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Hell's Angels at Altamont, December 6, 1969
On December 6, 1969 the Rolling Stones organized - if that's the right word - and headlined the free Altamont Music Festival at the Altamont speedway in northern California. This was a few months after Woodstock, and there was a general idea that the Stones would have their own Woodstock. It had been scheduled to happen at the Golden Gate Park, but San Francisco officials revoked their permission (if they even had proper paperwork to begin with) at the last minute when Mick Jagger publicly announced that the Stones would be there out of crowd control concerns. It was then supposed to be going to Sears Point Raceway, but that fell through as well. The Altamont venue was finally settled on as late as December 4.
Surprisingly enough, 400,000 rock fans showing up at a place selected within the last 48 hours turned out badly. Four people managed to wind up dead. A couple of people got killed in an auto accident amidst the chaos, and one person managed to drown in a drainage ditch. The famous death, of course, was Meredith Hunter who was stabbed multiple times and kicked to death on film right in front of the stage by Hell's Angels during the Rolling Stones set.
This is just the kind of thing that BEGS for pontification, asserting Big Profound Meaning and so forth. It was the anti-Woodstock, and the dark side of the hippie culture, the death of the 60s, etc. Among other things, the event was immortalized in Don McLean's famous "American Pie" wherein the Satanic Jack Flash was lustfully presiding over the "sacrificial rite." It was the climactic destruction and sweeping away of Buddy Holly's rock and roll "true love ways." It was the final day when the music really, really died.
Obviously, a lot of this stuff is being loaded onto happenstance, which leads to people twisting the actual random chaos of the event to fit their mythologies. For example, it has sometimes been claimed that Hunter was killed while the Stones were playing "Sympathy for the Devil." Obviously that would be perfect mythology, with the whole Satanic "sacrificial rite" angle. In fact, they had finished that song, and were specifically playing "Under My Thumb" at the critical moment- which to me is a more interesting sentiment to be playing out for that event.
Fortuitously, the Rolling Stones had a camera crew filming their tour for a movie, which was eventually released under the title Gimme Shelter. It was directed by David and Albert Maysles. Among several others, young George Lucas was working as a cameraman. A piece of video isn't the same as being there, and you also have to consider all the stuff that was going on that did NOT end up on film. Still, the camera doesn't lie, and it captured a lot of fascinating things going on amongst this third of a million people.
Studying the film, capturing still images and trying to figure out how to edit and present and explain them strongly reaffirms the sense of Dionysian chaos all around that day. For starters, I've rooted out 90 images from that day examining the specific involvement of the Hell's Angels. It can't tell the whole story, but it does give a lot of information from which we can glean some idea of what they were really doing.
Ultimately, the main culprits really have to be the Rolling Stones on grounds of hubris for insisting on going through with this show on less than 48 hours notice in even booking the venue. Famously, they were rumored to have hired the Hell's Angels as security for $500 worth of beer- though both sides subsequently denied it. However, the Grateful Dead had used Hell's Angels for security in the past without incident. Also, the Stones themselves had used the British arm of the Hell's Angels for an "honor guard" earlier that year among hundreds of thousands of fans at their Hyde Park memorial show for Brian Jones without incident..
Still, a handful of bikers providing the main security for several hundred thousand people was dumb. I'd also have to lay some fault on local government. Again, I'm sure that the camera didn't get everything, but from the looks of it there might have been as many as half a dozen cops among that many people. The most I saw was exactly TWO cops on stage after the Hunter killing. I'm not that big on cops, but that was just nuts.
Some of the stuff with the Hell's Angels was probably just them being thuggish because they could. Perhaps the Stones should have took out ads in the motorcycle classifieds for bonded and background checked biker thugs to police their show. Notably, they bum rushed the stage during the Jefferson Airplane's set, knocking Marty Balin out cold. (Unfortunately, the camera crews got no good footage of that golden moment.) Obviously he was not creating a security disturbance by playing his set.
Then when a band member said something about it from the stage, an Angel jumped up and seized the mic to tell them what time it was. That was just plain foolishness from the Angels there. In fairness though, who hasn't wanted to jump up on stage with a pool cue and knock out some long-haired pinko singing about peace and love when there's commies needing killed? (I apologize for political editorial.)
Anyway, the Angels were in a tough position, and a lot of their behavior might be written off to legitimate fear. They were in WAY over their heads even just trying to protect the stage- which was only maybe three or four feet high, and thus easily accessible to any crazed fan wanting to jump up- which of course they did. On top of which, there were maybe a couple or few dozen Angels amongst perhaps as many as 400,000 mostly heavily drugged concert goers. Of course, their own heavy imbibement wasn't helping that much.
Still, you might have a little empathy for this handful of bikers trying to maintain some semblance of control over these enthusiastic fans, some of whom were fighting amongst themselves or just freaking out. Note the freak out boy on the stage two steps from Jagger a minute or so before the Hunter incident. Imagine yourself in the position of a Hell's Angel faced with a few hundred people looking like this:
In the face of this chaos and these numbers, it's somewhat understandable that the Angels' natural reaction was to bust heads and make an example of anybody close who as much as looked at them funny. Basic physical intimidation would be an obvious blunt point in what they would think of to keep the trippin' freaks from completely losing control.
Hey, fear of the Hell's Angels may well have been the thin line that kept the hippies from just stampeding and accidentally killing the Stones themselves. Looking at that crowd, it could easily enough have played out that way. Not even by evil intent, what if a couple thousand of these kids who had thrown off all those crazy societal rules had decided that they had to touch the hem of Mick's garment like Jebus?
