Revisit the Infamous Rolling Stones Free Festival at Altamont: The Ill-Fated Concert Took Place 50 Years Ago

The Tate-LaBi­an­ca mur­ders and the vio­lence at Alta­mont in 1969 have become emblems of the end of “the notion of spon­tane­ity,” writes Richard Brody at The New York­er, “the sense that things could hap­pen on their own and that benev­o­lent spirts would pre­vail. What end­ed was the idea of the unpro­duced.” Per­haps it’s impor­tant to keep in mind that this was only ever an idea, nur­tured by those with the means and tal­ent to pro­duce it, and to over­shad­ow, for a time, fig­ures like Man­son, a Lau­rel Canyon hang­er-on before he became a cult-lead­ing, spree-killing mas­ter­mind.

Like­wise, the Hells Angels had been present at the birth of the coun­ter­cul­ture. As any­one who’s read Tom Wolfe’s Elec­tric Kool-Aid Acid Test knows, they were reg­u­lar atten­dees of Ken Kesey’s Acid Test par­ties and ear­ly Grate­ful Dead shows, at the same time as the release of the famous 1965 Lynch report, a six-month study detail­ing the crim­i­nal activ­i­ties of motor­cy­cle gangs in Cal­i­for­nia. Two years lat­er, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels book would both cor­rob­o­rate and down­play the report’s shock­ing rev­e­la­tions.

It was evi­dent to peo­ple pay­ing atten­tion that the sup­ply chain mov­ing drugs through the scene was a par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty busi­ness, a shad­ow side of hip­pie cul­ture as men­ac­ing as Manson’s pow­er trip­ping race war delu­sions. Leave it to the Rolling Stones to move this back­ground to the fore­ground when they hired the Hells Angels to do secu­ri­ty at Alta­mont on Decem­ber 6, 1969, pay­ing them in beer. The drunk­en bik­ers respond­ed to unrest in the crowd by beat­ing fans with weight­ed pool cues and motor­cy­cle chains before stab­bing 18-year-old black fan Mered­ith Hunter to death, as the band, unaware, played “Under My Thumb.”

All of this now plays out before us close up in footage from the Maysles broth­ers’ icon­ic doc­u­men­tary, Gimme Shel­ter, with a view almost no one among the 300,000 fans present that day could claim. “Many peo­ple who attend­ed Alta­mont thought it was a great day and a great con­cert,” says Joel Selvin, author of Alta­mont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Sto­ry of Rock­’s Dark­est Day. No one at the back of the crowd noticed the fights in front of the stage, such as those that break­ing out between fans and bik­ers dur­ing “Sym­pa­thy for the Dev­il,” above.

George Lucas hap­pened to be there, work­ing with Robert Elf­strom on the Maysles crew. The two were sent “to the top of this hill and they spent all day futz­ing with this long lens,” says Selvin, “try­ing to keep it in focus. When it was all over, they were both con­vinced they had been to Wood­stock.” Indeed, “Wood­stock of the West” is how Alta­mont was char­ac­ter­ized until Rolling Stone pub­lished its in-depth cov­er­age of events. How then did Alta­mont become known there­after as the “anti-Wood­stock” that broke the six­ties?

Wood­stock itself “was very close to being a total dis­as­ter,” Selvin points out, a point Jer­ry Gar­cia him­self makes in post-Alta­mont inter­view above. They were “two sides of the same coin, two ways that that kind of expres­sion can go.” The stig­ma sur­round­ing the Hells Angels great­ly con­tributed the infamy, as news of their full involve­ment spread. Had accused killer Alan Pas­saro not been in a noto­ri­ous­ly vio­lent bik­er gang, Selvin believes, he would have been seen as a hero, since Hunter had rushed the stage with a gun after an ear­li­er alter­ca­tion with the gang. (Pas­saro was charged but not con­vict­ed.)

But per­haps no arti­fact has helped mythol­o­gize the trag­ic events at Alta­mont more than Gimme Shel­ter, a film that also doc­u­ments just how elec­tri­fy­ing the Stones were onstage, how trans­formed as a band after the death of Bri­an Jones months ear­li­er and addi­tion of gui­tarist Mick Tay­lor.

They debuted “Brown Sug­ar” at Alta­mont (hear it above), a song that wouldn’t be released until three years lat­er on Sticky Fin­gers and that would define their take on road­house blues in the ear­ly sev­en­ties. At least in per­for­mance, they held up remark­ably well in a fes­ti­val that bris­tled with rest­less, over­crowd­ed men­ace even before the bik­ers start­ed a riot. (A fan punched Mick Jag­ger as he got out of his heli­copter.)

As we reflect on the 50th anniver­sary of Alta­mont, we might also rethink its immor­tal­iza­tion as a sym­bol of the death of six­ties’ inno­cence. Some­thing else died instead, writes Brody. “The haunt­ing freeze-frame on Jag­ger star­ing into the cam­era, at the end of the film, after his foren­sic exam­i­na­tion of the footage of the killing of Mered­ith Hunter at the con­cert, reveals not the film­mak­ers’ accu­sa­tion or his own sense of guilt but lost illu­sions” of con­trol over the cul­ture’s dark­er side.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the First Live Per­for­mance of the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sug­ar:” Record­ed at the Fate­ful Alta­mont Free Con­cert in 1969

Gimme Shel­ter: Watch the Clas­sic Doc­u­men­tary of the Rolling Stones’ Dis­as­trous Con­cert at Alta­mont

Watch the Rolling Stones Write “Sym­pa­thy for the Dev­il”: From Jean-Luc Godard’s ’68 Film One Plus One

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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