|Altamont Speedway Free Festival|
|Genre||Rock and folk, including blues-rock, folk rock, jazz fusion, latin rock, country rock and psychedelic rock styles.|
|Dates||December 6, 1969|
|Location(s)||Altamont Speedway, California, United States|
|Founded by||Jorma Kaukonen, Spencer Dryden, Grateful Dead|
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a counterculture-era rock concert held on Saturday, December 6, 1969, at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. The event is best known for considerable violence, including the beating 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. Scores were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage.
The concert featured (in order of appearance): Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act. The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform following CSNY, 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 in a detailed narrative on 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."
Approximately 300,000 people attended the concert, and some anticipated that it would be a "Woodstock West." Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles shot footage of the event and incorporated it into a documentary film titled Gimme Shelter (1970).
According to Jefferson Airplane's Spencer Dryden, the idea for "a kind of Woodstock West" began when he and bandmate Jorma Kaukonen discussed the staging of a free concert with the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones in Golden Gate Park. Referring to the Stones, Dryden said, "Next to the Beatles they were the biggest rock and roll band in the world, and we wanted them to experience what we were experiencing in San Francisco." As plans were being finalized, Jefferson Airplane were on the road, and by early December they were in Florida, believing the concert plans for Golden Gate Park were proceeding. But by December 4, the plans had broken down, in Paul Kantner's account because the city and police departments were unhelpful; innate conflict between the hippies of Haight-Ashbury and the police was manifested in obstructiveness. Sears Point Raceway was suggested, but its owners wanted $100,000 in escrow from the Rolling Stones. At the last moment, Dick Carter offered his Altamont Speedway in Alameda County for the festival. Jefferson Airplane flew out of Miami on December 5. Kantner said the location was taken in a spirit of desperation: "There was no way to control it, no supervision or order." According to Grace Slick, "The vibes were bad. Something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive and unsure day. I had expected the loving vibes of Woodstock but that wasn't coming at me. This was a whole different thing."
During the Rolling Stones' American tour in 1969, many (including journalists) felt that the ticket prices were far too high. In answer to this criticism, the Rolling Stones decided to end their tour with a free concert in San Francisco.
The concert was originally scheduled to be held at San Jose State University's practice field, as there had recently been a three-day outdoor free festival there with 52 bands and 80,000 attendees. Dirt Cheap Productions was asked to help secure the property again for the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead to play a free concert. The Stones and the Dead were told the city of San Jose was not in the mood for another large concert and the grounds were out of bounds. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was next on the list. However, a previously scheduled Chicago Bears–San Francisco 49ers football game at Kezar Stadium, located in Golden Gate Park, made that venue impractical, and permits were never issued for the concert. The venue was then changed to the Sears Point Raceway. However, a dispute with Sears Point's owner, Filmways, Inc., arose over a $300,000 up-front cash deposit from the Rolling Stones and film distribution rights, so the festival was moved once again. The Altamont Raceway was chosen at the suggestion of its then-owner, local businessman Dick Carter. The concert was to take place on Saturday, December 6; the location was switched on the night of Thursday, December 4.
In making preparations, Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully and concert organizer Michael Lang helicoptered over the site before making the selection, much as Lang had done when the Woodstock Festival was moved at the last moment from Wallkill, New York to Bethel, New York.
The hasty move resulted in numerous logistical problems, including a lack of facilities such as portable toilets and medical tents. The move also created a problem for the stage design; instead of being on top of a rise, which suited the geography at Sears Point, at Altamont the stage would now be at the bottom of a slope. The Rolling Stones' stage manager on the 1969 tour, Chip Monck, explained that "the stage was one metre high – 39 inches for us – and [at Sears Point] it was on the top of a hill, so all the audience pressure was back upon them". Because of the short notice for the change of location, the stage couldn't be changed. "We weren’t working with scaffolding, we were working in an older fashion with parallels. You could probably have put another stage below it … but nobody had one," Monck said.
By some accounts, the Hells Angels were hired as security by the management of the Rolling Stones, on the recommendation of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane (who both had previously used the Angels for security at performances without incident), for $500 worth of beer. This story has been denied by some parties who were directly involved. According to the road manager of the Rolling Stones' 1969 US Tour Sam Cutler, "the only agreement there ever was ... the Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators, but that was the extent of it. But there was no way 'They're going to be the police force' or anything like that. That's all bollocks." The deal was made at a meeting including Cutler, Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, and Pete Knell, a member of the Hells Angels' San Francisco chapter. According to Cutler, the arrangement was that all the bands were supposed to share the $500 beer cost, "[but] the person who paid it was me, and I never got it back, to this day."
