Violence At Altamont: The 'Hells Angels Stabbing' And The End Of The 1960s
By Jack Ripley | November 16, 2023
Altamont Was No Woodstock
It was meant to be a west coast Woodstock, but today we remember it as the "end" of the '60s: Altamont. The Hells Angels, a rowdy crowd, and a poorly-arranged venue all conspired to turn a multi-band extravaganza, headlined by the Rolling Stones, into a violent and even deadly debacle. The notorious event known as Altamont, officially called the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, was held at a racetrack in northern California on December 6, 1969, four months after the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival had taken place in upstate New York. With its "peace and love" theme and spirit of togetherness, Woodstock became an emblem of the harmony and togetherness that the hippies and the counterculture could achieve. Altamont was its polar opposite.
The Line-Up Was Amazing
The Stones were on a bill that included the leading west coast and San Francisco artists of the day, including Jefferson Airplane, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. Some 300,000 music fans flocked to Altamont, where the Hells Angels had been enlisted to help out, although stories differ as to what exactly the members of the famous biker gang were expected to do.
The Bad Vibes Festival
In contrast to the hippies' vision of making the world a better, groovier place, from 1967's Summer of Love through to the Woodstock festival, Altamont was an explosion of bad vibes. Altamont is now known as the place where "the Hells Angels stabbed a man to death while The Rolling Stones were putting on a concert," and not as the Woodstock sequel it was meant to be. The stabbing at Altamont happened to a man named Meredith Hunter and one of the Hells Angels, Alan Passaro, was tried for murder but found not guilty.
Music Festivals Were A Counterculture Phenomenon In The Mid To Late '60s -- Until Altamont
With all of the political turbulence of desegregation and the civil rights movement, young people were finding that music festivals were the perfect venue to kick back with friends and lose themselves in some groovy music for days on end. The Woodstock Music Festival, which took place August 15-18, was billed as, "An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music." For the most part, it was just that… 3 days of peace and music. Given the massive crowd of over 400,000 attendees, there were relatively few conflicts. It was considered a huge (if ragged) success. Britain's Isle of Wight festival, which happened later in August 1969, drew around 150,000 attendees, and went off without a hitch.
Jefferson Airplane Said They Wanted To Make The "Woodstock Of The West"
Jefferson Airplane's vision of Altamont as the "Woodstock of the West" stemmed from a desire to bring together iconic rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones to experience the vibrant San Francisco music scene. Spencer Dryden and Jorma Kaukonen, members of Jefferson Airplane, initially conceived the idea of a free concert in Golden Gate Park, hoping to share the San Francisco spirit with these renowned musicians. The Rolling Stones, in particular, were seen as the biggest rock and roll band globally, and the Airplane wanted them to feel the essence of their city's music scene. While the initial plans seemed promising, with Jefferson Airplane on tour and believing that preparations for the Golden Gate Park event were in full swing, they were taken aback when, by December 4, the plans had unraveled. The city and police departments' lack of cooperation, coupled with the growing tensions between the Haight-Ashbury hippie community and the police, ultimately led to the breakdown of these plans. Consequently, Altamont was relocated to Sonoma Raceway, although the high financial demands of the venue's owners, requesting $100,000 in escrow from the Rolling Stones, presented a new set of challenges.
The Logistics Were Off Before The Show Festival Started
The logistics surrounding the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 were plagued by a series of chaotic changes and unforeseen challenges. The Rolling Stones, responding to criticism of high ticket prices during their U.S. tour, decided to conclude their tour with a free concert in San Francisco. Originally slated for San Jose State University's practice field, the venue had to be changed due to objections from the city. Golden Gate Park was the next choice, but a scheduled football game at Kezar Stadium rendered that option unfeasible. Sears Point Raceway near Sonoma was then selected, but disputes over cash deposits and film rights forced yet another relocation. Finally, Altamont Raceway, near Tracy, was chosen just two days before the event. This hurried relocation brought a host of logistical problems, including the lack of essential facilities like portable toilets and medical tents. Additionally, the abrupt change in venue meant the stage had to be positioned at the bottom of a slope, altering the originally planned stage design.
Altamont Was Supposed To Rival Woodstock
This infamous music festival was an attempt by the Rolling Stones to rival other successful and expensive festivals to end their U.S. tour on a positive note. They wanted to go out with a bang and that they did… but not a good one. The Rolling Stones decided they would organize a free concert, but little thought went into any details other than the talent. Their hope was that the festival would be as successful as Woodstock -- or even more successful. Performing groups included (in order of appearance) Santana, The Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones. It was a stellar lineup that drew an enormous crowd. Enter the Hells Angels.
