It’s been over 50 years since the Rolling Stones played at the free outdoor concert at a racetrack in Alameda County in California. But the word “Altamont” seems like it will forever be synonymous with the end of the 1960s and the hippie dream that came with it. In other words, it was the end of an era.
On December 6, 1969, about four months after Woodstock, the Rolling Stones performed for a crowd of over 300,000 people. As you know, the Hells Angels were hired as their informal security team. That part was actually a suggestion made by the Grateful Dead (who never even ended up playing at the concert). You probably also know that it was one of the worst decisions in music concert history. Basically, the concert started out hopeful and promising but ultimately ended in bloodshed and tragedy.
These are the events leading up to the Altamont tragedy.
It was about 3 p.m. on Saturday, December 6, 1969, when a helicopter landed, and Mick Jagger walked out. He was 26 years old, bushy-haired, and (obviously) chewing gum. It had only been about four months since Woodstock, and the flower power vibes were still floating in the air… well, kind of. A stranger suddenly ran up to Jagger and yelled, “I hate you!”
He then punched the lead singer in the mouth. The band’s manager, Ron Schneider, was standing next to Jagger, watching the whole thing go down in awe. Schneider wanted to “kill the guy,” but Jagger was all “no, no, no.” In a way, that first little scuffle foreshadowed what would transpire.
After the stranger was wrestled away, Jagger and his entourage surged through the sea of hippies to the backstage hideaway where the Rolling Stones huddled for the next three hours until it was their turn to play. Jagger didn’t realize at the time, but the Altamont concert was already out of control.
More than 300,000 people were gathered at the Altamont Speedway Park in California. They came for the all-day festival that was hyped as “The West Coast Woodstock.” It had only been four months since Woodstock, and people wanted to relive the magic and, apparently, the chaos. Similarly, cars were dumped by the roadside, and the hills of Alameda County were filled with music (and drug) lovers.
The concert was free, after all, so why not come and indulge in psychedelics, chug wine and listen to the Grateful Dead, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young? Altamont was supposed to be an extension of the “free love” mantra that had enveloped Woodstock. But Altamont turned out to be anything but peaceful.
Unfortunately, there was a fatality before the concert even began. One fan accidentally drowned in an irrigation canal on his way to the show. But the next fatality wasn’t an accident. 18-year-old Meredith “Murdock” Hunter, who attended the concert with his girlfriend, didn’t realize it would be his last day alive. As the Stones played onstage, Hunter was stabbed to death in the crowd, a mere few feet away from the stage.
It’s no surprise that Altamont made front-page news that weekend. Thanks to interviews with those who took part in the event, including Keith Richards, Grace Slick, David Crosby, and Mickey Hart, an (almost) full account of the night was recorded. There are also firsthand accounts from festivalgoers, organizers, and journalists.
If you ask any of them, they’ll all tell you that there was a feeling that spread through Altamont – a vibe that grew more unsettling as the day went on. Graham Nash, who was there with his band to play an afternoon set, said, “Something wasn’t right.” “The place was sh***y. The way they were treating people like cattle was sh***y.”
No one can ignore the fact that the Hells Angels being hired as security was clearly an awful idea. A notorious motorcycle gang running security? It might have made sense in concept, but the reality of the situation proved tragic. When it was all over, Altamont was no longer considered “the next Woodstock.”
Next to Altamont, Woodstock is a triumph – hippie madness, mud piles, and all. If Altamont were to be put in a category of concerts, it is much closer to 2017’s Fyre Festival (considered to be an epic fail) and the deadly Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979 where 11 attendees died. The concert turned out to be something the musicians involved would rather forget.
Many of the rock stars on stage at Altamont, including Jagger and former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh, declined interview requests leading up to the concert’s 50th anniversary in 2019. And then, there are others, like Keith Richards, who still can’t wrap their heads around it. “It was just sort of a nightmarish day,” Richards said. “Not just for us, but for everybody.”
Many people, both present and not present, had many questions that weren’t all answered. Some lingering questions aren’t so easily dismissed. Some of the major questions are: Why did the Stones even let the show go on? Could Hunter’s death have been avoided? Should blame be shifted towards the Grateful Dead – the ones who recruited the Hells Angels?
