Always on the cutting edge of the 1960’s counterculture movement, The Rolling Stones were one of the most influential rock ‘n’ rolls bands of that era and became the longest performing band of all time.
To end the decade with a bang, The Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead organized a free west coast version of New York City’s Woodstock called the Altamont Speedway Free Festival. Due to scheduling conflict, the venue was finalized only two days beforehand so there was no time to build a stage or be well prepared for the 300,000 concert-goers that arrived December 6th, 1969.
The infamous Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired as the event’s security in exchange for $500 worth of beer ( approximately $3,500 in 2019). With their motorcycles, they created a barrier between the crowd and the small stage. As the crowd grew restless and neared the stage, intoxicated Angels struck people with full beer cans, motorcycle chains, and sawed-off pool cues. The scene escalated quickly.
Jefferson Airplane’s lead singer was knocked unconscious attempting to stop the fighting. The Grateful Dead refused to perform altogether. During the final Rolling Stones act, young Meridith Hunter, watching the action on the stage, was raising a revolver in the air. He was charged at and stabbed repeatedly by a Hells Angel, Alan Passaro. Witnesses also report he was then stomped on by more Angels.
Hunter, an 18 year old African American, died in the hospital that night with methamphetamine in his system. According to his girlfriend’s account, he had only flashed the revolver after being grabbed by the head and punched by a Hells Angel.
Passaro was tried for murder in 1971 then acquitted on accounts of self-defense after the jury viewed the incident, caught on camera.
The Rolling Stones ultimately finished their set to prevent the likely possibility of a full-on riot. Some say the innocence of the flower-child 1960’s, and the innocence of rock-and-roll, died that night along with Meredith Hunter.
They will always wonder exactly what happened “the day the music died.”