Fifty years ago, the hippie pipedream was said to come to an end at a race track 65 miles east of San Francisco, while the Stones played “Under My Thumb” and Hell’s Angels went on a spree of violence
On December 6, 1969, roughly 300,000 people gathered at a barren, dusty raceway in Livermore, California, 65 miles east of San Francisco, for a festival starring the Rolling Stones and featuring some of California’s premier bands of the 1960s: the Grateful Dead; Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Santana; and the short-lived Flying Burrito Brothers. What promised to be another groovy day of music, peace, and love turned out to be anything but.
In the end four people died that day at the Altamont Raceway — two in a hit and run accident, one by drowning in an irrigation canal, and one, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. There were also dozens of lacerations, skull fractures, broken bones and hundreds of bad drug trips. Despite initial reports, there were no births at the festival.
The biggest music story in 1969, the three-day Woodstock festival held in early August, featured many musicians who would later become some of the biggest names in rock. But the two most famous rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world — The Beatles and The Rolling Stones — were absent. Despite their immense popularity, neither band had performed in the U.S. since 1966.
So, when the Rolling Stones announced on September 14 that they would be touring the U.S., it was a major news event. The band was coming off two career-defining albums, Beggar’s Banquet and Let it Bleed, and a massive yet successful free concert in London’s Hyde Park in July (partly in tribute to Brian Jones, who had died in July 3). With their new guitarist Mick Taylor, they set off across the country on November 7 to play 23 shows in sold-out arenas. From the start, the band was criticized for the high-ticket prices, which topped out at $8.50 in some cities, and faced persistent questions about the possibility of a free concert.
Well before the criticism about prices, the Stones had been considering another free festival. Months earlier, their tour manager, Sam Cutler, had met with Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead’s manager, to discuss a free Stones/Dead show in northern California. Experts in producing free concerts in the Bay Area, Scully and the Dead offered advice and suggestions about how to put on the show, including using the Hell’s Angels to provide security. Cutler was open to the idea — he had used some of London’s Hell’s Angels at Hyde Park and all went well. Unfortunately, for everyone involved, the young British wannabe Angels were a far different breed of animal than the real thing they’d face in California.
On November 26, it was announced . . . the Stones would play a free concert with the Dead at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on Saturday, December 6. Documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles would memorialize the event in a film, which the Stones planned to use to cover the costs of the show. Although none of the details were firm when the concert was announced, Rolling Stone magazine reported there was near-universal agreement that the concert would attract a minimum of 200,000 people.
“It would be a Little Woodstock, and, even more exciting,” the magazine reported, “it would be an instant Woodstock.” Of course, Woodstock wasn’t intended to be a free concert – it only became “free” after people tore down fences and entered the grounds. So perhaps the vibes would be even better out West?
They had ten days to produce a Woodstock West. Working with Scully, Cutler tried to get the permits needed for Golden Gate Park but was refused. Instead, they turned to Sears Point Raceway, 32 miles north of San Francisco, and quickly began preparations at that site. Then suddenly, with the stage already built and in place, talks between the racetrack’s owners and the concert organizers broke down over money and the question of film rights, forcing the entire show to be moved out to Dick Carter’s Altamont Raceway, 80 miles away. It was December 4. With only two days left before show, Scully called Michael Lang, a producer of the Woodstock festival, who flew out to survey the site.
Potential problems? Too few toilets, no food or water, no trees for shade, not enough space to park, and neighbors who had not been informed of the concert. But it was too late to cancel.
“It was the Sixties, dammit,” Stones’ assistant Jo Bergman, would say years later. “Weird things happened and people did weird things and asked questions later.”
The herculean task of moving the stage, lighting, and sound equipment in a day fell to Chip Monck, a veteran of Woodstock and the head of the Stones’ road crew. Working through the night in 30-degree weather, Monck’s team managed to get things ready despite major compromises. The sound system was inadequate for the huge raceway and the 3-foot-high stage, designed to be nestled atop a small hill at the Sears Point Raceway, was at the bottom of an incline where it would be completely surrounded by the crowd and their cars, with no barrier between the performers and the audience.
Weeks earlier, Scully had arranged for Cutler to meet with the Hell’s Angels to set up a deal for the concert at Golden Gate Park – the Angels would keep people away from the bands’ generators and they would receive $500, paid out in 6-packs of beer. When the concert was shifted to Altamont, the deal remained in place even though that the Angels would now be guarding the generators and an entire stage full of musicians.
