Altamont Free Concert

Altamont Free Concert

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was an infamous rock concert held on December 6, 1969, at the then-disused Altamont Speedway in Northern California, between Tracy and Livermore. Headlined and organized by The Rolling Stones, it also featured, in order of performance: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, with the Stones taking the stage as the final act. [Wyman, p. 352] The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform between CSNY and the Stones, but canceled shortly before their scheduled appearance owing to the increasingly disorganized developments at the venue. Approximately 300,000 people attended the concert, and some speculated it would be "Woodstock West." Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin shot footage of the concert and incorporated it into a subsequent documentary film entitled "Gimme Shelter".

The event is best known for having been marred by violence, including one homicide and three accidental deaths: two caused by a hit-and-run car accident and one by drowning in an "irrigation canal".


The concert originally was scheduled to be held at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. However, a previously scheduled San Francisco 49ers football game the weekend of December 6–7 made that venue impractical, and the permits were never issued for the concert or were revoked. This was a result of Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones announcing in a press conference that the band would be making a surprise appearance at the event (their American Tour of 1969 had recently concluded.)

With the public revelation that the Stones would be performing, San Francisco officials feared a repeat of the crowd control problems that had occurred at Woodstock. Accusations have arisen that Jagger made this announcement to ensure a large crowd for a planned concert movie. The venue was then changed to the Sears Point Raceway, but after a dispute with the owner of Sears Point, Filmways, Inc., over film distribution rights, the festival was moved to the Altamont Raceway at the suggestion of its then-owner, local businessman Dick Carter. The concert was to take place on Saturday, Dec. 6; the location was switched on the night of Thursday, Dec. 4. This resulted in numerous logistical problems including a lack of facilities such as portable toilets and medical tents. The stage, which was only four feet high, was surrounded by members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang, led by Oakland chapter head Ralph 'Sonny' Barger, who acted as bouncers. [ [ Gimme Shelter] ] The sound system was hardly sufficient for such a large audience.


By some accounts, the Hells Angels were hired as security by the Rolling Stones, on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead, for $500 worth of beer — a story that has been denied by parties who were directly involved. According to Rolling Stones' road manager Sam Cutler, "the only agreement there ever was ... the Angels would make sure nobody fucked with the generators, but that was the extent of it. But there was no 'They're going to be the police force' or anything like that. That's all bollocks."McNally, p. 344] Hells Angels member Sweet William recalled this exchange between Cutler and himself at a meeting prior to the concert, where Cutler had asked them to do security:

:"We don't police things. We're not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun.":"Well, what about helping people out - you know, giving directions and things?":"Sure, we can do that."

When Cutler asked how they would like to be paid, William replied, "we like beer." In the documentary "Gimme Shelter" Sonny Barger states that the Hells Angels did not initially get involved to police the event, and that organizers had told him that he and his fellow Angels would be required to do little more than sit on the stage and drink beer. Other accountsWho|date=October 2008 also state that the initial arrangement was for the Hells Angels to watch over the equipment, but that Cutler later moved them, and their beer, near the stage to placate them or to protect the stage.Fact|date=October 2008

Since Ken Kesey had invited the Hells Angels to one of his outdoor Acid Tests, the bikers had been perceived by the hippies as akin to "noble savages".Miller, James. "Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977". Simon & Schuster (1999), pp. 275-77. ISBN 0-684-80873-0.] They had provided security at Grateful Dead shows without reported violence. Further, the Rolling Stones may have been misled by their experience with a British contingent of self-described "Hells Angels", a peaceful group of admirers of American biker-gear, who had been present at a free concert the Stones had given earlier that year in Hyde Park, London.

Crowd management proved to be difficult. Many spectators were injured and four died. Over the course of the day, the Hells Angels became increasingly agitated and violent, fueled by alcohol and alleged violence toward them and their motorcycles from fans using drugs. In addition, at least one witness stated that the group of Angels at the concert were relatively young and inexperienced and that "their leaders weren't there". [Unidentified witness, possibly Paul Kantner, quoted in Negativland's "How Radio Was Done: Episode 36". "Over the Edge" April 20, 2007, [ audio stream] accessed 2007-08-28.] The Angels used weighted sawed-off pool cues to control the crowd, or aimed at troublemakers with their bikes at full throttle, causing serious injuries. After one of the Angels' motorcycles was knocked over, the Angels became even more aggressive, including toward the performers. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious following an altercation with an Angel on stage, as seen in the documentary film "Gimme Shelter". [Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, directors. Gimme Shelter [] ] The Grateful Dead refused to play following the Balin incident, and left the venue.

