It’s December 1969 and a young Mick Jagger announces a free outdoor show that some believe will be the Woodstock of the West. But things don’t go as planned, the consequences of which will be felt for decades to come.
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“I don’t understand the connection between music and violence. People are always trying to explain it to me and I just blindly carry on… I never went to a rock and roll show and wanted to smash the windows or beat anybody up afterwards.” – Mick Jagger
It’s December 1969 and a young Mick Jagger announces a free outdoor show that some believe will be the Woodstock of the West. But things don’t go as planned, the consequences of which will be felt for decades to come.
The previous year saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy. In Great Britain, anti-Vietnam protests turned violent in March of 1968 when between 8,000 and 10,000 protesters marched from Trafalgar Square to the United States. With the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre grabbing headlines, demonstrations grew in the United States as well, including 250,000 who marched on Washington, D.C.
Violence erupted at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago when Mayor Daley gave the orders to forcibly remove the peaceful anti-Vietnam War protestors—all of the chaos was broadcast on live television.
Throughout the decade, seeds were planted that would grow into a turbulent end of the 1960s, and by the time 1969 rolled around, optimism had begun to fade. Despite the euphoria surrounding the seemingly impossible moon landing of 1969 and the cultural impact of Woodstock, the Beatles performed for the last time on the roof of the headquarters of Apple Records. Charles Manson led a murderous cult on a killing spree through the Hollywood Hills. Recorded in 1964, Bob Dylan’s prophetic song lyrics seemed to take on a different meaning as the times were definitely changing.
At the same time, the outdoor music festival hit a peak it wouldn’t reach again until Lollapalooza in the early 1990s.
The Atlanta International Pop Festival attracted 100,000 fans to watch performances by Janis Joplin, Johnny Rivers, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Sweetwater, and Led Zeppelin.
At the 1969 Isle of Wight Festival in England, 150,000 people gathered to watch Bob Dylan, The Who, Blonde on Blonde, Joe Cocker, The Moody Blues, and Free.
The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival pulled in 20,000 fans to enjoy sets by Chicago, Alice Cooper, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Doug Kershaw and The Doors, Screaming Lord Sutch and John Lennon, and Yoko Ono and The Plastic Ono Band.
It seemed as though a free concert headlined by the Rolling Stones at Golden Gate Park on December 6th, 1969, would be a good idea. But then again, things aren’t always what they seem…
Four people died. Two were run over, one drowned, and one was murdered. One hundred people were the victims of beatings and stabbings, and 700 people were treated for bad trips. All of this took place while half a million young people gathered at Altamont Speedway with the hopes of seeing the Rolling Stones headline a show that also included performances by Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and The Grateful Dead—the darlings of the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco.
The Stones wanted to ascend to the apex of rock and roll immortality by hosting the biggest outdoor music festival in history. But you can’t always get what you want. Almost a decade after the concert at Altamont, the Hells Angels still had a hit out on Mick Jagger and had it not been for some rough weather near Long Island, New York, they might have carried out the assassination.
But what happened at Altamont Speedway? How had it “fallen apart so fast,” as Keith Richards had asked?
This is the story of Sam Cutler and Meredith Hunter, two men twisted together by fate and forever memorialized in rock and roll history—marked by the events of that day. A tour manager and an 18-year-old kid, one dying and the other, carrying his lifeless body to the medical tent.
I’m your host, J. Thorn, and this is, “Consequences of Rock.”
The Stones had been at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, recording tracks with Ahmet Ertegun, when Rock Scully and Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead suggested that a free concert be held at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Mick Jagger, 26 years old and a sexual tornado with the unbridled power of youth, is at the height of his swagger. He jumps at the idea—a rock and roll show that would rival Woodstock.
Word of the free concert spreads quickly after the story breaks in the L.A. Free Press and then the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle. But there’s one problem. The city of San Francisco won’t issue the necessary permits.