Meredith Curly Hunter, Jr. Was Stabbed And Beaten To Death By The Hells Angels
Unfortunately, the Altamont Music Festival will not go down in history as being as successful as the Rolling Stones had hoped. This free music festival sadly claimed the lives of four people. Two died in a hit-and-run car accident, and another concert-goer drowned while under the influence of LSD. But the most famous fatality, and one that directly resulted from the event's chaos, was that of Meredith Curly Hunter, Jr.
The Hells Angels Motorcycle Gang Had Been Brought In To Act As 'Security'
With so much chaos at Altamont, we may never know the finer details of the arrangements made between the Hells Angels and the organizers. Most accounts seem to agree they were enlisted to act as "security" in exchange for $500 worth of beer. Hells Angels members would later claim that "security" was an overstatement, and they had merely been asked, in a vague way, to help out. As a means of blocking performers from the crowd, gang members lined their motorcycles up in front of the stage. If anyone got too close to the performers, that also meant they were too close for comfort to the Hells Angels' bikes.
The Hell's Angels Were Out Of Control
As the makeshift security guards became increasingly intoxicated, their means of crowd control became increasingly aggressive and questionable. As the crowd grew restless throughout the concert, the Hells Angels responded by hurling full cans of beer, pool cues, motorcycle chains, and other objects into the crowd. Instead of keeping the peace, they had incited mayhem. Countless people were seriously injured, including performers. Even Mick Jagger took a punch as a result of the chaos.
The Hells Angels Never Promised That They Would Behave
While speaking about the chaos of Altamont, Hells Angels member Bill "Sweet William" Fritsch claims that he told Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler:
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.
The Stones Didn't Know Who They Were Dealing With
According to Stefan Ponek, who helped organize the festival, said that the Stones hired the Hells Angels without realizing the type of people they were hiring:
What we learned in the broadcast was pretty much startling: These guys—the Angels—had been hired and paid with $500 of beer, on a truck with ice, to essentially bring in the Stones and keep people off the stage. That was the understanding, that was the deal. And it seemed like there was not a lot of disagreement over that; that seemed to emerge as a fact, because it became rather apparent that the Stones didn't know what kind of people they were dealing with.
Things Started Out Smoothly
The initial act, Santana, delivered a relatively smooth performance on stage. However, as the day wore on, both the crowd and the Hells Angels grew increasingly agitated and violent. The Angels had been consuming their complimentary beer throughout the day, leading to a state of inebriation for most of them. Meanwhile, the audience's demeanor became confrontational and unpredictable, resulting in altercations not only amongst themselves but also with the Angels and the performers. According to Mick Jagger's biographer, Anthony Scaduto, the only moment of relative calm occurred during the country-rock performance by the Flying Burrito Brothers. Yet, this tranquility was shattered when Denise Jewkes, lead singer of the local San Francisco band the Ace of Cups and six months pregnant, was struck in the head by an empty beer bottle hurled from the crowd, resulting in a skull fracture. The Rolling Stones subsequently covered all of Jewkes' ambulance and medical expenses. In response to the escalating chaos, the Hells Angels armed themselves with shortened pool cues and motorcycle chains in an attempt to push the crowd further away from the stage.
By The Time The Stones Hit The Stage The Vibes Had Shifted
As the early evening descended upon Altamont, the atmosphere had markedly soured, marred by numerous brawls that had broken out among the Hells Angels, concertgoers, and even within the crowd itself. The Rolling Stones opted to wait until sundown before taking the stage, with Stanley Booth noting that one reason for the delay was Bill Wyman's late arrival, having missed the helicopter ride to the venue. When the Stones finally launched into their performance, a densely packed throng of approximately 4,000 to 5,000 individuals pressed right up against the stage, with many attempting to clamber onto it.
Meredith Hunter Can Be Seen On Video Brandishing A Gun
Meredith Hunter was an 18-year-old African American man who attended the festival. In the excitement of the moment, he attempted to approach the stage while the Rolling Stones were performing. As he got close to the stage, Hunter was met with violence by members of the Hells Angels.
