Stung by accusations of profiteering during their 1969 United States tour, the Rolling Stones announced plans for a free concert in San Francisco at its conclusion. It would be a thank you to their adoring public, and a means to assuage their guilt. Unfortunately, the December 6 concert at Altamont Speedway near Livermore, California, ended in chaos and death. By day's end there would be four dead, four born, and 300,000 bummed-out. Although inadequate preparation was at fault, the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, contracted as a security force for 500 dollars worth of beer, rightfully received the lion's share of the blame—there was a film crew at hand to document their abuses from beginning to end. Over time, Altamont has achieved a kind of mythic significance. It epitomized the potential for violence in the counterculture … the ugliness lurking behind the bangles and beads. Altamont hailed both the real and metaphorical end to 1960s counterculture.
From its very inception, portents of doom and disaster hung in the air. It was a bad day for a concert, proclaimed astrologists. The Sun, Venus, and Mercury were in Sagittarius; the moon, on the cusp of Libra and Scorpio—very bad omens indeed. Events would soon bear them out. Almost from its inception the free concert was hampered by persistent bad luck. Initially to be held in Golden Gate Park, the San Francisco City Council turned down the permit application at the very last minute. With four days to go, an alternate site was secured; the Sears Point Speedway outside San Francisco. But even as scaffolding, generators, and sound equipment were assembled there, the owners hedged, insisting on an exorbitant bond. The deal quickly fell through. With scarcely 48 hours to go before the already announced concert date, Altamont Speedway owner, Dick Carter, volunteered the use of his property for free, anticipating a raft of favorable publicity for the race track in return. The Rolling Stones were not to be denied their magnanimous gesture.
A crew of more than 200 volunteers worked through the night to relocate and erect the massive sound and light system. As concert time approached, the organizers were hopeful the day would prove a success. With so little time to prepare, short shrift had been made with food, water, parking, and bathroom facilities, but the organizers hoped that the spirit of togetherness so apparent at Woodstock would manifest itself equally for Altamont. Daybreak arose upon a scene of chaos. Throughout the night, people had been arriving at the site. By morning automobiles ranged along the access road for ten miles; people were forced to stand in line for more than half an hour to make use of the portable toilets and queues some 300 yards long stretched from the water faucets.
As the show began in earnest, hostilities broke out almost immediately. Throughout the first set by Santana, Angels provoked fights, beat the enthusiastic, inebriated audience with pool cues when they ventured too close to the stage, and drove their motorcycles through the crowd with reckless abandon. As Jefferson Airplane began their set, Hell's Angels arranged themselves about the stage, jumping into the crowd to drub perceived trouble-makers, and finally turned on the band itself, knocking out singer Marty Balin when he made efforts to intervene in a particularly brutal melee.
The Angels calmed down briefly under the influence of the mellow country-rock of the Flying Burrito Brothers, but tempers flared once again as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young played. As night fell and the temperature dropped, the chilled crowd and the thoroughly soused Angels prepared for the final act.
One and a half hours later, the Stones threaded their way through the backstage crush and took the stage. Mick Jagger, dressed in a satin bat-winged shirt, half red and half black, pranced about like a Satanic jester, capering and dancing through the first number, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," but as the Angels' violent assault on the audience continued, he was soon reduced to nervously pacing the stage, a worried expression on his face as he implored the combatants to cool down.
At will, the Angels continued their violent forays into the stunned crowd. "Sympathy for the Devil" was interrupted several times by violence, while Jagger and Keith Richards vainly beseeched the Angels. In response, an Angel seized the microphone, yelling at the crowd: "Hey, if you don't cool it, you ain't gonna hear no more music!" Wrote Stanley Booth, a reporter at the concert: "It was like blaming the pigs in a slaughterhouse for bleeding on the floor."
In fits and starts the band continued to play. They were nearing the end of "Under My Thumb" when a whirl of motion erupted at stage left. "Someone is shooting at the stage," an Angel cried. In fact, the gun had been pulled in self-defense by one Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man, who had caught the Angels attention both because of his color and the fact that accompanying him was a pretty blond girl. As Hunter attempted to get closer to the stage, the Angels had chased him back into the crowd, and as they fell on him—with knife and boot and fist—he drew a gun in self defense. He was attacked with a savage fury and once the assault was completed, Angels guarded the body as the boy slowly bled to death, allowing onlookers to carry him away after they were certain he was beyond help. The Stones carried on. Unaware of what had happened—there had already been so much pandemonium—they finished their brief set then fled to a waiting helicopter.
They could not, however, escape the outrage to follow. The recriminations flew thick and fast in the press. Rolling Stone Magazine described Altamont as "the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base a fundamental lack of concern for humanity," while Angel president Sonny Barger insisted the Stones had used them as dupes, telling KSAN radio, "I didn't go there to police nothing, when they started messing over our bikes, they started it. Ain't nobody gonna kick my motorcycle!" Attacked from every direction, Mick Jagger initiated a ten million dollar suit against the owners of Sears Point Speedway in an effort at damage control, alleging breach of contract and fraud. No amount of litigation, however, could mitigate the simple fact that the Stones had presided over a fiasco of such magnitude that had dealt a fatal blow to the peaceful image of the hippie. Remembered as one of the most negative events of the 1960s counterculture, Altamont was, if not the final, the most memorable swan song in its prolonged death throes.
—Michael J. Baers
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