Furthermore, there's a distinct sense that the Stones themselves had just such thoughts as they stood there helpless. You could readily see all pretensions to messianic or Satanic status evaporate as Mick desperately struggled to avoid something really bad happening to him standing right then and there. For being the master thespian and author of all evil- the devil incarnate - Mick Jagger really looked like a mere prancing little fairy boy by the end of this. Note his incredibly lame interactions with the audience.
He made repeated threats to stop playing, but even as he's saying them you know that there wasn't a chance that he would dare to do so. Under those completely freaky circumstances, he could very well have been killed, sacrificed on the spot to the god Dionysus like the mother parading down the street with her son's head on a stick at the end of Euripides' play about The Bacchants. There's a distinct sense to their actual musical performance by the end that they were playing as good as if they thought their lives literally depended on it.
Also, the Hell's Angels were pretty heavy-handed, but they were not just completely going nuts. For starters, they came riding their motorcycles right through the crowd to park under the stage- but even with that kind of display, the Angels weren't carrying guns. Their tool of choice was the sawed-off pool cue. That's perhaps got a more intimidating idea behind it, but it's basically equivalent to a cop carrying a nightstick. Depending on training and use, that would not be an entirely unreasonable tool for major crowd control.
Some of that thuggish Hell's Angels behavior earlier in the day during the Jefferson Airplane set might have been considered largely gratuitous. They seemed to be knocking people around to some extent just because they could. Even at that though, one could not entirely unreasonably judge it a public service to give a deserving dirty hippie a good beat down. (Sorry- I was channeling Cartman again there for a minute.)
By the time the Stones hit the stage that night though, the Angels were pretty clearly in a combat survival mode. Looking at the footage, they seemed quite anxious simply to avoid some kind of serious massacre, which this many heavily doped up people could easily have done even just accidentally. They've got an easily accessible three foot or so high stage. What would have stopped them?
Specifically though, the famous climactic killing of Meredith Hunter was absolutely clean as regards the Hell's Angels. There are witnesses claiming that Hunter pulled out a gun, and took a shot in the direction of the stage, supposedly grazing an Angel. I don't know about all of that, but here's the money shot of the whole film where you can unmistakably see Meredith Hunter with a gun in his hand.
So this fool kid absolutely pulled out a gun in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people, maybe 20 yards from the Stones on stage, and with a bunch of Hell's Angels standing there. Folks, Meredith Hunter committed suicide. Crazy sumbitch whips out a gun in a crowd like that, they're asking to be terminated with extreme prejudice. The Hell's Angels were simply obliging him.
Specifically, from the film Hell's Angel Alan Passaro is seen bringing down the knife. He was stabbed repeatedly and stomped to death immediately. He was long dead when paramedics got there. Three years later in 1972, Passaro eventually faced a murder charge, but was acquitted by a jury. I'd figure they'd have to have acquitted just on the basis of the picture of Hunter with the gun in his hand alone, besides any other testimony.
Naturally there was a great deal of controversy after the event regarding the role of the film crew. How much of this chaos came from them doing this whole event as a climax for their movie? The correct answer there seems to be NONE. Watching the whole movie of the tour up to and including the Altamont concert, there's no sign of anything being particularly staged for the camera crews. They had no special access to the Stones personally at any time in the tour, and no sign that I could see of getting any accommodation at all.
They had a handful of guys running around with cameras grabbing what they could. As I understand and find fairly easy to believe, they got some of the footage of the Hell's Angels knocking people around actually somewhat surreptitiously. Now, this part is not on film, but from later accounts of the film crew. Apparently though, as trouble started at a couple of points Angels demanded that they not film this part, and the cameraman left the camera running from his shoulder pack as he's physically looking away. That this worked - repeatedly - does not speak well for the high brain power of the Angels.
One thing that struck me a bit sour regarding the finished movie though - and this reflects particularly on the Rolling Stones who financed it, they went through the whole movie without ever even so much as mentioning the name Meredith Hunter or the name of the guy who stabbed him on film, Alan Passaro. They totally, absolutely gave not one bit of detail about the events other than the immediate footage, maybe thirty seconds with some kind of EMT on scene and Mick Jigger's limp reaction to watching the footage again in the editing room. "Oh, it's so horrible."
That's pretty much de-humanizing them, making Hunter not quite human- just a grainy image from a surveillance video. Seems like they'd have spent a minute or so explaining who the guy was and a few details of exactly what happened. That strikes me as an attempt to keep the incident at arms length, not really quite real people.
You can't fault the Angels for killing a guy with a gun in his hand. Still, these Angels on stage a couple of minutes after seem rather unseemly in their giddy high from the blood sacrifice. Jumping' Jehosaphat, from those looks of ecstasy on their faces, you'd think they were getting ready to look for someplace private where they could hump one another in celebration. As the Satanic woodland critters on South Park said, "Blood orgy, blood orgy!"
Naturally, after the event there was all sorts of finger pointing. There was a famous call in show on radio KSAN the next day in which Sonny Barger told what might be considered the official Hell's Angels version of the story. He claimed that the Angels were never told they were supposed to be security. They were just going to get to drink beer and sit on the stage. That claim doesn't quite make sense to me- which isn't to say it wasn't true. He also claimed that Mick Jagger among others was twisting things to set the Hell's Angels up as the goats. I find that fairly easy to believe. They would certainly be the obvious unsympathetic characters to scapegoat.
Probably the best overall perspective on the situation came from Grace Slick on stage with the Jefferson Airplane just a couple of minutes after the Angels had knocked out her bandmate. "People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line. But the Angels also- you know, you don't bust people in the head for nothing. So both sides are fucking up temporarily. Let's not keep fucking up."
HELL'S ANGELS ALTAMONT PHOTOS, PAGE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
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