Bill Wyman says the Rolling Stones weren't easily scared but were
terrified when a Hells Angel murdered a fan at Altamont
September 13, 2009
Forget the beatings, the fat naked girl making for the front or the
Hells Angel having the mother of all bad trips. The strangest shot in
Gimme Shelter, David and Albert Maysles's film of the Rolling Stones'
fateful American tour of 1969, occurs when a stray alsatian ambles
across the stage during Sympathy for the Devil. Yes, Altamont really
was no ordinary rock concert. It was supposed to be the West Coast's
answer to Woodstock, a free gig for 300,000 at a Speedway track east
of San Francisco in early December. But it became the biggest
collective bummer of the freewheeling 1960s, a handy metaphor for the
death of the hippie counterculture. No more peace and love. At its
horrific climax, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by
a Hells Angel, while the Stones played on mere feet away. "It was a
day that was oppressive and dark," recalls Chris Hillman, whose
Flying Burrito Brothers shared the bill, "and the ending was the
worst scenario you could imagine. I thought that day was the end of
the 1960s. It had come from the wonderful innocence of the Beatles
and Gerry and the Pacemakers to this."
So much for the aquarian dream. Less than four months after the
libertarian ideals of Woodstock, it was all but over. Rock music and
the Stones particularly the Stones would never be the same again.
"I think Altamont had a tremendous effect on them," says the writer
Stanley Booth, whose The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is a
riveting account of his time with them on that tour. "Instead of
being part of the counterculture, they opted for show business. When
they came back to the USA in 1972, they were playing a much lighter
show, going more for comedy rather than drama. And I think that had a
great deal to do with Altamont. Its effect was profound. Mick Jagger
said that if Jesus had been at Altamont, he would have been
crucified. And he wasn't exaggerating."
The Stones' original idea was to play Golden Gate Park, but that
quickly fell through. As did their second choice, Sears Point Raceway
in Sonoma County. With less than 24 hours to go, a local operator,
Dick Carter, offered up Altamont as a hasty alternative. As he had
done several times with his own band, the Grateful Dead's manager,
Rock Scully, suggested inviting the local Hells Angels to guard the
generators. They would receive $500 worth of beer as a gratuity. Both
Altamont and the Angels proved calamitous choices.
The photographer Ethan Russell, whose Let It Bleed is a visual record
of the tour, recalls arriving on site: "The vibe was horrible. The
place itself was horrible. It was a barren hillside with no trees.
Chip Monck [the Stones' stage manager and the MC at Woodstock] and
his crew only had two days to set it up. There were insufficient
toilets, there was no security, there was no food." Other bands on
the bill were Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Jefferson
Airplane. Airplane's bassist, Jack Casady, was shocked at what he
found: "It was a monumentally disorganised affair. Chaos in a place
that already felt like you were abandoned. Altamont was like an
island within a desert. It was set up for disaster."
The first significant sign of trouble came during Airplane's set.
Their singer, Marty Balin, was knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel
when he dived into the crowd to stop a beating. "I knew right away
that it was the wrong thing to do," says Casady. "It was like jumping
into a bowl of ants. But Marty was emotionally involved. He saw
somebody get hurt and was trying to do something about the situation.
Unfortunately, he got caught in the crossfire." Hillman vividly
remembers having to argue with an Angel even to get onto the stage,
as "they were so out of their minds". The Burritos' languid
country-rock proved a brief respite from the madness, calming the
crowd to a point where they were happily chucking Frisbees. It didn't last.
"I remember talking to David Crosby after CSNY had just played," says
Hillman, "and he was saying, 'Boy, there's something real strange
going on here.' As soon as we were done, I got straight out of there."
Crosby's bandmate Stephen Stills saw the writing on the wall, too.
"We did our set, and the feeling, from the combination of the Hells
Angels and a crowd that was getting increasingly inebriated and vile,
was that something was dreadfully wrong," Stills recalls. "So I stuck
two guitars under one arm, picked up Neil Young's wife and carried
her. I said, 'We're getting out of here. Move!' Something was up and
it wasn't going to be pretty."
It was nightfall before the Stones came on. By then, the mood was
even blacker. Fights erupted at the front of the 3ft stage so low
that the Stones were more or less part of the crowd during Sympathy
for the Devil. Both the tour manager, Sam Cutler, and a visibly
nervous Jagger pleaded for calm. Hells Angels were swarming on stage.
Albert Maysles, Gimme Shelter's co-director, remembers his first
sighting of a young black man in a sharp green suit, bustling near
the front: Meredith Hunter. "Apparently, some time prior to the
killing, he was tormenting the guys from the Hells Angels with his
gun," says Maysles. "If you look in the upper left-hand corner of the
screen, moments before the killing, you'll see Meredith Hunter
wagging his tongue in and out of his mouth. That's a clear sign that
he's on cocaine, which is well known to produce violent action."
Cocaine or not, it is clear that Hunter, a member of a petty local
gang called the East Bay Executors, was indeed carrying a gun that
day. The crucial frames of Gimme Shelter show Hunter brandishing a
revolver as the Stones play Under My Thumb. Suddenly, a Hells Angel
descends, there's a flash of steel and Hunter falls to his death
somewhere off screen.
"To this day, I still feel that Hells Angel probably saved Mick
Jagger's life," maintains Scully. "There was no doubt as to the
intention of the guy [Hunter]. He had a loaded pistol in his hand and
was aiming for Mick. When you've got a guy high on speed and crazy,
there's no reasoning with that. And if it took a knife in the neck,
then that's what it took." The Stones' financial manager, Ron
Schneider, was right there. "Someone screamed out that somebody had
been stabbed and they needed the ambulance," he remembers. "So I
started running to find the driver. I asked someone if they'd seen
him and they said, 'Don't worry about that. He [Meredith Hunter]'s
dead.' That was like getting punched in the stomach."
The Stones soldiered on for another hour, before Schneider ushered
them onto the helicopter and to the sanctuary of their San Francisco
hotel. There was shocked silence all around. The band have remained
largely silent on Altamont over the ensuing 40 years, though Russell
did interview Bill Wyman for his book. "Bill had a great quote," he
offers, "which was that the Stones had never been scared of anything,
but they were terrified at Altamont. Everybody was. Everybody
remembers it like it was yesterday: where they were standing, what
they saw and how they felt. I don't think Altamont was ever resolved,
for any of the people who were there."
One unresolved issue, it seems, is accountability. Alan Passaro, a
Hells Angel, was acquitted of Hunter's murder, after a jury concluded
he had acted in self-defence but who was really to blame? "For a
long time afterwards," says Crosby, "my picture was on the wall in
the Mother Chapter of the Oakland Hells Angels. And that was because,
right after it happened, I was the only one who defended them. I
said, 'Listen, if you don't want the tiger to eat your lunch guests,
don't invite the tiger. What the hell did you think you were doing,
asking the Angels to come?' Of course they got in fights with people.
That's what they do. Rock Scully was the guilty partner." To this
day, Scully balks at the accusation: "Ralph Gleason, of the San
Francisco Chronicle, basically called me a murderer for organising
this debacle. But that was just unfair. I hid out for three months
Monck took it upon himself to apologise to Hunter's grieving mother.
"Nobody took responsibility for Altamont," he says. "I went to Mrs
Hunter's house three times and was turned away. The fourth time I
finally got in to apologise." The stage manager still shoulders the
bitter weight of what happened that night in 1969: "We all have a
death that we are either responsible for, or might have averted. So
sorry, Mrs Hunter. So deeply sorry. It lives with me daily."
The DVD of Gimme Shelter is released on September 21