A Look Back at the 50th Anniversary of Altamont – the anti-Woodstock

“Hell’s Angels don’t do security. Hell’s Angels fight. They like to fight. It’s part of their M.O. They fight all the time. They’re good at it, ok? If you don’t want the tiger to eat your lunch guests, don’t invite the fucking tigers to the lunch.” – David Crosby. 

“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.” – Grace Slick.

By the time 1969 rolled around, The Rolling Stones had not toured America since 1966 due, in part, to various drug charges. Brian Jones had drowned accidentally – some say intentionally – in July of that year. He had been replaced prior to that by ex-John Mayall blues guitarist Mick Taylor due to Jones’ increasing unreliability, general lack of interest and drug use that marred his playing.

In fact, Taylor debuted with the Stones at a live free concert in London’s Hyde Park on July 5th, just two days after Jones’ death. Jagger stated the reason for the free concert was because they hadn’t made much from previous tours and he felt the audience would “have a better time if they did not have to pay.” (Still true Mick.) King Crimson – who had not yet released an album – were one of the supporting bands.

The concert turned into something of an elegy for Jones. People arrived with candles and according to Wikipedia, “Jagger then read two stanzas of Shelley’s poem on John Keats’s death, Adonaïs.”

After this recital, several hundred cabbage white butterflies were released despite the Royal Parks authority having stipulated before the concert that any butterflies released by the Stones should be sterilized and should certainly not be of the voracious cabbage white genus.

Twenty-five hundred butterflies were due to be released, but due to the hot weather, many of them died from lack of air in storage. Charlie Watts later said that the butterflies “were a bit sad, there were casualties. It was like the Somme.” (Should have taken that as an omen, Charlie.) 

The local Hells Angels were hired as security on the advice of Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully who said the California Angels had performed this service for them in the past. The British Angels were a bit more, shall we say, genteel, performing their duties for a cup of tea.

The Stones North American 1969 tour was incredibly brief especially as compared to today’s mega tours. It was scheduled to start on November 7, 1969, in Fort Collins, Colorado and end in Boston on November 29, 1969. The other shows – including the free one, initially planned for San Jose State University’s practice field – were added on later. The reason for the free concert was that the press and others claimed that the stones ticket prices ($3 -$8) were too high! (If prices had gone up commensurate with inflation, that top ticket today would be about 60 bucks.)

America had changed considerably – at least culturally – since the band’s last visit. Woodstock had happened only a few months earlier, everybody (it seemed) was getting high, anti-war protests were raging. It was, like, heavy man.

Into this stew came the mighty Rolling Stones being covered all the while by their namesake rock newspaper (founded since their last visit) and being trailed by a documentary crew led by the Maysles brothers. Whose film would later be used as evidence.

The tour itself actually went off pretty well. (Weirdly, if you look at the setlist, it’s not a hell of a lot different than the one they do today. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Street Fighting Man.”) Opening acts alternated among Ike & Tina Turner, B.B. King and Terry Reid. Reid is famously the guy who turned down Jimmy Page to be the lead singer of Zep and also recommended the then-unknown Robert Plant. (My friend Bill saw this tour and the next day immediately went out and bought every B.B. King record he could find.)

This tour produced two great live albums, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out! and the bootleg Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be. And of course, one movie, Gimme Shelter.

For one reason or another, all of the selected venues for the free concert fell through. At the last minute, it was decided to hold it at the newish (opened 1966, closed 2008) Altamont Speedway, about 60 mi. (96km) east of San Francisco.

Wikipedia: 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, 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.

Because the stage was so low, members of the Hells Angels motorcycle club, led by Oakland chapter head Ralph “Sonny” Barger, were asked to surround the stage to provide security. Let’s just say that these guys were not gonna be bought off with a cup of tea. In fact, they were paid in $500 worth of beer. And the other reason the bands wanted the Angels is because they flat-out did not trust the police. Maybe they figured the Angels were somewhat countercultural.

And Barger (still around today) was a notorious bad guy who later spent three and a half years in prison. He was convicted of conspiring to violate federal explosives, firearms and arson laws, and using stolen law enforcement intelligence reports on rival clubs. So, completely different, eh? (It might have helped if anyone had read Hunter Thompson’s book about the Angels which not only reveals them for the thugs they are but in which they turn on Thompson, dealing him a major-league stomping.)

Other bands on the bill – all of whom I’m sure now wish Mick had lost their phone number – were Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Flying Burrito Brothers, CSN&Y.

By the time the Stones flew in, the crowd (later estimated at 300,000) had been arriving for hours. Things got off to a flying stop when according to the Washington Post, “The helicopter landed just before 3 p.m. and Mick Jagger, 26 years old, bushy-haired and chewing gum, peacocked onto the pavement.

That’s when a stranger ran toward him.”I hate you!” the man screamed, and then he punched the Rolling Stone singer in the mouth. (This is all captured in Gimme Shelter.) If that’s the worst that had happened, it might well have been an ok day.

