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 Stones singer in the mouth.
Standing next to Jagger, the band's business manager, Ron Schneider, watched in horror.
"I wanted to kill the guy, but Mick's immediately, 'No, no, no,' " he recalls.
The stranger was wrestled away, and Jagger and his small entourage pressed on through a sea of hippies to a location backstage where the Stones would huddle for the next three hours until it was their turn to play.
What Jagger didn't fully realize is that by the time he arrived, the Altamont Free Concert wasn't just underway, it was already out of control.
On Dec. 6, 1969, more than 300,000 people gathered at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, for an all-day festival billed as "The West Coast Woodstock." Dumping their cars by the roadside, they packed the barren hills of Alameda County to drop acid, chug wine and listen to a lineup that included the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was supposed to be an extension of the "peace and music" mantra marketed by Woodstock four months earlier, but the trouble began early and would not abate.
One fan accidentally drowned in an irrigation canal as he made his way to the show. The next fatality was more deliberate: Meredith "Murdock" Hunter, an 18-year-old black man who had gone to the concert with his girlfriend, was stabbed to death in the crowd while the Stones played onstage, just a few feet away.
Altamont made the front page that weekend, but it has become a forgotten footnote. Yet the full story of the turbulent 1960s can't be told without the ugliness of Altamont, a disastrous exclamation point on the decade that also brought us Vietnam, race riots and the crushing assassinations of our next wave of leaders.
This account of the festival, and everything that was lost that day in 1969, is based on interviews with more than 30 people who took part in the event, including musicians Keith Richards, Grace Slick, David Crosby and Mickey Hart. It includes the firsthand accounts of organizers, journalists and festivalgoers, some of whom haven't spoken about their experiences in years.
They all say there's a feeling that pervaded Altamont, a vibe that grew darker and more unsettling as the day wore on, mirroring the mood of the 1960s.
"Something wasn't right," says Graham Nash, there to play an afternoon set with CSNY. "The place was sh---y. The way they were treating people like cattle was sh---y. God bless the Hells Angels, but to put them in charge of security ..."
That was one of many bad decisions by concert organizers: hiring the notorious motorcycle gang to run security. The festival may have made more sense in concept than it did in execution.
When it was over, Altamont would be hard to imagine as even a distant cousin of the hippie dream. Woodstock would be hailed as a triumph, inspiring countless tributes, commercial tie-ins and a museum on its New York site. Altamont would end in darkness, closer in origin and character to 2017's Fyre Festival or the deadly 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati.
So many of the rock stars who were on stage that Saturday at Altamont - from Mick Jagger to former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh - didn't want to revisit it as the concert's 50th anniversary approached and declined interview requests. Others, such as Richards, still find it hard to analyze.
"It was just sort of a nightmarish day," the Stones guitarist says. "Not just for us, but for everybody."
But the lingering questions aren't easily dismissed. Why did the Stones let the show go on? Could Hunter's violent death have been avoided? Should blame be shouldered by the outlaw motorcycle gang enlisted to keep order or by the Grateful Dead, who recruited them?
This fiasco was about far more than opportunism and poor planning. It marked an end - literally and spiritually - to a decade of cultural upheaval like no other.
On the morning of the concert, photographer Bill Owens, assigned by the Associated Press to cover the event, climbed a light tower to get into position. He watched as tens of thousands of people filed in, and he noticed how little had been put in place to serve them.
"I never saw any Portosans for people to go to the bathroom," he says. "No food services. Then I noticed that the Hells Angels guys were up on the stage."
The motorcycle gang members were considered the counterculture's outlaw brothers. They would go to Ken Kesey's "Acid Tests" and chill with the hippies when the Grateful Dead played their free gigs at Golden Gate Park. That's exactly what Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane's singer, told Jagger when she visited him in London in the fall of 1969.
"They were always OK, and when somebody would get on the stage and was not supposed to be there, they'd just go over and tell them not to," says Slick. "They didn't punch them or anything. So, we said, 'We can get the Hells Angels to be the security (for Altamont).' "
The police were not an option. The Stones had dealt with a series of drug busts in England. They weren't the only ones.
