This Day in History: Altamont Free Concert Disaster

December 6, 1969, was a day in California’s history that was supposed to capture the music and magic of the three-day Woodstock Music & Art Fair just three months earlier; but the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in Livermore quickly deteriorated into violence, uncontrolled chaos and death, and in hindsight marked the end of the summer of love.

Photos by: Bill Owens, used with permission (http://www.billowens.com/)

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Aerial View of an Estimated 300,000 Concertgoers at the Altamont Free Concert
Aerial View of an Estimated 300,000 Concertgoers at the Altamont Free Concert

History.com said in this excerpt “Altamont was the brainchild of the Rolling Stones, who hoped to cap off their U.S. tour in late 1969 with a concert that would be the West Coast equivalent of Woodstock, in both scale and spirit. Unlike Woodstock, however, which was the result of months of careful planning by a team of well-funded organizers, Altamont was a largely improvised affair that did not even have a definite venue arranged just days before the event. It was only on Thursday, December 4, 1969, that organizers settled on the Altamont Speedway location for a free concert that was by then scheduled to include Santana; the Jefferson Airplane; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; and the Grateful Dead, all in support of the headlining Stones. The event would also include, infamously, several dozen members the Hells Angels motorcycle gang acting as informal security staff in exchange for $500 worth of beer as a ‘gratuity.’

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It was dark by the time the concert’s next-to-last act, the Grateful Dead, was scheduled to appear. But the Dead had left the venue entirely out of concern for their safety when they learned that Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin had been knocked unconscious by one of the Hells Angels in a melee during his band’s performance. It was during the Rolling Stones’ set, however, that a 21-year-old Hells Angel named Alan Passaro stabbed a gun-wielding 18-year-old named Meredith Hunter to death just 20 feet in front of the stage where Mick Jagger was performing “Under My Thumb.” Unaware of what had just occurred, the Rolling Stones completed their set without further incident, bringing an end to a tumultuous day that also saw three accidental deaths and four live births.

The killing of Meredith Hunter at Altamont was captured on film in Gimme Shelter, the documentary of the Stones’ 1969 tour by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, which opens with Jagger viewing the footage in an editing room several months later. In the years since, Jagger has not spoken publicly about the killing, for which Passaro was tried but acquitted on grounds of self-defense.”

These days security is taken much more seriously. Gone are the days of allowing a biker gang to handle the safety of literally hundreds of thousands of concertgoers (it’s estimated that more than 300,000 people attended the Altamont Festival). Today, public safety falls on Cal OES law enforcement through its Large Stadium Initiative. Click here to download a copy of that fact sheet.

 

 

 

 

Shawn Boyd

Shawn Boyd joined Cal OES as a public information officer in 2014 after a 20-year career in television news as a reporter, anchor and executive producer. He's a Cal State Sacramento alum and former US Navy yeoman and Air Force brat.

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