Altamont, both literally and spiritually, marked the end of a decade. And when it comes down to it, the fiasco of a concert had more to it than just poor planning. One person who gave his full account of the event was photographer Bill Owens who was assigned by the Associated Press to cover the concert. On that Saturday morning, Owens climbed a light tower to get into an opportune position.
He witnessed tens of thousands of people filing in. It was then that he started to notice just how little effort had been made to service them. What he saw was a lack of portable washrooms and even basic food services. Then he noticed the Hells Angels on the stage.
For some, the link between the motorcycle gang and rock music isn’t so clear. But the truth is that the Hells Angels were considered the counterculture’s “outlaw brothers.” They would go to Ken Kesey’s parties (his “Acid Tests”) and chill with all the hippies at the Grateful Dead free gigs at Golden Gate Park.
Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane, was a fan of having the motorcycle gang provide event security. She even said so to Jagger that when she visited him in the fall of 1969. “They were always OK, and when somebody would get on the stage and was not supposed to be there, they’d just go over and tell them not to,” Slick recalled. They weren’t violent in her experience, so she figured, okay, the Hells Angels can do security for Altamont.
If you’re wondering why the “good ole police” weren’t hired as security, it boils down to the fact that the cops weren’t their friends. For one, the Stones had dealt with a series of drug busts back in England, and they definitely weren’t the only ones. “The police were not our friend,” Jorma Kaukonen, Jefferson Airplane’s guitarist, said.
“If the police showed up, they weren’t there to protect us.” So, the Hells Angels were chosen instead of the cops. But that doesn’t mean they were favored by all. Greil Marcus, the then 24-year-old reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, personally saw the gang in action at an anti-war march in Berkeley. He saw them bursting into the crowd and beating people up.
The exact arrangement with the Hells Angels is still a little unclear. But the gist of it is that the Grateful Dead’s manager, Rock Scully, talked to them about “keeping order.” They would be paid $500… in beer. According to “Flash” Gordon Grow, one of the members of the San Francisco chapter who worked the stage, they were told, “All you gotta do is just keep people off the stage.”
Their response: “Yeah, no problem. We can do that.” Scully asked them, “What do you want for that?” They replied with, “We’re not cops. We’re not security guards. Just give us some beer.” And the rest is history, folks.
David Crosby said, “that’s where it went wrong. Hells Angels don’t do security. Hells Angels fight. They like to fight. It’s part of their M.O. They fight all the time. They’re good at it, OK? If you don’t want the tiger to eat your lunch guests, don’t invite the f***ing tiger to the lunch.” The man has a point. And, hey, hindsight is 20/20. No one would hire the Hells Angels to do security after that concert.
Those involved during the concert planning phase didn’t think it was a big deal to hire them as security. After Jagger announced the festival on November 26, there was a rush to find a venue and make it all happen. After all, they only had about 10 days.
At that point, all they knew was that it would be somewhere in the Bay Area. The Grateful Dead were obvious partners, as they were basically the leaders of the local music scene. According to Nash, Jerry Garcia called Crosby and told him they were planning a massive show and asked if CSNY would participate.
His words were: “It’s going to be fabulous. It’s hippies and San Francisco and sunshine.” Crosby put it in perspective – it was the Grateful Dead, their buddies. “We all thought it was going to be f***ing terrific.”
As for the Stones, the gig served a few purposes. For one, they missed Woodstock because they had been stuck in England, busy planning their first tour in years.
The Stones were also busy mourning the death of founding member and guitarist Brian Jones. Once their 1969 tour began in Colorado on November 7, Jones was replaced by Mick Taylor. Another reason for doing Altamont was that it would be a smug response to an article that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Columnist Ralph Gleason accused the band of overcharging ticket-buyers at their Oakland Coliseum concert on November 9. Lastly, the concert would be a source of footage for the still undefined documentary that the band had been shooting. And, oh, what footage they ended up getting…
By December 1, none of the Stones’ entourage ever heard of Altamont Speedway. Schneider, their tour manager Sam Cutler, and band assistant Georgia Bergman had gone to San Francisco to work out all the details. Meanwhile, Jagger and Richards and the rest of the band were 3,540 kilometers away, recording Brown Sugar in a studio in Alabama.
