Violence At Altamont: The 'Hells Angels Stabbing' And The End Of The 1960s
David Crosby and Graham Nash perform with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, California, United States, 6th December 1969. Source: (Eamonn McCabe/Redferns)
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 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. 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. Here's their story...
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.
Altamont Was Supposed To Be Able 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 as the Rolling Stones performed the closing set of the Altamont Music Festival.
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 was brought in to act as "security" at the Altamont Music Festival.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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."
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