"When I think about that kid getting murdered at Altamont, I think, it could have been me."--Mick Jagger
From an article by John Burks in a February 1970 issue of "Rolling Stone" magazine, called "Rock and Roll's Worst Day" (December 6, 1969).
The violence," Keith Richards told the London Evening Standard, "just in front of the stage was incredible. Looking back I don't think it was a good idea to have Hell's Angels there. But we had them at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead. "The trouble is it's a problem for us either way. If you don't have them to work for you as stewards, they come anyway and cause trouble. "But to be fair, out of the whole 300 Angels working as stewards, the vast majority did what they were supposed to do, which was to regulate the crowds as much as possible without causing any trouble. But there were about ten or twenty who were completely out of their minds -- trying to drive their motorcycles through the middle of the crowds.
"Really, the difference between the open air show we held here in Hyde Park and the one there is amazing. I think it illustrates the difference between the two countries. In Hyde Park everybody had a good time, and there was no trouble. You can put half a million young English people together and they won't start killing each other. That's the difference."
Of course, most of the 300,000 spectators who came to Altamont--a rundown racetrack about forty miles from San Francisco in a large bowl surrounded then by grassy hills of no particular visual allure-- that weekend weren't involved in any violence, and there was no fatalities caused by violence at the major music festival near Woodstock, New York, in the Summer of that turbulent year, 1969. A difference--the major difference--between Woodstock and Altamont was the presence of several chapters of the San Francisco Bay Area "Hell's Angels".
The Hyde Park Concert, a memorial of sorts for founding Stone member Brian Jones who died mysteriously a few months before the "Gimme Shelter" Tour--utilized a British chapter of the biker club. But the American chapter was much more savage. The Stones had seen some rough business at their concerts before--their first band manager, Andrew Oldham, used to try to get people in an uproar by sureprticiously knocking a policeman's hat off to incite other members of the crowd to get rowdy (as if Mick Jagger's star power and theatricality weren't enough.) But even the police in America wanted little as possible to do with these bad asses. Whoever recommended the Angels to "The Stones" or The Grateful Dead group--who ok'ed the presence of the gang as some type of security, then refused to show up after the violence broke out--made a terrible mistake in thinking that a beer-soaked and hard-drug addled bunch of self-proclaimed outlaws with Nazi insignias tat-toed on their bodies-- would mix well with a group of free spirited rock lovers and hippies.
Dozens of people--men and women-- were clubbed and beaten by the Angels and one man, Meredith Hunter , was stabbed to death after he foolishly brandished a long-barreled gun. (A jury in Oakland, California, later determined that the man accused of the killing had acted in self-defense. Two others died after being run over by apparent accident, one man was found drowned in an irrigation ditch.
A later friend of mine, who had hitch-hiked fifty miles to the concert while being all of fifteen, saw the dead man being pulled from the water. Luckily she was far enough away from the stage to not experience the extreme behavior of the Angels.
She is still a major Stones fan, and saw them play on their last US tour when it stopped in the Bay Area.
The last time I drove by the Altamont Pass area there was nothing there but a jagged cluster of giant turbine windmills catching a bit of natural power on the treeless hillsides. You wouldn't anything had ever happened there--all Altamont is a little bit of boring wind-blown nothingness. Were, for many, that it had always been so.