This post will be a doozy. The Rolling Stones were present at one of the most infamous events of the 1960s, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. I’ve read about it many times, since I was obsessed with the counterculture of the 60s and 70s, but almost forgot to include it on here!
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a rock concert held on December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California.
The event is best known for considerable violence, including the death of Meredith Hunter and three accidental deaths: two caused by a hit-and-run car accident and one by drowning in an irrigation canal. Four births were reported during the event. Scores were injured and there was extensive property damage.
The concert featured, in order of appearance: Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act. The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform, but declined to play shortly before their scheduled appearance due to the increasing violence at the venue. “That’s the way things went at Altamont—so badly that the Grateful Dead, prime organizers and movers of the festival, didn’t even get to play,” staff at Rolling Stone magazine wrote of the event, terming it in an additional follow-up piece “rock and roll’s all-time worst day, December 6th, a day when everything went perfectly wrong.”
Mick Jagger, who had already been punched in the head by a concertgoer, was visibly intimidated by the unruly situation and urged everyone to, “Just be cool down in the front there, don’t push around.” During the third song, a fight erupted in the front of the crowd at the foot of the stage, prompting the Stones to pause their set while the Hells Angels (security for the event) restored order.
After a lengthy pause and another appeal for calm, the band restarted the song and continued their set with less incident until the start of “Under My Thumb”. Some of the Hells Angels got into a scuffle with Meredith Hunter when he attempted to get onstage with other fans. One of the Hells Angels grabbed Hunter’s head, punched him, and chased him back into the crowd.
The story goes that after a minute’s pause, Hunter returned to the stage where his girlfriend Patty Bredahoft found him and tearfully begged him to calm down and move further back in the crowd with her; but he was reportedly enraged, irrational and so high he could barely walk.
Following this, he returned to the front of the crowd and drew a long-barreled .22 caliber revolver from inside his jacket. Hells Angel Alan Passaro, seeing Hunter drawing the revolver, drew a knife from his belt and charged Hunter from the side, parrying Hunter’s pistol with his left hand and stabbing him twice with his right hand, killing him.
The footage of the event was shot by Eric Saarinen, who was on stage taking pictures of the crowd, and Baird Bryant, who climbed atop a bus. In the film sequence, lasting about two seconds, a two-meter opening in the crowd appears, leaving Bredahoft in the center. Hunter enters the opening from the left. His hand rises toward the stage, and the silhouette of a revolver is clearly seen against Bredahoft’s light-colored dress. Passaro is seen entering from the right and delivering two stabs with his knife as he parries Hunter’s revolver and pushes him off-screen; the opening then closes around Bredahoft.
Passaro is reported to have stabbed Hunter five times in the upper back, although only two stabs are visible in the footage. Witnesses also reported Hunter was stomped on by several Hells Angels while he was on the ground. The gun was recovered and turned over to police. Hunter’s autopsy confirmed he was high on methamphetamine when he died. Passaro was arrested and tried for murder in the summer of 1971, but was acquitted after a jury viewed concert footage showing Hunter brandishing the revolver and concluded that Passaro had acted in self-defense.
The Rolling Stones were aware of the skirmish, but not the stabbing (“You couldn’t see anything, it was just another scuffle”, Jagger said during film editing), and felt that had they abandoned the show, the crowd may have become even more unruly, leading to riots and other chaos.
The concert came to be viewed as the end of the hippie era and the de facto conclusion of late-1960s American youth culture. Rock music critic Robert Christgau wrote in 1972 that “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.” The music magazine Rolling Stone stated, “Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity,” in a 14-page, 11-author article entitled “The Rolling Stones Disaster at Altamont: Let It Bleed” published in their January 21, 1970 issue.
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