"The police were not our friend," says Jorma Kaukonen, one of Jefferson Airplane's guitarists. "If the police showed up, they weren't there to protect us."
But not everybody adored the Angels, either. Greil Marcus, then 24 and a writer for Rolling Stone magazine, had seen them in action at an antiwar march in Berkeley. They roared into the crowd and started beating people up.
"A right-wing, misogynist, racist, dope-dealing gang," he says. "That's all the Hells Angels were."
Whatever was arranged with the Angels remains murky. But somewhere along the line, Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully talked to the motorcycle gang about keeping order. They would be paid $500 in beer.
"They said, 'All you gotta do is just keep people off the stage,' " says "Flash" Gordon Grow, a member of the San Francisco chapter of the Angels who worked that stage. "We said, 'Yeah, no problem. We can do that.' They asked us, 'What do you want for that?' We said, 'We're not cops. We're not security guards. Just give us some beer.' They said, 'OK.' "
"That's where it went wrong," says singer-songwriter-guitarist David Crosby. "Hells Angels don't do security. Hells 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 f---ing tiger to the lunch."
'Woodstock of the West'
Looking back, it's easy to understand how the hiring of the Hells Angels didn't receive much scrutiny. After Jagger announced the concert on Nov. 26, there was a mad dash to find a venue and pull together all the elements for a Dec. 6 festival somewhere in the Bay Area. The Dead were natural partners, as leaders of the local music scene.
"Jerry Garcia called up Crosby and told him that they were going to do this massive show and would CSNY participate?" says Nash. "It's going to be fabulous. It's hippies and San Francisco and sunshine."
"It was the Grateful Dead," says Crosby. "Our buddies. We all thought it was going to be f---ing terrific."
For the Stones, the gig would serve several purposes. They had missed Woodstock, stuck in England planning their first tour in years and dealing with the death of founding member and guitarist Brian Jones. By the time their 1969 tour kicked off, in Colorado on Nov. 7, Jones would be replaced by the shy blues prodigy Mick Taylor.
The concert would also be a swaggering response to cranky San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ralph Gleason, who had accused the Stones of gouging ticket-buyers when they played the Oakland Coliseum on Nov. 9. Finally, the show would provide more footage for a still undefined documentary project that the filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles and co-director/editor Charlotte Zwerin had been shooting with the band.
On Dec. 1, the Monday before the festival, nobody in the Stones camp had ever heard of Altamont Speedway. Tour manager Sam Cutler, business manager Schneider and band assistant Georgia "Jo" Bergman were dispatched to San Francisco to work out the festival venue and other details, while Jagger and Richards were with the rest of the band, 2,200 miles away, recording "Brown Sugar" in Alabama's Muscle Shoals studio.
Unable to secure Golden Gate Park, their first choice, the trio explored a short list of alternatives. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County looked like the ideal site. Then the track's owners got wind of the Maysles brothers' cameras and demanded $100,000 for use of the venue. Schneider refused, and that's when Altamont entered the picture.
'This isn't a place for us.'
Once the festival got going on Saturday afternoon, it didn't take long for things to turn ugly.
Carlos Santana, 22, was forced to stop his band's opening set during the song "Soul Sacrifice" when a scuffle broke out in front of the stage. At the start, a thin rope was in place to keep the crowd from the bands. It disappeared almost immediately.
"Pretty soon, a guy takes off all of his clothes and tries to climb up onstage, and the Hells Angels, they jump off the stage and they have pool cues," says Owens, the photographer.
"He was using his dancing as an excuse to stomp people," Marcus says. "And the Angels then came in and started beating him up with pool cues. ... I saw all of these people holding peace signs. And I had never seen anything so pathetic in my life."
Local favorites Jefferson Airplane followed Santana. During their set, another naked man crowd-surfed to the front of the stage. When he got there, a Hells Angel grabbed him by the neck and threw him down. More pool cues. More brutality.
Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin, watching as the set broke down, had had enough. He swore at Paul Hibbits, a Hells Angel known as "Animal" and wearing a fox-head hat. Hibbits socked him. When Balin came to, he looked at his assailant and cussed again. He got knocked out a second time.
