Sixties City presents a wide-ranging series of articles on all aspects of the Sixties, penned by the creator of the iconic 60s music paper  Mersey Beat

Altamont 1969

Grace Slick - Jefferson Airplane The event was intended to be California’s answer to Woodstock, a free ‘Thank You America’ concert by The Rolling Stones following their recently successful American tour. The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were also due to appear and the date was set for 6th December 1969.

The concert was originally to take place at the Golden Gate Park but the city authorities, on hearing about the Rolling Stones playing (not originally advised to them) and fearing a large crowd, refused to grant the required permits(1). It was then due to be held at Sears Point raceway but there was a dispute over film rights and the site was finally changed to Altamont Speedway track only 40 hours before the concert which caused a great deal of confusion on the roads with fans who were unsure where it was to take place. 300,000 spectators watched as Santana began the first set. . . .

Hell’s Angels had been hired to take care of security(2), in exchange for a few hundred dollars' worth of beer. Violence was in the air and the Angels knocked Jefferson Airplane’s singer Marty Balin unconscious. The group intended to stop playing, but the Angels threatened to beat up guitarist Paul Kantner (3). The Angels then took exception to a fat youth who’d stripped naked and they beat him to the ground. The Grateful Dead decided not to play. The Rolling Stones arrived by helicopter and, as Mick Jagger emerged, he was hit by a youth who shouted, “I hate you. I’m gonna kill you.”

The Stones began their performance, playing ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Sympathy For The Devil.’ They were witnesses to a killing and saw the Angels turn on a black youth, 18 year-old Meredith Hunter, and club him with pool cues, fists and chains (4). He bled to death after being stabbed five times in the back and once under the ear.

The Angels claimed that he had brandished a gun, but no gun was ever found. At the trial, the Hells Angel defendant, Alan Passaro, was freed with a verdict of ‘Justifiable Homicide'.

Three other people were to die at the festival and many others suffered serious injuries. Two died when a car ploughed through their campfire after the concert had finished and a man on an 'acid' trip slipped into a canal.
  Altamont 1969

Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland Chapter of the Hell’s Angels was to say, “I’m no peace-creep in any sense of the word.” In the closing weeks of the Sixties, the ‘Summer of Love’ had turned into a winter of hate.

Sixties City Notes
(from Terry Roth and other sources)

This was a very confusing event to document and it is unlikely that a definitive version of events exists. Subsequent accounts of events from various sources differ slightly from Bill's original account and there is also a large amount of additional information available on various sites. It is highly recommended that you access the many 'official' and 'eyewitness' accounts available and view the film to form your own conclusions.

1) There was also a previously scheduled San Francisco 49ers football game at Kezar Stadium, located in Golden Gate Park, the weekend of December 6–7.

2) According to Rolling Stones' road manager 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 'They're going to be the police force' or anything like that. That's all b******s".
The deal was made at a meeting between Cutler, Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully and a Hell's Angel called Pete Knell, president of the San Francisco chapter. According to Cutler, the arrangement was that all the bands booked were supposed to split the $500 cost for beer to 'pay' the Angels, "(but) the person who paid it was me, and I never got it back, to this f*****g day.” Hells Angel member Sweet William recalled an exchange between Cutler and himself at a meeting prior to the concert, where Cutler had asked them to provide security: "We don't police things. We're not a security force. We go to concerts to enjoy ourselves and have fun." "Well, what about helping people out - you know, giving directions and things?" "Sure, we can do that." When Cutler asked how they would like to be paid, William replied, "we like beer."

3) After Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin was hit and knocked out by one of the Hells Angels, they could not continue playing immediately. When Paul Kantner told the audience what the Angels had been doing, one of them grabbed a microphone and started threatening him. Another threat was allegedly made to Keith Richard of the Stones after they threatened to leave due to the unruly crowd and violence while Hells Angels were beating back the crowd with pool cues and tossing full beer cans at them. Hell's Angel Sonny Barger later claimed he held a gun to Keith Richards and said "You keep f****n' playing or you're dead". This is not actually seen in the film of the event, nor is his claim supported by any other eyewitnesses.

