Altamont Concert: 1960s End with Bloodshed and Murder
It is not easy to say when a historical era actually ended. For many people, however, the counterculture of the 1960s came crashing to a stop when the decade ended with the disastrous and tragic free rock concert held at California’s Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969. Hoping to recreate the “peace and love” atmosphere of the famous Woodstock music festival that had occurred four months earlier in New York, promoters were billing the December concert as “Woodstock West.” However, the Altamont concert began in confusion, became increasingly ugly as the day wore on, and climaxed at nightfall when the outlaw motorcycle gang the Hells Angels killed a young man near the stage while the headliners the Rolling Stones performed.
Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones were the driving force behind the Altamont concert. They were concluding a very successful U.S. tour, and Jagger said they wanted to organize a free concert as a “Christmas and Hanukkah gift to American youth.” When it was all over, a dazed Jagger lamented: “It was supposed to be lovely, not uptight. What happened? What went wrong?”
The first thing that went wrong was finding a venue for the concert. It was planned for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, but when that fell through it was switched to the Sears Point Raceway. Then after more problems the venue was suddenly switched to Altamont Speedway on December 4, just two days before the event. There was absolutely no time to properly prepare the venue with enough portable toilets, water facilities, medical tents, etc.
Then, compounding the rushed and inadequate preparations that became part of the disaster, the Stones made the puzzling decision to “hire” the Hells Angels to be their security force at the concert. By all accounts, this security arrangement with the Hells Angels was a very loose affair. The motorcycle gang made it clear they were not cops and would never play the role of law enforcement. However, when the Stones offered them $500 worth of beer just to sit on the edge of the stage and party all through the concert, simply making sure no one pushed past them to rush the performers, the Angels heartily agreed.
With a staggering line-up of talent, no one doubted a huge crowd would show up for the free show (the performers, in order of appearance, were: Santana; Jefferson Airplane; Flying Burrito Brothers; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Grateful Dead; with the Rolling Stones the final, climactic act). Sure enough, throngs flocked to Altamont, beginning to arrive on Friday, December 5. Over 300,000 rock music fans came, creating a gigantic traffic jam 20 miles long. People abandoned their cars and tromped through nearby ranchers’ fields, tearing up fences, scattering cattle, and doing tremendous damage.
The crowd was not gentle and cooperative, as it had been at Woodstock. Many concert goers later said there was a hostile feeling in the air, fueled by bad acid (LSD) and heavy amphetamine use. The Hells Angels got riotously drunk and many fights broke out. One Hells Angel smashed Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin in the head right on stage when Balin objected to the rough tactics the Angels were using on the crowd, knocking him unconscious. The Grateful Dead, scheduled to be the last act before the Rolling Stones, saw the anger, hostility and violence happening everywhere and refused to play, instead quitting the venue altogether.
Instead of stepping in to fill the Grateful Dead’s time slot, Jagger refused, insisting he would not take the stage until it got dark—as originally scheduled. With his wild makeup, costume and such frenzied songs as “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jagger wanted an edgy, demonic atmosphere for the Stones’ set. He got more than he bargained for.
The long pause waiting for the Stones only worsened the crowd and the Hells Angels’ mood, and more and more fights broke out. Finally it was dark enough to satisfy Jagger and the Stones took the stage. Just as they started their third song—“Sympathy for the Devil”—wild fights broke out. The Stones’ music stumbled to a halt, they pleaded with the crowd to “just be cool,” then after a long pause, nervously started playing again.
When they started their seventh song, “Under My Thumb,” a young man—Meredith Hunter, 18—rushed the stage, was punched in the head by the Hells Angels, and thrown back into the crowd. When Hunter returned and pulled out a gun, he was fatally stabbed by a Hells Angel—later identified as Alan Passaro. As Hunter lay dying on the ground several Hells Angels stomped on him with their heavy boots. The Stones could see a fracas going on but did not know someone had just been killed right in front of them. Fearing a riot, they went on to play eight more songs, ending their set and the violent concert with “Street Fighting Man.”
One of the most disturbing and unforgettable aspects of the Altamont concert is that the whole thing was being filmed for a documentary movie called Gimme Shelter, which was released in 1970. There are two horrifying seconds in that film where you can actually see Hunter being fatally stabbed. In fact, that footage was used by the police to identify and arrest Passaro as the killer—although he was acquitted at his 1971 trial because the jury could also see Hunter pulling out his gun in the film, and accepted Passaro’s contention that he was only acting in self defense.
Four people actually died at the Altamont concert: one murdered, one drowned, and two run over. Untold dozens were injured, some severely, and many overdosed on drugs. The crowd left behind a mountain of garbage and litter; out of the 300,000 who attended, only 12 volunteered to stick around the next day and try to clean the place up. The whole experience left everyone, crowd and performers alike, feeling sour, frazzled and distressed. As writer Todd Gitlin noted afterward, the Altamont concert was “the end of the Age of Aquarius.”