The punches thrown at Balin delivered an important message: On this spontaneous battlefield, even rock stars were potential targets unless they chose to walk away, which, up to this point, no one had been willing to do.
"I don't leave if I've said I'm going to play a gig," says Crosby, whose band took the stage after the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane.
The members of the Grateful Dead thought differently. As soon as they arrived, they were told about Balin and the Angels. Jerry Garcia and the band met backstage and reached a quick consensus: They would head back to San Francisco without playing. It was no small decision, with no small consequence. Instead of the hometown hero Dead bridging the gap between CSNY and the Stones, the stage would sit empty as the sun fell and the December cold moved in on an antsy, intoxicated crowd.
"Grateful Dead music cannot happen in a situation like that," drummer Mickey Hart says today. "We couldn't have brought our spirits to bear to be able to do Grateful Dead music justice and we just said, 'This isn't a place for us.' "
It was, Cutler says, "one of the great acts of moral cowardice in the history of the music business. They didn't trust their own music. Whether they could have done anything to rescue the event by playing is a moot point, but they didn't."
Six weeks later, in a sprawling narrative, Rolling Stone magazine barely mentioned the Grateful Dead. In fact, the hometown music magazine soft-pedaled their actions, stating that the "scene was so tense ... the Grateful Dead, prime organizers and movers of the festival, didn't even get to play."
John Burks, the Rolling Stone managing editor who oversaw the article, still has trouble calling out the Dead.
"I covered the Watts riots, and this felt more dangerous than that," he says. "I don't blame the Dead. It makes perfect sense to me that they would take a look at it and go, 'Uh-uh.' "
The Stones had planned to go on at sundown. Even if they had wanted to move up their start time once the Dead were gone, bassist Bill Wyman wasn't there yet. He'd spent the day shopping in San Francisco and got a helicopter to the concert later than his bandmates.
The gap between CSNY and the Stones lasted 75 minutes.
When they finally stepped onto the stage - rudimentary, only three feet off the ground and built for a different concert site - the band kicked straight into "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The speedway was built on a long, sloping hillside that dropped to its lowest point where the bands played. In the darkness, the crowd surged. People in back pushed the front lines forward. Eventually, the only place to go was onto that stage.
The Maysleses' "Gimme Shelter" documentary shows a dog wandering across the front of the stage. One Hells Angel dances wildly to the music; others roam the perimeter.
"Sympathy for the Devil" was the third song in the set, and by that point, everything was starting to collapse. Leather jackets swarmed past Jagger into the crowd. The singer stopped after five lines, stepped back and awkwardly knocked over his mic stand. It's strange to see the dashing, confident bad boy who had already taken one punch at this festival looking scared as the audience pushed closer and closer to the performers.
"Everybody be cool now, come on," Jagger tells the crowd. "All right. How are we doing over there? Is there anybody there that's hurt?"
What Jagger doesn't do, what nobody does, is walk off the stage. In a recent interview, Richards told us why he thought the Stones had to stay.
"It could have gotten a lot worse, man," he says. "That could have been a really big disaster. ... Who knows what else would have happened?"
"I saw Keith's eyes. I saw Mick Jagger's eyes," adds The Dead's Hart, who stayed to watch from backstage after his band had left. "If they had thought about stopping, you know, there would have been a ... knife between Mick's ribs. Or Keith's, probably, first."
'Just super cool, always in a suit.'
What the Stones discovered when they took the stage, their audience had known for some time: Altamont wasn't going to live up to its billing as "The West Coast Woodstock."
Patti Bredehoft, 17, had soured on the whole scene by late afternoon. She found the violence jarring, and says she felt particularly uncomfortable when she and her boyfriend, Meredith Hunter, walked by the Hells Angels. She figured their nasty looks toward the couple had to be about race. Bredehoft is white. Hunter was black.
The two had met a few months back, when Hunter, known by the nickname Murdock, was hanging out in a park across the street from Berkeley High School, where Bredehoft was a senior.
"He didn't walk, he floated (across that park)," Bredehoft says. "Just super cool, always in a suit. When he picked me it was like, it made me feel like ... special. Plus, he was really sweet."
