‘Rock’s Darkest Day’: A Look Back At Altamont, 50 Years Later

– Altamont Free Concert
Members of the Hells Angels, hired as security at the Altamont Free Concert, use pool cues to control the crowd at the 1969 event that turned tragic.

Mick Jagger got his first glimpse that something was wrong at Altamont Speedway near Tracy, Calif., 60 miles east of San Francisco, when he bounded off a helicopter at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 6, 1969, and was immediately confronted by an angry “fan.” 

“I hate you,” said the man before punching him in the face, staggering Jagger, who brushed it off.

The Rolling Stones vocalist wasn’t the first musician to be attacked that day at the Altamont Free Concert. Jefferson Airplane’s singer Marty Balin was previously knocked unconscious by a member of the Hells Angels, the Northern California branch of the motorcycle gang who were in charge of policing the stage at the event in exchange for $500 worth of beer. 
More than 300,000 fans had gathered at Altamont Speedway for what was promised as “Woodstock West,” a free day of music on a desolate, abandoned racetrack, highlighted by a performance from the Stones, as the intended climax to their just-completed, very successful U.S. tour, their first in almost five years. The concert was also seen as a suitable final act for the documentary of the band being directed by the Maysles brothers. 
The West Coast yang to the much-ballyhooed yin gathering in Bethel, N.Y., earlier that summer, offered the dark side to the counterculture’s mantra of peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll, hastily – and disastrously – organized by the Stones, using the Grateful Dead as their guides to the burgeoning world of the free festival. It was the Dead and then-manager Rock Scully who convinced the Stones and their newly named tour manager Sam Cutler to hire 40 members of the Hells Angels to police the 3-foot-high stage (separated from the crowd by a single length of twine), for a lineup that was supposed to include the Dead and fellow Woodstock alumni Jefferson Airplane; Santana; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Flying Burrito Brothers were a last-minute addition, thanks to Gram Parsons pal Keith Richards, with the Nudie-suit-wearing, one-time Harvard Divinity School student and trust fund baby picking up the entire tab for the band to appear. 

The concert was originally supposed to take place in Golden Gate Park, but the Stones’ involvement messed up that plan. Tour accountant Ronnie Schneider and the late, shady businessman Jon Jaymes (aka John Ellsworth), ultimately signed off on the Altamont site after the previous location, Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, fell through when the owners, Filmways, Inc., demanded $100,000 for the site and distribution rights to the documentary, an offer Jagger flatly refused. The Altamont location was locked in a mere 36 hours before the event would take place, with 24 hours to build an infrastructure.  

As Joel Selvin tells it in his definitive 2016 book, “Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day,” there were four fatalities that day, including the stabbing death of an 18-year-old African-American, Meredith “Murdock” Hunter, who waved a gun and was killed by Hells Angel Alan Passaro in full, slow-motion view of the Maysles’ cameras as the band performed the ominous refrain of “Under My Thumb.” Passaro was eventually acquitted of a murder charge. 

Selvin, the longtime pop music scribe for the San Francisco Chronicle, attempts to counter the long-held assumptions engendered by the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter” which, after all, was a Rolling Stones project from start to finish. He puts a face to the various members of Hells Angels, not absolving them, but trying to understand the difficult situation they were put in trying to keep things under control, while seemingly everyone around them was tripping on a deadly combination of bad acid and speed, which made for anything but good vibes.
“The story holds up, what can you say?” says Selvin. “It’s a horrible thing and you just can’t change it. Over the years, it has become more deeply etched in the firmament of rock history. 
“Fyre Festival is not going to be remembered 50 years from now.”
If Woodstock’s success was the result of potential disasters being averted – like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller threatening to call in the National Guard – Altamont was more a case of Murphy’s Law – everything that could go wrong did, and then some. Aside from Hunter, one young man drowned in a muddy irrigation ditch and another two were killed by an out-of-control automobile manned by an LSD-addled driver.
Veteran Woodstock, Fillmore East and Rolling Stones lighting and stage designer Chip Monck had four steel towers built to house $8,000 worth of Super Trouper spotlights at Altamont. Those cases were burned for warmth by attendees, leaving the lights unused in the mud. He had also hired eight union operators to man the lights but they never showed up, making the point moot. Still, without the steel, they couldn’t build the stage any higher than it was.
“We weren’t working with scaffolding, we were working in an older fashion with parallels,” Monck explains of the stage, which was originally built for the Sears Point site, where it would have been on top of a slope, rather than at the bottom. “You could probably have put another stage below it … but nobody had one.  We did the best we could.”
Monck ended up using 48,000 watts of white light backfills that reflected off the faces of the audience to illuminate the band. After the concert, he suffered a beating from a Hells Angel pool cue that cost him four front teeth when he tried to prevent them from loading the Stones’ purple carpet on their pick-up, accidentally knocking over one of their bikes in the bargain. 
“The two things I felt compelled to do was retrieve that rug – which was production property, after all – and apologize personally to Mrs. Hunter for the death of her son. Because no one else in the Stones camp gave a fuck. They left as fast as they could.”
Selvin insists the documentary “Gimme Shelter“ “is a lie … and I say that as an admirer of the film. Still, it portrays the Stones as victims, not Meredith Hunter. The editing in the film makes it look like Hunter’s body was taken away by a helicopter, but that never happened.”  
The movie ended up a critical and box office success.
As for the Hells Angels, Selvin says, “They were played for patsies, put in an impossible position. If Passaro hadn’t been a gang member, he would’ve been hailed as a hero.” 
Ironically, while Selvin puts the onus of the disaster directly on the Stones, rock’s notorious bad boys – even if they never again attained the creative, sinister, fearless peak of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed – emerged from the fiasco not just unscathed, but more popular than ever, the accrued evil merely adding to their mythology, as tour manager Sam Cutler described them in his onstage intro, “The world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band.”  
Ironically, after the delays and the killing of Hunter, when the Stones finally kicked into “Brown Sugar” at the behest of Mick Taylor, a song they’d never performed before, “the whole thing came alive in an instant,” says Selvin. “And from there on, the band just plowed through the set, super-serious and severe. Jagger singing like he was committed, none of that loopy caricature he lapses into. He was inside those songs.”
After Altamont, the band signed with Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun and released Sticky Fingers, then went on to headline stadiums, and continue to do so to this day, defying those who insist, every tour, “this could be the last time.”
Famed rock writer, self-proclaimed groupie and Stones fan Pamela Des Barres left Altamont an hour before the band even came on. Caught up in a torrid affair with Mick, she wrote in her diary later that day, “Scrunge and filth unlimited! I have come to the conclusion that I am spoiled. I just wasn’t satisfied to sit in the dirt with 300,000 smelly, grubby people and wait for the Stones. I really thought that people would be united, brought together in a lovely way … but Nobody (sic) cared about each other.” 
When she went back to see Jagger and the band at San Francisco’s elegant Fairmont Hotel, later that night, she said, “I will never, ever forget the woe, the gloom, the absolute anguish I encountered as I entered the Stones’ room. In retrospect, I realize that horrible day grew me right the fuck up.” 
Altamont was a rite of passage for many that day, an unpleasant glimpse at the dark side of the counterculture’s rose-colored glasses. 
“In many senses, Altamont was a grand misadventure,” concludes Selvin. “They didn’t catch a single lucky break. Things like this don’t happen at a Bee Gees concert. It was a loss of innocence for everyone involved.”
“The genie was out of the bottle and the bottle broke,” adds Monck. “That was the end of our collective dream.”