” album. Four days after they played here, they released one of their greatest recordings, “Let It Bleed.” A prophetic title, since they decided to add one more concert date, a freebie at another race track in northern California. It was held five days after the band departed Palm Beach County.

And when it was over, the Rolling Stones — and the 1960s — would never be the same again.

****

“It was the last really good concert.”

That’s Lake Worth photographer Ken Davidoff remembering the Palm Beach rock festival. Or maybe he’s talking about the end of an era, a time when a kid with a camera could edge close to his rock idols, and sometimes share their confidences.

Davidoff and his father Bob were happy to score the gig. His dad’s backstage image of Jagger is on the cover of Stones tour manager Sam Cutler’s memoir, one of four books written about the Palm Beach County show and 1969 tour, which critics have described as “mythical” and “rock and roll legend.”

Despite the hassles of setting it up, despite torrential rains and mud, despite cops posing as hippies to nab drug users and the specter of Heidtman stationing 150 police at Pratt & Whitney, the festival had been magical, Davidoff recalled.

“I got the sense of belonging to a certain group of people who thought like me,” he said.

But by the time Jefferson Airplane had finished its set on Sunday night, fatigue was setting in. The Stones were supposed to be the sunset closer. As the hours passed, tens of thousands who had thronged to the race track began to split.

The young photographer persevered, standing around an 80-gallon backstage fire drum to keep warm. “I was very much aware that this was history,” said Davidoff, who had also shot iconic images of Jimi Hendrix at the Miami Pop Festival the year before.

What took the Stones so long?

Depending which book you read, they were delayed leaving New York because of engine trouble, winter weather or the arrival of President Nixon’s Air Force One. At one point, according to Michael Lydon’s account, “The Rolling Stones Discover America,” they thought about canceling the $100,000 payday.

“We could send a helicopter down there with the money and drop it on the crowd,” Jagger mused.

They finally got into West Palm Beach at 1 a.m., where they immediately went to festival headquarters at the former Colonnades Beach Hotel in Palm Beach Shores, owned by billionaire north county developer John D. MacArthur.

In Stanley Booth’s hallucinogenic memoir of the tour, “The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones,” he described their entrance:

“We slogged through soft sand, crossed a lawn, climbed a spiral staircase and entered the swank Colonnades’ swankest suite, the Bob Hope… It was as tasteful as anything Las Vegas had to offer, and its mirrors had never reflected anything like the group coming in with the Rolling Stones.”

They met promoter Dave Rupp, and his teacher wife Sheila, who had reportedly lost at least $250,000-$500,000 on the rain-plagued event.

Lydon wrote that the county’s “tract-home, Bermuda shorts conservatives” were targeting Rupp. His auto business in Lake Worth was set ablaze before the festival began. The Rupps were called “trash” by neighbors and Booth reported that the John Birch Society threatened Rupp’s family.

The reporters seemed to admire Rupp backing “the kids” over “the fuzz.” But once the Stones entourage helicoptered onto the festival site, “a funky little redneck drag strip” as Lydon called it, they couldn’t believe what they saw.

Photographer Ethan Russell described it in “Let It Bleed,” his coffee-table-sized tour memoir: “The entire scene looked like an outtake from the war in Vietnam.”

Booth: “The place had the desperate atmosphere of a refugee camp.”

***

How bad was the show?

A YouTube audio of the 13-song concert exists, a poor recording in which Charlie Watts’ drums and Bill Wyman’s bass are barely heard. As Richards said to Booth afterwards, the cold weather made tuning impossible. But through it all, you can’t miss the muscle of Richards’ and Taylor’s guitars. Jagger’s voice is supple, though his politically incorrect shout-outs to sex, gays (he used a more derogatory term) and junkies, has dated badly.

“I thought they sounded OK,” Davidoff remembered. “It wasn’t spectacular, for sure. There wasn’t a lot of crowd reaction. It was pretty subdued.”

Richards, in a 2015 interview with ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine, said the crowd was the best part of the show. “They were great,” he said. “Such a sight...Everyone was frozen stiff. We got it on for a bit but everybody dug it. It was a gas.”

Others saw it differently. One attendee wrote online: “This was the only time I saw the Rolling Stones. They put on such a miserable performance that I never went to another of their concerts.”

Another said: “Thought that the Stones played a pretty weak set. But considering it was 4 am and freezing, it’s hard to fault them. Jefferson Airplane was a lot worse.”

After closing with “Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women” and what sounds like a crowd-rousing “Street Fighting Man,” Jagger tossed a basket of rose petals to whoever was left. And the festival was over.

But the adventure was just starting for the Stones.

Back at the Colonnades, the group walked out to Singer Island beach, where Russell took photos of Jagger propped against a lifeguard stand at sunrise. Richards smoked a joint. In their rooms, they banged on a piano, and Richards kept busy “inhaling heaping spoons of cocaine,” Booth wrote.

Later that morning, they sauntered past Joplin in the hotel lobby and headed to Butler Aviation at PBIA. When oil began dripping from their charter plane, a spooked Jagger and most of the Stones (except for Watts and a sleeping Richards) decided to wait another day. After being turned down at a couple of hotels, they found room at a Holiday Inn, where the manager threatened to rouse the National Guard and toss them out if “thousands of kids show up here,” Booth reported.

No riot broke out, and they left the next day. The Stones never performed in Palm Beach County again.

***

Over the years, the Palm Beach Post has tallied up numbers from the festival:

“130 drug overdoses, 14 eye injuries, 42 intestinal disorders, 1,700 headaches and minor cuts, 1,000 reported conversions to Christianity, 130 drug arrests.” The paper dutifully covered the fest’s business angle: Mescaline sold for $3 a tab. LSD for $3-$5. Marijuana: $15 an ounce.

Much of the paper’s writing, while trying to be with it, was clearly from an older, straitlaced perspective. “The world is an uncomfortable place to the hippie,” one dispatch began, as though the hippie was some alien species and not your next door neighbor’s kid.

Photo caption writers struggled to capture the new vibe: “The Music Throbs, The Hippies Go Wild; It Sends Man, It Really Rocks.”

There was a hilarious story about Gov. Claude Kirk checking out the festival and meeting a stoned kid named Ricky, their exchange resembling that classic “Dragnet” episode in which Sgt. Joe Friday braces a drugged-out groover at an LSD pad.

Kirk: “What’s your problem?”

Ricky: “I want to go home.”

Kirk: “Where’s your home, pal?”

Ricky: “It’s in…never mind.”

There is little sense of the music. The Post had one “under-30” reporter try to explain these new sounds, but she ended up saying she’d rather listen to Sinatra.

One reporter did walk into the Colonnades and chat with members of King Crimson. And Country Joe and the Fish came to The Post’s office to discuss coverage of the hippie scene. “If this were a convention, with wives and girlfriends and drunkenness and perversity, nobody would say anything,” argued lead singer Joe McDonald.

As for the Stones, the paper didn’t write a word about their performance, just running two photos of Jagger on an inside page days later.

Over the years, Palm Beach County’s role in the Stones’ most historic tour was forgotten for understandable reasons. It’s because of what happened five days later at that other speedway festival concert. The free one added in California for the fans, the one so infamous it’s simply known by its location: Altamont.

When it was over, four people were dead. The Stones and their management would be accused of reckless indifference, especially in hiring Hell’s Angels goons as security. The band wouldn’t tour the States again for years.

For many, Altamont marked the end of the ’60s dream.

But it was foreshadowed in Palm Beach County, way out west on the Beeline Highway, when a festival that Richards described as not “much better than Altamont” ended on a dark, cold night where everything — not just the guitars — was badly out of tune.



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