Altamont 1969, Revisited

by The Good Doctor
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Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away!

“Gimme Shelter,” the song that gave Altamont’s movie its title

Altamont cue sticksDecember 6, 1969: a day that lives on in Rock infamy despite its relative insignificance.

So potent are the Altamont vibes that it has become virtually impossible to conjure the festivals that followed during the 1971 season as beautiful, peaceful happenings that were vitally important to the history of Rock.

Was Altamont shocking? No argument there. Seeing someone stabbed and stomped to death in front of The Rolling Stones as they performed is surely a horror for the ages. But it was one death, one murder, presented over and over. It was not a hundred, or a thousand killings. It was one.

The “evil” at Altamont – the end of an era, as it has been unceasingly ballyhooed – is seared onto the eyes and minds of the international peace, love and music tribe as well as being used, quite successfully, by reactionaries who despise the freedom, controlled chaos, drugs and sex that go along with big rockin’ festivals.

Jagger playing satan

Jagger playing dress up as Satan: Pleased to meet you.

Other questions must be asked about Altamont. What allowed it to go so badly? Was it really that awful or have mass perceptions been completely manipulated and marred by media coverage and the sensationalist “documentary,” Gimme Shelter?

Many, many events had been going so right for so long, and would resume their normal course after, that Altamont seems flat out aberrant, especially when viewed from the telescope of 45 years.

Woodstock kids 1969

How mellow was Woodstock? No need to ask.

As anyone passingly in touch with Rock-N-Roll’s history knows, Woodstock preceded Altamont by three and a half months. Why was there so much good will at Woodstock and at earlier humongous jams like the Monterey Pop Festivals, and a dozen others?

The simple answer is that peace, love and uninhibited behaviors, sexually and pharmaceutically, were part of the new, tie-dyed fabric of the time. An ethos was growing up and nothing comes of age without growing pains.

So, maybe Altamont was just bad chemistry, bad timing, an unavoidable spazzed-out squiggle line on the Richter machine.

For all the good that was brewed up on the West Coast in the early- to mid-1960s, the road had gotten increasngly rough, practically overnight. Here’s some quick background.

Black-Panther-Party-armed-guards-in-street-shotgunsCalifornia, which had experienced the Sharon Tate murders in March of ’69, appeared to be coming unglued. (Read about The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” a DNA Source Song here.)

The disastrous Santa Barbara oil spill gave birth to very heated tempers over despoilment of the iconic coastline. Today, (since we seem to have an environmental nightmare every few years), it is hard to imagine how upset people of all stripes were.

The Black Panther movement was at full bellow even as members of its party were being gunned down by a rival organization and police, two on the UCLA main campus alone. Battle lines were being darkly drawn.

Additionally, the messy aftermath of San Francisco’s Summer Of Love continued to degenerate into an orgy of hard drugs. These were being taken not by the pioneering youth of a few years before, but by hard-luck people of many ages, living on the streets of The Haight.

The Golden State was tumbling end over end, driven off the sunbeam-drenched, happy coastal roads of The Beach Boys and the creamy, dreamy utopianism of The Dead and Eric Burdon And The Animals’ “San Franciscan Nights,” which mentions the Hells Angels, who would figure so prominently in the Altamont disaster.

In general, it is hard to imagine how enmeshed in the Bay Area and its hippiedom the Angels were in those days. Choosing them as security guards seemed to make some sense.

“Do It Again” from The Beach Boys’ 1969 album, 20/20

1967’s “San Franciscan Nights”

Before digging deeper into Altamont and its true meaning, let’s look at a few magnificent events that followed shortly after the debacle. Although obsured by the media’s drumbeat obsession with Altamont, in July, August and September of 1970, coast to coast and across the pond, big festivals didn’t miss a beat.

mgr700703-poThe (Second) Atlanta International Pop Festival over the 4th of July weekend drew upwards of 500,000 young people. It was sweltering hot – in the low 100s. Local fire departments sprayed down the crowds. Believe it or not, just like Altamont, area biker clubs were in charge of security.

The performers included Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, B.B. King, Bob Seger, Johnny Winter, Grand Funk Railroad, John Sebastian, Mountain, Poco and Ten Years After. (Many of them had performed at Woodstock.) Notably, there was a thoroughgoing lack of violence or mayhem for a “city” of that size over a hot, peanut-boil of a holiday weekend.

On July 17, a similar cast of characters showed up at Randall’s Island in New York’s East River. Hendrix, Sebastian, Grand Funk, Steppenwolf and Jethro Tull performed. It was not a mega-concert, drawing “only” about 70,000, but it was big enough. There was one fist fight – two cousins arguing over a girl.

