It was supposed to be the West Coast version of Woodstock. Instead, it turned deadly as a total of four died, one of whom the Hells Angels stabbed to death during the middle of the Rolling Stones' set.
"The violence just in front of the stage was incredible," Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones recalls of The Altamont Speedway free concert on Dec. 6, 1969 in Livermore, Calif. The festival was intended to be an epic event — and it certainly was, but for all the wrong reasons.
The festival was meant to bring the radically counter-cultural 1960s to a glorious end. Instead, the festival that meant to encapsulate the Summer of Love ended in tragedy when four people died, including 18-year-old Meredith Hunter who was stabbed by a Hells Angel.
What led to this disastrous show? Most believe it was a lethal combination of grave disorganization and poor decision making by the festival's orchestrators, which included none other than legendary rock band The Rolling Stones.
Of all their mistakes regarding the show, perhaps the greatest of all was the Stones' decision to hire the Hells Angels as their security for the Altamont concert.
The Altamont Speedway Free Concert
The band wanted to bring the magic of Woodstock — the iconic 1969 New York music festival — to the country's West Coast. In autumn of that same year, the Stones felt inspired to organize just that.
What they didn't do — that Woodstock's organizers did — was plan ahead.
The idea for Woodstock was conceived in January 1969. This meant that the team responsible for assembling what's been called the single greatest live music event in history had nearly seven months to plan and prepare for it.
On the other hand, the Rolling Stones tried to whip up the Altamont Free Concert in a matter of weeks. The venue wasn't even sorted out until just a couple of days before the festival was slated to occur.
Local business owner Dick Carter offered up his Altamont Speedway as a venue at the last minute. Because the production team was pressed for time, they were unable to set up the stage properly, making the venue unsafe for both performers and attendees.
The free concert did promise the performances of such iconic artists as Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, though at the expense of safety and preparedness.
The arc lights weren't set up above the stage; instead, they were propped up on boxes. In addition, there wasn't enough time to set up a barricade between the crowd and the stage. All the Altamont Concert used was a thin piece of rope to keep the concertgoers away from the stage.
Keith Richards said that they "had them [the Hells Angels] at the suggestion of The Grateful Dead". They arranged for the bikers to work for all the free beer they wanted, an offer they happily accepted.
From the very start, the gang's presence was unwelcome by both festival goers and the musical acts. The disorderly Angels were rough and often used a "take no prisoners" approach to their security efforts.
One gang member knocked Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin unconscious in a scuffle, but the concert continued. While the Rolling Stones would be the headlining set of the night, the band wound up making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The Murder Of Meredith Hunter
Meredith Hunter was excited to attend the Altamont Speedway free concert after he had experienced the love and positive energy that the Monterey Jazz Festival offered. His sister, Dixie, warned Hunter that he shouldn't go. Hunter went anyway, though he did bring a gun. He recruited his girlfriend Patti Bredehoft, and the pair took off to Altamont.
When the couple arrived at the Altamont Speedway, they were surprised to find themselves in a sea of utter chaos. They witnessed some Angels practically running people over with their motorcycles, beating music fans with pool cues, and generally inciting violence.
After staying the afternoon at the concert, the couple retreated to their car. Bredehoft was ready to leave, but Hunter convinced her to go back in for the headlining act.
Little did Hunter know that a song by the Rolling Stones would be the last one he'd ever hear.
When the band finally appeared onstage, lead singer Mick Jagger acknowledged the craziness that was happening right in front of him. "There’s so many of you. Just keep cool down in front and don’t push around. Just keep still, keep together", he pleaded to the crowd. But it was mainly his own security causing the trouble, not the fans.
Hunter climbed atop a makeshift speaker stand to get a better glimpse at the band. He was at the front of the stage now, at the feet of the band and on camera. As "Under My Thumb" played, the Hells Angels swarmed the crowd. One of them pulled at Hunter to get down from the speaker, but he fought back.
The Angel grabbed him again, and again Hunter attempted to fight him off. The gang member punched him in the face, knocking him to the ground. More Angels joined the assailant and continued to punch and kick Hunter.
Hunter got back on his feet and tried to run away through the crowd as Angels came after him. He pulled out his gun and pointed it backward at the Hells Angels — and towards the stage. Hunter's girlfriend pleaded with him to drop the gun, but it was too late.
The Angels surrounded him. An Angel named Alan Passaro stabbed Hunter twice. Taking him away from the crowd, they stabbed Hunter at least four more times and then kicked him in the head and chest repeatedly.
When Bredehoft finally caught up to her boyfriend, he was at the mercy of the Hells Angels. Bystanders attempted to save Hunter's life by tending to his wounds and carrying him to the medical tent. Unfortunately, their efforts were futile.
The Aftermath At Altamont
Most of the incident at the Altamont Speedway was captured on video and featured in the rock documentary Gimmie Shelter by brothers Albert and David Maysles, which is largely regarded as one of the greatest rock documentaries.
After news of Hunter's death made national headlines, a radio station took calls from Altamont concert-goers to share what they'd experienced. One of the Hells Angels that attended surprisingly called in — and he described the type of "security" that the Stones paid for:
"I didn’t go there to police nothing, man. I ain’t no cop, I ain’t never gonna ever pretend to be a cop. This Mick Jagger like fuc*in’ put it all on the Angels, man. Like, he used us for dupes man. And as far as I’m concerned we were the biggest suckers for that idiot that I could ever see. And you know what, they told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody would climb over me, I could drink beer ‘till the show was over. And that’s what I went there to do. But you know what, when they started messing over our bikes, they started it. I don’t know if you think we pay $50 for them things or steal 'em or pay a lot for them or what — ain’t nobody gonna kick my motorcycle."
Passaro, who stabbed and killed Hunter, went on trial but was acquitted on grounds that he stabbed Hunter in self-defense.
The concert ultimately saw the accidental deaths of three other attendees: two were killed in a hit-and-run and another by drowning — allegedly while on drugs and trying to enter the concert via a shallow irrigation canal.
In the fall out of the scandal, it's been revealed by the FBI that the Hells Angels put out a hit on Mick Jagger to avenge the chaos at Altamont that he blamed on the motorcycle gang.
It comes to question who really is at blame: the Rolling Stones for their ill-preparedness or the Hells Angels for their incitement of violence? The free concert at the Altamont Speedway certainly proved to be the end of the hippie era, however not in the manner anyone had anticipated it would be.
After this look at the Altamont Speedway free concert, check out these images that capture the Hells Angels motorcycle gang. Then, read about the Isle of Wight Festival, Britain's answer to Woodstock.