Angels & Abominations: The Altamont Tragedy
Fans mumbled, shouted, stomped their feet, napped, and generally grew irritated. The Rolling Stones seemed to be stalling. Earlier that night, November 8, 1969, the band had played to a packed house at the Inglewood Forum arena in Los Angeles. They had run through numbers like “Brown Sugar,” “Sympathy For The Devil,” and “Street Fighting Man.” A second concert was scheduled to begin at midnight for another batch of eager fans who had waited patiently outside the Forum walls, hearing the distant sounds of the first concert. The Stones kept these fans waiting an awful long time. At around 4:00 in the morning, the British sensations cranked up the festivities with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” The sleepy-eyed audience rallied themselves and cheered the Stones arrival. But after a handful of songs were performed, brawls broke out in front of the stage, the result of cranky, tired ticket holders who’d felt they’d waited far too long, which caused the house lights to be turned on and several arrests to be made. This marked the official start of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 American Tour. It would end amongst far greater chaos.
By the close of the 1960s, the Rolling Stones were certainly not having the best of years. Although their album “Beggars Banquet” was hailed critically as a masterpiece, those same critics had savaged the Stones’ previous album “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request,” a limp concept record that tried to match the artistic heights of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Mick Jagger and his girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull were arrested for possession of cannabis on May 28, 1969. On July 3rd of that year, The Rolling Stones’ former bandmate Brian Jones had been found floating dead in his swimming pool (in a manner which has fostered far too much speculative foul play assertions over the decades since). In addition, the group spent much of the year trying to excise the overly-expensive percentage of revenue shared by their manager, Allen Klein, whose contract with the band was not scheduled to expire until July 31, 1970. And after arriving in Australia to act in a film called “Ned Kelly,” Mick Jagger told Faithfull their relationship was over, which resulted in Faithfull overdosing on narcotics on July 8, 1969, and slipping into an eight-day coma. It was fairly tumultuous for The Stones at this time, to say the least.
As a result of the suicide attempt, Faithfull wasn’t able to act in the film, as scheduled, alongside Jagger. On September 12, 1969, Mick and a recovered Marianne returned to London, and Jagger began making preliminary arrangements for the launch of the American Tour, the sixth such undertaking The Rolling Stones had made up to that point. For the part of their tour manager, Sam Cutler, a reliable Stones’ friend was placed in charge of the endeavor. As for the overall production management of the shows, Mick chose Allen Klein’s 27-year old nephew, Ronnie Schneider, to fill this position, the reasoning being that Ronnie was a more malleable, frugal version of his avaricious uncle. On October 13th, the Stones arrived in Los Angeles. Mick and Keith Richards stayed at a friend’s estate in Laurel Canyon, a huge home recently vacated by The Monkee’s Peter Tork. Drummer Charlie Watts and his family moved into Ronnie’s house. And the rest of the group and its entourage stayed at the massive Du Pont mansion above the Sunset Strip.
Ronnie began the process of securing all the requirements sought by his charges, a group that hadn’t toured in more than three years. The size of dressing rooms, the six bottles of tequila, the chilled Blue Nun wine, the cold cuts, the fruits — all of these details needed to be met at each venue. He also was able to finagle about 60% of the gross against a guaranteed minimum amount on each concert engagement for the group.
One night, Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead dropped by Mick and Keith’s home, and during their conversations, Garcia suggested The Rolling Stones would benefit a great deal in publicity if they gave a free concert after their tour ended around the first of December. They liked the idea and began to hash out some of the details. San Francisco, the late ‘60s capital of “peace, love and understanding” was seen as an opportune location for the event. The monumental and successful Woodstock festival had just made its mark two months earlier in August, and Jagger felt a massive, open- air gathering would help put The Stones back on the map again. A memorial concert the group had performed for Brian Jones on July 5th that year had drawn hundreds of thousands of fans in London’s Hyde Park, and it was felt that this free concert would attract an even bigger crowd. Jerry mentioned that as far as security goes, the Hell’s Angels in the Bay Area had handled control of events with local bands in a smooth, efficient manner. The British chapter of the Angels had run security for The Stones during the Hyde Park tribute without a glitch, so the thought of using the California Hell’s Angels in a month’s time for the big concert was a plausible business decision, The Stones reasoned.