The organizers’ first choice for a venue was Golden Gate Park, but since that wasn’t available, Schneider, Cutler, and Bergman explored a few alternatives. Sonoma County’s Sears Point Raceway looked ideal, but once the track’s owners learned that the Maysles brothers (who were doing the Stones’ documentary) were there, he demanded $100,000 for the venue. Schneider refused. Altamont was next on the list.
Once the festival was up and running on Saturday, it didn’t take long for things to turn ugly. It seemed like people came ready to fight. Carlos Santana, then 22, had to stop his opening set during their performance of Soul Sacrifice because a fight broke out right in front of the stage. At the start of the show, a rope (a thin one at that) was placed to keep the crowd at a distance.
But the rope disappeared almost immediately. It didn’t help that the stage was only three feet off the ground. Shortly after, a guy took off all his clothes and tried to climb up onto the stage. Photographer Owens described seeing the Hells Angels jump off the stage with their pool cues – their apparent weapon of choice.
Jefferson Airplane followed Santana’s set, and while they were on stage, another naked dude crowd-surfed his way to the front of the stage. Once he made it there, a Hells Angel grabbed him and threw him down. And then, of course, there were more pool cues and even more brutality. Jefferson Airplane’s singer Marty Balin saw it all break down and was fed up.
He yelled something at Paul Hibbits, a Hells Angels known as “Animal.” Hibbits promptly punched Balin, who, once he came to, he looked at Hibbits and cussed at him again, for which he got socked a second time. The punches thrown at Balin served as a message: in this place, even rock stars were targets. That is unless they were willing to leave. But up to that point, no one was.
Many musicians were later asked why they didn’t just end the show and leave considering all the commotion going on around them. “I don’t leave if I’ve said I’m going to play a gig,” is what Crosby said. His band took the stage after Jefferson Airplane and the Flying Burrito Brothers. But one band had a completely different approach…
As soon as The Grateful Dead arrived, they were told about what had happened to Balin, and what the Angels were doing with their pool cues. Jerry Garcia and his guys met backstage and quickly reached a consensus: they weren’t going to play. Their quick decision proved to have heavy repercussions.
Instead of the hometown heroes playing an anticipated set between CSNY and the Stones, the stage sat empty for a long 75 minutes as dusk fell, and the winter cold moved in. The already intoxicated crowd grew antsy, waiting anxiously. Alcohol, drugs, and anxiety were mingling to form a dangerous concoction.
The Grateful Dead’s drummer Mickey Hart said their music “cannot happen in a situation like that.” They realized, “This isn’t a place for us,” and they headed back to San Francisco. The way Stones manager Cutler saw it was “one of the great acts of moral cowardice in the history of the music business. They didn’t trust their own music. Whether they could have done anything to rescue the event by playing is a moot point, but they didn’t.”
Six weeks later, in an extensive account of the festival, Rolling Stone magazine barely even mentioned the Grateful Dead. In fact, the magazine’s narrative put out a favorable spin on what had actually happened. They wrote the “scene was so tense… the Grateful Dead, prime organizers, and movers of the festival didn’t even get to play.”
The magazine’s managing editor, John Burks, who oversaw the article, still has trouble calling out the Grateful Dead. “I covered the Watts riots, and this felt more dangerous than that. I don’t blame the Dead. It makes perfect sense to me that they would take a look at it and go, ‘Uh-uh.’”
While the Dead were out, the Stones were still very much in…
The Stones planned to go onstage at sundown. But since the Dead were out, why didn’t they just hit the stage earlier? Well, bassist Bill Wyman wasn’t there yet. And “wasn’t there” doesn’t mean he was mentally unprepared. No, he was physically not there. He had spent the day shopping in San Francisco and took a helicopter ride to the concert a few hours after his bandmates arrived.
When the band finally stepped onto the stage, they went straight into Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The speedway sat on a long, sloping hillside. Its lowest point was where the bands were playing. The crowd was quick to rush forward. Those in the back were pushing forward. Soon, the only place to go was onto the stage.
For anyone who saw The Maysleses brothers’ Gimme Shelter documentary, you probably noticed a dog wandering across the stage. You could also see some of the Hells Angels dancing to the music while others were “keeping watch.” By the time the Stones had played their third song, Sympathy for the Devil, everything had already gone downhill.
