Rock's darkest day - The Stones, Hells Angels and murder at Altamont

From Access All Areas, 3:00 pm on 17 November 2016

When the Rolling Stones embarked on their tour of the United States in 1969 they had a number one single with ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, they had fired Brian Jones and replaced him with Mick Taylor and were putting finishing touches to their album Let It Bleed. They were also broke.

Joel Selvin's new book Altamont, The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day is about the rock tragedy where an 18-year-old African American Meredith Hunter was murdered and three others died accidentally.

Selvin talks to Trevor Reekie about the disastrous Altamont concert in San Francisco, held on Saturday 6 December 1969, a concert that been described as a day of mass toxic psychosis that terminated the peace and love myth of Woodstock.

The free festival was ill-fated from the start. The idea was schemed up late at night during a conversation between Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully and Keith Richards. Originally the concert was going to be held at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, but permits were never issued. The venue was changed twice and just before the gig, moved to 60 miles east of San Francisco to the Altamont Raceway.

Rock Scully and Woodstock Festival organiser Michael Lang were flown by helicopter to Altamont on the Thursday afternoon prior to the concert.

Selvin says: "Rock looks out and he sees all this broken glass, oil stains, a pile of wrecked cars from the Demolition Derby, and he says 'What the...' and Michael Lang speaks up and says 'This is perfect.' 

The stage was put up the night before the gig, in the dark, without even flashlights. It was four foot high, tiny, and held together by bits of rope, at the bottom of a slope. The festival lacked any kind of facilities.

The whole event is documented in a movie Gimme Shelter, which was originally intended to chart the Rolling Stones tour of the US.

"The movie itself is rotten at its centre" says Selvin. "The reason they moved, and created that disaster at Altamont is because of the movie itself. And that's never explained in the film."

The San Francisco chapter of motorcycle gang The Hells Angels was invited 'to be hospitable' and were given $500 worth of beer as a gesture of goodwill.

"They were used to grooving in the parks with the hippies" says Selvin. But when the venue was changed, it was the San José chapter who turned up, who were rougher, younger and caused a lot of trouble.  

"There was a lot of drinking. And the medical symptoms of mixing alcohol with psychedelics is erratic behaviour, often with violent outbursts. Everybody was intoxicated. It was a mass toxic psychosis."

The 'bad vibes' were felt by the bands immediately. A member of Santana's audience was chased across the stage by a Hells Angel and beaten up in front of the keyboard player. Marty Balin from the second act to play, Jefferson Airplane, was also attacked - twice. After an altercation between Grateful Dead's 'enforcer' and a Hells Angel called 'Animal' Selvin says "The stage belonged to The Angels."


Altamont - Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane is on the right, moments before he was beaten unconscious. Photo: supplied

Despite David Crosby's pleas for peace, his bandmate Stephen Stills was stabbed in the leg while he sang by a Hells Angel with a sharpened cycle spoke. Grateful Dead were too intimidated to play at all, so there was a two hour break on stage, during which time the winds whipped up, the temperature dropped, and the sun went down. 

The Rolling Stones took the stage, and by the third song in all hell had broken loose. With no spotlights, the band could see the whole scene in front of them, including the stabbing of Meredith Hunter. 

Altamont - Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger at Altamont - there was no front of house lights - only back lights - so the Rolling Stones could see the mass toxic psychosis and violence. Photo: Beth Bagby

Despite the violence, the concert was reviewed favourably in the local press. It took two weeks for Rolling Stone magazine to print its 20,000 word report, which Selvin says: "really pulled the curtain back on the event in very thorough and detailed ways."

1969 was a year of highs and lows in the States - the moon landing, Woodstock, the Manson murders and Altamont. Selvin says "We were going through so much at the time, you know?"