The organizers hoped to ease tensions in the crowd by having the Stones perform early, but it was hours before the Stones took the stage. Accusations that Mick Jagger did not want to take the stage during daylight hours due to the filming of the concert have been voiced in the past, but in commentary on the official "Gimme Shelter" DVD, it is reported that Stones bassist Bill Wyman was having difficulties reaching the venue.

Death of Meredith Hunter

Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man, became involved in an altercation with some Hells Angels and drew a long-barreled revolver. It is clear that Hunter drew his weapon before he was stabbed the first time. He was stabbed five times in total and kicked to death during the Rolling Stones' performance (his gruesome death near the stage was clearly captured on film by three cameras). The alleged killer, Alan Passaro, was arrested and tried for murder in the summer of 1972, but was acquitted after a jury concluded he acted in self-defense because Hunter was carrying a handgun, drew it, and allegedly pointed it at the stage. It was also alleged that Hunter was under the influence of methamphetamine.

Footage from "Gimme Shelter" shows that while the Rolling Stones were ending "Under My Thumb," Hunter was approaching the stage and drawing his gun; Passaro subsequently parried the gun with his left hand and stabbed Hunter in the upper back with his right. The same footage also gives a glimpse of audience members and some of the Angels on the Stones' stage at the time. This incident is detailed in "Rolling Stone". [Burks, John, [ "Rock & Roll's Worst Day: The aftermath of Altamont"] , "Rolling Stone", 1970-02-07, URL retrieved 2007-04-18.]

The Rolling Stones had to interrupt their performance numerous times. Unaware that Hunter's stabbing was fatal, the Stones decided to continue to prevent a possible riot. By Keith Richards' account, he had had enough and tried to leave the stage, only to be confronted by Hell's Angel Sonny Barger. Richards told Barger that he would not continue playing until the violence stopped: Barger held a gun to Richards' side and said "You keep fuckin' playing or you're dead." Richards complied. [ [,3604,331676,00.html Still On The Road] . In "The Guardian", June 14, 2000, retrieved 2008-08-01.] [Barger also admits to this incident in his book "Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club" (Harper, 2001).]

There have been rumors, over the years, that a second, unidentified assailant had inflicted the fatal wounds, and, as a result, the police considered the case still open. On 25 May, 2005, however, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office announced that it was officially closing the stabbing case. Investigators, concluding a renewed two-year investigation, dismissed the theory that a second Hells Angel took part in the stabbing. [ [ USA TODAY, Investigators close decades old Altamont killing case] ]


The Altamont concert is often contrasted with the Woodstock festival that took place four months earlier. While Woodstock represented "peace and love", Altamont came to be viewed as the end of the hippie era and the "de facto" conclusion of 1960s American culture: "Altamont became, whether fairly or not, a symbol for the end of the Woodstock Nation." [Mark Hamilton Lytle (2006). "America's Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon". Oxford University Press, p 336. ISBN 0195174968.] Future rock concerts were banned at the site.

The Grateful Dead wrote several songs about, or in response to, what lyricist Robert Hunter called "the Altamont affair", including "New Speedway Boogie" (featuring the line "One way or another, this darkness got to give") and "Mason's Children". Both songs were written and recorded during sessions for the early 1970 album "Workingman's Dead", but "Mason's Children" was viewed as too "popular" stylistically and was consequently not included on the album. It is rumoredWho|date=October 2008 that Don McLean took moral exception to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, allegedly referencing the Altamont incident in his song "American Pie" with the following verses: "Oh, and as I watched him on the stage / my hands were clenched in fists of rage. No angel born in hell /could break that satan's spell. And as the flames climbed high into the night, / to light the sacrificial rite / I saw Satan laughing with delight / the day the music died." McLean has never confirmed this interpretation.


Further reading

* McNally, Dennis. "A Long Strange Trip: the Inside History of the Grateful Dead" (First Edition), 2002. ISBN 0-7679-1185-7
* Wyman, Bill. "Rolling with the Stones" (First Edition), 2002. ISBN 0-7894-8967-8
* " [ Storm thwarted Mick Jagger murder attempt] " Telegraph, UK, Sunday, 2 Mar. 2008

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