The Rock and Roll lifestyle is all about disregarding safety and well-being to enjoy a life of pleasure and excess. After all, once you’re under the effects of drugs and alcohol, the music is all that matters. That was the likely thought process behind the logistics of one of the biggest shows The Rolling Stones did, which resulted in a violent bloody frenzy in the end.
It all started in the Fall of 1969, when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had the brilliant idea for the closing show of their US tour. With the memory of Woodstock still fresh, it seemed a good idea to try to repeat the event but with The Stones as the main act. The festival was announced as a free concert with acts such as Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as The Grateful Dead.
The fans were excited about the news, but the team in charge of making it happen saw disaster coming their way. The venue was changed several times due to authorities worried about what could happen with such a massive endeavor. Adding to the issues the little time the organizers faced to bring it all together, there was the violent climate the US was undergoing at the time.
After they were denied the use of Golden Gate Park for the event, the show was changed to Altamont Raceway only two days prior to the event. Obviously, neither the facilities nor the sound equipment were enough to reach 300 thousand people. To make matters worse, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang was hired as would-be security. Their payment was stated as free beer.
As the Hell’s Angels surrounded the stage and audio equipment, it wasn’t long before a drunken confrontation erupted between attendees and “security.” After one of the Angels’ motorcycles was toppled, a free-for-all fist fight erupted. Things started to get out of control and after a member of Jefferson Airplane was hit, several acts dropped out of the show and left the venue.
When The Stones finally took the stage, Mick Jagger attempted to calm the crowd down amidst the setlist. However, the mood from the crowd and the Hell’s Angels had reached a boiling point. As the band continued to play, one fan walked towards the stage with a gun in his hand. One of the bikers stopped him, pulled out a knife, and killed him. Despite everything stopping momentarily, the band didn’t realize what had just happened, and continued playing. The fan’s name was Meredith Hunter; he was 18 at the time, and according to reports, his system was full of methamphetamine.
In the end, the Altamont Free Festival ended in 4 deaths, hundreds of injuries, and a bitter moment in the history of The Rolling Stones. After so many years and investigations, we can ask whose fault it was. Some will claim it was the Hell’s Angels violent tendencies, but how could organizers believe that a biker gang pumped with alcohol would be able to be peace keepers? Was it the organizers who overlooked the snowballing issues to continue with a problematic event? Or was it the hubris of the artists who, searching for a reigning moment, set out to create an event with incredible time restraints?
It seems like there’s not one party to be blamed for this disaster. The bands wanted to please their fans with a free concert; the Hell’s Angels were there to keep people off the stage, and the audience gave themselves over to the music. In the end, this was a tragedy brought on by several factors, including substance use, ineffective planning, and an unfortunate turn of events.
Translated by María Suárez