It was supposed to be Woodstock redux. The Rolling Stones wanted to wind up their triumphant 1969 U.S. tour with a freebie that would rival that summer’s East Coast love-in. Instead, their disastrous Dec. 6 concert at California’s Altamont Speedway will forever be remembered as a turbulent decade’s dance-of-death finale.
Haphazardly organized, the event was moved to the desolate speedway in Livermore, 58 miles southeast of San Francisco, after two other sites fell through. The 300,000 fans who trekked from across the country found inadequate sanitation facilities, and, more ominously, hordes of Hell’s Angels, who — at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead’s manager — had been hired to police the proceedings. When the Stones arrived at the speedway, Keith Richards muttered, ”First act of violence,” as a hole was torn in a fence to gain access to the grounds.
Real violence flared in the afternoon during sets by the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane, with Angels using fists and pool cues to defend the stage area from exuberant, drugged-out fans. By the time the Stones came on that night, the atmosphere was charged with chaos, forcing Richards and Mick Jagger to plead ineffectually with the audience to ”keep cool.” As the band finished playing ”Under My Thumb,” 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, who had brandished a gun in the air, was stabbed and stomped to death near the stage by an Angel. Jagger, unaware of the seriousness of Hunter’s injuries, went on with the show. When it was all over, four people had died at Altamont; besides Hunter, two had been accidentally run over and one drowned in a drainage ditch.
The Stones returned to Britain, evading accusations they had fueled the bad vibes with their faux-satanic theatrics. Says moviemaker Albert Maysles, who with brother David and Charlotte Zwerin documented the tour in Gimme Shelter, which clearly shows the killing: ”They were not flip about what took place. They were really very deeply disturbed by it.” Despite the fallout from Altamont, the Stones didn’t drop their bad-boy posturing, which remained raunchily intact on 1971’s Sticky Fingers and 1972’s Exile on Main Street. Alan Passaro, identified by police who viewed footage used in Gimme Shelter as the Hell’s Angel who stabbed Hunter, was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.
”It was a complete mess, and we were partly to blame for not checking it out,” Jagger told an interviewer in 1989. ”You expected everyone in San Francisco — because they were so mellow, nice and organized — that it was going to be all those things. But of course, it wasn’t.”