To end The Rolling Stones’ US tour in 1969, a free concert was hastily arranged to take place at Altamont Speedway on the edge of Alameda County in northern California. The date was set for December 6th, but was so improvised that an exact venue wasn’t decided upon until a few days beforehand. The free festival was largely the brainchild of The Rolling Stones, in reply to critics who denounced the ticket prices as being extortionate at their American shows. It was touted as being the one and only rival to Woodstock, which had been held four months earlier.
Hells Angels were reputedly hired by Rolling Stones road manager Sam Cutler on the recommendations of Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, who had both previously used them to provide security. A deal was struck at a meeting between Cutler, Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, and Pete Knell, who was a member of the Hells Angels’ San Francisco chapter. It was agreed that for a payment of $500 in beer, the Angels would help people out at the festival, but would not police it. They were allegedly told that they would be expected to do little more than sit at the side of the main stage, and make sure there was no violence. In essence, they were paid to drink beer and keep people off the stage. Considering that approximately 300,000 people were expected to attend the concert, this was a recipe for disaster.
Along with headliners The Rolling Stones, other bands billed to appear were Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Grateful Dead – but as the violence escalated and things began to get out of control, The Grateful Dead refused to perform their set.
As the day progressed, the mood of the crowd and of the Hells Angels began to get darker and more agitated. The Angels had been drinking all day, and there had been several fights and disturbances between them and members of the audience. As the Rolling Stones hit the stage, lead singer Mick Jagger (who had already been punched by a concert-goer earlier in the day) looked visibly shaken, and pleaded with the crowd to calm down. As they continued their set, further fights erupted in the crowd, and Hells Angels attention was focused on a teen by the name of Meredith Hunter, who, reputedly, was attempting to get onstage. He was apparently punched and chased back into the audience. To bystanders, he was obviously high on drugs and was totally irrational. Rock Scully later said “I saw what he was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent. There was no doubt in my mind that he intended to do terrible harm to Mick or somebody in the Rolling Stones, or somebody on that stage.” (1)
Hunter once again charged to the front of the stage, and was seen to draw a revolver from inside his jacket. Seeing this, a member of the Hells Angels, Alan Passaro, took out a knife and raced to Hunter, grabbing his gun away and stabbing him twice. Meredith Hunter died from his injuries, and his autopsy later revealed he had been high on methamphetamine at the time.
The final two weeks of the US tour, along with the Altamont Speedway gig, was recorded and released in 1970 as Gimme Shelter, a documentary featuring concert footage by The Rolling Stones.
After the release of the documentary, it’s said that the Hells Angels were disappointed with the way that they were portrayed in the film, and also with the lack of support from the band following the festival. In 2008 it was revealed by a former FBI agent that several members of the Hells Angels had conspired to kill Mick Jagger when he was staying at a property in New York. The plan ultimately failed (2)
(1) From The Canberra Times, Dec 5, 2009 (2) BBC News, March 3, 2008
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