Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Rolling Stones at Altamont: 40 years since the violence

Picture: Snippet of a newspaper article. Picture is pointing out Meredith Hunter, who was murdered two songs into the Stones' set.
It was supposed to be the next Woodstock. It was supposed to be peaceful. Instead, it was a nightmare. On December 6, 1969, the Rolling Stones played a free concert at the Altamont Speedway. No one was prepared for what was going to happen.
The Rolling Stones were one of the the most successful rock group in 1969. Despite the death of Brian Jones in the summer, the band was still rocking. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and their new guitarist Mick Taylor were touring the US. In late November the band released Let It Bleed. By the end of the summer, the band planned to organize a free concert in San Francisco. Originally, the gig was supposed to be at Golden Gate Park. When that didn't work, the band's management were able to book a free gig at the Altamont Speedway. The Rolling Stones would be there as would Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills Nash and Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Grateful Dead. Also, motorcycle gang Hell's Angels would be providing security. The Angels were asked to be paid in bottles of beer.
As seen in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, there were problems with Altamont before it started. The venue lacked public restrooms and wasn't enough to have people park their cars. After asking for property by several landowners and even switching to to Altamont on the night of December 4 (originally Sear Point Raceway), it was all set. It was much like Woodstock. There were plenty of hippes and junkies. As seen in Gimme Shelter, there were many people who were on bad acid trips. Like Woodstock, there were births. Sources say that four babies were born that day. The Angels were also there, intoxicated and aggressive. Stones road manager Sam Cutler introduced The Flying Burrito Brothers and everybody was having a good time. After the band played one song, violence erupted. The crowd was told to chill out but it would take more than that.
Jefferson Airplane took the stage and almost got through one song. There are many different stories to how the Angels got so aggressive. Wikipedia cites that the crowd had (probably accidentally) toppled motorcycles belonging to Hell's Angels. During Jefferson Airplane's performance, it's hard to see exactly what caused the violence. After watching the movie Gimme Shelter, it looks like a majority of the crowd were on bad acid trips. The Angel's were armed with sticks, beating anybody who touched them. This got singer Marty Balin pissed off. According to a Rolling Stone article, Balin had told one of the Angels to f*** off. Balin was knocked out stone cold. Guitarist Paul Kantner then thanked the Angels for beating his band mate.
"You got to keep your bodies off each other unless you intend love" suggested Grace Slick.
Although not seen in Gimme Shelter, Santana and CSNY played their sets. The Grateful Dead arrived at Altamont but refused to play after hearing about the violence and of Balin's injury. The Rolling Stones waited until sunset for the audience to calm down. When the Stones did get on stage, Mick Jagger said smiling,
"Poor babies. There are so many of you!"
The band then went into "Sympathy for the Devil". By the time Mick got into the chorus, the crowd was going nuts again. Mick tried to calm to audience down by saying "Brothers and sisters!"
"Something very funny happens when we play that number" said Mick.
The band restarted the song and got through it, despite a few outbreaks of violence. Mick was able to stay focused on performing, even when a dog (possible owned by one of the Angels) walked across the stage.
"People. Why are you fighting...and, uh, what for?" asked Mick. "I mean, who wants to fight?"
Keith got pissed at one guy saying if he didn't stop it, they won't play. Doctors were called to the stage. Mick went further into preaching to the audience and once that was heard, the band went into "Under My Thumb". The band gave a slow rendition of the song but considering the stress they were under, it sounds really good.
As soon as the song ends, the crowd screams. This is not because they like the music but because a young black man in a green suit is trying to defend himself...with a gun. Angel Alan Passaro stopped him by whipping out a knife and stabbing the man in the back. This is clearly seen towards the end of Gimme Shelter. Passaro is seen stabbing the man, later identified as Meredith Hunter, in the back two times on screen. Passaro apparently stabbed him a few more times as other Angels stomped on him till he died. The Rolling Stones were unaware of this and proceeded with the concert without any chaos. The band even played "Brown Sugar" for the first time. Hunter wasn't the only one who died. Two people were killed after being hit by a car and another person died after drowning (most likely from an acid trip).
When the band learned of the murder, they were obviously stunned. In Gimme Shelter, someone is showing Mick all the footage from the tour. When it comes to Hunter's death, Mick is speechless as the clip is played slower. An autopsy revealed that Hunter was high on meth. Hunter's girlfriend, Patty Bredahoff, is seen crying and not believing he's dead.
There are certain stories to what cause the chaos at Altamont. The topic that gets the most brought up is that of the death of Meredith Hunter. It's been rumored that Hunter was at temping to run to the stage and kill Mick Jagger. One book I've read states that supposedly, a seer sent a letter to Mick warning him he was the next rock star to die, as he was a part of a so-called "JI curse" in which the rock star has the two letters in his first and last name. Another thought is that Hunter could have been defending his girlfriend, who was white.
No one knows for sure why Altamont turned out the way it did. What is known is that December 6, 1969 will be remembered as the day when the hippie movement or the 60's itself was over.
PS: I highly recommend for anyone reading this to go and rent Gimme Shelter. It's not only one of the greatest rock n roll movie ever made but one of the best documentaries ever made . The movie is on DVD, although out of print. If you use Netflix or Blockbuster, you may find it. The movie should be out on Blu-Ray very soon or even now.

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