The following five newspaper articles are about the Altamont concert and its aftermath. The first reports on the concert itself and its fatalities. The next two discuss the nearby ranchers’ reaction. The fourth article reports on the police use of the film Gimme Shelter to identify Hunter’s killer. The final article is a retrospective, looking back on the concert on its twentieth anniversary in 1989.
This copyrighted article was published by the Seattle Times (Seattle, Washington) on Dec. 8, 1969:
4 Dead, 4 Born in Wake of Rock Fest
‘What Went Wrong?’
Tracy, Calif.—(AP)—“It was supposed to be lovely, not uptight. What happened? What went wrong?” asked a forlorn Mick Jagger, leader of the Rolling Stones, after the monster weekend rock festival in the hills east of here.
The free festival drew 300,000 young people and featured Jagger and the British rock group. Left behind today were a blanket of litter, four violent deaths, and four new babies.
It was Jagger who arranged the event as a “Christmas and Hanukkah gift to American youth.”
Instead, he noted sadly, the four died, many freaked out on drugs and Hells Angels “guards” roughed up spectators and musicians.
Jagger said an unidentified youth lunged at him Saturday as he stepped from his helicopter at the festival site.
“I hate you! I hate you!” the youth shouted. Three guards restrained the youth and took him away for medical treatment.
The babies who arrived at the festival were premature. They and their mothers were taken to medical-aid tents staffed by 19 doctors and six psychiatrists. The staff also treated the drug overdoses.
Authorities said the four men who died were:
• Meredith Hunter, 18, of Berkeley, Calif., stabbed in the back and face during a scuffle in front of the stage, where members of the Hells Angels motorcycle clan guarded the rock groups.
• An unidentified youth who toppled down a bank into a canal and drowned.
• Richard Salov, 22, of Elizabeth, N.J., and Mark Feiger, 22, of Union, N.J., who were run over by a car leaving the site of the festival Saturday night. The two were lying on the ground in a group bedding down around one of the many campfires.
Thousands of youngsters had swarmed into the area near the Altamont Speedway track on Friday, the night before the concert, and hundreds stayed over Saturday night rather than fight what highway patrolmen called one of the Bay Area’s most massive traffic jams.
There was much wine-drinking, pot-smoking and a few instances of open nudity, but police said most in the turnout were seeking to avoid trouble.
A volunteer crew of about 12 turned out yesterday to clean up the bottles, papers and other litter.
Proceeds from commercial films made at the festival were to be donated to a charity selected by the Rolling Stones, promoters said.
This copyrighted article was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Dec. 11, 1969:
Ranchers Threaten Lawsuits over Damage at Rock Concert
Livermore, Calif. (AP)—Angry ranchers say they plan lawsuits for half a million dollars for damages they claim to have suffered from the weekend Altamont rock music concert, where four youths died.
In addition, Alameda County Supervisors voted Tuesday to start proceedings to revoke the permit of Dick Carter, operator of the Altamont Speedway, who invited the Rolling Stones and other musicians to perform there.
More than 300,000 flocked to the 80-acre speedway Saturday after two other locations turned down the concert.
Traffic was backed up for 20 miles in all directions. Some youths abandoned their cars and walked up to 10 miles across rolling pasture land to get to the concert.
C.W. Tripp, spokesman for an indignant group of ranchers, said they had authorized an attorney to file suits totaling $500,000 against Carter, the California Northwest Capital Co. of Eureka, Calif.—owner of the speedway—and at least eight rock groups.
This copyrighted article was published by the Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas) on Dec. 13, 1969:
Ranchers Threaten Suit to Bar Rock Festivals
Livermore, Calif. (UPI)—Irate ranchers, their fences and rangeland trampled and their cattle straying, threatened to sue promoters of a rock music concert that attracted 300,000 young fans to a rural racetrack.
The concert Saturday, which turned into the biggest one-day musical bash of all time, left four dead, tons of debris spread over acres of rolling hills, scores of cars abandoned on backroads and 20 nearby ranch owners seething.
“When anybody can turn a mob of 300,000 loose on somebody, it’s time to sit up and take notice,” said Mrs. Joseph Jess, spokesman for the ranchers. “We have in excess of $15,000 damage.”
“They drove the cattle off our ranch. We have no fences left. We were forced to use armed guards to protect our property and homes. I had to take my four children away from here because there was so much danger.”
The cattlemen conferred with an attorney about a damage suit and promised legal and political action to block any future rock concerts at Altamont Speedway 50 miles southeast of San Francisco.
Sheriff’s deputies were investigating the activities of Hells Angels motorcyclists during the free concert given by the Rolling Stones and other rock groups.
The leather-jacketed motorcyclists were blamed for a stabbing death, dozens of beatings and roughing up of both rock musicians and fans.
Witnesses told detectives Meredith Hunter, 18, of Berkeley, was knifed fatally after pulling a revolver on a half dozen Hells Angels. They were unable to identify his assailants.
