About this time last year, my dad and I drove to the Bay Area on our way to watch Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company play live. My dad dug into his own trivia repository and relayed a few stories about some historically renowned concerts. While reflecting upon that trip, I decided I’d read and write a little more on one of the most infamous concerts of recent history.
The Altamont Pass was familiar to me throughout my entire childhood; it was the rolling landscape scattered with wind turbines that marked the halfway point between my home and my grandparents’ home. It wasn’t until my dad and I travelled in that direction last year that I learned it was the location of what some would later call “rock and roll’s all time worst day…a day when everything went perfectly wrong.”
Jefferson Airplane, famous for the hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, was said to have first tossed around the idea of a free concert with the Grateful Dead and the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones agreed to the idea, since many people started complaining about the high ticket prices during the Stones’ American tour. They thought the concert would be a perfect way to cap off their tour.
Originally, the concert was going to be held at San Jose State University, but there had just been another large concert and city officials balked when asked to host another. Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was then called to play host to the concert, but dealings with local law enforcement and the city ultimately fell through. Then, Sears Point Raceway was asked to host the event, but conflict arose over a deposit and filming rights. Two days before the concert, it seemed like there would be no venue and subsequently no performance.
That’s when Dick Carter, owner of the Altamont Speedway, suggested the festival be held there. Even though members of Jefferson Airplane felt uneasy about the quick switch, the band flew out of Miami and arrived a day before the concert date.
The last-minute changes presented a number of issues, one of them being security. As it turned out, the security issue became the most contentious and causal factor for the imminent tragedy. Some accounts state that the Grateful Dead maintained that Hells Angels had been an adequate security force at previous concerts, prompting the Rolling Stones management to hire them for $500 worth of beer (or $3216 adjusted for inflation). The Hells Angels involvement as security has been disputed, but the Hells Angels definitely sat near the edge of the stage and drank beer through the entirety of the concert.
Before the Rolling Stones reached the stage, the crowd was agitated and the Hells Angels were getting drunk and rowdy. The crowd had toppled one of the Hells Angels’ motorcycles, which further increased their aggression. One of the lead singers for Jefferson Airplane was even punched in the head and knocked unconscious while the band was playing. Keith Richards recalled that most of the impromptu security force were placated, but some were instigating trouble and driving their motorcycles through the crowd.
The Stones’ helicopter was delayed, but they arrived just after sundown. Immediately, lead singer Mick Jagger was punched in the head by a concertgoer. A fight broke out in the crowd and the Stones stopped mid-song until order was restored. Then, Meredith Hunter tried to climb onto the stage with a few other concertgoers. A Hells Angel punched Hunter and then chased him into the crowd. Hunter’s girlfriend tried to convince him to return to the crowd, but he was incapacitated by methamphetamines. Instead, Hunter drew a pistol and was immediately stabbed and killed by a Hells Angel. Footage of the incident was captured independently by two separate sources and later became the damning evidence for the atrocity that the concert had become.
Interestingly, a former FBI agent revealed in 2008 that the Hells Angels attempted to kill Mick Jagger shortly after the event. The FBI agent claimed that the Hells Angels were fired from their security duties and wanted to kill Mick Jagger as vengeance. They gathered in a boat filled with weapons and attempted to sail to Jagger’s home in Long Island, New York. A storm rolled in and nearly sunk the boat, and the Hells Angels barely escaped with their own lives. They scrapped their plan after that.
Hunter’s death was most notable, but the violence and carelessness of how the concert was run was further highlighted by three more deaths. Two others died in a hit-and-run car accident, and a third attendee drowned in a nearby canal. The Grateful Dead did not even perform at the concert after realizing how bad the violence was. This “Woodstock West” marked the death of the “peace and love” era it had intended to augment.