Around this time, Jagger had heard that Warner Bros., the studio that was delaying the release of a previous film Mick had acted in called “Performance” (due to the movie’s explicit violence and sexuality), was in the midst of editing a documentary of the Woodstock festival. To beat the studio’s release of this “event” concert film, Jagger wanted to one-up them with his own concert film of the tour they were about to undertake. The free concert at tour’s end would act as a great conclusion for his film. He set about soliciting documentary filmmakers who would take on the job.
After three weeks of rehearsals, partying, celebrity schmoozing, drug intake, and groupie dalliances in Los Angeles, The Rolling Stones performed a warm-up concert at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado on November 7, 1969. The next day, the American Tour officially kicked off its 17-date journey with the raucous opening performance at the Forum in Los Angeles.
Throughout the month of November, The Rolling Stones made their way across America. Once again, as they had at the Forum, they delayed going onstage, this time for over two hours in Oakland, California. When the band reached the Dallas, Texas leg of the tour, Marianne Faithfull announced to the press in Europe that she was formally leaving Mick Jagger and moving to Rome to live with an Italian film director/wealthy playboy named Mario Schifano. Mick was devastated by this news and tried, in vain, to woo Marianne back.
Meanwhile, New York filmmakers David and Albert Maysles were hired by The Stones to document the tour. These brothers had successfully captured on film the frenzy surrounding The Beatles first visit to the United States back in 1964. They assured Mick that this documentary would be ready by mid-March 1970, almost a month before Warner Bros.’ tentative release date for “Woodstock.” Being hired so late in the tour, the Maysles would begin filming the band once they arrived in New York. Meanwhile, the Elysian Golden Gate Park was being considered as the leading contender location for the San Francisco free concert.
On November 27th and 28th, The Stones played Madison Square Garden in New York to sellout crowds. Teens crushed towards the stage during “Sympathy For The Devil,” leaving the fold-out chairs strewn on the floor beneath them. In the VIP box, celebrities like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Woody Allen, Leonard Bernstein, and Andy Warhol boogied out to the blues-rock riffs emanating from the stage. Songs from these concerts were recorded and released the following year on the album “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!” The American tour officially ended the next night, the 29th, at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. Heading out of LaGuardia Airport in New York, the group was significantly delayed from flying to a festival at the International Raceway in West Palm Beach, Florida, where they wound up playing at 4:00 in the freezing-cold morning to shivering fans on November 30, 1969. The free concert event on the other coast was scheduled to take place in one week’s time.
Travelling to the Sound Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the group spent the week following the end of their tour laying down tracks for a future album. They learned that the city of San Francisco would not issue a permit for the free concert at Golden Gate Park. The director of the Sears Point Raceway, just outside San Francisco, jumped in and offered the band use of his track free of charge. However, the owners of the Sears track, a consortium that also ran concert promotions, a corporation that felt The Stones had stiffed them out of a huge portion of their promotion profits on the just-completed tour, decided to put the screws to the band. On Thursday, December 4, 1969, as The Stones’ crew was assembling the staging at the Sears’ track, the promotion consortium, Filmways, demanded that Stones’ management secure $125,000 in escrow for any possible damages incurred during the concert, and they wished to retain all film rights to the concert, otherwise they’d require another $125,000 from the band. With the intercession of San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli, both camps haggled over the deal. On Friday, December 5th, one day before the main event, Dick Carter, operator of a stock car track in Livermere, California, a community 15 miles east of Berkeley, offered up his location free of charge to The Rolling Stones. He thought it would be great publicity for his venue and insisted it be promoted as taking place at “Dick Carter’s Altamont Speedway.” Where Woodstock, a concert drawing approximately 450,000 attendees, was planned meticulously, months in advance, the Altamont concert, which was expected to draw upwards of 250,000 people the next day, was literally being patched together overnight. Disaster seemed the only forecast for this kind of hasty venture.
