The Concert That Almost Ended the Rolling Stones
On Dec. 6, 1969, the Altamont Free Concert put a cap on the sixties, literally and figuratively. The Northern California music festival was to be the West Coast equivalent of Woodstock in spirit and size.
While it was about 300,000 strong, its spirit was dashed by the deaths of four people. Meredith Hunter’s murder was the most well-known, and the top-billed band, the Rolling Stones, suffered its effects for the following decade.
Over 50 years later, Altamont remains a cautionary tale and is one of the most controversial concerts of all time.
A West Coast Woodstock
After the success of Woodstock, the Jefferson Airplane’s Spencer Dryden and Jorma Kaukonen talked about staging a free concert of equal magnitude somewhere in the Bay Area.
Golden Gate Park was the target venue, and both men wanted the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones on the bill.
"Next to the Beatles, they were the biggest rock and roll band in the world, and we wanted them to experience what we were experiencing in San Francisco," Dryden said.
Scrambling to Find a Venue
Just a few weeks into planning, Golden Gate Park was no longer on the table. Sears Point Raceway was the next option, but its owners wanted too much money upfront.
The day before the event, Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, was offered to event organizers as a venue.
"There was no way to control it," Paul Kantner, from Jefferson Airplane, said. "No supervision or order."
Hundreds of Thousands of Music Fans Gathered for the Show
With such little time to pull things together, there were none of the necessities needed for such a large festival, including medical tents and portable toilets.
Because of the sudden move from Sears Point to Altamont, there was no time to redesign a stage. The bands would be only about 40 inches above the audience, which would contribute to problems later on.
Altamont Speedway Had Logistical Problems
"Another two feet of elevation for the stage would have taken care of the problems," Chip Monck, the lighting designer, explained. "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."
The Security Issue
The Hells Angels were hired as security on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead.
That decision would later prove to be disastrous.
Too Many People, Not Enough Direction
According to Monck, "The Dead camp — [manager Rock] 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."
Accounts Differ on the Angels Hiring
Both the Dead and the Angels said that was not entirely true.
"The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators, but that was the extent of it," said Sam Cutler, the Grateful Dead/Rolling Stones tour manager. "But there was no way 'they're going to be the police force' or anything like that."
Sonny Barger, the president of the Hells Angels, explained it like this:
"I ain't no cop, I ain't never going to ever pretend to be no cop. I didn't go there to police nothing, man. They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over. And that's what I went there to do."
The Stones' Hyde Park Experience
The Stones had a different view of the Hells Angels than what they would experience at Altamont. They hired them in the United Kingdom for a free show in London’s Hyde Park. The English bikers didn’t cause any problems, but the California contingent was a much different animal.
"Hells Angels don’t do security" singer-songwriter-guitarist David Crosby said. "Hells Angels fight. They like to fight. It’s part of their M.O. They fight all the time. They’re good at it, okay? If you don’t want the tiger to eat your lunch guests, don’t invite the f---ing tiger to the lunch.”
Santana Opens the Show
Santana opened Altamont and performed mostly without a hitch. However, things quickly deteriorated. During "Soul Sacrifice," a scuffle broke out in front of the stage, and the band stopped playing.
"A guy takes off all of his clothes and tries to climb up onstage. ... He was using his dancing as an excuse to stomp people, and the Angels then came in and started beating him up with pool cues," said Bill Owens, a photographer.
A Jefferson Airplane Member Is Assaulted
When Jefferson Airplane hit the stage, things took another turn for the worse. The crowd toppled one of the Angels' motorcycles, which caused the Angels to assault everyone in their path, including performers. Airplane singer Marty Balin tried to intervene, but was knocked unconscious.
"I couldn’t see anything," artist Grace Slick said. "I saw bodies moving vaguely over on my left, which is where Marty was, and I went back to the drums and said to Spencer [Dryden], 'What the hell is going on?' And he said, 'The Angels are kind of beating up Marty.'"
Regardless of the Violence, the Show Continues
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young took the stage after the skirmishes around Jefferson Airplane. Singer Stephen Stills was stabbed in the leg repeatedly by an Angel during the band's set.
"I don’t leave if I’ve said I’m going to play a gig," David Crosby said.
The Grateful Dead’s Fateful Decision
The Dead were up next, but decided to leave as a result of the violence. They did not play a note.
"Grateful Dead music cannot happen in a situation like that," drummer Mickey Hart said. "We couldn't have brought our spirits to bear to be able to do Grateful Dead music justice, and we just said, 'This isn't a place for us.'"
A Two-Hour Gap
The Dead’s exit gave nearly two hours of downtime for the audience. This decision made both more agitated.
"[It was] one of the great acts of moral cowardice in the history of the music business," Cutler said. "They [the Grateful Dead] didn’t trust their own music. Whether they could have done anything to rescue the event by playing is a moot point, but they didn’t."
The Rolling Stones Arrive Late
When the Stones got to the venue, they were unaware of the atmosphere, and the violence that had already occurred. Mick Jagger was almost immediately punched in the face upon arrival.
"I hate you," said the concertgoer who punched Jagger.
The Rolling Stones Take the Stage
By the Stones' third song, "Sympathy for the Devil," Jagger saw just how tense the situation is and stopped the song. He implored the crowd and the Angels to remain calm.
