The year was 1969, and the free love movement was sweeping the nation’s youth and concerts and festivals were a Mecca of ideals and culture. At the end of the year, one of the world’s most popular rock and roll bands, The Rolling Stones were wrapping up their North American tour. The mostly successful tour had garnered some criticism from fans and journalists claiming ticket prices were too high, this combined with the bands regret missing out on that years earlier groundbreaking music event, The Woodstock Festival, inspired the Stones to put on their own free massive outdoor concert in the west coast it would be the “Woodstock West.” While logistical setbacks surrounded the planning of the event there was no expectation for the tragedy that would mark the history of the event that was ‘The Altamont Free Concert.”
Promoters for the event visioned a recreation of the infamous Woodstock Festival, earlier that summer where thousands of hippies came from all over the country to let loose, party, love each and generally have a good time. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll was a major selling point to the youth culture at the time. Rolling Stones singer, Mick Jagger, said of the upcoming event during a press conference, “Well, it’s not, so much, I don’t think, the concert, the concert’s just sort of, I think the concert’s an excuse. You know, because, like, the thing is, it’s just like everyone coming and having a good time and the concert’s not actually like the proscenium of the theatre, it’s like an excuse for everyone to sort of, you know, get together and, like, talk to each other and sleep with each other and ball each other and get very stoned and just have a nice night out and good day, you know?” The promoters struggled to find a venue after being denied permits by the town of San Jose, CA who was in no mood to deal with an event of this magnitude. Finally, the team was offered the use of The Altamont Speedway by its owner. However, even in the early stages of planning, there was skepticism about the ability to safely put on an event of this size. The speedways owner firmly told the band’s lawyer, “My first area of policy concern: I do not want the gesture, on the part of Mr. Jagger, to cost me five cents. If a blade of grass is torn down, they are going to build it up again. You know. I was involved in Woodstock. I have represented rock groups. And I’ve been involved both as an attorney and as an executive with festivals. No matter what anybody tells you, they’re a pain in the ass.” One of the biggest issues with the sudden change of venues was lack of facilities, medical, restrooms, and perhaps what would prove to be the biggest downfall of the event, a lack of security.
With a venue secured and a date chosen, December 6th, 1969, “The Altamont Free Concert” was set to go on. With the help of local rock all-stars The Grateful Dead and a lineup featuring Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby Still and Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead, and of course headlined by The Rolling Stones the event was thought by fans, artists, and production to be the event to mark the end of the peace and love decade of the sixties. The concert announcer started the event saying “I’d like to point out to everybody here, that this will be the greatest party of 1969 that we’ve had. Let’s have a party and let’s have a good time.” Little did they know it would be marked not with love and celebration but with death and violence.
Over 300,000 people descended onto the Altamont Speedway to party, dance, and to feel a sense of community. Concerned with the number of attendees and the speedways lack of security, an outside security force was recruited, the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, the notorious outlaw motorcycle gang. The details behind their being hired are fuzzy. Some accounts claimed the Rolling Stones and their management hired them on the recommendation of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, but almost all accounts of their being hired are confirmed and denied by several parties involved. All we know is that some arrangement was made with the motorcycle club in exchange for 500 dollars’ worth of beer and prime spots at the front of the stage.
Tensions quickly boiled over between the concert-goers and the Hells Angels. The agitated and intoxicated concertgoers threw bottles and pushed their way toward the stage while the Angels responded by beating the crowd with pool sticks and motorcycle chains. Offstage Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead looked on in horror trying to assess the situation. For fear of their own lives, the Grateful Dead would not play, they were out. It was then that the Rolling Stones took the stage. The chaos was almost unbearable, the band struggled to get through songs as violent brawls erupted all over the front of the stage. Mick pleaded with the crowd “I cannot see what’s going on. I just know that every time we get to a number, something happens. I don’t know what’s going on. Who’s doing what? It’s just a scuffle. All I can ask you, San Francisco, is like the whole thing, like, this could be the most beautiful evening we’ve had for this winter. You know and we’ve really – Why, don’t, let’s – get up man – let’s get it together! I can’t do any more than just ask you. To beg you – just to keep it together. You can do it! It’s wihin your power. Everyone. Everyone. Hell’s Angels. Everybody. Let’s just keep ourselves together. You know, if we, if we are all one – let’s show we’re all one!” but it was no use, the situation was about to turn deadly.
During the Stones set a young man, Meredith Hunter, 18, charged the stage multiple times twice to be beaten severely and pushed back by Hell’s Angels. Angry and reportedly very high, Hunter charged the stage a third time this time brandishing a .22 caliber pistol. A member of the Hells Angel charged Hunter and stabbed him two times, killing him. While the fight was obvious the death went mostly unnoticed as Meredith Hunter was dragged away dead, the show went on. Mick Jagger later said of the event, “No, you couldn’t see anything. Where – it was another scuffle.”
Of course, to this day the Oakland branch of the Hells Angels and their leader at the time, Sonny Barger, are blamed by most for the tragic death of Meredith Hunter and the violence in the front of the stage. When asked about their role as security Sonny Barger claimed no responsibility for the violence and had a lot to say in the defense of his club, “I didn’t go there to police nuthin’, man! I ain’t no cop! I ain’t never pretended to be a cop and this Mick Jagger, like, 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 can ever see. And, you know what, they told me, if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody climbed over me, you know, I could drink beer until the show was over. And that’s what I went there to do.” Although the death of Meredith Hunter was tragic and avoidable the event was also marked by other deaths including 2 hit and run deaths at the venue and one accidental drowning. This chapter in concert history is often hard to swallow after a decade of a counterculture based in peace in love but it perhaps serves a purpose as a cautionary tale to organizers of large events as to the risks of hasty and poor concert planning.