Most Americans remember 1969 for many things: Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and the moon landing, among other notable moments in history. But when the Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels as security for the Altamont Free Concert in December of that year, brutality and tragedy marked the end to the Summer of Love. Altamont also served as a turning point for the public reception of the notorious biker group. Although many already knew the Angels as tough and always ready for a brawl, the concert cemented their reputation as an outlaw organization. Until that point, the Angels shared a resentment of the police and the establishment with other 1960s counterculture groups; however, Altamont separated the Angels' underworld activity from the peaceful defiance of other protestors.
The Altamont Free Concert took place on December 6 at a remote race track in Northern California. Planned to be the West Coast's answer to Woodstock, organizers recruited some of the most popular musical acts of the time, including the Grateful Dead, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jefferson Airplane, and Santana. As one of the primary organizers, the Rolling Stones planned to make a come back after a long break and hired the Hells Angels as security for the festival.
While there are many people to blame for the disasters that took place, the Angels having the authority to police the venue undeniably spearheaded the chaos. Meredith Hunter became the tragic face of the Altamont Free Concert, as the teen's untimely end exposed the prejudice and intolerance overshadowing the era of peace and love. Many things went wrong leading up to and during the show, and the presence of the Hells Angels cemented the event's legacy as a tragedy.
African American teen Meredith Hunter attended the show with his white girlfriend, and they made their way to the front of the audience as the Rolling Stones took the stage. Hunter brought arms for self-protection from the Hells Angels, telling his girlfriend, "They're getting really bad. They're pushing people off the stage, and beating people up." Trying to get a better view, Hunter climbed one of the speaker boxes near the stage but was pulled down by a Hells Angel, who punched him.
As several other Angels approached, Hunter fled into the crowd and pulled out his piece to scare off the bikers. The Angels retaliated by sticking a blade into Hunter. A few bystanders attempted to help him by carrying him to a medical tent, but several Angels reportedly blocked the shortest route and wouldn't let them pass. Although Hunter eventually made it to the tent, he perished before the Stones finished their set.
Due to the large number of people at Altamont, only those in the vicinity knew the incident took place; others heard about it on the news the next day. Months later, a court acquitted Hells Angel Alan Passaro, who was allegedly responsible for Hunter's demise. According to Hunter's family, neither the Rolling Stones nor anyone involved in Altamont's organization sent their condolences or apologized.
Although the tragedy of Meredith Hunter became the most remembered incident at Altamont, it was far from the only instance of someone getting hurt. Three other people lost their lives at the event: One man met his end in an irrigation canal he was warned not to enter, and two others were the victims of a hit and run in the parking lot. According to Mick Taylor, "About five minutes after we arrived, just after we got out of the helicopter, I was with Mick [Jagger] and there were a couple of security guards with us, and a guy broke through and punched [Jagger] in the face."
One Hells Angels member jabbed Stephen Stills in the leg with a bicycle spoke several times. Ace of Cups' Denise Jewkes suffered a fractured skull from a thrown beer bottle. As Jefferson Airplane played, Marty Balin noticed a group of Angels attacking a man near the stage and tried to break it up. An Angel hit him in the scuffle, knocking Balin unconscious, and causing him to miss the rest of his band's set.
The Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead managers Sam Cutler and Rock Scully claim they never asked the Hells Angels to use their bikes as a barrier and park them in front of the stage. Nevertheless, that's exactly what happened. "We come down on our bikes because we were told we were supposed to park in front of the stage," recalled Hells Angel Sonny Barger. "We come down in low gear and didn't try to run into anybody or do any of that kind of thing. Everybody got up really nice, some people offered us drinks on the way down."
As the crowds surged forward to get closer to the stage, they came into contact with the bikes, causing several to fall over and one to short out and start a small fire. Protective of their motorcycles, the Angels grew angry. "I ain't no cop," Barger said. "I just went there to sit on the front of the stage and drink beer and have a good time, like we was told. But when they started kickin' our bikes, man, that started it. I ain't no peace creep, man, but if a cat don't wanna fight me, I wanna be his friend."
As members of the Hells Angels began kicking, punching, and hitting concertgoers with shortened pool cues, an abundance of wine, speed, and acid helped fuel their behavior. Not only did the Angels go after people who came too close to the stage, but they also interfered with the bands in order to get to those they felt were breaking the rules.
They walked across the stage in the middle of sets, grabbed microphones from people trying to make announcements, and gunned their bike engines while bands played, drowning out the music. A photographer made the mistake of taking pictures of the Angels and ended up with his film confiscated and a swollen face. Somewhere between 100 and 200 Angels stood on the stage throughout the show, leaving very little room for the bands to perform.
According to Angel Sonny Barger, their behavior was in line with why they were hired:
I've never seen the Angels deliberately seek large scale trouble. They've always showed up at gatherings, but they were not asked to guard a stage. This time they were and they did it. In their mind, guard a stage means guard it. That means if anyone comes near it, you do them in, and in the Angels' style if you do them in, you do them in.