Fifty years after the most tragic event in rock n’ roll, we delve into the story of the chaotic counterculture concert that marked the end of the free ’60s and the start of a darker era.
1969 was an unusual year. Whilst McCartney was getting ready to announce The Beatles were officially over, Jack Kerouac, the personification of 1960s America, died in October at just 47 years old. Racial tensions throughout America ran high, with segregation only outlawed in 1964. As music was getting increasingly heavier and darker, Altamont Free Concert wanted to rejoice the 1960s and capture its freewheeling spirit.
Reported by various media and musicians prior to the event as California’s answer to Woodstock, which was held just four months prior, the original plan was to capture the essence that made the New York festival special and bring it to the West Coast, though this was far from how the festival played out. Amphetamines, bad acid and death plagued the underprepared festival and Rolling Stone, who thoroughly covered the event, defined it as “the worst day in music history.”
From being depicted by the famous Don McLean song ‘American Pie’ as one of the days ‘the music died’, to being the pinnacle of The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter documentary, the concert has been remembered throughout different aspects of pop culture since the event took place. The most haunting moment of the evening being Hell’s Angel, Alan Passaro, stabbing 18-year-old black audience member Meredith Hunter at the front of the stage during the Rolling Stones’ set. Hunter subsequently died from five stab wounds, though that was not the only death Altamont would suffer.
The concert was recklessly organised. The Rolling Stones were criticised for their high concert prices by journalists and after a two-year break from touring, decided to embark on a series of concerts which was to end with a free festival in San Francisco on December 6th.
They discussed these plans with the Grateful Dead, who were in talks at the time to do something similar alongside psychedelic rock outfit Jefferson Airplane. They first had the idea for something similar to Woodstock, coining it ‘Woodstock West’. The bands originally had the idea for it to take place in Golden Gate Park, then San Jose State University, though both of these venues, and later others, had denied them the space for the concert.
The Altamont Speedway was only found and confirmed as a venue less than 48 hours before the event was due to commence and construction began immediately. As the concert was fast approaching, basic necessities like a medical tent, toilets and vendors became impossible to find on short notice and 300,000 people were set to arrive at the small site in just hours. By many accounts, the Hells Angels were hired as last-minute security by Sam Cutler, the manager of both the Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones, who had connections to the San Francisco Charter of the motorcycle gang, for just $500 worth of beer.
Soon enough people began to arrive for the all-day festival. Due to the lack of space, fans began to abandon their cars on the road or wherever there was available space. They arrived with acid, wine and plenty of amphetamines – much of this being the final nail in the coffin for the concert.
Altamont’s scheduled line-up was set to include the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. During Santana’s set, who was first to perform, everything ran considerably smoothly. Though the Hell’s Angels became progressively restless and violent as they drank more of the beer provided, as did the crowd.
In the late afternoon, the Stones’ helicopter landed at the speedway. Mick Jagger stepped out to be met by a concert-goer who screamed “I hate you!” at the singer, before punching him in the mouth. The stranger was pulled away immediately, though it was clear by this point, the concert had gotten completely out of control.
By the time the Grateful Dead had arrived at the Speedway, everyday objects such as pool cues, motorcycle parts and the PA system were being used as weapons from the Hell’s Angels and fans alike – chaos had befallen their idyllic concert. Though the Dead had provided the Angels, the PA system, the bands and planned the event, they decided not to play due to safety concerns and left the grounds, which only made things worse amongst the crowd.
During Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s set, Stephen Stills was stabbed in the leg whilst he sang by a “stoned out” Hells Angel with a sharpened bicycle spoke. Later in the night, as the acid, speed and alcohol started to take a turn, a young man died after taking supposedly tainted LSD and drowning in an irrigation canal. Towards the end of the catastrophic night, two more people were killed by hit and run accidents.
Though no one had it worse than Meredith Hunter. Hunter, a student from Berkeley, California, was just 18-years-old when he and his girlfriend Patty decided to travel to Altamont to attend the free concert.
As the headliners, The Rolling Stones got the worst of an increasingly violent crowd. Mick Jagger began shouting out to the audience between songs to ‘cool down’ – though he claimed he could not see what happened to Hunter. As the Stones’ song ‘Under My Thumb’ began, Hunter climbed on top of a speaker, and the Hells Angels immediately ran over to him and began to punch him. In one last plea to get away from the gang, Hunter pulled out an unloaded revolver, but was stabbed multiple times by Hells Angel Alan Passaro, all of which was caught on very blurry film.
Keith Richards reflected on the horrifying scene and what led to it. He told Rolling Stone: “The violence just in front of the stage was incredible. Looking back I don’t think it was a good idea to have Hell’s Angels there. But we had them at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead. The trouble is it’s a problem for us either way. If you don’t have them to work for you as stewards, they come anyway and cause trouble. But to be fair, out of the whole 300 Angels working as stewards, the vast majority did what they were supposed to do, which was to regulate the crowds as much as possible without causing any trouble. But there were about 10 or 20 who were completely out of their minds — trying to drive their motorcycles through the middle of the crowds.”
The badly presented court case that came months afterwards was a reflection of the racial tensions that ran through 1960s America. After a 12-hour deliberation from the jury, they decided Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro would be acquitted on grounds of self-defence, due to the fact that Meredith had an unloaded gun.
Due to the revolts against mainstream society both the Hell’s Angels and hippies shared it was assumed by the latter, maybe naively, that they were both two underdogs on similar sides. Altamont proved this was nothing but an illusion, and many Hell’s Angels were later criticised for their racism, misogyny and homophobia. It was also later unearthed in a 2008 BBC documentary that the Hell’s Angels subsequently tried to murder Mick Jagger, but were unsuccessful in their attempt.
Who was at fault is still unknown, but it can be reduced to a number of aspects – some have blamed the greed of Mick Jagger for letting the concert go as far as it did, or the naivety that one of the most famous bands on the planet could perform at an underprepared free concert, or recklessness of the Grateful Dead for hiring the Angels and then not playing at all, the under-preparation by management, the Hells Angels for wreaking havoc – or maybe just the bad acid?