“Something wasn’t right,” says Graham Nash.”The place was shitty. The way they were treating people like cattle was shitty. God bless the Hells Angels, but to put them in charge of security …” (Graham, God bless them? Thank you for your British gentility but these guys are fucking thugs.)

Barger later explained his philosophy toward providing security: “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.”

When I think of Altamont, I don’t think of blissful hippies flashing peace signs. I think instead of this picture:

Yes, the Angels brand of security in keeping the unruly crowd (who were just about level with the stage) down was to randomly beat them with pool cues. Now there were a hell of a lot more concertgoers than Angels. But what, I ask you, would you do if you were stuck in the pit of hell for a day.

“A woman who called in to (a post-show radio program) revealed that she had 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.””

Someone toppled one of the Angels’ bikes which pissed them off even more. Marty Balin of the Airplane jumped off the stage to try to deal with it, only to be knocked out by the Angels for his trouble:

If you’re by now wondering why this fiasco wasn’t stopped at this point, that’s a good question. Everything I’ve read about it indicates that the Stones felt that if they pulled the plug at that point they might well have had a full-scale riot on their hands. Better to just get the fucking thing over with as quickly as possible and move on.

The Stones didn’t come on until sundown at which point the Angels had been drinking for the better part of the day and the audience was pretty fucked-up too. Not only that – it was cold, maybe 30 degrees F (-1C).

And this is where it gets real. Jagger asked 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. (A fight that as likely as not they provoked.)

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. (This is what Wikipedia says but I don’t recall it from the film.)

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 Hunter’s girlfriend 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.”

Following his initial scuffle with the Angels, Hunter 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.

These facts were not known at the time. It was believed that the Angels randomly killed a man – a black man as it happens – who was with a white woman. But as it happens, yes, Hunter did have a gun. And so, while no they did not have to kill Hunter, maybe in a weird way the Angels prevented even worse violence from happening.

For the record, even though the whole thing was filmed, Jagger and crew had no idea what was actually happening. From the stage, it looked like an Angel chasing a guy, just another random incident.

In the immediate aftermath, people naturally blamed the Angels. But David Crosby had some harsh words for the Stones: “I think the major mistakes were taking what was essentially a party and turning it into an ego game and a star trip. An ego trip of ‘look how many of us there are’ and a star trip of the Rolling Stones, who are on a star trip, and who qualify in my book as snobs.

I’ve talked with them many times and I still think they’re snobs. I didn’t want to talk to them at all Saturday, once I saw what was going on. I’m sure they don’t understand what they did, and I’m sure they won’t understand my thinking they’re snobs, but they are in my book. I don’t like them. I think they have an exaggerated view of their own importance; I think they’re on a grotesque ego trip. I think they’re out of touch with the people to whom they’re trying to speak. I think they are on negative trips intensely, especially the two leaders.”

Rolling Stone: “Jagger was very, very shattered,” according to an associate who was with the Stones post-Altamont. “I cannot overemphasize how depressed and down he was with the way it turned out. They’d like to just be able to blink and make it go away. When they knew about the murder — it shook them.”

The documentary Gimme Shelter was released one year to the day later. It captures the highs (Madison Square Garden) and the lows of the tour. Near the end you see Jagger watching rushes of the murder on what I recall to be some sort of editing device. And then, devastated by it, gets up and walks out. When the Washington Post asked to interview him for the 50th anniversary, he declined.

Spotify link

Sources: Wikipedia, from whom I borrowed liberally so I could get this thing out on time; Rolling Stone; Washington Post

39 thoughts on “A Look Back at the 50th Anniversary of Altamont – the anti-Woodstock

    1. Funny-ish story. I had always wanted to write about this event but it slipped my mind. I happened to be reading the online Washington Post last night and they had a retrospective. I looked at the calendar and thought, “Oh, shit!” I really didn’t want to miss the date so I hammered it out between 12:30 and 4am then crashed. The sacrifices I make for this fucking blog!

      Liked by 2 people

        1. Hmm, yes, maybe I’ll fall into one of those routines where I smoke opium and drink endless cups of strong espresso for days at a time, all of the time writing feverishly in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Then after a week I’ll collapse thinking I’ve done brilliant work, wake up after 23 hours and find it’s all meaningless gibberish.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Great piece, Jim. It surprised me that the Stones survived this. Kinda thing a band wouldn’t recover from… not just the actual trauma of learning what happened, but because it could have been prevented (by not taking place or being cancelled when it became clear that it couldn’t be planned properly).

    On the face of it, it was a colossal fuck up with only one likely outcome. Sure some things weren’t fully understood, but that kind of event, a crowd that size, frenzied, boozed, drugged, Hells Angels… what the fuck did they think would happen?

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    1. Well, consider the times. There was a lot of naive “we can change the world” idealism among young people at that time. And Woodstock had come off like a well-oiled machine and so from the perspective of concertgoers, why wouldn’t that happen again with someone else taking care of it?