4) Meredith Hunter was not initially attacked by "pool cues, fists and chains"...he was first hit and pushed back into the audience and then came back during the opening lines of 'Under My Thumb' brandishing a gun. There are witnesses claiming that Hunter pulled out a gun, and took a shot in the direction of the stage, supposedly grazing an Angel. In the film itself you can unmistakably see Meredith Hunter with a gun in his hand.

Hell's Angel Alan Passaro jumped him and visibly stabbed him twice with a knife after which the Hells Angels proceeded to kick him and keep him on the ground. On May 25, 2005, the Alameda County Sheriff's Office announced that it was officially closing the stabbing case, dismissing a long-held theory that a second member of the Hells Angels played a role in the stabbing. The incident was visible in the film documentary "Gimme Shelter" - as the Stones play on stage, a member of the Hells Angels can be seen stabbing Hunter.
Jefferson Airplane live at Altamont

There had been rumours over the years that a second unidentified assailant had inflicted the fatal wounds, not Passaro, and the case had remained open. Alameda County officer Sgt. Scott Dudek said that after a renewed investigation, authorities came to the conclusion that Passaro acted alone in his assault on Hunter and did so only after Hunter pointed a gun toward the stage where the Rolling Stones were performing. Sgt. Dudek said Passaro's lawyer confirmed that his client was the lone assailant. In addition, enhanced and slowed-down footage from the film shows Hunter brandishing the gun just before Passaro leaps from the stage and stabs him, Dudek said. The time-altered footage is similar to footage viewed by Stones singer Mick Jagger in an early scene from "Gimme Shelter." Meredith Hunter also had a great deal of meta-amphetamines in his blood and footage from the concert showing the attack was used to acquit Passaro...but on the defence of "self defence".

The film had helped Passaro's defence, proving that Hunter really had been wielding a gun. And it left open the possibility, expounded by Passaro's lawyer, that there could have been more than one Hell's Angel wielding a knife as Hunter's body had six stab wounds and Passaro was only actually seen delivering two blows. Passaro was acquitted in January 1971 and the case passed into the Alameda sheriffs' archive as "Hunter, Meredith. Unsolved. 69-SO2262".

Headlined and organised by The Rolling Stones, it also featured, in order of appearance: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act. The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform, but declined to play shortly before their scheduled appearance due to the increasing violence at the venue.

Meredith's mother Altha May Anderson sued the Stones for $500,000 but settled for $10,000. In 1985 Alan Passaro was found dead in the ANDERSON reservoir with exactly that amount ($10,000) on him.

Due to the geography of Altamont, they could only have the stage at the bottom of the canyon instead of at the highest point (preferable to keep crowd pressure off the stage area) and then constructed a stage barely a yard high with no physical barriers between the bands and the public. It can be seen on images and film footage how close everyone was with people sitting on the speakers and many on the stage itself. 5 people died in total (besides Meredith Hunter) - 1 drowned in a ditch and 3 were run over while asleep in their sleeping bags - 2 died instantly and the third after the concert.

Photos: Hell's Angels at Altamont

Detailed account from 'Esquire' originally published August 1970

Also see Sixties City pages:   Woodstock    Events 1969

Mersey Beat Magazine Bill Harry attended the Liverpool College of Art with Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon and made the arrangements for Brian Epstein to visit The Cavern, where he saw The Beatles for the first time. Bill was a member of 'The Dissenters' and the founder and editor of 'Mersey Beat', the iconic weekly music newspaper that documented the early Sixties music scene in the Liverpool area and is possibly best known for being the first periodical to feature a local band called 'The Beatles'. He has worked as a high powered publicist, doing PR for acts such as Suzi Quatro, Free, The Arrows and Hot Chocolate and has managed press campaigns for record labels such as CBS, EMI, Polydor. Bill is the critically acclaimed author of a large number of books about The Beatles and the 60s era including 'The Beatles Who's Who', 'The Best Years of the Beatles' and the Fab Four's 'Encyclopedia' series. He has appeared on 'Good Morning America' and has received a Gold Award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors.

Article Text Bill Harry       Original Graphics SixtiesCity      Other individual owner copyrights may apply to Photographic Images

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