On the morning of December 6, as tens of thousands of people arrived, the crews raced to finish final preparations, which included setting up medical tents. The Maysles had seventeen camera crews spread out across the grounds to capture the scene: people staking out their turf in the dirt amid rusting auto parts from the raceway, playing flutes, looking for friends, and getting high.
Mid-morning, twenty to twenty-five Hells Angels, along with a posse of hangers-on, arrived en masse. Carrying loaded pool cues to deter anyone from acting unruly or ignoring their orders, they parked their motorcycles near the stage and told the audience to stay back. They quickly began ingesting LSD laced with speed, barbiturates, beer, and Red Mountain wine. (Their leader, Oakland chapter head Sonny Barger, was at a meeting and had not ridden in with the group.)
The serious trouble began almost as soon as Santana, one of the standouts of Woodstock, opened the show.
As Carlos Santana later told Rolling Stone, “There was bad vibes from the beginning. The fights started because the Hell’s Angels were pushing people around. There was no provocation; the Angels started the whole violence thing and there’s no fucking doubt about that…. We tried to stop it the best we could by not playing, but by the time we got to our fourth song, the more we got into it, the more people got into their fighting thing.”
During the Jefferson Airplane’s set, lead singer Marty Balin was knocked out briefly by a Hell’s Angel when he tried to break up a fight between the Angels and the audience. The band soldiered on, finished their set and quickly left the stage.
At 2:45, while the Airplane was still playing, the first Stones’ helicopter arrived. As the group disembarked, Mick Jagger was immediately punched in the face by a man screaming, “I hate you. I hate you.” Momentarily stunned, Jagger was hustled to the relative safety of the Stone’s tent.
A dark day grew darker. People fought for space and stumbled over each other. A woman was hit in the head with a full beer bottle and almost killed. A naked man, repeatedly clubbed by the Hell’s Angels, walked around covered in blood. In the distance people struggled to hear the music or understand the repeated interruptions.
In the Grateful Dead’s bus, a stunned Jerry Garcia sat, distraught and overwhelmed by Balin’s beating and the violence he had witnessed. This was not how these shows should work — it was chaos. And it was dangerous. The group huddled to figure out what to do. Ultimately, they decided that it was not their show; it was the Rolling Stones’ show. With that the Grateful Dead, key participants in the concert’s planning, cut out, leaving the stage to the Rolling Stones and almost erasing their role in the day’s events.
Fighting continued throughout Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s set with stretchers passed overhead carrying the injured to the medical tents. “There were several big mistakes,” said David Crosby weeks afterwards. “They weren’t necessarily mistakes of intent, but people just didn’t really know certain things . . .We didn’t need the Angels. I don’t know why anyone would expect them to do anything other than exactly what they did. The mistake that was made was in thinking security was needed, and that the Angels should do it.”
With the Dead absent, the music was on hold. The Stones had decided they would wait until dark to play, when the lights would have optimum effect. So the crowd waited. As it grew colder, people lit garbage fires to keep warm as night took over, filling the already-dusty air with smoke.
Finally, the Stones appeared bathed in red lights and launched into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Three songs in, during “Sympathy for the Devil,” violence erupted a few feet from the stage, forcing the band to stop. They began again, playing a slow blues to calm things down before picking up their usual set list, but three songs later, during “Under My Thumb,” a major brawl broke out between the Hell’s Angels and a young African-American man, forcing the band to stop again. Though they didn’t realize it at the time, Hunter was stabbed three times and repeatedly kicked and punched just a few yards from the stage.
Hunter had pulled a gun out during the fight and the Angels would later claim he was aiming it at the stage. Some audience members near Hunter said he was just trying to protect himself from the gang. He died shortly after being carried by audience members around the stage to medical personnel. (Early concert reports inaccurately stated that Hunter was killed during “Sympathy for the Devil,” which led to a decades’ worth of speculation about Stones as Satanists and purveyors of black magic.)
Onstage the band, unable to see what was happening and afraid of agitating the situation further, continued to play. They premiered “Brown Sugar” and finished their set with a ferocity that surprised many who were there.
In the weeks and months following the concert, blame for the violence at Altamont was heaped on the organizers, the Rolling Stones, the Hell’s Angels, and the Grateful Dead. The finger pointing and blame shifting lasted for years. The Rolling Stones’ manager Allen Klein claimed that no one from the Stones’ management had been involved and that he didn’t hire Sam Cutler; Cutler said the Angels were not hired to work the show; and the Hell’s Angels said they were there to keep people off the stage and that some people, drunk and high on drugs, wouldn’t let them do their job. The Stones themselves said very little.
