Angels at Altamont

By: sonofabeach96

Dec 06 2015

Category: Uncategorized


On this date, in 1969, the “hippie era” came to abrupt end, according to many historians and writers, at a Northern California racetrack.  The Altamont SpeedwayFree Festival was marketed as the “Woodstock of the West”, yet ended in tragedy and violence.

The concert featured Jefferson Airplane, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Grateful Dead (who would back out before they were set to go on stage), and was headlined by The Rolling Stones.  Santana took the stage first, without incident.  However, the crowd grew increasingly restless and agitated as the concert unfolded.  Fights began to break out amongst the crowd and between the crowd and security, many due to people trying to climb onto the stage.  And the security I mentioned?  Just happened to be provided by the Hells Angels.  I mean, really, what could go wrong? :/

The biker’s were hired at the recommendation of the Grateful Dead’s manager, who’d utilized the Angels for security in the past, and without any trouble.  They were there to guard the equipment or the stage itself, with versions of the story varying depending on who you ask.  The Angels provided their services for $500 worth of beer, which they proceeded to drink throughout the day.  As the show progressed, the crowd grew more aggressive and the Angels grew more inebriated, and it soon became a very volatile situation.  At some point during Jefferson Airplanes’ set, one of the Angels’ bikes got knocked over and the Angels went off.  No longer weaponless, they began brandishing sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains to help fend off the encroaching crowd, and the scene just got more and more tense.  Unbelievably, During that set by Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin of the band was knocked unconscious by a punch to the head.  This incident caused the Dead to back out of their scheduled set,  which was to be between C,S,N, & Y and the days final act, the Rolling Stones.

Th show continued, with the exception of the Dead, and during the Stones’ set, Mick Jagger had to plead with the crowd to, “Just be cool down in the front there, don’t push around.”  During their third song, “Sympathy for the Devil”, a fight broke out, and the song was even paused while order was restored.  A few songs later, during “Under My Thumb”, a concert goer named Meredith Hunter and some Angels scuffled.  The 18 year-old was trying to get onto the stage but an Angel grabbed him by the head, punched him, then tossed him back towards the crowd.  According to Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, who had a birds-eye view from atop the truck he was standing on, Hunter returned within a minute.  Scully said, “I saw what he was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent.  There was no doubt in my mind that he intended to do terrible harm to Mick or somebody in the Rolling Stones, or somebody on that stage.”

As Hunter returned towards the stage for the second time, he drew a long-barreled revolver from under his jacket.  Hells Angel Alan Passaro saw Hunter and lunged at him from the left while drawing a knife from his belt.  He disabled Hunter’s shooting arm with his left hand and stabbed him twice with his right, killing Hunter.  There was so much commotion around the stage throughout the day that it looked like just another scuffle.  The whole incident was captured on film as the documentary Gimme Shelter was bind shot.  In fact, Passaro was tried for murder bur acquired in 1971 in part due to the footage in the film that showed this was a clear case of self-defense.  Hunter’s autopsy did indeed confirm he had high levels of methamphetamine in his system at the time of death.

The historical legacy of Altamont is as the “anti-Woodstock”.  Woodstock had just occurred roughly four months earlier, and this scene was in stark contrast to that of peace and love.  According to many, it ushered in the end of the late 60’s, hippie, counter-culture era for good.

In a mid-’70’s article, rock critic Robert Christgaw said, “Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended.”

The Grateful Dead wrote about the experience in “New Speedway Boogie” and “Mason’s Children”.  Rolling Stone magazine even referred to Altamont as “rock and roll’s all-time worst day”.  The documentary about the festival, Gimme Shelter, played its part too, notably for being used as evidence in the trial of Alan Passaro, but for another reason as well.  The Hells Angels took issue with the manner in which they were portrayed in the events of that day, and in 2008, a former FBI agent claimed they’d been investigating a supposed plot to murder Jagger in revenge for kinda being thrown under the bus in the documentary.

In honor of this most dubious of rock events, my songs of the day are:

“Midnight Rambler” by The Rolling Stones

“Jin-go-la-ba” by Santana

“White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

“Lazy Days” by The Flying Burrito Brothers

“Long Time Gone” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

“New Speedway Boogie” by The Grateful Dead

“Under My Thumb” by The Rolling Stones

Check out the full set lists by artist here:

Altamont Free Concert Setlists




13 comments on “Angels at Altamont”

  1. A great, informative read. I learned a lot. I was born in Jan 68… so I guess that makes me a baby boomer of the era, just! Jx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Could you imagine if something like this happened today?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was twelve that year, very much into rock :). Thank you for this very informative post!

    Liked by 1 person

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