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Crashing Down

Taking Woodstock, the 2009 Ang Lee film based on the chaotic birth of the most famous rock festival in history, chronicles how despite eleventh-hour venue changes, inadequate facilities and infrastructure, and oceans of mud, Woodstock somehow came together.

Four months later, and 3000 miles to the west, the Woodstock-high came crashing down at the ill-fated Altamont Free Concert, which took place on December 6, 1969, near Livermore, California. Whereas Woodstock turned out to be a relatively incident-free invasion of a half-million hippies, Altamont became something altogether different. Intended as a peaceful sayonara to the 60s, it quickly turned violent, culminating in the stabbing death of a member of the audience only yards away from the Rolling Stones who were on-stage at the time. The tragedy of Altamont was caught on film in 1970’s Gimme Shelter.

Altamont was a mess from the start. Just as permit problems in New York caused Woodstock to take place one-hundred miles away from the town of Woodstock where it was originally scheduled, Altamont had two-last minute venue changes. The concert was originally planned for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, then moved to a racetrack in Sonoma, California, and again to the Altamont Speedway only two days before the event began. The hastily-constructed stage was only three-feet tall, with no barrier between the acts and the 300,000 members of the audience. Some fool got the idea to hire the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang for $500 worth of beer to act as a buffer between the stage and the crowd.

After a day of steady drinking and pill-popping, both the Angels and the crowd got increasingly agitated. Things escalated when someone knocked over one of their motorcycles, and the Angels retaliated by throwing cans of beer at the crowd and swinging pool cues and motorcycle chains. After Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane got knocked unconscious by an Angel during his band’s performance, The Grateful Dead, one of the movers behind the event, refused to play.

After sundown the Stones took the stage. They had to stop playing during their third song to calm the audience. During Under My Thumb, their seventh song, an eighteen-year-old African-American man named Meredith Hunter pulled a gun near the stage and is believed to have fired one shot. He was stabbed to death by Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro. The Stones kept playing, fearing that an early exit might elicit more violence from the crowd. Ironically, their final number that night was Street Fighting Man.

In the aftermath of the festival, Alameda County officials barred future concerts from ever taking place at the raceway. The owner of the venue later sued the Rolling Stones for $500,000, and the band eventually paid him a $10,000 settlement.

Passaro was tried for murder but acquitted. In 1985, his body was found floating in a reservoir. Although foul play was suspected, no arrests have ever been made.

Years later, it was revealed that some members of the Hell’s Angels plotted to kill Mick Jagger in retaliation for how the gang was portrayed in Gimme Shelter.

One lingering mystery is who Hunter intended to shoot that night. Most believe it to be one of the Hell’s Angels, who Hunter had scuffled with earlier, but others think that Hunter, who was high on methamphetamines, was aiming at the stage. Had the bullet connected with Mick Jagger, or one of the other Stones, we may have had two rock gods to mourn this week.