Jagger was being rushed past by the Angels, and he just stopped after five lines into the song, stepping back and knocking over his microphone stand. The singer who had taken a punch just hours earlier was now looking fearful as the audience was swarming closer and closer to the band, like an impending tsunami. “Everybody be cool now, come on,” Jagger said into the mic. “All right. How are we doing over there? Is there anybody there that’s hurt?”
Looking back at it, many people wonder why nobody walked off the stage. In an interview, Richards explained why he thought the Stones had to stay. According to him, it could have gotten a lot worse. It “could have been a really big disaster. Who knows what else would have happened?”
The Grateful Dead’s Hart, who stayed to watch from the backstage, said he saw Keith’s and Jagger’s eyes. “If they had thought about stopping, you know, there would have been a knife between Mick’s ribs. Or Keith’s, probably, first.” Okay, so yeah, that’s one way of putting it. Fear is a powerful decision-maker.
The Stones only realized onstage what the audience had already become aware of, that Altamont not going to be the West Coast’s version of Woodstock. “These weren’t hippies,” said Joel Selvin, the author of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, Hell’s Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day.
He described how the people who attended Altamont weren’t the same kind of people “who go to Golden Gate Park. Half of them came from the east, which is redneck California.” In that crowd was the concert’s main fatality, and his girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, then 17 years old. Bredehoft recalled that she had been disappointed from the beginning with the way the whole scene had gone down. She found the violence disturbing and felt especially uncomfortable when she and Hunter walked by the Hells Angels.
She noticed the nasty looks they were throwing toward the bi-racial couple. The two teens had met a few months prior when Hunter (nicknamed Murdock) had been hanging out across the street from Berkeley High School (Bredehoft was a senior). Hunter had gone to the Monterey Jazz Festival earlier that year, which was headlined by Miles Davis and Sly and the Family Stone.
All Hunter needed to get to the free concert was to get his hands on his mother’s boyfriend’s beige Mustang. He then told his girlfriend about the show. Bredehoft explained how what they heard was that it was basically Woodstock. “Nobody knew exactly what it would be. We just heard it was a bunch of peace and love and flower children. So, we thought, ‘Oh, it’s just a big party.’”
Hunter and Bredehoft were among the many present to quickly realize that this concert was nothing like what they had expected. She recalled how there wasn’t room to sit between sets. At one point, she headed back to the Mustang with some friends. Hunter followed a little later. Then, the Stones were about to get on stage, so he told her that they should return to the crowd.
Bredehoft was already very uncomfortable. “I didn’t really want to go back again, but he persuaded me. I didn’t know he had a gun.” You see, Hunter had a bit of a troubled past and had already been arrested at a younger age. He just never told his new girlfriend about it.
So, when he took the gun out of the trunk and got it out, Bredehoft remembers saying, “What do you need that for?” to which he replied, “Just for protection.” Hunter’s instincts were clearly on the mark. But what happened next haunted not just Bredehoft, but the entire crowd and everyone involved.
As the scuffles were going on in front of the stage, there’s video footage of Jagger as he addressed the crowd, saying into the mic, “I don’t know what happened, I couldn’t see. Are you all right?” That’s when angry voices shouted back: “No thanks to the Angels!” and “Angels go home!” But the Angels weren’t fazed. It was about 6:30 p.m. at that point, and the Stones were seven songs into their set.
They started to play Under My Thumb, and the fighting got worse. At one point, camera operator Baird Bryant picked up a man near the stage. The man was hard to miss in his lime green suit. It was Hunter, and this footage of him became the key moment in the documentary Gimme Shelter (released a year later).
The footage was also played repeatedly in the 1971 trial of Hells Angel, Alan Passaro. If you slow down the video, the footage shows Hunter jumping into the air with his .22 Smith & Wesson pistol in his left hand. Passaro then raised a hunting knife and brought it down into Hunter’s upper back. The next shot in the film is of the teenager’s body on a stretcher, strapped down and covered up.