Steppenwolf: “Magic Carpet Ride”


Her house was made of straw: Isle Of Wight Festival 1970

From August 7 to 9, at Goose Lake in Michigan, 200,000-plus grown-ups-in-waiting gathered to hear Rod Stewart And The Faces, Jethro Tull, Chicago, Ten Years After, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Mountain, John Sebastian, The James Gang featuring Joe Walsh and Detroit-area bands like Bob Seger, the MC5, The Stooges and Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels. While there were 150 arrests for drug intoxication, violence was again absent. It is called, half humorously, “Goose Lake’s Forgotten Music Festival.”

Without belaboring the point, festivals followed that August in Ontario, Canada, (100,000); there was a 150,000-person audience in The Netherlands, and the Third Isle of Wight Festival drew nearly 700,000 at the end of August. Except for isolated acts, each was unmarred by any known serious violent incidents.

Here are some of the line-ups of entertainers at those 1970 concerts.

Strawberry Fields (Ontario): Procol Harum, José Feliciano, Ten Years After, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, Grand Funk Railroad, The Youngbloods, Jethro Tull, Mountain, Alice Cooper, Sly and The Family Stone.

Kralingen, The Netherlands: Pink Floyd, The Byrds, Country Joe and The Fish, T. Rex, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Canned Heat and Hot Tuna.

Isle of Wight: The Who, The Doors, Joni Mitchell, John Sebastian, Procol Harum, Miles Davis, Hendrix, Donovan, Jethro Tull, even that blasted Leonard Cohen.

Peace love woodstock

Although not strictly scientific, an explanation of Altamont can be reduced to a few hours of – literally – bad chemistry.

The Rolling Stones were touring in support of their new album release, Let It Bleed. 

To put it mildly, the album is filled with portents of danger, contentious assertions, a shock wave of fiery electric Blues, and an attitude that shook The Stones fully out of an ill-advised psychedelic foray on two previous works. Beggars Banquet began the revamping process; Let Bleed was to finish it. They were completing a long climb out of a ditch of oily torpor.

On top of that, their chief nemesis and heavyweight champions of the world, The Beatles, were breaking up, their final release to be called Let It Be. The Stones, as The Doors said, “couldn’t get much higher.”

In 21st-century jargon The Stones’ tour was conceived as a re-launch and re-branding of the second-most-famous group in Rock history. A little tweak here, a dash of costumery there and they would become “The World’s Greatest Rock-N-Roll Band.”

Well beyond the title cut of Let It Bleed, songs like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Gimme Shelter” and the mournful “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” all projected hard-edged cynicism spliced onto a kind of posed negative energy that would change the career of The Stones. (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” has been held up as an elegy for the 1960s, an all-too-convenient label for lazy writers. It’s clearly no elegy, but rather an assertion of pursuing a more or less practical life.)

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”

Let It Bleed songmango.comI was schooled with a strap
right across my back
But it’s all right now
In fact it’s a gas
But it’s all right
I’m Jumpin’ Jack Flash
It’s a gas, gas, gas

Although it wouldn’t be clear until well after the mindless brawling at Altamont, The Stones were granting permission to themselves to return to their essential roots and granting permission to their audience to seize on the idea that the time was “right for fighting in the streets.” Indisputably, given the tenor of the times, it was a call to political activism, not one-to-one pandemonium. Put in the context of the late-1960s, the time indeed could not have been any riper for street uprisings.

Like their British compatriots, The Who, The Stones managed to meld social libertarian Hippiedom with “Rocker” (in the U.S. “greaser” and biker) anti-social urges. Plastered on top of the whole trunkful of competing notions were stickers reading “Caution: Hormones.”

Not incidental to the infamous night of murderous bedlam at Altamont was the fact that immediately before there had been outbreaks of violence at Rolling Stones shows in Miami and Oakland. In fact, from the beginning of their career, violence had been a hallmark of their live performances. But that sort of thing was relatively common, dating back to the earliest days of R&R in the 1950s.

The Altamont event in Livermore, due east of the Bay Area, was ill-conceived, hastily slapped together and the site physically unsuited to a monumental gathering.

Hell's Angel Alan Passaro stabs Meredith Hunter

The stabbing of Meredith Hunter

The worst part of it was that the stage was downhill from the closest-in five or six thousand seats right in front of it. (Think of the difference between a castle on a hill and one in a valley.) In the footage of the concert, you can clearly see the audience only three or four feet away from the performers. Those crowds were pushing forward to the stage as early on as the first act of the day, Santana. The set up was a logistical nightmare.

Every story needs some black hats. Enter the villains.