According to Ron Schneider, one of the tour’s promoters, the responsibility for hiring the Angels belonged to Cutler, as well as Rock Scully and the Dead. “Sam’s from England, and isn’t familiar with the Hell’s Angels,” he said. “He used a branch of the Angels in England at the Hyde Park festival and it went off quite well. The Angels provided security and everything was nice and pleasant. He didn’t know they were a different chapter of Angels. He just asked Rock Scully to get him the Angels.” Others near the stage that day claimed that Cutler knew what the Angels were doing and told them to do whatever they had to do to keep people off the stage.
Carlos Santana said that along with the Angels, “you could blame reds and liquor for the whole fucking mess. People just got themselves fucked up and wanted to fuck up everybody. You lose control of and respect for yourself, and you lose control of and respect for anybody else. That’s what happened — reds and liquor did it.”
Still, Santana saw no need for the Angels near the stage. “I mean, the stage has to be guarded by somebody, but you don’t need cops and you don’t need Hell’s Angels. At Woodstock, they had all kinds of cats keeping the stage clear who were all wearing colored jackets and you knew who they were and you didn’t need cops or Angels.”
Shown only briefly in Gimme Shelter talking among themselves, the Dead’s role in the debacle has become mostly lost to our collective memory. When asked a few months after the concert about their role, Garcia said, “We’re responsible in that we’re the ones that started playing for free . . . Like, starting to play free eventually leads to Altamont, or if you go about it a certain way. Or if there are errors involved. But Altamont is the other side of the Woodstock coin. It’s another way for that whole thing to happen, and it’s unfortunate but true. I mean, it really happened just like they told you it did. And so there’s a fact there somewhere, a big lesson for us all, every Head, every revolutionary, everybody who’s considering what social changes are about and considering the way the world is gonna be.”
But Garcia pushed back on the claim the Dead suggested the organizers hire the Hell’s Angels. “Nobody hires the Hells Angels for anything,” he said. “The Hell’s Angels aren’t for hire . . . It’s not a question of hiring or not hiring; it’s a question of who is it that’s gonna say to the Hell’s Angels, “Go away”? Nobody’s gonna say that to the Hell’s Angels, man.”
“The people who went to see the Stones, they’re mostly just people. So they don’t know who the hell the Hell’s Angels are, man. They don’t know that if you stand around in the middle of a buncha Hell’s Angels, eventually you might get hit.”
Mick Taylor later said, “I’ve always heard about the incredible violence in America, but I’d never actually seen it. They’re so used to it over there, it’s a commonplace thing. They find it easier to accept. I’ve just never seen anything like that before.
“The Hell’s Angels had a lot to do with it. The people that were working with us getting the concert together thought it would be a good idea to have them as a security force. But I got the impression that because they were a security force they were using it as an excuse. They’re just very, very violent people.
“We were on the road when it was being organized, we weren’t involved at all. We would have liked to have been. Perhaps the only thing we needed security for was the Hell’s Angels.”
In his 2010 biography, Life, Keith Richards, who spent the night before the Altamont concert roaming through the early-arriving crowd on the vast field, wrote: “Basically it was a one huge commune that sprang out of the ground for two days. It was very medieval in look and feel, guys with bells on chanting, “Hashish, peyote.” . . . A culmination of hippie commune and what can happen when it goes wrong. I was amazed that things didn’t go more wrong than they did. … But at Altamont it was the dark side of human nature, what could happen in the heart of darkness, a descent to caveman level within a few hours, thanks to Sonny Barger (leader of the Hell’s Angels Oakland chapter) and his lot, the Angels. … It was the end of the dream as far as I was concerned.”
Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro, charged with murdering Meredith Hunter, was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense after the jury watched the scene in Gimme Shelter showing Hunter’s murder. Hunter’s mother, Altha May Anderson, later sued the Rolling Stones for $500,000. The band eventually gave her $10,000. The Hell’s Angels, furious that the Stones left them to take the blame for the disaster, asked the band for $50,000, in part to cover Passaro’s legal bills and, in part, as restitution. The Stones’ refusal to pay led to several bungled assassination attempts on Jagger’s life before the band reputedly ponied up the $50,000 sometime in the 1980s.
In time it became the popular narrative that Altamont marked the end of the hippie era. What started with Monterrey Pop in 1967 and peaked at Woodstock, died at Altamont. This did not turn out to be true. But Altamont provided an early glimpse of what the end could look like. And it showed that no amount of wishful thinking, acid, and flower power could counteract poor planning, massive amounts of alcohol and barbiturates, and a stage lined with members of a notoriously violent motorcycle gang.
Author’s note: For further information about the life and death of Meredith Hunter, check out the recently published Just a Shot Away by writer Saul Austerlitz.