The Stones’ crew, along with the help of some of The Grateful Dead’s crew, somehow, someway, made it happen. Tearing down the stage at the Sears’ track and assembling it in the darkened night of December 5th at Altamont, the roadies feverishly hammered the set together for 12 hours. As they labored into the night, hordes of fans began showing up on the property, bundling themselves in their sleeping bags to fend off the chilly desert air. Around 2:00 in the morning of Saturday, December 6th, Mick and Keith, having flown into San Francisco earlier on Friday, helicoptered to the Altamont track to survey the progress of the riggings. They walked amongst the fans, crouching down to shake some hands and give some hugs. Author Christopher Anderson, an unauthorized biographer, has alleged that, during this period of time, Jagger stopped by a campfire to share a joint with none other than Charles Manson. Be that as it may, about an hour later, Mick climbed aboard the helicopter to head back to San Francisco, while Keith decided to spend the night on the track’s grounds, partaking in the drugs and enthusiasm of his fans.
At around 7:00am, Hell’s Angels members who had prevented fans from wandering to the front grounds near the stage, finally allowed the area to be filled in. Over the next few hours, the Altamont Speedway and the properties surrounding it would teem to capacity. Roads leading into the area were clogged with cars for miles. Roughly calculated, the location could only hold about 12,000 automobiles, and that’s with nobody on the grounds. Needless to say, people walked for miles, abandoning their cars along the road. By 12 noon approximately 300,000 individuals were packed in with one another.
Sights of Altamont that day included hippies, college students, bikers, nudists, dogs, cats, frisbees, bubbles, tie-dyed shirts, leather-fringe jackets, long unkempt hair, LSD, heroin, jug wine, ice chests, bedrolls, mattresses, kissing, fornicating, four births, Jesus proselytizers, Black Panther advocators, dancing, stumbling, tripping-out, vomiting, chanting, fortune-telling, and…the occasional outbreak of violence. At first the scuffles were few and far between. Minor little skirmishes over lack of food, water, and dope. But the anger grew. The meager supply of basic amenities to accommodate this mini-city of civilians was overwhelmingly apparent. The wait for the bathrooms was over a half-hour, and the lines for drinking water were over 300 yards long. Not much food was available. And when the majority of the Hell’s Angels roared in on their bikes, the tension grew thicker.
The Angels had been given about $500 in alcohol to provide “security” for the afternoon. Approximately 300 or more Hell’s Angels were onsite, “working” this concert. As they drove their beloved motorcycles straight through the crowds, making everyone scatter in their path, one could see many of the bikers already swigging on jugs of wine. Some hippies began passing out thousands of tabs of acid to the Angels and their friends. As the afternoon sun helped warm the December air, many people began to bake their brains. Bad acid trips were breaking out as people whirled in dervish dances or grimaced and pulled at their hair. As the Hell’s Angels members became more inebriated and strung out, they also became notably bloodthirsty. As fate would ironically have it on this day, The Rolling Stones new album, “Let It Bleed,” was being released to stores across the nation.
Sometime in the afternoon, a 17-year old boy, numbingly under the influence, fell into a deep, concrete, drainage aqueduct near the concert location and drowned. Stoned bystanders watched the body float downstream, not sure if they were witnessing reality or a drug-induced vision.