Three other young men died at the concert site. One drowned after sliding into an irrigation canal, and two men were killed by a hit-run driver while sitting around a campfire.
Also unhappy about the concert was Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, who sponsored the free show but expected to get their $100,000 investment back from film and television rights.
“If Jesus had been there, He would have been crucified,” Jagger said afterward. “It was supposed to be lovely here—not uptight. What happened? What’s gone wrong?”
This copyrighted article was published by the Oregonian (Portland, Oregon) on Jan. 19, 1970:
Detectives Have Photo of Rock Festival Killer
(L.A. Times-Washington Post Service)
Oakland, Calif.—Detectives have an identifiable picture of the Hells Angel who stabbed a youth to death at a rock festival near here, Alameda County Sheriff Frank Madigan has disclosed.
The sheriff believes that the killer is from Southern California.
Madigan said the photograph was obtained by a painstaking, frame-by-frame examination of a motion picture film shot at the Dec. 6 concert during performances by the Rolling Stones and other rock groups. He said he was optimistic about making an arrest soon.
The slaying, the death of another youth by drowning, the deaths of two others in auto mishaps and critical injury to still another young person—who jumped off an overpass to a highway 30 feet below—turned the festival into a tragedy and clouded the future of the popular rock gatherings.
The Hells Angels had been hired as a security force around the stage at Altamont, about 35 miles southeast of here. The motorcyclists said they received $500 worth of beer for their help.
Meredith Hunter, 18, of Berkeley, was stabbed six times by a man in a Hells Angels jacket.
The stabbing reportedly occurred at the edge of the stage after a dispute between Hunter and members of the Angels. Hunter was driven away, but returned later with a revolver. The stabbing occurred then.
Spectators in the crowd of more than 300,000 said Angels also used pool cues to assault others close to the stage.
Explaining the Angels’ ugly mood at the festival, Hells Angels president Ralph (Sonny) Barger Jr. of Oakland said later that it was because some people kicked the Angels’ motorcycles.
“There ain’t nobody going to kick my bike,” said Barger, who served several months in jail recently on an assault conviction.
“It’s my life and all I got…when you’re standin’ there lookin’ at somethin’ that’s your life…and you love that thing better than you love anything in the world and you see a guy kick it, you know who he is. And if you have to go through 50 people to get him, you’re gonna get him. And you know what? They got got.”
This copyrighted article was published by the Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey) on Dec. 6, 1989:
Trying to Forget Day Music Died
Death, Violence, Vandalism Marred ’69 Concert
Altamont Pass, Calif. (AP)—There are no plans to mark the anniversary of the rock concert at Altamont Speedway 20 years ago today—the day free love turned into fear and good vibes turned into violence.
Many of those who went are still trying to forget the Dec. 6, 1969, concert at a windswept, barren, sun-baked pasture 50 miles east of San Francisco.
The Rolling Stones organized the free “thank you” holiday concert for 300,000 fans, featuring the Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
But the hastily organized event quickly deteriorated into a disaster that heralded the end of the rock festival phenomenon and shattered the dream of a utopian counterculture for the 1960s generation.
The concert climaxed when a young black man drew a gun and was knifed to death near the stage by members of the Hells Angels, who had been hired as bodyguards to the Stones.
Another youth drowned in a canal and two more died after being run over by a car. Drug overdoses were rampant. Many of the fans ignored those who were in distress on “bad trips” so as not to miss the music.
Some people were injured during fights with the Hells Angels. Property damage to adjacent ranches was in the tens of thousands of dollars. The lack of planning resulted in what at the time was the area’s largest traffic jam.
Stones lead singer Mick Jagger surmised afterward: “If Jesus Christ had been there, he would have been crucified.”
Days after the festival, following Woodstock by barely six [correction: four—ed.] months, writer Todd Gitlin declared the concert “the end of the Age of Aquarius.”
Greil Marcus, a 44-year-old writer in Berkeley, recalls the concert scene as a lurid, surrealistic spectacle, likening it to the panoramic paintings of 16th-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel.
The crowd was “unfriendly, territorial, selfish,” Marcus said, exuding a “tremendous feeling of dread…a feeling of sickness.
“I can’t really be too melodramatic about what it was like—red and orange lights, confusion, guitarist Keith Richards yelling to stop (the fights), constant waves of terrified screams, the Stones playing and stopping and trying to play again, and just a lot of terror in Jagger’s voice.”
There were no plans to publicly mark the anniversary of the concert, although the new owner of the speedway said people tried to persuade him to commemorate the date in some way.
Larry Lacey, who bought the facility and began renovations 18 months ago, said he would like people to forget. But that probably won’t happen, he said.
“I don’t know how to fight it. It’s so big. It was so bad and people just won’t forget,” said Lacey, adding that county officials and some local residents continue to fight his plans to hold car and motorcycle racing there.
“It’s as if the place has a curse on it,” he lamented.
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