In the end, four people died at Altamont (the one who drowned and two more from a hit-and-run driver). But Hunter’s death overshadowed the others and eclipsed the narrative of the entire festival. His murder raised countless questions about the event and the decisions made surrounding it.
Were the Angels the offenders, or were they put in a position that was simply unmanageable? What was Hunter doing leaping onto the stage with a gun? Was deadly force really the only option? And why, for the love of God, did the Rolling Stones keep playing after a concertgoer was literally stabbed to death in front of them? Some of these questions are left hanging in the air even to this day.
Bredehoft, the poor thing, was standing next to Hunter at that moment and even tried to grab him when Passaro struck him. According to her, Hunter definitely had not intended to attack Jagger. The Hells Angels, on the other hand, were another story. She remembered her boyfriend getting punched, and that’s when he turned and pulled out the gun.
“But he wasn’t pointing it at the stage or Mick Jagger. He was pointing it at some Hells Angels that were coming after him.” Witnesses said they saw Hunter pushed and chased by members of the Hells Angels. But those behind the stage had a different perspective. The coroner’s report also found methamphetamine in his system.
Mickey Hart saw Hunter as a threat. “He was headed right toward Mick with his gun pointed,” Hart recounted. He even went so far as to say that what Passaro did was “really heroic in some ways, running toward somebody with a gun and confronting them.” Cameraman Eric Saarinen was shocked when he saw the footage of Passaro heading toward Hunter while everyone else was backing away from the gun.
Saarinen described Passaro as “cool and calm and collected.”. Once the Stones finished their song, Richards scolded the Angels from the overcrowded stage. He and the band claimed they had no idea Hunter was killed. All they saw were the Angels roughing up the crowd.
At that point in the film, Richard complained, “Listen, man. Either these cats cool it, man, or we don’t play.” There’s a fleeting unscripted moment in the documentary when the Maysles brothers (the filmmakers) show the Hunter stabbing to both Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts on camera. Their stunned responses became one of the most memorable parts of the film.
But what happened after the actual killing was never caught on film. It was later detailed by the medical examiner and written in the police report. After the gun had been knocked away, and the danger (the gun) was removed, the Hells Angels beat Hunter ruthlessly and continued to stab him. Bredehoft remembered all the screaming and trying to help Hunter while people were pulling her back, essentially trying to protect her. “And then I remember this one Hells Angel turning around and grabbing me and telling me, ‘Why are you crying over him? He’s not worth it.’”
The morning after, the Rolling Stones were already heading back to Europe, still in a daze. By Sunday night, word was spreading fast. Stefan Ponek, a San Francisco DJ (from KSAN-FM radio), conducted an on-air investigation. He spoke with Cutler and others who were there. He asked them questions about the behavior of the Angels but stayed neutral all the while.
“There’s no conclusions to be drawn,” Ponek stated on the air. “A combination of factors is what made Woodstock such a huge success. And the reverse combination of factors is what made Altamont such a huge disaster.” As for the Rolling Stone article, it blamed pretty much everyone. They referred to the event as “Rock and roll’s all-time worst day.”
The magazine also called out Altamont for its “egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.” In February of 1970, in an interview with journalist Howard K. Smith, Jerry Garcia didn’t know what to make of it all. He did say, though, that it was “the other side of the Woodstock coin.”
“There’s a great big lesson for us all,” Garcia stated. “Every head, every revolutionary, everybody who’s considering what social changes are about… there’s something to be learned from all that.” When Smith asked him what that lesson might be, Garcia said he didn’t know. “I’m still finding things out, I’m still talking to people, and getting various viewpoints. It was a heavy thing… and nothing heavy goes down without it being some kind of lesson.”
Hunter’s older sister, Dixie Ward, couldn’t help but feel cynical when Passaro pleaded self-defense and was eventually acquitted. “Black people have been in these situations a lot of times. And we don’t expect for people to have helped a Black person. I don’t need Meredith to be remembered by anybody but me and my family. I carry him. And I don’t need a crowd to carry him with me.”
Cultural commentators refer to Altamont as the spiritual end of the ‘60s, a dark finale that many would simply like to forget. “If the ’60s were a great wave, it gets to Altamont and crests,” Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus wrote, “and you see all the garbage and dead fish left behind when the water recedes.” Well, that’s one way of seeing it.