Revisiting the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Speedway Concert
The Rolling Stones were trying to prove their critics wrong by booking a free festival to wrap up their tour at Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969. But what they intended as a way for their fans to come together for a day of music and celebration turned into a tragic debacle that ended with a homicide — effectively bringing the peace-and-love ethos of the ’60s to a jarring end.
During the Stones’ American tour in 1969, they faced repeated criticism from fans and journalists who accused the band of being mercenary, claiming that ticket prices were far too high. In response, the band decided to end the tour with a free concert in San Francisco. But the event was plagued with errors from the start, with the venue being moved multiple times before settling on Altamont Speedway on Dec. 4 — just two days before the concert.
With such little time to prepare, the site was sorely lacking in such basic needs as portable toilets and medical tents. In addition, the lay of the land meant the stage — which had been designed to be at the top of a rise — would be situated at the bottom of a slope, creating serious security and logistical problems.
The Stones and their management made a key mistake when they hired the San Francisco chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang to provide event security — reportedly paying them with $500 worth of free beer. The move was reportedly made at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead, who were also scheduled to play on a show that included Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills & Nash before the Stones were to take the stage at the end of the night.
The day of the show turned into an unmitigated disaster almost from the start, as 300,000 fans swarmed the area, straining the unprepared resources well past their breaking point. The Hells Angels got progressively drunker on free beer as the day went on, and as the crowd was also fueled by a combination of alcohol, LSD and amphetamines, the mood turned ugly early on and got worse throughout the day. There were fights and general chaos most of the day, and after the crowd tipped over one of the bikers’ motorcycles, the Angels turned even more aggressive, to the point where Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin was punched and knocked unconscious by one of the bikers during the group’s set.
Seeing the situation rapidly degenerating, the Grateful Dead refused to perform and left the scene, leaving the crowd even more restless until the Stones took the stage after dusk. Their set was plagued by turmoil from the very start; Mick Jagger had been punched by a fan upon disembarking from the band’s helicopter, and in the documentary Gimme Shelter he is visibly shaken and nervous, repeatedly pleading with the crowd, “Just be cool down in the front there, don’t push around.” The Stones stopped their set during the third song, “Sympathy for the Devil,” while Jagger admonished the crowd again, then re-started the song and plowed ahead despite numerous fights and distractions in the audience.
It was during the band’s performance of “Under My Thumb” that an 18-year-old concertgoer named Meredith Hunter tried to get onstage with a group of other fans, and having been punched and pushed back into the crowd by the Hells Angels, he reacted with violence. Reportedly so intoxicated from drugs that he could barely keep on his feet, Hunter drew a long-barreled revolver from his jacket, apparently intending to aim it either at one of the Angels, or the band onstage. A Hells Angel member named Alan Passaro surged forward, pushed the gun aside and stabbed Hunter repeatedly, killing him. The band played on, unaware of the homicide and completed their set with the hope that it would avoid a full-on riot.
The incident was inadvertently caught on film by both a photographer who was shooting the event, and a camera man for the documentary crew. It subsequently aired as part of the Gimme Shelter footage. Passaro was tried in court on charges of murder in 1971, but after jurors viewed the footage of Hunter drawing his gun, he was acquitted in self-defense. Hunter’s autopsy showed that he was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of his death.
In sharp contrast to the vibe at Woodstock a few months earlier, Altamont ultimately came to be seen as a watershed event symbolizing the death of the hippie ideal that people could come together in peace and love through music. “Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended,” rock scribe Robert Christgau wrote.
As Jagger observed, “Some people wanted to say Altamont was the end of an era. People like that are fashion writers. Perhaps it was the end of their era, the end of their naïveté. I would have thought it ended long before Altamont.”