Hells Angels member Bill "Sweet William" Fritsch recalled this exchange he had with Cutler at a meeting prior to the concert, in which Cutler had asked them to provide security:
When Cutler asked how they would like to be paid, William replied, "We like beer." In the documentary Gimme Shelter, Sonny Barger states that the Hells Angels were not interested in policing the event, and that organizers had told him that the Angels would be required to do little more than sit on the edge of the stage, drink beer, and make sure there weren't any murders or rapes occurring. Other accounts[who?] also state that the initial arrangement was for the Hells Angels to watch over the equipment, but that Cutler later moved them, and their beer, near the stage to placate them or to protect the stage.
In 2009, Cutler explained his decision to use the Angels. "I was talking with them, because I was interested in the security of my band—everyone's security, for that matter. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. They were the only people who were strong and together. [They had to protect the stage] because it was descending into absolute chaos. Who was going to stop it?" Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully said that if the Angels hadn't been on the stage, "that whole crowd could have easily passed out, and rolled down onto the stage. There was no barrier."
Stefan Ponek, who hosted a December 7, 1969 KSAN-FM radio broadcast of a four-hour, "day after" post-concert telephone call-in forum (and who also helped organize the event), provided the following for the 2000 release of the Gimme Shelter DVD: "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."
The Gimme Shelter DVD contains extensive excerpts from that broadcast. A Hells Angels member who identified himself as "Pete, from Hells Angels San Francisco" (most likely Pete Knell, president of the San Francisco chapter), says "they offered us $500 worth of beer (to) go there and take care of the stage ... we took this $500 worth of beer to do it." Sonny Barger, who also called into the KSAN forum, states: "We were told by one of the (other Hells Angels) clubs if we showed up down there (and) sat on the stage and drink some beer ... that the Stones manager or somebody had bought for us." In his lengthy call, Barger mentions the beer deal yet again: "I ain't no cop, I ain't never going to ever pretend to be no cop. I didn't go there to police nothing, man. They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody could climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over. And that's what I went there to do."
A woman who called in to the program revealed that she'd seen at least five fist fights from her vantage point near the stage and that the Angels were involved in all of them. She also described a general uncaring attitude toward people who clearly needed help; a girl who was dragged across the stage by her hair, another who was on a bad acid trip and bystanders kicked and walked on her. She said she felt having the Angels as "security" was an irresponsible move because "we were all in terror of them". When she tried to speak about this at the concert, she was warned to be quiet by the people around her, for fear of being beaten. At this point, KSAN's Scoop Nisker mentioned the bystander effect and the Murder of Kitty Genovese.
Emmett Grogan (founder of the radical community-action group the Diggers), who was intimately involved in the organization of the event (especially at the two earlier-planned venues), confirmed the $500 beer arrangement on that same KSAN forum with Ponek.
"Pete" also tells host Ponek that the Angels were hired by Cutler because of some rowdy, anxious on-stage incidents during the Stones' Oakland and Miami concerts weeks earlier. As security guards, Pete said "we ain't into that security", but that they agreed after the beer offer. He also claimed that, other than being told to "just keep people off the stage", Cutler gave the Hells Angels very little specific instructions for stage security: "They didn't say nothing to us about any of that." And although the Angels are not security guards, "If we say we're going to do something, we do it. If we decide to do it, it's done. No matter what, how far we have to go to do it." The similar lack of detailed security instructions by the concert's management was also mentioned by Barger during his telephone call-in.
Altamont Speedway owner Dick Carter had hired hundreds of professional, plainclothes security guards, ostensibly more for the purpose of protecting his property rather than for the safety and well-being of the concertgoers. Barger mentions these guards, as identified by their wearing of "little white buttons".
Political scientist and cultural critic James Miller believes that since Ken Kesey had invited the Hells Angels to one of his outdoor Acid Tests, the hippies had viewed the bikers unrealistically, idealizing them as "noble savages" and thus "outlaw brothers of the counterculture". Miller also maintains that the Rolling Stones may have been misled by their experience with a British contingent of self-described "Hells Angels", a non-outlaw group of admirers of American biker gear who had provided nonviolent security at a free Stones concert earlier that year in Hyde Park, London. Cutler, however, denies ever having had any illusions about the true nature of Californian Hells Angels. "That's another canard foisted on the world by the press", he said, but Rock Scully remembers explaining to the Stones what the "real" Angels were like after watching the Hyde Park concert.
The first act on the stage, Santana, gave a performance that generally went smoothly; however, over the course of the day, the mood of both the crowd and the Angels became progressively agitated and violent. The Angels had been drinking their free beer all day in front of the stage, and most were very drunk. The crowd had also become antagonistic and unpredictable, attacking each other, the Angels, and the performers. A Mick Jagger biographer, Anthony Scaduto, in Mick Jagger: Everybody's Lucifer, wrote that the only time the crowd seemed to calm down to any degree was during a set by the country-rocking Flying Burrito Brothers. By the time the Rolling Stones took the stage in the early evening, the mood had taken a decidedly ugly turn as numerous fights had erupted between Angels and crowd members and within the crowd itself. Denise Jewkes of local San Francisco rock band the Ace of Cups, six months pregnant, was hit in the head by an empty beer bottle thrown from the crowd and suffered a skull fracture. The Angels proceeded to arm themselves with sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains to drive the crowd further back from the stage.
