ALTAMONT – 50 YEARS ON
Sometimes events in history can get lost in time. When I researched into my latest story the more I dug deeper, the more I realised that Altamont was a dirty word to be buried in the fading minds of pop history like some forgotten mine that had been rusting for over fifty years but still what lies underneath stays toxic…
The end of the 1960’s was not all about love and peace. Yet it should have been. Just four months before the hastily arranged festival at Altamont took place, the success of Woodstock had but for a brief spell, reunited the disenchanted youth of America in a way that only music can achieve. Earlier that year, during their tour, the Stones began to be aware of a growing voice of displeasure from fans about the inflated cost of tickets – double the price of the recent tour by the Who. With the resulting bad press coverage that preceded them, plus the fans feeling they were being exploited (which they were) the Stones felt a one-off free concert would appease them. Together with some of the hottest acts around they could turn the tour into a positive (and make it a profitable venture). By making a documentary of their tour, this promised free gig would make a fitting end. Little did they know at the time it would but for all the wrong reasons. One by one, organisers of the obvious open air venues that could accommodate such a large audience began to pull out. Golden Gate Park (San Francisco), Sears Point Raceway and San Jose felt that the sheer magnitude of putting on a last minute concert by one of the world’s hottest bands was riddled with complications. With just two days left, California’s Altamont Speedway track in Livermore was hastily chosen but it was nowhere near capable of supporting the huge wave of fans still high from their experience of Woodstock. Combined with a lack of first aid tents and toilet facilities, plus the stage being only 39 inches in height, it was a disaster waiting to happen. December 6th 1969 had to go ahead. It was by now, excuse the pun, set in stone.
Why the Hell’s Angels were chosen to provide security for it is another thing altogether. The Grateful Dead and their good friends The Burrito Brothers both recommended them yet afterwards neither would admit this. At the Passaro trial later, Carter, one of the people called to the witness box admitted that it was the Stones road manager Sam Cutler who hired them. Even if he did, the seeds were sown earlier when Rock Scully (the Grateful Dead’s manager) made a trip to London to see his good friend Keith Richards and suggested they would be up to the job. The Stones already had witnessed for themselves first hand that the British Hell’s Angels had provided security at their recent free Hyde Park gig which passed off peacefully. They had no reason to be unduly worried. However the Frisco gang were altogether in a different league. They were the real deal. Even at the trial later, one Frisco Angel admitted “At Altamont that day I was just doing what I had to do. I did what I thought was right. For me and my people. Maybe you can beat on a cop and get away with it, but don’t beat on no Hell’s Angel. You’ll get your face kicked. I ain’t no cop. Don’t ask me to police nothing. And I ain’t no peace freak – not by no sense of that word ‘peace’. Somebody get in my face and I’ll get theirs. Sure, the Angels tie into the ‘rock culture’ as far as the music goes. But not the philosophy: ‘Peace, and let everybody walk on you” Passaro said. Yet lured by a $500 promise of free beer during the concert, there was never any doubt how that day would end. From the moment they roared up to the stage through the swelling pushing crowd, things were already out of control. Now swelling with over 300,000 music fans, many high on drugs and alcohol, it was just the start of a bad dream which was spiralling out of control.
“This could be the best party of 1969 we’ve ever had” came the announcement that kicked off the first act the Flying Burrito Brothers. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Santana had all left the stage when a warning sign that things were about to get worse was when Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin got knocked clean out with a punch from one Hells Angel. The band even sarcastically thanked them over the tannoy. To be fair, the Angels thought no one dare touch their bikes that they had parked up to provide a sort of make shift barrier. The fans in front probably didn’t either but you know how it goes in the swell of the crowd. Things get out of control. Anyone that dared to climb on or even get near the stage, were set upon ruthlessly. Things had now deteriorated so bad that the next act, Grateful Dead refused to go on. Earlier, Bill Wyman had missed his helicopter ride which meant the rest of the Stones nervously waiting back stage seeing the unfolding nightmare taking place all around them. If this couldn’t get any worse it was about to and the restless crowd were getting anxious for their idols to appear.
By the time they finally took to the stage with their opening Jumpin’ Jack Flash, nerves on all sides were at breaking point. Jagger tried calming things down in between the songs but no-one was listening and those that did probably were too high to really care. Seven songs in with Under My Thumb one young black man high on meths made the fatal mistake of climbing onto one of the speakers. Dressed in a bright lime green suit and wide brimmed black hat, Meredith Hunter certainly stood out from the rest of the white crowd around him. His girlfriend Patty just below him witnessed what happened next. Dragged down from the stand, Meredith tried to defend himself against the Hell’s Angels that surrounded him. His fatal mistake was pulling out the gun he was carrying to defend himself (earlier he had gone back to his car to retrieve it after seeing how the Angels were carrying on). What happened in the ensuing melee is too graphic to describe here but it is well documented and caught on film in the ‘Gimme Shelter’ documentary. Jagger publicly said over the mic “We’re splitting if those cats don’t stop beating everybody in sight”. Sensing untold mayhem if they did just that, they went on with the show and straight afterwards, split they did. After the gig, their overcrowded helicopter took off like some ‘last plane to freedom’, and just about everybody wanted to get on it – and not just the Stones. Mamas & Papas Michelle Phillips and Graham Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers were two. As one of the band members said afterwards, “that was typical Graham, leaving us to it. We pretty much knew then that he wouldn’t be in the band after that”.
Back by the stage, a fellow party goer by the name of Paul Cox, somehow managed to carry him to a red cross tent. Meredith died before any ambulance or helicopter could arrive. Despite video footage of the initial stabbing and the many witnesses who saw what happened, The Angel in question, Alan Passaro was arrested, tried and cleared (it was extremely rare for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man in the State at the time) by an all white jury. The 18 year old was buried a mere four days after the concert with only around thirty mourners. Hell, his family couldn’t even afford a headstone. It wasn’t until many decades later that the unmarked grave in Skyview Cemetery finally had a headstone.
Keith Richards said in his 2010 autobiography “it was the first time Brown Sugar was played in front of a live audience. “A baptism from hell, in a confused rumble in the Californian night“.
What of the murder? Fifty one years later, only the stage manager Chip Monck ever apologised publicly for what happened. Surprisingly, none of the Stones did either. Jagger on watching back the footage uttered just three words “it’s so horrible”. Three other festival goers were killed too, one drowned and two got ran over whilst they were sleeping in their sleeping bags. The speeding driver that was stopped by the police at the time was released after giving his story and before the two bodies were discovered. The high level media coverage of the killings and subsequent arrest of the notorious Manson family four days previously may have played a part in the intoxicated mind of the Hells Angel that day. A voice in the crowd shouting “He’s going to kill Jagger” and confronted with the sight of a pulled gun waved by a spaced out fan may have made up in his mind to take the actions he did. I guess we’ll never know for sure and anyway, most of the key players are now no longer around. In 1985 Passaro himself was found drowned in Anderson Reservoir.
A ‘baptism from hell’ it might have been but valuable lessons were learnt that fateful night. For many of the bands that day though, things would never be the same. For some…it was only rock and roll.