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The Rolling Stones’ Altamont Music Festival, December 6, 1969: The Anti-Woodstock

On December 6, 1969 the Rolling Stones organized – if that's the right word – and headlined the free Altamont Music Festival at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. This was a few months after Woodstock, and there was a general idea that the Stones would have their own Woodstock.

It had been scheduled to happen at the Golden Gate Park, but San Francisco officials revoked their permission (if they even had proper paperwork to begin with) at the last minute when Mick Jagger publicly announced that the Stones would be there without having taken any crowd control precautions. It was then supposed to be going to Sears Point Raceway, but that fell through as well. The Altamont venue was finally settled on as late as December 4.

Surprisingly enough, 400,000 rock fans showing up at a place selected within the last 48 hours turned out badly. Four people managed to wind up dead. A couple of people got killed in an auto accident amidst the chaos, and one person managed to drown in a drainage ditch. The famous death, of course, was an 18-year-old kid named Meredith Hunter, who was stabbed  multiple times and kicked to death on film right in front of the stage by Hell's Angels during the Rolling Stones set.

This is just the kind of thing that BEGS for pontification, asserting Big Profound Meaning and so forth. It was the anti-Woodstock, and the dark side of the hippie culture, the death of the '60s, etc. Among other things, the event was immortalized in Don McLean's famous "American Pie" wherein the Satanic Jack Flash was lustfully presiding over the "sacrificial rite." It was the climactic destruction and sweeping away of Buddy Holly's rock and roll "true love ways." It was the final day when the music really, really died.Obviously, a lot of this stuff is being loaded onto happenstance, which leads to people twisting the actual random chaos of the event to fit their mythologies. For example, it has sometimes been claimed that Hunter was killed while the Stones were playing "Sympathy for the Devil." Obviously that would be perfect mythology, with the whole Satanic "sacrificial rite" angle. In fact, they had finished that song, and were specifically playing "Under My Thumb" at the critical moment — which to me is a more interesting sentiment to be playing out for that event.

Fortuitously, the Rolling Stones had a camera crew filming their tour for a movie, which was eventually released under the title Gimme Shelter. It was directed by David and Albert Maysles. Among several others, young George Lucas was working as a cameraman. A piece of video isn't the same as being there, and you also have to consider all the stuff that was going on that did NOT end up on film. Still, the camera doesn't lie, and it captured a lot of fascinating things going on amongst this third of a million people.

Studying the film, capturing still images and trying to figure out how to edit and present and explain them strongly reaffirms the sense of Dionysian chaos all around that day. For starters, I've rooted out 90 images from that day examining the specific involvement of the Hell's Angels. It can't tell the whole story, but it does give a lot of information from which we can glean some idea of what they were really doing.
Ultimately, the main culprits really have to be the Rolling Stones on grounds of hubris for insisting on going through with this show on less than 48 hours notice in even booking the venue. Famously, they were rumored to have hired the Hell's Angels as security for $500 worth of beer — though both sides subsequently denied it. However, the Grateful Dead had used Hell's Angels for security in the past without incident. Also, the Stones themselves had used the British arm of the Hell's Angels for an "honor guard" earlier that year among hundreds of thousands of fans at their Hyde Park memorial show for Brian Jones without incident.

Still, a handful of bikers providing the main security for several hundred thousand people was dumb. I'd also have to lay some fault on local government. Again, I'm sure that the camera didn't get everything, but from the looks of it there might have been as many as half a dozen cops among that many people. The most I saw was exactly TWO cops on stage after the Hunter killing. I'm not that big on cops, but that was just nuts.
Some of the stuff with the Hell's Angels was probably just them being thuggish because  they could. Notably, they rushed the stage during the Jefferson Airplane's set, knocking Marty Balin out cold. (Unfortunately, the camera crews got no good footage of that moment.) Obviously he was not creating a security disturbance by playing his set.

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  • Sue

    We were such idiots back then!

  • Martin Lav

    The end of an era this was not. Comparisons to this event and that of Woodstock are just not in the same realm. The Stones organized and arranged this debacle and the only thing that dwarfed their massive ego was the crowd itself. This crowd was highly dosed on alcohol along with the so-called security and this brought out their worst. Add in allegedly bad acid, which I believe the only difference between good acid and bad acid is where you’re at (emotionally) when you take it, and you have a lethal violent mixture. Had it not been the Stones-esque brand of rebel rock, combined with boozed and drugged out Bikers, then this could have been an entirely different scene. However, considering the mood and elements, the fact that there wasn’t a flat out riot with Hells Angels being stomped to death is truly the most remarkable thing that happened that day, besides the fact the Grateful Dead saying “we’re outta here”.
    Seems like none of these elements were present either when Woodstock II broke out in a riot.
    So, judging from the numbers it looks like the hippies are still the winners in this one.