The Hells Angels aren’t Sunday school choir boys by any means. But the brunt of the responsibility for the ensuing slow-moving riot should not be put solely on them. Fights broke out in practically every sector of the audience, proximity to the Angels not a cause generally, except where they were directly confronted by the crowd. (There have been rumors of a large supply of “bad acid” causing all the pushing and shoving, but with a crowd of 300,000, we’re talking about something different than some bad LSD.)

STONES ALTAMONT songmango.comMuch ink has been spilled about the role the Angels were supposed to play as “security guards.” Suffice it to say, the details of their duties were scant. It boils down to their getting paid in about $500-worth of beer (in 1969 dollars; $3,500 in 2014 money, a lot of beer for a lot of bruisers). They were to sort of, kind of, keep the crowd off the stage and protect equipment. There was also a regular security force of approximately 200 plainclothes rent-a-cops.

Do the math. Three hundred thousand drug-steeped, alcohol-fueled refugees from a declining West Coast flower-power culture massed on a hill facing maybe 100 Angels and 200 plainclothes guys in suits. What could go wrong?

Altamont crowd shot songmango.comEverything.

Remember, it was a world that existed long before metal detectors, Homeland Security, Soviet-scale paranoia and entrenched reactions to anything that smacks of unruliness. So, it was easy enough for Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old dressed in blazing electric lime to bring a gun into the concert.

From the moment he started brandishing the weapon, his fate was sealed. It was the kind of wrinkle in time that people like the Hells Angels live for. Their response was pure reaction. He was stabbed twice by 19-year-old Angel, Alan Passaro, then three times more by persons unknown before being beaten and stomped by other gang members. The long-barreled .22 revolver was handed over to police almost immediately.

Alan Passaro songmango.comPassaro (right) would later be indicted for murder and acquitted on a self-defense argument. The graphic film footage from Gimme Shelter would be more convincing than any other testimony.

A new investigation in 2003 into a second stabber resulted in a no-bill handed over in 2005 and the case was permanently closed. To put things in perspective, as of this writing, head of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, Sonny Barger, present at Altamont, is now 76.

In retrospect, it is clear that Hunter wanted to harm a member or members of The Rolling Stones. However, that is glossed over in the face of the other violence by the Angels and “regular” concert-goers. Of course, one is left to speculate what kind of crime a regular Saturday night in a city of 300,000 would bring. (A city about the size of Cincinnati.) Would one murder and a half dozen brawls outside local pubs be so unusual?

The set list during the descent into Hades is stunningly rich in famous songs:

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” “Sympathy for the Devil” (this was stopped due to many fights close to the stage, then restarted and finished); “The Sun Is Shining”; “Stray Cat Blues”; and Robert Johnson’s Blues classic “Love in Vain.” “Under My Thumb” was played, stopped as Meredith Hunter is killed – unbeknownst to The Stones who thought it was merely another scuffle – and resumed until its finish.

“Under My Thumb” – studio version

Ironically, after the stabbing, the violence ceased for the remainder of the concert.

That, despite the rest of the long set being as incendiary as the earlier songs: “Brown Sugar” (its live debut); “Midnight Rambler,” “Live With Me,” Gimme Shelter,” Berry’s “Little Queenie,” “Satisfaction,” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Street Fighting Man.”

For a long time, the presumption has been that the kind of music and the people it attracted should have insulated big festivals from crime. Of course that is Pollyana-ish thinking.

Altamont Rolling stones sign  songmango.comThe unsound counterpoint reads as: “Well, The Stones’ kind of music could inspire people to violence.” Yet there was violence during Santana’s set early in the day, as noted above. And the violence stopped after the most hideous episode, Hunter’s gunplay and subsequent killing. It was like a faucet turned on and off, on and off.

For a variety of reasons, the great communicators in the press felt strongly a need to put a bloody exclamation point at the end of the long, rambling sentence of the 1960s. As always, negative copy sells. As always, the reader/viewer wants neat closure, all wrapped up with a bow, and the press hands it to them.

You can still see the images and feel the vibrations of the era flash before you on any television “special” about the period, the ones that particularly now proliferate about Baby Boomers as they retire, about Rock music’s “old days,” about the era of good feeling that wasn’t just supposed to be good, but perfect.

When it wasn’t 100% perfect, the media vultures swooped down on Meredith Hunter’s body before it was even cold. “Hah… see you hippies aren’t so high and mighty after all.” (Never mind that Hunter was a meth-crazed, gun-toting nut intent on murder of world-famous celebrities.)

Young Lester Bangs songmango.comYoung Lester Bangs, (at right), Greil Marcus and other future deans of American Rock criticism performed the autopsy early in January of 1970. And so the ranting began.

Even in 2009, The Hartford Courant’s Eric Danton, not minding the facts, was railing about Altamont and the failures of the peace and love generation:

Just like that, the hippie era winked out, snuffed by the grainy image of a biker with his arm upraised, knife blade glinting in his hand.