After the crowd (perhaps accidentally) toppled one of the Angels' motorcycles, the Angels became even more aggressive, including toward the performers. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane was punched in the head and knocked unconscious by an Angel during the band's set, as seen in the documentary film Gimme Shelter. The Grateful Dead had been scheduled to play between Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and the Rolling Stones, but after hearing about the Balin incident from Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, they refused to play and left the venue, citing the quickly degenerating security situation.
The Rolling Stones waited until sundown to perform. Stanley Booth stated that part of the reason for the delay was that Bill Wyman had missed the helicopter ride to the venue. When the Stones began their set, a tightly-packed group of between 4,000 and 5,000 jammed to the very edge of the stage, and many attempted to climb onto it.
Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger, who had already been punched in the head by a concertgoer within seconds of emerging from his helicopter, 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, "Sympathy for the Devil", a fight erupted in the front of the crowd at the foot of the stage, prompting the Stones to pause their set while the Angels 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, age 18, 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. After a minute's pause, Hunter returned to the stage where, according to Gimme Shelter producer Porter Bibb, Hunter's girlfriend Patty Bredehoft 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. Rock Scully, who could see the audience clearly from the top of a truck by the stage, said of Hunter, "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."
Following his initial scuffle with the Angels as he tried to climb onstage, Hunter (as seen in concert footage wearing a bright lime-green suit) 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 was shot by Eric Saarinen, who was on stage taking pictures of the crowd, and Baird Bryant, who climbed atop a bus. Saarinen was unaware of having caught the killing on film. This was discovered more than a week later when raw footage was screened in the New York offices of the Maysles Brothers. In the film sequence, lasting about two seconds, a two-meter (six foot) opening in the crowd appears, leaving Bredehoft 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 Bredehoft'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 Bredehoft. 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 tells David Maysles during film editing), and felt that had they abandoned the show, the crowd may have become even more unruly, leading to riots or other forms of violence.
In 2003, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office initiated a two-year investigation into the possibility of a second Hells Angel having taken part in the stabbing. Finding insufficient support for this hypothesis, and reaffirming that Passaro acted alone, the office closed the case for good on May 25, 2005.
The Altamont concert is often contrasted with the Woodstock festival that took place less than four months earlier. While Woodstock represented "peace and love", Altamont came to be viewed as the end of the hippie era and the de facto conclusion of late-1960s American youth culture: "Altamont became, whether fairly or not, a symbol for the death of the Woodstock Nation." 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." Writing for the New Yorker in 2015, Richard Brody said what Altamont ended was "the idea that, left to their own inclinations and stripped of the trappings of the wider social order, the young people of the new generation will somehow spontaneously create a higher, gentler, more loving grassroots order. What died at Altamont is the Rousseauian dream itself."
The Grateful Dead wrote several songs about, or in response to, what lyricist Robert Hunter called "the Altamont affair", including "New Speedway Boogie" (featuring the line "One way or another, this darkness got to give") and "Mason's Children". Both songs were written and recorded during sessions for the early 1970 album Workingman's Dead, but "Mason's Children" was viewed as too "popular" stylistically and was consequently not included on the album.
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 on the event entitled "The Rolling Stones Disaster at Altamont: Let It Bleed" published in their January 21, 1970 issue. The article covered the many issues with the event's organization and was very critical of the organizers and the Rolling Stones; one writer stated: "what an enormous thrill it would have been for an Angel to kick Mick Jagger's teeth down his throat." Another follow-up piece in Rolling Stone called the Altamont event "rock and roll's all-time worst day." In Esquire magazine, Ralph J. Gleason observed, "The day The Rolling Stones played there, the name [Altamont] became etched in the minds of millions of people who love pop music and who hate it as well. If the name 'Woodstock' has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, 'Altamont' has come to mean the end of it."
The film Gimme Shelter was criticized by Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby and other reviewers for portraying the Stones too sympathetically and exploiting the events. Salon's Michael Sragow, writing in 2000, said many of the critics took their cues from the Rolling Stone review, which heavily blamed the filmmakers for the disastrous events at the concert. Sragow pointed out numerous errors in the Rolling Stone coverage and added that the Maysles did not make "major motion pictures" in the traditional way; instead, a variety of factors contributed to the tragedy.
The Rolling Stones' member Keith Richards was relatively sanguine about the show, calling it "basically well-handled, but lots of people were tired and a few tempers got frayed" and "on the whole, a good concert."
In 2008, a former FBI agent asserted that some members of the Hells Angels had conspired to murder Mick Jagger in retribution for The Rolling Stones' lack of support following the concert, and for the negative portrayal of the Angels in the Gimme Shelter film. The conspirators reportedly used a boat to approach a residence where Jagger was staying on Long Island, New York; the plot failing when the boat was nearly sunk by a storm. Jagger's spokesperson has refused to comment on the matter.
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