  • Charlie

    Al, you need to see the movie again. You spun a whole lot of the details to arrange your version of an impotent Mick. Mick never threatened to stop playing. And not just details, some obvious things are misrepresented here too. Marty of The Airplane jumped into the fracas below the stage; the Angels did not “rush” the stage to beat him as you write.

    All in all, it is plain that you’ve gone to great lengths to deride the Stones.

    For anyone who wants the depth behind the tour, concert, and the movie, check out Stanley Booths incisive “True Adventures with the Rolling Stones”.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Charlie, I’m certainly not at pains to deride the Stones. They’re great heroes to me, all in all – but this certainly was not their finest hour. Also, the Stones very clearly threatened to quit playing a time or two. You’re just wrong there.

    Now, I’m a little fuzzy on the Marty Balin incident. It could have been that he was beat up at the foot of the stage rather than on it, I’m not 100% clear. But hippie Balin surely was not trying to take a swing at a biker, so knocking him out with a pool cue seems pretty gratuitous.

    You’re certainly right that you could study some more sources to get a fuller idea of all that was going on there. It was major chaos from all directions. This story is specifically focused on what can be understood just from the Maysles video, which seems like the most direct and editorially neutral accounting of events – at least the ones that happened to go on where the cameras were.

  • http://none Aaron E.

    Im currently reading this and using it as a one of many sources for a paper im doing on the event. The fact is no one can tell us for sure what happend here. Some things are of course obvious from footage…but some things well just have to wonder on. It was the saddest event in hippie history no doubt(John Lennon’s death being up there though). No one can argue that any one group or person is responsible. This was just a BAD…BBBAADDD situation, and NO ONE wanted things to turn out the way they did. Personally, I really dig your views Al, great work..im going to quote you in my paper.=)
    peace and love
    ~Aaron (a.k.a trippyhippie)

  • jerry

    you dont fuck with a mans motorcycle especially the hells angels are you crazy lucky things were not worse

  • Eddy

    Drugs and alcohol is to blame.

  • Vicky

    I was at Altamonte Music concert 1969.I was 18 years old and sober but most people were not. I saw a young woman pass out, and her boyfriend tried to carry her, then he pleaded for help. Another guy helped him carry her. I do not know what happened to her. I was too busy watching the people around me to notice the concert. I sat on a hill and the people on the stage looked small. I do recall seeing The Hell’s Angels bouncing around and Mick kept saying over and over, “BE COOL PEOPLE.” But no one was.

  • Alain

    Well, i,ve downloaded the show and it’s quite obvious that the angels and the crow were on drugs and alcohol, take that ,plus the music and you get what happened that day , i also heard that the show was supposed to be in the afternoon but for i don’t know what reason it was reported late in the evening and people who was waiting there for like 12 or 15 hrs , didn’t help for what happened, and i can’t blame the angels for killing this guy , he had a gun and could have killed 1 or more persons , ordinary people , Angels and the Stones too

  • Mike Smolik

    gee wiz it really could have been WAYYYYYYY worse. No doubt there was self defense with respect to Passaro pulling out his knife, but it’s STILL Manslaughter, regardless. Sure, what could have possibly happened if that kid Meredith Hunter had pulled the trigger or even aimed at the stage…dear ggawd I’d hate to imagine. I feel bad he had to die, but what can U do. Who knows what ANY OF US would have done in the same situation. Im not judging anyone but I feel that despite that incident, it could have been horrific considering drugs, alcohol and thousands of people literally on top of ea other.

  • Robert Larsen

    I wasn’t at the altamont concert,but,heard and read both sides of the account. First comment: Rock Promoter, Bill Graham, layed the blame on the Rolling Stones for intentionally making the crowd wait to hear them play in a very hostile and agitated situation. Second, if someone pulls out a gun, it is either you or them: you cannot wait for even a moment, otherwise you’ll be the one SHOT DEAD. Third, whatever one’s opinion abou the Hells Angels, they were there for SECURITY PURPOSES and just to have a good time with EVERYONE at that concert. It is easy to point the finger at the Hells Angels, considering their “BAD ASS” reputation, but I always find it interesting how the very same people obsolve themselves ,or others who are guilty as hell, of any wrongdoing-especially the Rolling Stones, who, in my opinion, should not of been allowed to play any more concerts after Altamont. WHAT THE HELL DID THE STONES,OR THE CROWD, EXPECT???