In too many ways, Altamont was a condensed version of the preceding decade, with queasy race relations, well-intentioned non-conformism turned reckless and a bid for peaceful, harmonious co-existence – among the most valued ideals of the ’60s – shattered by senseless violence.

It’s sheer dumb luck that Woodstock escaped the same problems. Maybe people were more forgiving of Woodstock’s shortcomings. Maybe the drugs were good enough that no one noticed. Whatever the reason, the fact that Woodstock stands largely unblemished by the grit of its era has elevated its significance in the popular consciousness.

Two observations: any man of any race who waves a gun around in a huge crowd is dangerous; and as all the examples above show, Woodstock was the norm, not the deviation. Absolutely, positively, Altamont was the detour over the cliff. But one piece of “dumb bad luck” should have meant nothing.

“Street Fighting Man” – the real message is music

The fever over the part played by The Rolling Stones started high and has stayed high.

Without apologizing for the mega-group, pinning blame on the band is misguided and displays just the wrong amount of satisfied smugness characterized by the German word, shadenfreude – pleasure in the woes of others. One writer in the magazine Rolling Stone said, “What an enormous thrill it would have been for an Angel to kick Mick Jagger’s teeth down his throat.”


Maybe it was that kind of attitude that in the first place led to the meltdown. There is a certain cadre of people – too often writers and critics – who long to see the mighty brought low.

Musical reaction was varied. Don McLean released “American Pie” in 1971, a compendious song chronicle of R&R up to that time – in eight and a half jaunty minutes. The relevant verse runs from Woodstock to Altamont.

“American Pie”

Oh, and there we were all in one place
A generation lost in space
With no time left to start again
don mclean american pie
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candlestick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

And as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
He was singin’

Bye, bye Miss American Pie

New Speedway songmango.comA little more sanguine about the messed-up gig of the century, The Grateful Dead, who pulled out of a planned appearance at Altamont late in the going, sang this in “New Speedway Boogie”:

One way or another, one way or another
One way or another, this darkness got to give

There have been many media frenzies throughout the less-than-illustrious history of the American press. The coverage of Altamont is especially vicious and self-indulgent, and the music press led the way. Their inaccurate coverage has now been enshrined in history books and on pop outlets like The History Channel.

In fact, large-scale concerts have never stopped because the public, in its ongoing urge to common sense, has understood that large groups can be problematic but usually things work out. 

Watkins Glen's Pop FestivalThere was a concert at Mt. Pocono in Pennsylvania in 1972 with 200,000 in attendance over three days. Huge American gatherings occurred (left) in 1973 at Watkins Glen (first Mountain Jam), which drew 600,000 and at California Jam (CalJam) in Ontario, CA, which attracted 250,000 in 1974.

Simon Garfunkel Central Park songmango.comIn 1981, Simon & Garfunkel appeared in Central Park (left) in New York before 500,000 people. Even though the big city was experiencing one of its periodic crime spikes, there was not one report of violence among the crowd.

More recently, Live Aid, Coachella, Mountain Jam, Bonaroo and dozens of others have gone off without major violence.

Keith Richard1969 on tour

Keith Richards, 1969

Keith Richards summed up Altamont well in an interview: “Basically [the concert was] well-handled, but lots of people were tired and a few tempers got frayed. On the whole, a good concert.”

Irving Goldaber, a Miami-based sociologist who advises stadium officials on crowd behavior has this pointed assessment of concerts in general: “When people go to a rock concert, they enter a different society. They are a separate nation-state, with their own rules and their own kind of behavior. People are going there to express themselves, and people are unpredictable.”

The Rock-N-Roll faithful might sum it up through a song from Let It Bleed that was left un-played that night in Altamont. It says an enormous mouthful for those who understand one night cannot destroy decades of a potent dream: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

In whose interest has the perpetuation of this distortion operated? The Rolling Stones, because they profited mightily from a proper public-relations tarnishing of their image. The press and writers of books who have an unerring capacity for bending truths – at least the ones they haven’t ignored thoroughly. The lazy public that doesn’t see that their unquestioning gulping down of falsities hurts what they hold dear.

It’s terrible that Meredith Hunter was killed. But it was terrible that Alan Passaro had to kill him. Guns can’t be waved around in massive crowds. We also have to feel for Hunter’s girlfriend, who tried to restrain him before his fatal encounter.

We’re left with an empty feeling mostly, although we can rest assured the dream of music drawing people together has never died. It can’t. It’s a cornerstone of our culture.

We are also left wondering exactly who really is the most “practiced in the art of deception.”

“You Can’t Always Get What You  Want”