Jagger tells the press that the show will be happening in a few days, which sends thousands of young people on a pilgrimage west. They believe this concert will be the Woodstock of the West—another flower-power, hippie gathering of peace, love, and music.
The Stones’ camp initially selects Filmways’ Sears Point Raceway, 32 miles north of San Francisco, as the venue for the show. The crew is setting up the stage and equipment when owner Dick St. John demands $3 million for cleanup after the show, $3 million for insurance, and the rights to the film that would eventually become Albert and David Maysles’ documentary, Gimme Shelter.
The Stones’ management refuses, which opens the door for Melvin Belli, the 62-year-old lawyer known as “The King of Torts”—a flamboyant, raging narcissist with a life-size oil painting of himself above his desk. Belli is known in the Bay Area as a high-profile connector, a man who can negotiate just about any deal.
Journalist Michael Lydon said, “Altamont was going to be Woodstock West. Everybody was talking about it.” This show had to happen.
Sam Cutler, the tour manager for the Rolling Stones, is charged with handling the logistics. The band later claims that they knew nothing about the problems or concerns of finding a venue before the show was finally moved to Altamont Speedway.
The owner of Altamont Speedway, Dick Carter, is taking a marketing class at Stanford when he hears that the Stones need a venue for their free concert. Having an entrepreneurial mindset, Carter offers them his raceway. And with Belli and Cutler, they work out a deal despite the uncertainty of some at the table that Carter’s venue will be able to handle the hundreds of thousands of people already on their way to California.
In Gimme Shelter, Carter admits that he doesn’t have a fraction of the space for parking that will be needed, but he deftly says that he’ll get his neighbors to open up some acreage to accommodate the crowds.
Chip Monk’s job is to move the entire stage from Filmways’ Sears Point Raceway to Altamont Speedway in two days, a distance of nearly 80 miles. Tony Funches, personal security for the Rolling Stones, said, “My assessment is that it’s a complete disaster in the making, so I drop back into fail-safe mode of accomplishing my primary task—making sure that nobody tags the band members.”
The Stones arrive at Altamont by helicopter, and they’re making their way to the backstage area when an unruly fan runs up and punches Mick Jagger in the mouth, “tagging” one of the band members—and foreshadowing the violence to come.
Sam Cutler faces one of the most important decisions of his life—does he pull the plug on the show, knowing that he’ll have a public relations disaster on his hands, or does he ignore the warning signs on the ground and the whisperings about the perceived lack of security at the venue?
Scully and Garcia had used the outlaw biker gang, the Hells Angels, for security at several Grateful Dead shows, including their London concert at Hyde Park earlier in the year. They suggest that the northern California chapters of the Angels could be used at Altamont in much the same way, but it’s a decision that lands squarely on Sam Cutler’s shoulders.
In his own words, Sam seemed less than optimistic about the situation: “There was smoke from campfires shrouding the hillsides, and already well in excess of a couple of hundred thousand people. It looked like there’d been a mushroom cloud over San Francisco and these were the survivors. It looked like the end of the world.”
Bill Wyman’s girlfriend, Astrid Lundstrom, received a phone call from Altamont. “They said I should not come out because it was not safe. That is when I personally started to get a little bit apprehensive.”
Ethan A. Russell thought, “We were on our way to some version of Woodstock West.” But once he arrives, things look quite different. “Altamont was a dull, lifeless landscape, as different from San Francisco as the Siberian steppes are from Paris parks…There was no palpable feeling of joy or even happiness. People were just passing time, getting high, waiting for the Rolling Stones.”
Lydon added, “But there were a lot of really weird hippies. There were people who had had weird experiences; there were people who were damaged, or people who had been in prison for drugs… People adrift, homeless, spaced, and so ill-educated that they didn’t have any defense against culty-type vibes.”
Meredith Hunter was raised in Oakland, California, by his single mother, Althea. Althea had spent most of her adult life battling drugs and abusive men, leaving Meredith’s sister, Dixie, as the boy’s primary caretaker.
