“Cold fanged anger.” That’s one of many disturbing lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ classic “Midnight Rambler.” It’s a song about a black-caped killer — a knife-sharpening hit-and-run raper who’ll smash your windows, put his fist through your door, and stick his knife right down your throat. That character sprang from the mind of Mick Jagger. And on December 6, 1969, the monster turned on its maker, turning a day of free music into a night of chaos and killing. This is the story of Altamont.
Following the good vibes of the Woodstock festival four months earlier, the Stones found themselves under pressure to perform a similar free concert that would include other big acts of the day. The location was to be Altamont Speedway in Livermore, CA. Upon the recommendation of The Grateful Dead, the Stones foolishly chose the Hells Angels – a motorcycle club long recognized as an organized crime syndicate by the U.S. Department of Justice – to manage “security” of the poorly and hastily organized event. Per the request of the Angels, the Stones management paid them in beer – $500 worth.
Roughly 300,000 people – many jacked up on LSD and amphetamines – attended the concert, which also included Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. As the night wore on, the Angels became increasingly drunk and began to physically assault both audience members and performers. By the time the Stones took the stage the sky was dark and a thick cloud of doom hung over the crowd. As Mick ripped into the band’s usual crowd-pleasing repertoire, he soon began witnessing pockets of punching, kicking and flailing. He sensed the scene was ripe for a full-scale riot, but managed to keep his cool, imploring the crowd to calm down:
I can’t do any more than just ask you, to beg you, just to keep it together.
You can do it, it’s within your power everyone, everyone.
Hells Angels, everybody –
Let’s just keep ourselves together.
You know, if we, if we are all one, then let’s f_cking well show we’re all one.
Little did Mick know that a concert-goer was already dead: 18-year-old Meredith Hunter. The drug-crazed man, highly visible in his bright green jacket, had been hauled away and pummeled by various Angels when he attempted to mount the stage. Analysis of concert footage later revealed that during the melee Hunter had pulled a long-barreled .22 caliber revolver from inside his jacket, prompting Hells Angel Alan Passaro to stab him to death.
The media came down hard on the Stones, especially Mick. Rolling Stone magazine said that “Altamont was the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, money manipulation, and, at base, a fundamental lack of concern for humanity.” The writer went so far as to say: “What an enormous thrill it would have been for an Angel to kick Mick Jagger’s teeth down his throat.” The 1960s had come to an end, brothers and sisters, and with it the “peace and love” ideals of a generation.
A 2008 FBI report revealed that the Hells Angels later plotted to kill Mick Jagger for the negative portrayal of the Angels in the concert film of the event, Gimme Shelter. Jagger was staying on Long Island following the concert, and Angels supposedly attempted to approach his residence via boat. Luckily, a storm got in the way of their plans. No one knows for sure if this is really true. Mick, who was devastated by the event and considered “retiring” afterwards, has never commented on the Angels’ vengeance.
Here’s a fascinating clip of Mick watching footage of the concert killing from the film “Gimme Shelter,” directed by Albert and David Maysles.
© Dana Spiardi, Dec 6, 2014