      From the Stones point of view, they thought they were doing a good thing and trusted the Dead (who wound up not even playing) when they assured them that the California Angels were as pacific as the British ones

      But Mick and Keef also trusted their people who were nowhere near as organized (relatively speaking) as the Woodstock guys.

      So if you look at it through the prism of frenzied, boozed, drugged – which is entirely fair to do – then yeah, the outcome was certain. But if you look at it through the prism of “Hey, man, we’re all brothers and we’ll get through this together,” then, well, not so much. Plus go back and watch the Stones documentary “Crossfire Hurricane” sometime. Stones crowds are pretty placid now but back in the day they attracted a pretty rowdy crowd. Violence, riots and tear gas seemed to follow them around. Have you seen ‘Gimme Shelter?’ It’s quite the thing albeit ultimately depressing.

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        1. Sorry! I can’t help myself sometimes.

          What kind of cake are you talking here… and I hope it doesn’t share the same serving dish as the ice cream!

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        2. Chocolate is nice and I do like a bit of carrot cake. Sharing with ice cream on same plate? Doesn’t matter. As long as it’s there. Now here’s the weird thing – someone left a chocolate cake in the break room and I am having it right now.

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        1. You can’t reason with drunken thugs but yeah, he deserves props. The Angels were just gangsters on wheels. Just vicious, vicious guys who did not give a fuck. Kantner didn’t take any shit either. What a clusterfuck that whole thing was. I read that whole Rolling Stone issue back in the day. RS did some mighty fine reporting.

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        2. This kind of stuff pisses me off. Bad idea, poor planning, naive and just Fcking stupid. Not just in hindsight, there were people at the time that called this one. No more for me Doc. I’ll edit my first reply. Fcking shmozz.

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        3. Yeah he was the real deal. They are all pretenders next to him. You couldnt make him up. They showed a bit of Altamont, then the Cow Palace. Day and night. The guys around him were just as nuts.

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  2. Wow, what a crazy and scary event. While I certainly don’t want to minimize what happened, the outcome could have been much worse with multiple casualties.

    Compared to Woodstock, Altamont almost looks like a parallel universe. That being said, Woodstock could have turned out pretty badly as well. In fact, it probably borders on a miracle that it didn’t.

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    1. Curious. I know you dig music from that era. What was your prior knowledge of this event? As to your last statement, in an earlier version of the post I noted the exact same thing. Woodstock was miraculous in retrospect. This fiasco was entirely predictable and preventable.

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        1. I know the story in my head well enough to bore anyone at a party. I went to sources to flesh out some details. The only thing I didn’t know was how aggressive Hunter supposedly was. I question that as the thuggish Angels did not like the black/white combo. But he did have a gun, that was for certain. However, other articles go on to say how they kicked and pummeled him as well. I read one eyewitness account by a guy standing three feet away.

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  3. I saw the movie. I know a guy who attended that fiasco. That concert dealt the death bell to the sixties. I never cared much for the Stones back in the day and still don’t, even though my son treated me to a concert at AT&&T Stadium a few years back. They were gloriously bad. Between the Manson family and this concert, it erased all the groovy love everyone shit the previous five years had produced. The Hells Angels came to Port Aransas Texas for a brief stay in the summer of 1968. Fortunately for the local citizens and the visiting tourist, it lasted less than a day without too many incidents. Good read, enjoy your work.

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    1. Yeah I saw the flick too back in the day. Sure as hell glad I wasn’t there. But that said, I’m actually a pretty big Stones fan. They resonate with me like few other bands. Anyway, thanks for stopping in. Come back early and often.

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  4. Even though I wasn’t a big fan, I often wonder why I have all of their early albums…some in mint condition. I passed on 3 boxes of classic vinyl to my son, and that leaves me with 4 boxes, so that makes me either a hoarder or a collector. I did see the Stones in Dallas at Memorial Auditorium in 1965 or 66, didn’t save my ticket stub or take notes so a bit fuzzy on which year. I was building a project in Indianapolis in the early 90s at Union Station which is located in downtown. The Stones Steel Wheels tour came to Indi and I got my hands on a good ticket and saw the show at the dome. On the morning of the concert, I was standing in the grand room at Union Station having a cup of java and Charlie Watts walked by. I assume he is doing a bit of sightseeing and admiring the grand architecture of the old station. I introduced myself and we talked for a few minutes. I discover he likes old buildings and is most fond of American ones. He is impressed with this one because of the era in which it was constructed. Not an overly talkative fellow, but approachable and friendly. So to correct my earlier statement, I guess I am somewhat of a fan.

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    1. I saw that Steel Wheels tour too. I was impressed by the generational spread. Teens to grannies. Charlie Watts, eh? He seems like a pretty good guy. Big jazz fan. It’s nice when we meet celebs and they’re approachable. I talked to Jaimoe, drummer for the Allmans once for a good 10 minutes or so. Nice low-key guy. Glad to hear you’re somewhat on board with the Stones. Their best days are behind them in many ways but well, so be it.

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