The young couple did not talk about his past. Hunter didn't tell her about his abusive father, who was gone by his fifth birthday, or that his mother, Altha, struggled with mental illness. Hunter had bounced in and out of juvenile detention throughout his teens, after first being arrested at age 11 for being "beyond control," according to his court file.
In progressive Berkeley or San Francisco, nobody seemed to notice when Bredehoft and Hunter were together. But Altamont Speedway is about 60 miles east of San Francisco, a long way from the Haight.
"These weren't hippies," says Joel Selvin, the former San Francisco Chronicle columnist and author of "Altamont: The Rolling Stones, Hell's Angels and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day." "It's not the same people who go to Golden Gate Park. Half of them came from the east, which is redneck California."
Hunter had been to the Monterey Jazz Festival earlier in the year, headlined by Miles Davis and Sly and the Family Stone. Woodstock, across the country, wasn't an option. All he needed to get to this free Rolling Stones concert was his mother's boyfriend's beige Mustang. He told Bredehoft about the show. She was into it.
" 'Cause all we heard about was Woodstock," Bredehoft says. "Nobody knew exactly what it would be. We just heard it was a bunch of peace and love and flower children. So, we thought, 'Oh, it's just a big party.' "
Under My Thumb
That illusion evaporated quickly.
Beyond the festival's hostile vibe, Bredehoft says there wasn't room to sit between sets. So, at some point, she headed back to the Mustang with a couple of friends. Eventually, Hunter returned to the car also.
The Stones were about to go onstage, he told her. Come on back to the show.
"I felt really uncomfortable," says Bredehoft. "I didn't really want to go back again, but he persuaded me. I didn't know he had a gun. But when he came to get me and take me back, he went into the trunk and got it out. I think I said, 'What do you need that for?' He said, 'Just for protection.'"
What happened next haunts not just Bredehoft, but the festival itself.
During the skirmishes in front of the stage, Jagger was captured on film as he addressed the crowd: "I don't know what happened, I couldn't see. Are you all right?"
Voices laced with anger and sarcasm shouted back from the dark. "No thanks to the Angels!" and "F--- the Angels!" and "Angels go home!"
But the Angels stood their ground.
Just before 6:30, seven songs into the set, the Stones started to play "Under My Thumb." More fighting. At some point, the camera operated by Maysles crew member Baird Bryant picked up a black man near the stage. He was hard to miss in his lime green suit. It was Hunter, and this would become the key moment in "Gimme Shelter" when the documentary was released in 1970. It would also be played repeatedly in early 1971, at the trial of Hells Angel Alan Passaro.
Slowed down, the footage shows Hunter leaping into the air with a .22 Smith & Wesson in his left hand. Passaro raises a hunting knife high and brings it down on his upper back. The next shot of Hunter in the film is of the 18-year-old's body on a gurney, strapped down and covered.
Four would die at Altamont - that first from drowning, two more from a hit-and-run driver - but Hunter's death overshadowed the others. His killing cut to so many of the questions that surround Altamont. Were the Angels the agitators, or were they put in an unmanageable position? Was Hunter trying to shoot one of the Angels or the rock stars on the stage, or was he simply an agitated young man wildly waving a gun? Was lethal force the only option? And why, after a man had been stabbed and beaten to death just feet from the stage, did the Rolling Stones keep on playing?
Bredehoft, who was standing next to Hunter and tried to grab hold of him when Passaro struck, is sure her boyfriend never intended to go after Jagger. The Hells Angels were another story.
"I remember him getting punched," Bredehoft says. "That's when he turned and that's when he pulled the gun out. But he wasn't pointing it at the stage or Mick Jagger. He was pointing it at some Hells Angels that were coming after him."
Witnesses that day saw Hunter pushed, taunted and chased by members of the motorcycle gang. But not everyone has this view of Hunter's actions. Mickey Hart saw him as a threat, and the coroner's report would find methamphetamine in Hunter's system.
"He was headed right toward Mick with his gun pointed," Hart says. What Passaro did "was really heroic in some ways, running toward somebody with a gun and confronting them."
Eric Saarinen, another cameraman for the Maysleses, was stunned when he saw the footage of Passaro working his way toward Hunter while everyone around him retreats from the gun.
