ALTAMONT – 50 YEARS ON
Sometimes events in history can get lost in time. The deeper I dug while researching my latest story, the more I realised that Altamont was a dirty word to be buried in the fading minds of pop history. It was like some forgotten mine that had been rusting for over fifty years; yet its poison was as toxic as ever….
The end of the 1960’s was not all about love and peace. Just four months before the hastily arranged festival at Altamont took place, the success of Woodstock had briefly reunited the disenchanted youth of America as only music can. During a tour earlier that year, the Stones learned of a growing voice of displeasure from fans about the inflated cost of tickets – double the price of those from a recent tour by The Who. The Stones hoped that a one-off free concert would appease their angry fans. They got together with some of the hottest acts around with plans to turn the tour into a positive venture — and a profitable one, as they intended to film it for a memorable documentary.
It would be memorable — but for all the wrong reasons. Venue after venue rejected them, as they could not handle the complications associated with hosting so many popular bands at the last minute. They had to settle for the ill-equipped Altamont Speedway in Livermore, CA. There were not nearly enough first aid tents or toilets, and the stage was a mere 39″ tall. Not to mention that the Hell’s Angels were chosen as security! The Stones’ manager, Sam Cutler, hired them after seeing them in action at a Hyde Park gig (and at the recommendation of many fellow musicians). However, they were not up to the challenge that the Californian crowd presented.
It was a disaster waiting to happen, and on December 6th, 1969, it did. There were over 300,000 fans, many of whom were high or drunk. It was more than the Hell’s Angels could ever have been expected to handle. Their makeshift barrier of motorbikes was not enough to keep the crowd away from the stage. Marty Balin of Jeffersons Airplane was knocked unconscious by a Hell’s Angel. Those who dared get near the stage were similarly attacked. Grateful Dead refused to play due to the chaos. Bill Wyman had missed his ride, meaning that the Stones were a member short.
When the Stones finally took the stage, everyone’s nerves were at a breaking point. Jagger tried to calm the crowd, but to no effect. Meredith Hunter climbed onto one of the speakers — and when the Hell’s Angels surrounded him, he made a fatal mistake. He drew his gun to defend himself. What happened next is too graphic to describe here, but is documented in the Gimme Shelter documentary. Paul Cox, a fellow partier, got him to a Red Cross tent, but Hunter died before help could arrive. He was only 18 years old. He was buried four days later in Skyview Cemetery in an unmarked grave, as his family could not afford a headstone. Many decades later, he finally received a headstone.
Despite the video evidence, his murderer, Alan Passaro, was cleared of the crime. This was not unusual at the time, as Hunter was black and Passaro was white — and he was tried by an all-white jury. The only one to ever apologize for this murder and terrible injustice was the stage manager, Chip Monck.
During the chaos, three other people died; one drowned, and two others were run over in their sleeping bags. Immediately after their set, the Stones made their escape via helicopter.
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.”
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 others… it was only rock and roll.