"Hey, people. Sisters. Brothers and sisters. Brothers and sisters. Come on, now," Jagger said. "That means everybody just cool out. Will you cool out, everybody. I know. Everybody, be cool now. Come on. Alright? How are we doing over there? Alright? Can we still make it down the front? Is there anyone there that's hurt, huh? Everyone alright? OK? Alright. I think we are cool. We can go. We always havin' something very funny happens when we start that number."
The Situation Only Gets Worse
Despite how dire everything had become, the band stayed on stage in an effort to keep the peace and launched into "Under My Thumb."
"It could have gotten a lot worse, man [if we left.] That could have been a really big disaster," Stones guitarist Keith Richards said. "Who knows what else would have happened?"
Some Audience Members Want to Leave
Two concertgoers in the audience were Meredith Hunter, 18, and his girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, 17. They were excited for the free show, but were ready to leave by late afternoon.
Bredehoft later admitted she felt as if they were a target as a mixed-race couple (Hunter was Black). She headed back to the car, but Meredith convinced her to stay and see the Stones.
"I didn’t really want to go back again, but he persuaded me," Bredehoft said. "I didn’t know he had a gun. But when he came to get me and take me back, he went into the trunk and got it out. I think I said, 'What do you need that for?' He said, 'Just for protection.'"
Meredith Hunter Gets Too Close
When Meredith and Patty returned to the area, he tried to get on stage with a few other audience members. He was punched by an Angel and chased back through the crowd. His girlfriend begged him to move further away, but he became irrationally angry at the altercation.
"I saw what [Hunter] was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent," Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully said. "There was no doubt in my mind that he intended to do terrible harm to Mick or somebody in the Rolling Stones, or somebody on that stage."
Meredith Hunter Pulls Out His Gun
He aimed toward the stage. The Stones kept playing, unaware of what’s about to happen.
"You couldn't see anything," Mick Jagger said. "It was just another scuffle."
Meredith Hunter Is Murdered
The Angels saw the gun and descended on Meredith Hunter.
"He [Meredith] tried to scramble, you know, through the crowd, to run from the Hells Angel, and four other Hells Angels jumped on him," a concertgoer said. "They started mugging him and he was running straight into the crowd, you know, pushing people away, you know, to run from the Hells Angels. ... One Hell’s Angel pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the back."
His Girlfriend Remembers the Moment Differently
"I remember him getting punches," said Patti Bredehoft, Hunter's girlfriend. "That’s when he turned and that’s when he pulled the gun out. But he wasn’t pointing it at the stage or Mick Jagger. He was pointing it at some Hells Angels that were coming after him."
Mickey Hart Believes the Angels May Have Saved Mick Jagger’s Life
While various witnesses saw the Angels taunt Meredith Hunter throughout the day, Mickey Hart believed some good may have come out of the incident.
“He was headed right toward Mick with his gun pointed," Hart explained. "What [Angel Alan Passaro] did was really heroic in some ways, running toward somebody with a gun and confronting them."
Documentarians Unknowingly Capture the Moment on Film
Albert and David Maysles were brothers who were shooting the Stones tour of 1969-70 for a documentary. They did not release that they captured Meredith’s death on film.
Even after he had been stabbed, the Angels kept up their assault on him. He had been beaten and kicked, stabbed several more times, and someone slammed a trash can lid against his head.
"I remember screaming and trying to go to him and people pulling me back, trying to protect me, more or less," Bredehoft said. "And then I remember this one Hells Angel turning around and grabbing me and telling me, 'Why are you crying over him? He’s not worth it.'"
Taking the Blame
After the show, many of the parties deflected responsibility for what happened.
"The simple truth is that the Stones were in charge of the concert, with Mick Jagger making the calls behind the scenes," Joel Selvin wrote in "Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day."
Sonny Barger offered the justification for the Angels' actions.
"When they started messing over our bikes, they started it," Barger said. "Ain't nobody gonna kick my motorcycle. When you're standing there, looking at something that's your life ... and you love that thing better than you love anything in the world ... you know who that guy is. You're gonna get him. [And] when they jumped on an Angel, they got hurt."
The End of An Era
Whereas Woodstock was the pinnacle of the hippie era, Altamont truly marks its end and the end of the youth culture of the late 1960s.
"Altamont became, whether fairly or not, a symbol for the death of the Woodstock Nation," music critic Robert Christgau explained. "Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended."
Mick Jagger Was on a Hit List for the Next Decade
The Angels were angry about what had happened at Altamont for well over a decade, and it's alleged they attempted to murder lead Stone Mick Jagger.
"Jagger did not want to pay the [Angels] legal fees, they were $50,000, which was pocket change probably even back then," George Christie, a former Hells Angel, said. "He was just being stubborn. ... He actually sent a professional security guy down to 3rd street in New York, the famous Hells Angels clubhouse in New York. And he lifted his shirt like an idiot, the butt of his gun was showing. The guys took his gun, hit him over the head with it and sent him down the street."
Eventually, the Angels sent out a team to blow up Jagger’s yacht, but they were foiled by a storm, and their boat capsized.
Angel Alan Passaro claimed he acted in self-defense and was acquitted for the murder of Meredith Hunter.
"How do I put it?" Dixie Ward, Meredith Hunter’s sister, reflected. "Black people have been in these situations a lot of times. And we don’t expect for people to have helped a black person. I don’t need Meredith to be remembered by anybody but me and my family. I carry him. And I don’t need a crowd to carry him with me."