As a kid, Hunter often biked to Berkeley Hills or Tilden Park to hang out with white kids in between stints as a low-level criminal. By the time he was a teenager, Meredith had done stints in a juvenile detention center for two counts of burglary in 1966, one count of burglary in 1967, and a parole violation a year later.
Like many teenagers in the mid-to-late 1960s, Meredith smoked weed and injected crystal meth. He was a regular on the Haight-Ashbury scene.
Dixie is the first one to raise concerns about her brother’s desire to attend the free show planned by the Rolling Stones. She doesn’t think it’s safe for a black man to be on the fringes of Alameda County, far from the peace, love, and tolerance of the hippie street scene in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
“You do not need to be out there,” she tells her little brother.
Meredith is too excited about seeing the Rolling Stones to heed her warning. He dismisses Dixie’s concerns, claiming this wasn’t Mississippi. He’s been dating a white girl, Patty Bredehoft, for two months and he’s had no problems in Berkeley, so he doesn’t think there will be any trouble at the show. But he respects his sister enough to protect himself and ease her worried mind.
He arms himself with a .22 Smith & Wesson pistol, which alarms her. Dixie doesn’t think he even has bullets for it. When she asks him why he’s bringing a gun when he doesn’t expect any problems, Meredith tells Dixie not to worry, saying, he “wouldn’t need it anyway.”
Meredith calls his girlfriend, Patty, to tell her they’re going to see the Rolling Stones with Meredith’s friend, Ronnie Brown, and his girlfriend, Judy. Hunter has already arranged to borrow a ’65 Mustang from a friend.
Hunter is a flashy dresser and according to his sister, enjoys standing out in a crowd. He puts on his favorite lime-green suit with a black silk shirt. Patty wears a short suede skirt and a cream-colored blouse with white cable-knit top. The two teenagers dress up for what they believe will be an event of a lifetime.
Without the benefit of modern social media or mainstream media coverage before the show, Meredith has no way of knowing that the violent and often racist motorcycle club known as the Hells Angels are unofficially tasked with handling stage security for the event. It won’t be evident until much later in the day just how violent the bikers would get, including one Angel who climbs on to the stage while Jefferson Airplane is performing and knocks out Marty Balin. Twice.
At the concert, Patty is having a terrible time. The crowd is unruly, and the Hells Angels are beating people with pool cues, fists, and bottles. Probably realizing that Meredith is a black face in a sea of white ones and therefore, a possible target, she goes back to the ’65 Mustang to wait for the others. Patty wants to cut their losses and leave before things get out of hand.
But the Rolling Stones haven’t taken the stage yet, the whole reason Meredith wanted to come to the show in the first place. When Meredith finally makes his way back to the car, Patty is stunned when he takes the pistol out of the trunk.
“Why are you getting that?” she asks.
“It’s just to protect myself,” Meredith says. “They’re getting really bad. They’re pushing people off the stage and beating people up.”
As he told Dixie earlier, Meredith tells Patty that the gun isn’t even loaded. She’s never seen him with a gun before, never hears him talk about weapons, has never seen him involved in illegal activity.
Patty probably doesn’t understand how threatening the situation must feel to young Meredith Hunter, a black man in a white crowd policed by racist outlaws. The Hells Angels had a reputation in the Bay Area, and the African American kids knew it well.
Why not leave? That was the question that Patty must have had rolling around inside of her head as Hunter took the pistol out of the trunk. If things had gotten that bad, why stay?
Although it’s impossible to answer that question, one might think that Meredith’s age might have had something to do with it—like most 18-year-old kids, Hunter had the mind of a child in the body of a man. Teenagers are immature, irrational, and impulsive. They often can’t contemplate their own mortality, believing in their own invincibility. It was also likely that Hunter was high on crystal meth, the drug further blurring the lines between rational and irrational behavior.
Patty makes one more attempt to get Meredith to leave, but he refuses. He convinces her to head back to the front of the stage so they’ll be in a good spot when the Rolling Stones start playing.