"He was so cool and calm and collected," says Saarinen. "Every time Meredith was looking away in the opposite direction, he made an adjustment. He went down and got his knife. Then, when Meredith (swings the gun) around the second time, he goes out, takes two steps and stabs him between the shoulder blades."
After the song finished, Richards scolded the Hells Angels from the crowded stage. He and his bandmates had no idea Hunter had been killed, but they had seen the Angels roughing up the crowd.
"Listen, man," Richards complains in the film. "Either these cats cool it, man, or we don't play."
Today, Richards says of that moment: "It was touch-and-go, and it was just a matter of, you know, somebody just trying to make a decision, and I did. Otherwise, you know, you're totally powerless ... and you're just going to get anarchy and mayhem."
In a meta moment that couldn't be scripted, the Maysleses showed the Hunter stabbing to Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts on camera, and made their stunned response a part of "Gimme Shelter." But what happened next, in real time, wasn't caught on film. It would be detailed by the medical examiner and in the police report. After the gun had been knocked away, when there was no more danger to anyone, the Hells Angels beat Hunter mercilessly. They kicked him in the face, stabbed him at least three more times and slammed a garbage can against his head.
"I remember screaming and trying to go to him and people pulling me back, trying to protect me, more or less," Bredehoft says. "And then I remember this one Hells Angel turning around and grabbing me and telling me, 'Why are you crying over him? He's not worth it.' "
'Rock and roll's all-time worst day'
The morning after Altamont, with the Rolling Stones already on their way back to Europe, the daily news reports initially flubbed the story. The San Francisco Examiner's exuberant front-page headline declared "300,000 say it with music," and noted that "But for the stabbing, all appeared peaceful at the concert."
By Sunday night, though, word was getting out. Stefan Ponek, a DJ at San Francisco's KSAN-FM radio, decided to conduct an on-air investigation. He talked to Cutler and others who were at the show. He questioned the behavior of the Angels but didn't render a judgment.
"There's no conclusions to be drawn," Ponek said on air at the end of his broadcast. "A combination of factors is what made Woodstock such a huge success. And the reverse combination of factors is what made Altamont such a huge disaster."
The Rolling Stone article extended blame to almost everyone. "Rock and roll's all-time worst day," the magazine called Altamont, blaming "egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity."
That February, Jerry Garcia, in an interview with journalist Howard K. Smith, sounded unsure of what to make of Altamont. He started by calling it "the other side of the Woodstock coin."
"There's a great big lesson for us all," Garcia continued. "Every head, every revolutionary, everybody who's considering what social changes are about and considering the way it's gonna be, you know. It's like there's something to be learned from all that."
"Which is what?" Smith asks.
"Well, I don't know," Garcia says. "Everybody has to look at it and find out. ... I'm still finding things out, I'm still talking to people, and getting various viewpoints, but, you know, it was a heavy thing, it was some kind of heavy thing, and nothing heavy goes down without it being some kind of lesson."
For Hunter's older sister, Dixie Ward, the takeaway remains all too familiar. She couldn't help but feel cynical after Passaro pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.
"How do I put it?" she says. "Black people have been in these situations a lot of times. And we don't expect for people to have helped a black person.
"I don't need Meredith to be remembered by anybody but me and my family," she adds. "I carry him. And I don't need a crowd to carry him with me."
Burks, the managing editor who oversaw the Rolling Stone piece, contends that the festival's entire premise was based on a mirage. He's not surprised that no one stepped up at the beginning - not the Stones, not the Dead, not anyone - and did the one thing that could have saved the day: Nobody said no.
"Saying no would have been saying no to Woodstock," he says.
A half-century later, that festival is still seen as the epitome of the peace and love movement that defined the 1960s. Altamont is the decade's dissonant footnote.
Cultural commentators consider Altamont the spiritual end of the 1960s, a dark denouement that is mostly ignored in our replaying of the Age of Aquarius.
"If the '60s were a great wave, it gets to Altamont and crests," Greil Marcus says, "and you see all the garbage and dead fish left behind when the water recedes."
Washington Post News Service (DC)