On December 6, 1969, rock-and-roll superstars the Rolling Stones headlined a free one-day music festival at Northern California’s Altamont Speedway. In terms of occasions termed “the day the music died” — e.g., the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper; the murder of John Lennon; the suicide of Kurt Cobain; etc. — Altamont ranks especially high, heinous, and horrific.
Just a few months prior to the Stones show, the weekend-long Woodstock concert in upstate New York attracted more than half a million revelers. There, the massive crowds endured rainstorms, lack of facilities, and bad batches of “brown acid” with overwhelming peace and cooperation.
Given how much more laid-back the West Coast was by comparison, all involved reasoned that the Altamont show would truly herald in, then, a new easy and liberated age of love and grooviness. Their reasoning proved, to put it mildly, way off.
So what went wrong? Freezing temperatures, insufficient facilities for a swarming crowd of 300,000, a stage so low to the ground that it negated any separation between the performers and the audience, and the event’s only “security” being provided by members of the Hells Angels outlaw motorcycle club — that’s what.
The bad vibes set in immediately. Throughout the spotty music sets and the irresponsibly long stretches in between them, tension simmered and violence escalated between the heaps of high, frightened hippies and the macho bikers with pool cues being paid in LSD and beer to “control” them.
The crowds continually surged forward, and the Angels repeatedly beat them back. Both sides upped their impact each time.
Artists who made it to the stage include the Flying Burrito Brothers, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Jefferson Airplane cut its appearance short after guitarist and vocalist Marty Balin noticed the Hells Angels pounding on a fan and jumped down to help the victim. The Angels knocked Balin unconscious.
The Grateful Dead, the group largely responsible for mounting the Altamont festival, caught wind of the powder keg in the process of going off and hightailed it home to San Francisco without playing.
By the time the Rolling Stones arrived, chaos reigned to the point that, immediately as the band de-boarded their helicopter, someone in the crowd rushed up and punched frontman Mick Jagger in the face. From there, things only got worse.
The Stones went on after just before midnight. Thousands of fans rushed forward in waves, with many making it onto the woefully ill-equipped stage. Among them was Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old African-American youth on a date with his blonde girlfriend.
During “Sympathy for the Devil,” enforcers from the notoriously whites-only Hells Angels ganged up on Hunter, beat him badly, and threw him back into the throng.
Fights broke out nonstop in all directions. People collapsed in potentially deadly piles. Somebody knocked over an Angel’s motorcycle, setting off a singularly vicious round of pool-cue poundings.
In between song performances that may have been rendered particularly brilliant by how terrified the band members were, Mick Jagger continually begged the audience to behave, repeating variations on: “Babies! Babies! Babies! Just be cool down there and don’t push around!”
Nobody paid attention to Jagger’s pleas, least of all Oakland Hells Angel leader Ralph “Sonny” Barger who, for decades afterward, growled in disgust at what he described as the effeminate vocalist’s whining.
Meredith Hunter, meanwhile, approached the stage again as the Stones played “Under My Thumb.” His girlfriend, Patty Bredehoft, begged him to stop. This time he pulled out a handgun.
Twenty-one-year-old Hells Angel member Alan Passaro responded by barreling into Hunter, knocking the gun away with his left hand, and stabbing the teenager twice with his right — fatally.
Filmmakers Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin caught the lethal moment on camera. It appears in their 1970 documentary masterpiece Gimme Shelter, a harrowing chronicle of the tragedy that pummels the viewer with visceral, you-are-there intensity.
Debates can never be settled in regard to Meredith Hunter’s intentions. Some witnesses claim he simply pointed the revolver up “in the air.” Patty Bredehoft says Hunter was “so high he could barely walk.”
Rock Scully, who worked with the Grateful Dead, has stated, “I saw what he was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent. 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.”
No matter what the truth might have been, the barely college–aged Meredith Hunter left the Altamont Speedway in a body bag and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
Symbolically, the 1960s’ dewy-eyed, gentle-hearted era of “flower power” got buried right along with him.
Alan Pasarro beat a murder rap after a jury viewed the stabbing footage and ruled he acted in self-defense. The former Hells Angel drowned in 1985 under what have been termed “suspicious conditions.”
Stranger still, in 2008 former FBI agent Mark Young revealed that the Hells Angels attempted to assassinate Mick Jagger in the weeks following Altamont for the alleged “damage” the concert had done to their organization.
According to Young:
“Their plan involved making entry onto his Long Island property, going by boat. As they gathered the weaponry and their forces to go out on Long Island Sound, a storm rolled up, which nearly sunk the watercraft that they were in, and they escaped with their own lives. They never went back and reinstituted the plan.”
Twenty-five years later, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner asked Jagger, “After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?”
The singer responded:
“Well, awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era … I didn’t think of any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed.”
Main photo: Mick Jagger on stage at Altamont in the Gimme Shelter trailer [screenshot]