As fate would have it, the two lovers become separated. Meredith makes it to the front of the stage, but Patty does not. She can see him from twenty or thirty feet away as he climbs up onto one of the speaker boxes—another haunting moment caught on film in Gimme Shelter.
Meredith is enjoying the show, enraptured by the music.
Someone grabs him by his ear and hair, pulling him from the stage to the ground. When he stands up to try and figure out exactly what happened, he’s punched square in the mouth. When Hunter tries to pull himself together, he’s surrounded by five or six Hells Angels.
Whether from unbridled fear or a moment of clarity delivered by the blow to his chin, Hunter turns and tries to flee into the crowd. And that’s when several more Hells Angels leap from the stage and chase him down.
Sam Cutler explains his decision to hire the Hells Angels, saying, “I was talking with them, because I was interested in the security of my band—everyone’s security, for that matter. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. They were the only people who were strong and together. [They had to protect the stage] because it was descending into absolute chaos. Who was going to stop it?”
Sam makes the best decision he can, given the information he had at that time—the only thing that any of us can really do. With budget constraints and under pressure to get the concert moved to Altamont, all while hundreds of thousands of kids bear down on northern California, Cutler puts Ralph “Sonny” Barger in charge of the security detail, the man who headed the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels.
During 1969, a storm front of violence moved in, pushing out the calm, idealistic winds of the hippie movement. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago ended in a riot when police cracked down on nonviolent protestors. By December of that year, the counterculture had cultivated a deep distrust of authority. Keeping the police and government out of it, and based on the advice coming from the Grateful Dead, having the Hells Angels protect the stage probably seemed like a good-enough solution in a worsening situation.
Cutler said that Scully and Garcia suggested “inviting” the Angels to the show to hang out and drink beer. There had never been a formal agreement that stated the Hells Angels had been hired as a private security force, and there were few law enforcement officers at Altamont that night.
In yet another chilling moment in Gimme Shelter, the Hells Angels arrive on their steel stallions. They ride through the crowd toting women and whiskey on the backs of their bikes, a scene on film that one observer described as “tanks through tulips.”
The problems start from the very beginning. Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas said the Hells Angels had been beating kids, bouncing beer cans off of people’s heads, and taking LSD by the handful.
Balin had been knocked silly from the beating he took on stage while the other members of Jefferson Airplane stood around dumbfounded. The contrast couldn’t have been starker, imagining what Woodstock would have been like if Jimi Hendrix had been punched out while performing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Cutler said, “When the Stones were on there were several Angels that looked like they wanted to kill Mick. And I was not equipped to deal with it. I mean, if they wanted to, they could have. Who was there to stop them?”
While playing bass and standing behind the drum kit, Bill Wyman sees it all unfolding. “The crowd would open and you would see six Angels just whacking them with pool cues, and you thought, What’s going on? It just went on like that.”
As he’s being hunted down by a posse of motorcycle-gang outlaws, Meredith makes the most critical mistake of his young life. He pulls the long-barreled .22 pistol from a pocket inside his lime-green jacket.
The next minute of footage in Gimme Shelter has become darkly symbolic, sinister, and troubling to watch. The haunting scene predates the grainy video of the Rodney King beating, the phone footage of Scott Walker’s death in South Carolina, and Eric Garner’s death in New York City, by decades—but it feels eerily the same.
When Meredith’s hand comes up with the pistol gripped in it, low-level Hells Angel Alan Passaro, a recent transplant from another chapter, rushes Hunter. He comes up under Meredith’s right hand with his left while coming over the top with a long-bladed knife—stabbing Hunter in the head and neck.
As the two do a danse macabre out of the film frame, eyewitness accounts later complete the details of the grisly scene.
Meredith is stabbed multiple times, and when he drops to the ground, the Hells Angels repeatedly kick him in the face. Patty is there now as the crowd parts, and she’s screaming for them to stop as Meredith is bleeding, unconscious, and already at death’s door. But they don’t stop pummeling him. One Angel stomps on his head until Hunter stops moving.
