On December 6, 1969, the death knell hovering over the free-loving 60s rang out, cutting the cold night air like a rusted switch blade. In a beer-soaked, drug laced proscenium 30 minutes outside of San Francisco, the last cries of peace and love were blotted out by the thumping of pool cues on flesh, pitting “flower children” against “noble savages”, hippie against Hell’s Angel. At the center of it all was a band of British misfits, attempting to pull from the wreckage a night of harmonious oneness, but getting to the scene of the crash too late. The Altamont Free Concert
, purported to be the “Woodstock of the West”, turned out to be the swan song of the American counterculture.
It was supposed to be the final concert of the Rolling Stones’ ’69 American tour. Throughout the fall, concert attendance had been through the roof, so Mick and the boys decided to stage a free show, a sort of thank you to the dedicated fans who had pushed their career into the heavens. The fact that a documentary was being filmed around the tour, with this final show providing the crowning moment of their glory, was probably another important, albeit unmentioned factor…
The show was set for Golden Gate Park, on December 6th. Unlike the three-day affair Woodstock became, the free concert festival was meant as a one-day event. Local San Francisco bands and other west coast acts would provide the foundation for the Stones to enter at the end of the evening. Among others on the bill, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead were scheduled to perform. During the days leading up to the event, Golden Gate Park decided to drop the event from their schedule, due to a previously scheduled 49ers football game. The Stones’ management scrambled to find a replacement site, and settled on Sears Point Raceway. December 4th ushered in another set of problems as management fought with Sears Point’s owner, Filmways, Inc., over the filming distribution rights. This left them 48 hours to find a new venue, move all equipment and redirect all 300,000 fans that were on their way to CA. In a strategic business move, Altamont Raceway owner, Dick Curtis, offered up his location for the festival. What better way to get good publicity than to host a festival that would go down as big and better than Woodstock?
With their biggest problems solved, cast and crew made plans to converge on Altamont Raceway early Saturday morning, all other issues be damned. Among other issues that would be dealt with on-sight were the shortage of bathroom and medical facilities. With 300,000 people coming in, like refugees fleeing their war-torn lands, there was no way to account for parking, food, and waste removal. Somehow it all came together for Woodstock, the ground-breaking three-day festival in upstate New York, where the hippy culture reached its lawless, cultural nexus. It was freedom from the man and free love for all, and Altamont was considered the “Woodstock of the West”. Now the only problem was organizing a security force to protect the musicians and equipment from the frenzied crowds.
Enter, Hell’s Angels. Used frequently by The Dead and Jefferson Airplane for concert security, they came recommended. They were the ones The Dead used to protect generators and other electrical equipment from fans, and all they cost was their own weight in beer. The Stones had used some Hells Angels at their free concert in Hyde Park, London a few months earlier, and that had worked out tremendously. Everyone was well-behaved and had a great time; it wasn’t until later they found out that those “bikers” were merely dandies in denim, who fantasized about the world of renegade outlaws, without actually being a part of it. The real Hells Angels were the men behind the myth, and they lived up to their name. Both sides will deny that they were hired as security and that they were paid in $500 worth of beer, but one Hells Angel named Sweet William recalled a conversation had with Sam Cutler, road manager of the Rolling Stones, before the event. While talking with Cutler, another Angel Pete Knell, said there was no way they would take on the responsibility. They were there for fun, end of story. To this, Cutler asked if they could help give back, by generally helping out. The response was, “Sure, we can do that.”. So whether or not they were officially hired to act as security guards doesn’t matter; they were there, they were drunk, and they did what they said they would do: give direction.
From the ring of the first power chord, there was trouble. The crowd was antsy, pushing and throbbing to get near the action. The booze and the pills, acid trips and other substances were hitting all the right people at the wrong time. Crowd members were getting into scuffles with Angels and were drug away unconscious, bleeding and angry. As the day wore on, “concert security” was getting more volatile, in direct correlation to the amount of empty beer cans piling up around them. By the time Jefferson Airplane took the stage, it was getting out of hand. In fact, during one knock-down-drag-out moment, singer Marty Balin jumped into the middle to stop the fight. He was beat unconscious by an Angel. On arrival, The Dead heard about what had been happening, took one look at each other and piled back in the helicopter. They probably came out of all this the wisest. GET OUT WHILE YOU CAN.
By the time Mick and the boys took the stage, it was dark, it was cold, and people were in a frenzy. They showed up over an hour late, apparently due to Bill Wyman getting stuck en route. They made it to the stage and had to stop two songs into their set. More than once Mick had to stop the music and make announcements for everyone to “chill out”. It was during the third song, “Under My Thumb” that the bottom fell out. 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was towards the front left side of the stage and he followed suit when other fans jumped up on stage. He was punched n the face by an Angel and drug off to the side. In a drug-addled blur, he rushed back towards the stage, reaching for a long-barrel pistol in his coat pocket. He was taken out by Angel Alan Passaro, stabbed 5 times in the back and once beneath the ear, all of which is visible in the concert footage. Unbeknown-st to the band, he is killed; all they could see was another fight, so they continued playing, hoping to avoid mass chaos. They cut their set short and were rushed to a waiting helicopter, where they were transported to safety.
It was over. The lights were cut. The silence was deafening. When all was said and done, there were four births and four deaths; one homicide, one hit-and-run where two who lay sleeping were run over, and one accidental drowning. Four lives given, where four more were brutally taken away. Over the passing days, months and years, Altamont was seen as the apocalyptic result of an innocently destructive counterculture. What so many saw as the beginning of a new way of life, became the negative image; the terrifying reality of what happens when all moral and legal order is pushed aside. Less than a month later, the 60s were officially over, with the 1970s pushing over the distant horizon line. For many, December 6th brought the 60s to an unexpected and grotesque end. Even free love has it’s price.