Carlos Santana and his band finally got the proceedings off to a start. At the first sounds of music, the crowds shifted, moving forward slightly, to get a better position. The Hell’s Angels’ job requirement for the day, as requested by Stone’s tour manager, Sam Cutler, was to keep the crowd off the stage and off the equipment. The Angels, unfortunately, did not believe in tactics such as a simple shake of the head, signaling “no” to unruly, curious audience members. The first inkling of their style of security came during the Santana set when one man, attempting to approach the stage, was kicked down by a biker. Armed with heavy, lead-tipped, pool cues, the Angels patrolled the stage and the area down front, cracking several people across the head with drug-fueled animosity. When members of their pack laid into a naked couple with the pool cues, a nearby photographer fired off several photos. He, in turn, took a smack to the head, opening a gash that required several stitches. Carlos Santana couldn’t believe the eruptions of violence he was witnessing around the periphery of the stage. He just tried to forge ahead and get through his set. Afterwards, backstage, he told reporters, “There were bad vibes from the beginning. The fights started because the Hell’s Angels pushed people around. During our set, I could see a guy from the stage who had a knife, and (he) just wanted to stab somebody. I mean he really wanted a fight. There were kids being stabbed and heads cracking the whole time.”
Into this ugly forum, local favorites, The Jefferson Airplane, took to the stage. Even though they had been around the Hell’s Angels before, the Airplane soon saw that the mood of the afternoon was not going to change now that they began to play. More skirmishes broke out. A strong push here, a knockdown there. One young teenager staggered around the audience, unable to focus because blood trickling from a head wound was seeping into his eyes. As the Jefferson Airplane began playing their ironic-under-the circumstances song “We Can Be Together,” an African-American man, trying to elude the foot pursuit of a violent Angel, leapt up onto the stage beside the group, terrified. Several bikers got him to the floor, beating him with the pool cues, and then tossed him off the stage. More Hell’s Angels were on him in a second, hauling him along the ground and beating him some more. Airplane singer Marty Balin had had enough. He climbed down into the audience, pushing his way to the assaulting brutes, trying to break up the fight. A Hell’s Angel turned and swung a pool cue square into Marty’s face. The rocker was knocked off his rocker, falling unconscious to the ground. As he came to, stumbling back to the stage, The Jefferson Airplane had by this time stopped most of their song. Only the drummer kept a beat, while singer Grace Slick kept time, chanting a mantra of peace, “Easy, easy, easy, easy…” Guitarist Paul Kantner, seething with anger, said to the masses, “I’d like to mention the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face, and knocked him out for a bit.” A nearby Angel member tried to take the microphone away from him.
In the midst of this mayhem, Mick Jagger and the rest of the band, sans Keith, who was already there, touched down by helicopter on a hill behind the stage. As they hustled down the embankment to an awaiting trailer, another touch of madness arose, as a drug-crazed, bedraggled man screamed at Mick, “I hate you, I hate you,” and proceeded to throw a punch to Jagger’s head. Hell’s Angels escorting the entourage, quickly lifted the offending fan away, beating him as they went. The Stones were a bit shaken and sequestered themselves inside the trailer. Someone popped their head in and informed them of what had happened while the Jefferson Airplane was onstage. Keith told Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, “When I heard what they done to Marty Balin, they’re gettin’ out of hand. It’s just gonna get worse, I thought; obviously, it’s not going to get better. Nothing’s gonna cool them out once they start.”
The Flying Burrito Brothers, a California folk group, went onstage next. Their music seemed to calm the restless crowd for a short duration. Climbing off a helicopter up the hill, Jerry Garcia was told of the violence and injuries that had occurred prior to his arrival. “That’s a bummer,” he said, as he looked around, pondering. The Grateful Dead chose not to perform that afternoon. Meanwhile, down at the trailer, Jagger and Richards occasionally stuck their heads out of the pot-filled interior to speak with reporters and sign autographs.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tried to maintain the calm when they followed the Burrito Brothers. But the Hell’s Angels began to scatter into the audience by the stage, knocking heads once again. Swinging pool cues and medical stretchers bearing casualties highlighted their set. A terrified Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young cut their performance short and made a dash for a helicopter, which took off immediately. The sun was sinking towards the horizon. Now the crowd awaited the final act, The Rolling Stones.