Hunter is now on the ground near the stage scaffolding where a Hells Angel is bashing his head with a metal garbage can. Passaro, the man who had originally stabbed him, stands on top of Hunter’s head. When a bystander comes to Meredith’s aid, Passaro says, “Don’t touch him. He’s going to die anyway.”
From the stage, the Stones can’t see the melee, but the severity of the situation becomes crystal clear. Keith Richards says, “…we’re splitting man if those cats don’t stop beatin’ everbody up in sight. I want ’em out of the way man.”
Multiple witnesses hear Hunter’s dying words, “I wasn’t going to shoot you.”
Patty finally breaks through and makes it to Meredith’s side as he lay dying. One of the Hells Angels says to her, “You shouldn’t be crying over him. He was gonna kill innocent people.”
Paul Cox, a concertgoer who witnessed the fight, comes to Patty’s side. Sam Cutler makes his way from the side of the stage to the scaffolding. In a cosmic moment of fatal unity, he helps Paul and Patty carry Hunter to the medical tent. The two men who’d never before met, but whose individual decisions would forever alter rock and roll, touch—one trying to preserve life as the other leaves it.
In that medical tent, Meredith Hunter is pronounced dead. A Red Cross volunteer drives Patty home, dropping her off at her house at 1 a.m.
The Rolling Stones aren’t aware of the exact circumstances, but they know that someone in the crowd has been killed. The band has no way of knowing how bad things could get if they stop playing, or how much worse the situation will become if they don’t.
They play eight more songs and those near the front of the stage, the eyewitnesses to the events of that evening, say that it’s the Rolling Stones’ best performance ever, perhaps fueled by tragedy and primal fear.
Again, Keith Richards tries to put the powder back in the keg. “If those cats don’t stop, we’re splitting.”
“It was the most dangerous, most frightening show we ever did, and this band has never been scared of anything…” said Bill Wyman. “There was no security anywhere. It was like a nightmare. It was like it wasn’t reality. You were in a dream, a bad dream.”
A year later, Alan Passaro would be acquitted of the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter.
Jo Bergman, Mick Jagger’s personal assistant, tried to make sense out of the chaos. “It was the sixties, dammit. Weird things happened and people did things and asked questions later.”
Yes, the calendar naturally brought the story of the 1960s to an end, but the events at Altamont emphatically closed the chapter.
Lydon said, “Now people said it was the anti-Woodstock, the end of the sixties. And in truth for me and many other people it was the end of the sixties, end of the freedom, and love, and ‘vibes are gonna get us all the way.’”
Later, Ethan A. Russell reflected, “No one ever really took responsibility for what happened at Altamont. Not the Angels, not the people in the crowd, not the Rolling Stones. Each person involved seemed to conclude, each with their own reason, that somehow what happened had nothing—or very much less than the other guy—to do with them.”
“The Rolling Stones signed the contract,” the Grateful Dead’s Rock Scully said. “They’ve got what they paid for. Let it bleed, man!”
In 1970, the Rolling Stones new album peaked at #2 on the U.S. charts and #1 in the U.K. The title of that record… Let it Bleed.
But the carefree swagger was gone, the concert’s visionary illusion shattered. The band that had once infamously stated, “We piss anywhere, man,” would never be the same.
Sam Cutler had been told by the Stones that they’d pay his hotel bill, legal fees, and other costs that he incurred. But he never heard from them again.
David Crosby openly criticized the band, saying that he thought the Stones were on an ego trip, suggesting that they’d sacrificed the safety and lives of the concertgoers to fuel their own hubris.
Today, Altamont Speedway sits beneath rusted-out cars and overgrown weeds, having closed for the last time in 2008.
The coroner’s report on Meredith Hunter detailed six wounds—five on his upper body and a sixth in his ear, all of them stab wounds. Hunter also tested positive for crystal meth.
Four days after the concert, only 13 people turn out for Hunter’s funeral. His mother and sister, heartbroken and dead broke, lower Meredith into an unmarked grave. It isn’t until decades later when a headstone is crowdfunded for him.
