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In the 1960’s, the Hell’s Angels were the coolest gang around. There were as many cheesy motorcycle flicks
playing at the double feature as there were bad horror films, and that’s saying something. The Hell’s Angels
Motorcycle Club were so huge, in fact, that even The Rolling Stones wanted to borrow a little of their street
credentials. In 1969 the Rolling Stones staged a massive, free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern
California, and the band decided to hire the Hell’s Angels to work security. The concert, which also served to
promote the Stone’s new release Let It Bleed, ended in three accidental deaths, countless beatings, and the
deliberate killing of a member of the crowd at the hands of the HAMC. For nearly forty years now, the deaths that
took place at the Altamont music festival have been blamed on the Hell’s Angels – and they are the obvious
scapegoat, with their reputation for unnecessary violence. In retrospect, however, the ultimate culprit of the
crimes at Altamont may prove to be the egos of the Stones themselves.

There’s no doubt that the Stones are an arrogant band, and as hilarious as their antics are, they don’t seem to
be really likeable people. After being notably absent at the first wildly successful Woodstock festival, the Stones
took it upon themselves to upstage the festival with their own version on the West Coast. The band also decided
to film the concert just to be sure that everyone could witness, and purchase, their personal triumph.

The trouble with Altamont started with locating where to hold it, and the ultimate venue was only chosen the day
before the concert was supposed to begin. The concert was originally to be staged in San Francisco’s Golden
Gate Park, but the city insisted that the Stones play the show as a surprise guest in order to keep the crowd to a
minimum. Mick Jagger “accidentally” let it slip that the Stones would be playing the show during a press
conference, and the city withdrew its support of the event, understandably concerned that the crowds would
destroy the park. The Stones tried to move the show to Sears Point Raceway, but neglected to tell the venue’s
owners that they would be filming the event. When word got out about the upcoming film, the venue’s owners
demanded $100,000 for the use of the space, and the concert was relocated to Altamont so that the Stones
wouldn’t need to pay. The event’s organizers only had enough time to construct a stage that was four feet high
before the show began, making it incredibly easy for the crowd to rush the stage. The planners also skimped on
public restrooms and medical tents, rushing everything to prepare the sight in time.

Even if the event hadn’t been moved so many times, it was still bound to be a disaster. Sam Cutler, the Stones’
manager, only paid the Angels with $500 worth of beer for a whole day’s work, and had never specifically told
them what they were meant to be doing. According to Sonny Barger, the President of the Oakland chapter of
HAMC, “We were told if we showed up we could sit on the stage and drink some beer that the Stones’ manager
had bought us, you know. I didn’t fucking like what happened there. We were told we were supposed to sit on the
stage and keep people off and a little back. We parked where we were told we were supposed to park. … I didn’t
go there to fight. I went there to have a good time and sit on the fucking stage.” But when the Angel’s allegedly
noticed the crowd damaging their motorcycles, they sprang into what they deemed necessarily violent action.

The crowd at Altamont was undoubtedly aggressive even before the show began, and no one witnessed their
anger more clearly than the performers. As the Stones arrived by helicopter, a boy from the crowd charged the
band and immediately punched Jagger in the face while screaming, “I hate you.” During Jefferson Airplane’s set,
lead singer Marty Balin decided to put a stop to things, and he announced to the crowd that the Angels should
stop their behavior. He was promptly sucked into the crowd and beaten by the HAMC until he lost
consciousness. The Grateful Dead, who were scheduled to play before The Rolling Stones took the stage,
actually refused to go on. Phil Lesh of the Dead said, “We felt that it would not have done any good for us to play,
and it would have only prolonged the agony. Unfortunately, the Rolling Stones apparently were waiting for
sundown [to go on] so they could make a film, and that’s why it went on and on. So it turns out it probably would’
ve been better for us to play, just to fill up that time. But when music was happening, the crowd would surge
toward the stage, security would beat them back. So we didn’t want to contribute to that.”

So while the audience stood shivering in the freezing December air, the Rolling Stones waited backstage for the
crowd to reach their boiling point. The HAMC didn’t blame the Dead for avoiding the stage — Barger was a close,
personal friend of Jerry Garcia’s — but the absence still enraged the crowd. Barger said, “Mick and the band’s
egos seemed to want the crowd agitated and frenzied. They wanted them to beg, I guess.”

By the time the Stones finally went on, well after sundown, it was in front of a drug-addled and nearly frozen
audience. The people who were closest to the stage had arrived at Altamont the night before the show to ensure
their seats, and they had been drugging and drinking for longer than the rest of the audience. When the concert
started, the HAMC had been forced to push the audience back further, and the people who had camped felt
bullied out of their spots. Further, the Angels were furious by the time the Stones took the stage. The HAMC
resented that the band had spent the day in the safety of their trailer, shaken by the rumors of violence. As crowd
members rushed the stage, the Angels used aggressive tactics to remove them. A few times the Stones ceased
playing in order to attempt to calm the crowd, but their silence only caused a more violent crowd reaction.
Supposedly Barger held a gun to Keith Richards’ side during the show and told him that if he didn’t start playing,
he would be dead, although video cameras neglected to capture the moment.

When the Stones began to play “Under My Thumb,” a black man named Meredith Hunter drew a gun and
allegedly fired it into the crowd. Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro stabbed Meredith in what was finally termed a
justifiable homicide. The stabbing is clearly shown in the documentary filmed at the concert,
Gimme Shelter. The
case was not closed for 35 years, but Passaro never served jail time for the incident. Accusations were made
that the Angels had killed Meredith because he was at the concert with a white woman, but the Angels insist that
they were just attempting to control the crowd. Despite the fact that he pulled the trigger, however, Passaro is
definitely not the only one to be blamed for Hunter’s death.

While the Stones were shaken by the event, it doesn’t change the fact that their need to over-dramatize their
show fueled it. As Barger said, “I blame the Stones for the whole fucking bad scene. They agitated the crowd,
had the stage built too low, and then used us to keep the whole thing boiling. They got exactly what they originally
wanted – a dark, scary environment to play ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’” Between moving the show, accepting
shoddy set-up at the venue, and postponing a risky performance in the name of showmanship, the blame for
Altamont at least partially rests on Mick Jagger’s chicken-dancing shoulders. And if a half-century has
diminished the popularity and clout of the Hell’s Angels, it certainly hasn’t altered the size of Mick Jagger’s ego.
Chaos reigned as the Stones played Altamont Speedway
Angels and Gods...
and the mortals caught between
36 years ago,
the Hell's
clashed with
the Rolling
Stones at
Four people
died, and the
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