  • Steve

    One thing I want to know, what became of the girl he was with. I assume it was his girlfriend of some sort. The only thing I have been able to find is that her name is Patty Bredahoff, other than that…she is a mystery. It would be interesting to read an account of hers depicting the events that lead up to, and after the incident.

  • Bob

    It’s amazing more lives weren’t lost that night, considering all the circumstances. It was definitely a recipe for disaster.

  • Susan

    I was there, all of 13 yrs. old. I look back & it scares the heck out of me! There were fights breaking out all over the place. People were handing out acid like candy. There were way too many people crammed into a small area. The whole thing was so poorly planned. We left when the Stones started to play. It was too scary to stay!

  • http://the-knitter.blogspot.com Andrew

    It’s all water under the bridge really. As for the effectiveness or no of Mick Jagger it’s not really the point. Jagger never set himself up as an “authority” figure – and he wasn’t gonna be able to control a mass of people that large. Besides most of the people actually attending the “concert” would not have accepted any kind of authority. Jagger did say he expected things to be cool as it was the West coast !!! Keith did warn that “either these cats cool it or we don’t play” … but the band played on … and how!

    The film sums up the chaos of the sixties and, dare I say it, the utter stupidity of young people thinking they can change the world with music… !

    This is a very good read … good to get this kind of a perspective after all the intervening years.

  • http://www.myspace.com/amandaandsuperamanda Super Amanda

    Excellent article on Altamont but ultimately no one is to blame, it was uncharted waters for everyone, except for Bill Graham who made such an intelligent assessment..

    I’m surprised that The Stones listened to The grateful Dead for advice (to many hardcore Bay Area hippies the latter took the blame) but seeing as all of them were about 21 to 27 years old it’s not too inconceivable that my friends and I, had we been famous back then, would have made the same tragic mistakes.

    Alan Passaro who killed Meredith Hunter was found dead in a reservoir in rural Nor cal in 1985 with about 10Kin his pocket. Hunter is buried in an unmarked grave in Vallejo, California.
    May they both rest in peace.

  • George Fotis

    I’ve read on other sites that the Angels weren’t pleased Hunter was with a blonde girl & were giving him a hard time. I really can believe this ! Hunter had to be stopped somehow but did he have to be stabbed ? Then chased by a pack of them like wolves . Couldn’t he have been tackled and wrestled to the ground. It’s about time more footage of this concert was released , two Stones songs isn’t enough.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Mr Fotis- I had not heard such a thing, but I could well imagine these redneck bikers not digging on Hunter being there with a white girl. Still, Hunter brought a big ol’ gun in with him, and clearly whipped it out in the middle of this crowd. Even if you assume for the sake of argument that the Angels were harassing him some, they didn’t have guns and there’s no indication that anyone had attacked him.

    He does not appear to have been at any point “chased.” Once he drew the gun, Passaro stabbed him, he went down and looks to have been stomped to death within a few seconds. This is unfortunate, but once he whipped out a gun it was on Hunter himself.

    Somebody whips out a gun in a crowd and starts waving it around, they’re enthusiastically volunteering to be killed. At that point, you really can’t fault folks for obliging him – even if they’re scuzzy biker types.

  • http://HollywoodLoser.com Alexander of Hollywood

    Excellent essay on a fascinating subject. I’m a Stones fan from way back, and I enjoyed the article a lot. Tanx for posting, Al.

    I make and sell Altamont T-shirts — only with the word Altamont written in the Woodstock logo. And the familiar Woodstock peace-bird has a knife stuck in its back. You can see them at my site.

    If you tell me your shirt size, I’ll be happy to send you some FREE ones in gratitude for your entertaining and informative writing.

    But the main reason I’m writing to you is that I’m interested in advertising my shirts on your site. But I couldn’t find any way to contact you except this here Comments box. So please contact me and maybe we can do some biznis…

    Best regards,
    Alexander of Hollywood

  • Heather Anne Peel

    Whatever else, this was the darkest and most intense moment in Rock’s history. The Rolling Stones, with new guitarist Mick Taylor, were at the peak of their powers. The greatest Rock and Roll ever was made on their ’69 tour. The ’72 tour was close, but nowhere near as intense, by design.

