By David Comfort
Published: December 07, 2009
"You feel a responsibility. But I didn't think of these things that
you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence,
this cathartic end of the era ... I didn't think of any of that."
-- Mick Jagger, to Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner, 1995, explaining his
reaction to the Altamont murder
Shortly after the Stones' disastrous concert 40 years ago, on Dec. 6,
1969, Rolling Stone magazine wrote a requiem, calling it "the product
of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, [and] money manipulation."
As for the latter charge, Jagger had never made any bones about why
he'd gotten into the rock 'n' roll business. It "seemed like the only
way I was going to get the kind of bread I wanted," he said.
During their 1969 U.S. tour, the Rolling Stones -- introducing
themselves for the first time as "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in
the World" -- sold more than $1 million in tickets. When asked during
a press conference if he was at last satisfied, Sir Mick famously
replied, "Financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied,
But, countering charges that his band was gouging fans with
exorbitant ticket prices, Jagger agreed to a climactic free concert.
Altamont was dubbed "Woodstock West," after the historic love and
peace festival which had taken place four months before while the
"bad boys" of rock were in London recording "Let It Bleed."
Unaware that their lyrical carnages might become a concert reality,
the Stones -- allegedly at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead's
manager -- engaged the California Hells Angels for stage security.
Earlier that year, the band had successfully used a British chapter
of the motorcycle gang for their Hyde Park concert held in memory of
their founder Brian Jones, who had drowned in his swimming pool.
Fortunately for the frugal Mick, the California Angels demanded no
cash for their services, but only 500 cases of beer. Which, during
the earlier acts that day (Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young,
the Jefferson Airplane), they supplemented with fistfuls of reds and
The unpleasantness began when the Angels got to chilling fans with
sawed-off pool cues, then KOed the Airplane's singer, Marty Balin,
when he objected. At this point, the Dead split while the splitting
was still good. "It was a nice afternoon in hell," Jerry Garcia later recalled.
At 5:50 that cold, December afternoon, just after darkness fell, an
18-year-old black youth, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed five times.
Fleeing the Angels, he had pulled a revolver while Jagger sang "Under
A few songs before this, Sir Mick had already had to interrupt
"Sympathy for the Devil." "Hey, people -- who's fighting and what
for?" he'd asked the wasted multitude. "Why are we fighting?"
After Hunter vanished under a hail of Angel blows, Jagger stopped
dancing again. "If we are all one," he pleaded, "let's f---ing well
show we're all one!"
But Woodstock was ancient history. As the fans recoiled from the
boy's writhing body, Stanley Booth, the Stones' biographer, caught a
look. There was "a big hole in his spine … and his temple," he later
wrote. "You could see all the way in."
Fifteen minutes later, stagehands had succeeded in carrying Hunter
backstage through the mob. As he bled to death, the Stones played
"Brown Sugar." They followed it with "Let It Bleed's" "Midnight
Rambler." "I stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts."
By the time Hunter drew his last breath, the Angels were pummeling a
naked girl unconscious on stage. Jagger, trying to appeal to their
manly instincts, told them a group effort was not necessary for one
Not appreciating security suggestions from a cross-dressing,
mascaraed rooster, the bikers gave Jumpin Jack Flash the look Marty
Balin had seen. Meanwhile, their leader put a gun to Keith Richards'
head and said: "You keep f--in' playing or you're dead."
The other half of the Glimmer Twins now began singing with new
conviction."Yeah, I see the storm is threatening my very life today.
If I don't get some shelter, I'm gonna fade away."
After "Gimme Shelter," Sir Mick exhorted the 350,000 breathlessly:
"Are we okay, I know we are . Are y'havin a good time? OHH-yeah!" He
took another shot of Jack Daniels. "Well, there's been a few hang-ups
you know, but I mean generally you've been beau-ti-ful you've been
The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World wrapped the set up with
their "Street Fighting Man" swansong.
Then they made a run for the ambulance which had come too late for Hunter.
Jumping from it into an awaiting chopper, Richards yelled, "They're
sick, man -- they're worse than the cops!"
"I'd rather have had cops!" Jagger shot back.
The Stones left for London the next day, escaping the process-server
who tried to serve them Wrongful Death suit papers from Hunter's
mother, Altha. The band lawyers attempted to have her $500,000
lawsuit thrown out on a technicality. When the effort failed, Jagger
& co. offered Altha $10,000. She accepted.
Meanwhile, the five Stones had attended a private viewing of their
vanity documentary, "Gimme Shelter." After the climactic Altamont
footage, they left the theater expressionless and without a word.
Since the event 40 years ago, the Stones have said little. But, when
pressed, the ever candid Keith once explained: "For all the control
you have over an audience, it doesn't mean you can control the murders."
Then he added: "What is evil?...Everybody's Lucifer."