The understaffed and under-equipped medical personnel in the offstage tent were tending to more and more wounded. Thousands of people staggered, or were carried, to the tent in order to receive a thorazine shot which would help calm the effects of all the bad acid trips occurring that afternoon. The thorazine supply, however, was quickly depleted. Teenagers yelled and moaned, curling up or tearing at their clothes. The medics continued stitching the open gashes on the latest Hell’s Angels’ victims.
As they had notoriously shown before on the American tour, the Stones kept their fans waiting. And waiting. More beatings were taking place as the late afternoon turned to evening, and the temperature dropped. Hunger set in, as the crowd shivered in their thin clothes. No one knows the exact reason why the Rolling Stones waited an hour and a half to venture out of their trailers, but two excuses have been given. One was that they were busy tuning their instruments. The second was that Mick wanted the cameras to capture his performance after dark, so that the stage lighting would cast a dramatic effect on the assembled throng. One can only make a decision as to which artistically-veiled excuse sounds more plausible.
The Hell’s Angels drove several of their motorcycles through the audience, parking them a few rows in front of the stage. Finally, the lights kicked on. The crowd pushed forward, jamming up against the performance platform. Reporters and Angels were crowding the entire expanse of the stage as The Rolling Stones arrived. The snarling guitar licks of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” signaled the start of their set.
Almost immediately, the Angels began their assaults. One of them laid into a fan severely after the guy had accidentally toppled the biker’s motorcycle. As Keith noted to Rolling Stone magazine, “The cat left his bike there and it got knocked over, so that was the first one.” Sonny Barger, leader of the Hell’s Angels, later told the media about his gang’s fanatical pride in their bikes by saying, “Ain’t nobody gonna kick my motorcycle and get away with it.” Bikers from the back of the stage rushed forward, past Mick, periodically to slug somebody in the front row. Jagger felt crowded, saying “Fellows, fellows, move back, won’t ya?” A boy at the corner of the stage, tried to climb up, but was kicked back by an Angel. The boy’s jaw shattered. Nervously, the band started the next song “Carol,” while some people out front began to strip naked. The nude, dazed audience members tried to clamber onto the stage, but they, too, were beaten bloody and tossed back to the ground.
Jagger and the band at this point had lost all hope of maintaining peace with their assembled fans. The audience was truly at the frenzied, malevolent mercy of the Hell’s Angels. Keith, again to Rolling Stone magazine, said, “They were out of control, man. The Angels shouldn’t have been asked to do the job…People were just asking for it. All those nude fat people, just asking for it. They had those victims’ faces.”
“Just be cool down front there, don’t push around,” Jagger said, as the band led into “Sympathy For The Devil.” Strutting his stuff across the stage, Mick got in the first few verses before a huge pummeling between Angels and fans attracted his attention down in front. “Hey, hey! Hey, Keith, Keith,” motioning for Richards to stop playing, “hey people, brothers and sisters, come on now,” Jagger pleaded. The crowd stopped its commotion for a moment. “Let’s everybody cool out. Something always funny happens when we start that number,” Jagger mumbled. The band tentatively began again. A Hell’s Angel member strolled over to Mick during the song’s instrumental section and whispered in his ear. A nude woman, completely stoned, climbed onto the stage and held onto one of the group’s amplifiers. Audience members in front shook their heads at Mick, conveying their feeling that he should halt the proceedings. Five Hell’s Angels surrounded the naked woman, trying to pry her fingers loose of the amp. Jagger stopped the performance again and sarcastically remarked, “I’m sure it doesn’t take all of you to take care of this. Surely one of you can handle her.” With that, four members dropped back as one Hell’s Angel clubbed her in the head with a pool cue and dumped her back into the audience. Jagger, appalled, noticed another fight in the audience. Someone tried to climb on stage to get them to stop the performance, but he, too, was tossed back in the crowd. “People, who’s fighting and what for? Why are we fighting? Why are we fighting?” Keith stepped up to the microphone. “Listen, either those cats cool it or we don’t play!,” he barked. A Hell’s Angel walked over to him, screaming in the mike, “F*** you!” Mick stammered, trying to keep what little peace was left, “You know, if we are all one…let’s show we’re all one.”