In the days and weeks that pass, Hunter’s family never hears from the Rolling Stones. Never receive reparations, not even a sympathy card.
During Alan Passaro’s trial, ballistics reports confirm that Hunter’s gun was never fired.
Molly Haskell, of the Village Voice, wrote, “The scene at Altamont is the Armageddon between American counter-culture and unculture, the apocalypse in which the four horsemen of our melting-pot unconscious—Freud, Adler, Jung, and Mammon (or Sex, Power, Religion, and Money)—are suddenly in plain but hopelessly knotted view.”
The tragedy at Altamont ended the era of the “mass gathering,” leaving it fallow for over two decades until it was revived by Perry Farrell and Lollapalooza.
In many ways, 1969 began the ugly transition into the next decade. Brian Jones, founding member of the Rolling Stones, drowned in July, and the Charles Manson murders occurred in July and August.
In 1970, the Beatles break up. NASA has the Apollo 13 accident. The United States invades Cambodia, and the Chicago Seven are found guilty of intent to incite a riot at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 (a decision that would later be overturned by the Court of Appeals).
On May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opens fire on students at Kent State University, killing four protestors. Neil Young would wail, “Four dead in Oh-hio,” which gets the song banned on some mainstream AM radio stations.
Within a year of Altamont, Jimi Hendrix dies of a barbiturate overdose in London, and Janis Joplin dies from an accidental heroin overdose in a cheap room at the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood.
The 1970s would have arrived whether or not the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont had occurred. But the decisions made by Sam Cutler and Meredith Hunter on that December day in 1969 would have consequences that rippled out far beyond the Rolling Stones and music history, reaching into the twenty-first century and fueling the continuing dissonance that still exists between race, socioeconomic status, and the role of authority in our society.
As we did in 1969, we continue to struggle with the balance between personal freedom and safety, between protecting the innocent masses and the collateral damage that protection inevitably creates. Youth, drugs, rock and roll, weapons, race. Land of the free, home of the brave.
I’m your host, J. Thorn. And this is “Consequences of Rock.”
Episode written by J. Thorn, edited by Eve Paludan.
Recorded at 88.7 FM WJCU studios, University Heights, Ohio.
Audio mixed and engineered by Adam Phillips.
Produced by J. Thorn and Adam Phillips.
All research was conducted at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, with a special thanks to Jennie Thomas, Director of Archives, William Jackson, Archives Assistant, Sule Holder, Library Assistant, and Laura Maidens, Librarian.
“Burning Time” – Threefold Law
“Fool’s Blues,” “Orchid” – Blacklight Betty
“Mourning Dove Blues,” “Upside Down,” “Evil Banjo” – Adam Phillips
“Decision,” “Imagine A New and Darker You,” “Worse” – Tower of Light
“Gaia in Fog” – Dan Bodan
“Meadow” – Density and Time
“Voices in My Head” – Quineas Moreira
Sound FX Credits from Freesound.org:
For a complete list of sources cited, see the show notes for this episode.
Austerlitz, Saul. Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. Thomas Dunne Books, 2018.
Bonanno, Massimo. The Rolling Stones Chronicle: the First Thirty Years. Holt, 1990.
Cohen, Rich. Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones. Random House Publishing Group, 2016.
Dalton, David, and Mick Farren. Rolling Stones in Their Own Words. Quick Fox, 1980.
Davis, Stephen. Old Gods Almost Dead: the 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones. Broadway Books, 2001.
Hotchner, A.E. Blown Away: Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Maysles, Albert and David Maysles, directors. Gimme Shelter. Cinema 5, 1970.
Russell, Ethan A., and Gerard Van der Leun. Let It Bleed: the Rolling Stones, Altamont, and the End of the Sixties. Springboard Press, 2009.
Taylor, R., director. YouTube. YouTube, YouTube, 24 Nov. 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxnVY37b0ME.