  • Leonardo L. Santos

    This whole thing was a mess from the start. Everybody knows that LSD mixed with booze and other drugs makes people do crazy things. I’ve seen the film of the show lots of times and you can see people acting really strange from the beginning. This show would have to be scheduled for during day time for obvious reasons, what kind of security can you provide for people in this situation during the night? Not much. LSD is a drug that stays in your system and too much of it fucks up your brain…what seemed like magic turned into bad trips and madness/agressiveness. The hippy scene died because of the drugs…in my modest opinoin thats the only reason why it died out. This concert was the end of it…the drugs idn’t have the effect it was having in the start, no one was prepared to deal with it

  • Harold Adler

    At one point the Hells Angels were throwing people off the stage like pieces of meat. The good news was that the stage was so low to the ground they did not have far to fall. The problem was that Altamont rock festival was planned to be in Golden Gate Park and the city officials pulled the permits at the last minute so the concert was put together in a few DAYS instead of a few WEEKS. I can’t blame the “Angels” for doing what they did. They probably saved Mick Jaggers Life. Harold Adler

  • Olga

    I was there also, all of sweet 16. By the time the Stones played, the huge mass of drugged out young people started pushing forward, there was no place to move. It was dusk and bonfires lit up around the hills like a scene out of hell when they began Sympathy for the Devil. Mick Jagger even said weird things happen when they play that song. Well DUH! Don Mclean was right when he wrote in Bye Bye Miss American Pie, “I saw Satan laughing with delight the day the music died”. Most of us were churched kids back then, not realizing we were switching worship songs from Jesus to Lucifer and yes there was a blood sacrifice. After that California life got darker and people got more perverse, deeper into drugs, abuse and despair. Hunters blood flowed during the song, “Under my Thumb” and if you believe in Satan, that’s exactly where he’s had California’s youth after that day when so many of us stopped believing in God.

  • Pat Howes

    I was there, 16 years old, armed with a pentax spotmatic and my brother’s old press ID (from a community college paper). I walked right thru the backstage area so I could get right in front of the stage. We were standing there packed in shoulder to shoulder and then at the urging of someone on stage we all sat down, literally in each others laps. During Airplane’s set a fat naked guy started dancing around about 20 feet from the stage. Unfortunately he was dancing on top of people so three bikers waded thru the crowd to subdue him with pool cues. Marty Balin yelled at them to stop the violence and when they didn’t, he threw his tamborine at them. The biker who was hit by the tamborine turned, walked to the stage and decked Balin. One punch as I recall. The beer was in a school bus that always had at least 2 guys on top guarding it. I also remember bikers policing the lines for the portapotties, making guys go in 2 at a time to keep the lines moving. I left before dark so I could find my ride and the other people I came with.

  • Truth Patrol

    Al:

    Marty Balin (wearing a cowboy hat, white) can be seen hurling a tambourine, presumably at the Hells Angels a few seconds before he decided to play John Wayne for real. He drops off stage and presumably confronted one or more club members, and got kncoked out.

  • Frank

    Hells Angels are the last of the real Cowboys. Support your local H.A chapter.

  • Mike Buchwald

    Marty Balin is one of the greatest rock singers of all time. The Hells
    Angels are scum that must be eradicated.

  • stan

    I was there 17 years old and stoned on acid. I remember it being cold damp, you could feel there was a bad vibe in the air. My friend Steve and I had gone to the “Amador Gold Rush” rock festival I think in April or May of 1969 which was a blast. This was different it was like being in Mordor. I never got close to the stage there were just to many people. After the concert i heard about the things that had happened and even at 17 i knew that the world had changed.

  • Stephen Dimig

    “Note the freak-out boy on the stage two steps from Jagger a minute or so before the Hunter incident.” –

    Look closely, “freak-out boy was a Hell’s Angel.

  • Benson

    In general I think “bikers” are low IQ, idiots, but I would hardly make them the scapegoat of what went wrong with this concert. This was like “Night of the Living Dead.” Hundreds of spaced out and potentially violent zombies, rushing the stage at any given moment. With a few bikers to hold them back. I wish the Angels would just have said screw it, and went back to their bus and partied, whilst the drug-crazed crowd, massacred the musicians. And Marty? He jumped down off stage, right into the middle of the fray. He got a quick lesson in rioting and crowd management. Please- Gay musicians should not break up Biker fight without fear of being punched. The Angels did the best they could in an insane situation. The crowd was totally freaked, and it appears they were ready to inflict blood and carnage on the musicians.

  • Bob Burkle

    I was there. It was a cold and overcast December day. People where cold, hungry and in a bad mood. And everyone knows or should know NOT to mess with the Hells Angels…stupid shit.

  • Chris

    I was there too ,but Mick Jagger was not to blame,Charles Manson sucker punched Jagger then handed the mike to Tex Watson who started singing the Beatles song “piggies” out came Sadie ,Leslie ,and Katie with the knives