The songs continued. “The Sun Is Shining,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Love In Vain.” And so did the beatings. When “Under My Thumb” started up, the ultimate tragedy was moments away from occurring. (Many press reports and biographers cite that this tragedy occurred during “Sympathy For The Devil,” but if one views the film “Gimme Shelter,” it actually appears to take place during “Under My Thumb”). Towards the end of the song, a commotion broke out about ten rows back in which an African-American man appeared to be pointing a gun at Mick onstage. The man’s name was Meredith Hunter.
Having arrived at the concert earlier in the day with his date, a blonde teenage girlfriend, 18-year old Hunter had found the two of them a spot near the side of the stage, next to an amplifier. Wearing a lime green suit, he stood out in the crowd…and on the Maysle Brothers’ film. A burly, 6’4” tall, Hell’s Angel, sitting on the amp, for one reason or another, reached down and yanked Hunter by the hair. Stumbling backward, shocked, Hunter saw the biker leap to the ground, and suddenly, he was surrounded by five other Hell’s Angels. They began to beat him, as his girlfriend screamed. Turning to try to run away, Hunter was caught by the arm by one of the bikers, and the biker stabbed Hunter in the back. Pulling out a gun he had in his pocket, Hunter was spun around. Mick Jagger apparently saw the weapon at that point, turning to guitarist Mick Taylor saying, “there’s somebody out there…there’s a cat pointing a gun at us.” Overhearing this statement, a nearby Hell’s Angel onstage dropped to the floor. Keith told Rolling Stone magazine, “I didn’t see any killings. If I see any killing going on, I shout, ‘Murder.’ You dig, when you’re onstage you can’t see much, like just the first four rows.” During this split second, Hunter was being stabbed again. His girlfriend screamed, “don’t shoot anyone,” and the gun was wrestled away from him. An Angel cut Hunter’s head with the knife. Stumbling, running, and tripping, Hunter fell to the ground a few yards away, and the Hell’s Angels swarmed him. He was stabbed and kicked repeatedly. A steel trashcan was smashed down on his face. The big, burly Hell’s Angel, the one who had originally pulled his hair, stood on Hunter’s head for almost two minutes.
Audience members around Hunter stood watching, horrified and in shock. They felt too threatened to try to help him. After a while, the Angels left Hunter lying bloodied on the ground. Audience members rushed to his side and tried to treat him. Jagger was confused as to the severity of the commotion. “How are we doin’ over there? Everybody allright? Can we still collect ourselves?” Word quickly spread to the front that Hunter was severely wounded and needed help immediately. Tour manager Sam Cutler grabbed the microphone and asked people to make room for the doctor. As Hunter was carted off, barely conscious on the stretcher, Jagger said, “This could be the most beautiful evening – I beg you to get it together.”
The band started up the songlist again. “Brown Sugar,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Live With Me,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Little Queenie,” “Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” and finally, “Street Fighting Man.” Hunter died shortly after he arrived at the medical tent. Mick fluttered about the stage at concert’s end, blowing kisses, saying, “We’re gonna kiss you goodbye, and we leave you to kiss each other goodbye. You have been so groovy. Good Night.” The Stones quietly, and quickly, left the stage. The band and its entourage piled into an awaiting helicopter, clamoring to get aboard, as if they were escaping the fall of Saigon. Airlifting away into the cold night sky, the group was taken back to their cozy suites at the Nob Hill Huntington Hotel in San Francisco. Below them, the zombie denizens of Altamont stumbled across the cluttered open fields in the dark, trying to make sense of a confusing day and trying to remember where they left their cars.
Later in the evening, a hit and run occurred after midnight, when a 1964 Plymouth sedan ran through a campsite and crushed two men to death in their sleeping bags on the grounds of the speedway.