After being forced to leave the stage area, Hunter, who was discovered at the autopsy to have methamphetamine in his system, became enraged and returned to meet the Hell's Angels with a .22 caliber revolver. Hunter brandished the weapon in an angry effort to avenge his treatment by the Hells Angels. In the process of confronting his attackers, he was stabbed multiple times and beaten to death, reportedly by a gang member named Alan Passaro. The entire incident was captured by a documentary filmmaker (and can be seen in the Rolling Stones movie Gimme Shelter), which ultimately led to murder charges being filed against Passaro.
The Hells Angel Who Stabbed Hunter Was Acquitted
Following a 17-day jury trial, Passaro was acquitted on grounds of self-defense. For some time, there was a theory that another Hells Angels gang member was responsible for the fatal stab wound. The case remained open for years until it was officially closed in 2005.
In 1985, Alan Passaro drowned in a lake in Santa Clara County, California. The drowning was considered "suspicious" and foul play has never been ruled out. In 2008, the BBC aired a documentary reporting that after the Altamont Music Festival, members of the Hells Angels made an attempt on Mick Jagger’s life.
Much Of The Violent Footage Was Used In 'Gimme Shelter'
Eric Saarinen, who was capturing images of the crowd from the stage, and Baird Bryant, who had climbed atop a bus, filmed footage that later appeared in the documentary "Gimme Shelter." Remarkably, Saarinen was unaware that he had captured the tragic killing on film. It wasn't until more than a week later that this discovery was made when the unedited footage was screened at the New York offices of the Maysles Brothers. In a brief two-second film sequence, a small gap in the crowd, measuring about two meters or six feet, became visible with Bredehoft positioned at its center. From the left, Hunter entered the gap, his hand rising toward the stage, revealing the silhouette of a revolver against Bredehoft's light-colored vest. Simultaneously, Passaro entered from the right, delivering two knife stabs while parrying Hunter's revolver and pushing him out of the frame. The gap then closed around Bredehoft. Although Passaro was reported to have stabbed Hunter five times in the upper back, only two stabs were discernible in the footage. Eyewitnesses also reported that several Hells Angels had stomped on Hunter while he lay on the ground. The firearm was eventually recovered and turned over to the police. Hunter's autopsy confirmed that he had methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death. Passaro was arrested and stood trial for murder in the summer of 1971 but was ultimately acquitted when the jury viewed concert footage, concluding that Passaro had acted in self-defense after witnessing Hunter brandishing the revolver.
Were The Hells Angels Trying To Kill Mick Jagger?
In a startling revelation from 2008, a former FBI agent brought to light a chilling conspiracy that involved certain members of the Hells Angels plotting to assassinate Mick Jagger as an act of retribution. Their motive stemmed from the Rolling Stones' perceived failure to support the Angels in the aftermath of the tumultuous Altamont Free Concert and their negative portrayal in the documentary film "Gimme Shelter." The alleged conspirators reportedly employed a boat to approach a residence where Jagger was residing on Long Island, New York. However, their sinister plot was thwarted when the boat encountered a violent storm, nearly sinking in the process. To this day, Mick Jagger's spokesperson has refrained from offering any comments or confirmation on the matter, leaving the shocking revelation shrouded in intrigue and mystery.
The Grateful Dead Skipped Their Set
The Grateful Dead, also organizers of the festival, were scheduled to take the stage at Altamont but backed out after all the violence erupted. As they watched the situation deteriorate, the Grateful Dead made the decision to leave Altamont and forgo playing their set. In a famous recap of the incident, a Rolling Stone magazine staff member wrote, "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."
The documentary film Gimme Shelter stands as a stark and unflinching portrayal of the chaos that unfolded at the Altamont Free Festival, leaving an indelible mark not only on the Rolling Stones but also on the broader cultural landscape of the late 1960s. Directed by Albert and David Maysles, along with Charlotte Zwerin, the film captures the dark and unsettling events that transpired, most notably the tragic killing of Meredith Hunter by a Hells Angels security guard. This horrifying incident, vividly documented in the film, served as a grim reminder that the idealism of the free love era was not immune to the darker undercurrents of society. "Gimme Shelter" thus brought an eerie conclusion to the utopian aspirations of the 1960s, painting a sobering picture of the breakdown of peace and love, and the encroachment of violence and disillusionment into a generation's dreams of harmony. It forever changed the perception of music festivals, reminding us of the fragile balance between the liberating power of music and the potential for chaos and tragedy when such gatherings go awry.