The media was quick to disparage The Rolling Stones for the debacle which resulted from their free concert. Musician David Crosby chimed in to reporters with his own distaste for the Stones. “The Rolling Stones are still a little bit in 1965. They didn’t really know that security isn’t part of anybody’s concert anymore…We didn’t need the Angels…But I don’t think the Angels were the major mistake…I think the major mistake was taking what was essentially a party and turning it into an ego game and a star trip…I’m sure they (the Stones) don’t understand what they did Saturday. I think they have an exaggerated view of their own importance.”
Keith told Rolling Stone magazine, “For all the control one can have over an audience, it doesn’t mean you can control the murderers. That’s a different thing, man; you can’t make someone’s knife disappear by just looking at him…Half of our concerts in our whole career have been stopped for doctors and stretchers. How much responsibility for the gig are you going to lay on the cat who’s playing and how much on the cat that organized it? Rolling Stone’s name is linked with Altamont. It wasn’t our production particularly. Our people were involved, but they were relying on local knowledge.” Mick further expounded on this topic when he told Rolling Stone magazine in 1987, “Everyone who lived in San Francisco – including a lot of those people who wrote about Altamont – knew that a lot of concerts had gone on with all these same organizers, with the Hell’s Angels…And it may sound like an excuse, but we believed – however naively – that this show could be organized by those San Francisco people who’d had experience with this sort of thing…And just because it got out of hand, we get the blame.”
Sonny Barger, the Hell’s Angel leader, said on a talk radio show, “This Mick Jagger put it all on the Angels. He used us for dupes, man. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve been the biggest suckers for that idiot I’ve ever seen.” An Angel named Alan Passaro was subsequently arrested for the murder of Meredith Hunter. At his trial, the defense submitted the assumption that it was very hard to tell whether Passaro was the person who dealt the fatal wound to Meredith. Passaro claimed he only reacted after Meredith pulled a gun on him. The jury was left with no other choice than to acquit the Hell’s Angel. Passaro allegedly did serve some time later at San Quentin prison. A rumor circulates to this day that, upon his release, Passaro was found dead, floating face down, in a remote lake.
The Rolling Stones’ attorneys were quite busy during the year 1970. The family of Meredith Hunter sued the Stones. Property owners near the Altamont Speedway sued the Stones. The Rolling Stones, in turn, sued the Sears Point International Raceway for more than $10 million under charges of fraud and breach of contract.
Warner Bros. released their landmark documentary “Woodstock” in March 1970. Mick’s dream film, the one which might have one-upped the Warner Bros. project, was no longer on the fast track. “Gimme Shelter” debuted in New York on December 6, 1970.
Blame for a disastrous event of this magnitude really settles on the majority of the individuals who participated in and observed its unfolding. Easily, a damning finger can be pointed at the Hell’s Angels, whose brutality was the very essence of evil on December 6, 1969. The Stones were indifferent to the needs and demands such a concert required, as were the organizers they employed to put it together. The thousands of people who passed out acid tabs and fueled their systems with narcotics, left themselves vulnerable and perhaps, naively irritable contributors to the destructive forces at play that day. No one felt the overwhelming need to leave the grounds and contact police officials as to the violent overtones brewing and bursting forth during the day’s event. Everyone, therefore, could fall under an umbrella of fault.
Altamont will always be remembered as an ugly chapter in rock’s history. Even the music performances weren’t particularly notable considering the talent on hand that day. Mick Jagger reflected on this bleak moment in his band’s history in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1987. “I felt very upset. And I was very sad about the violence, the guy that died and the Hell’s Angels behaving the way they did. It was awful. It was a horrible thing to go through. I hated it. And the audience had a hard time. It was a lesson that we all learned. It was a horrible experience – not so much for me as for the people that suffered. I had a pretty easy ride, you know…I was lucky.”
© 2000 Ned Truslow