Altamont - The disaster that was Woodstock West
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
The Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers — what could possibly go wrong at Woodstock west? A lot of things apparently.
It's 1969 and it's been roughly 4 months since Woodstock. The summer of love has ended, a new decade is creeping around the corner, and the wheels are turning inside the brains of the members of the Airplane. Riding the wave of their fifth studio album Volunteers which was released in November of the same year and their top-of-the-food-chain status in the San Francisco scene, Jefferson Airplane was all for a free fest that brought the idea of Woodstock into the California sun. This idea snowballed and picked up traction by their equally famous San Francisco neighbors, The Grateful Dead. The stars aligned in the winter of 69’ because The Rolling Stones happened to be in the US for their American tour when this festival was in the works. After journalists and fans alike were up in arms over the ticket prices for a seat to see the Stones in America, a free fest to close off their big-budget tour seemed like one hell of a crowd pleaser. With three supergroups in the mix, legends including Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby Stills Nash and Young were more than happy to play the fest.
The bands were booked and the next hurdle was the venue. This one day festival was to take place December 6th & following the second Northern California Folk-Rock Festival held in May, San Jose State University was an easy pick for location — the only problem was the city said no. No need to fear thought the SF natives, Golden Gate Park would serve as the perfect stage to host a show that would essentially close off the 60s’, but to no one's surprise and everyone's dismay, this venue didn’t work out either. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, California was then booked, but due to a last minute falling out, the venue was once again up in the air and it was way past crunch time. The final venue change would take place on the night of December 4th, just two days before the festival, and would lead to this festival taking place at The Altamont Raceway. Because of this last minute venue change, the stage built for the Sears Point Raceway was the stage they had to use at Altamont. The issue with this was at Sears Point, the stage was lifted up by the natural geography of the area and was only built a meter high. Because of the setup at Altamont raceway, the stage was to be at the bottom of a slope which was basically the complete opposite of where a stage like this should be. Because of all the possibilities for disaster with such a low stage, a free concert, and some of the most famous bands of the last decade, security was definitely a concern. After recommendation from The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang was hired to do security. Security however was a very loose term. The Angels requested to be paid for their services in $500 worth of beer and with such rushed conditions, that was about all that was discussed on the matter before the festival actually went down.
December 6th 1969 - Day of the Fest
Santana started off the day and had to briefly pause during “Soul Sacrifice” when a naked fan tried to jump the stage. Hell’s Angels beat him with pool cues before he made it, but this was when things started getting violent at Altamont. Jefferson Airplane followed and the same bare-assed situation repeated itself and lead singer Marty Balin was fed up. He and the Hell’s Angel known as Animal got into a fight which led to Balin getting socked in the jaw. This was definitely not stacking up to be the West Coast Woodstock. Next the Flying Burrito Brothers took the stage and things started to seem a bit more mellow at the raceway, but that wasn’t enough to convince the Dead to play their set. As soon as the band heard of what went down with Balin, they pulled out of the show leaving a 75 minute gap in between CSNY and The Rolling Stones. Over 300,000 people showed up at Altamont and the way the stage was set up, it could easily be overtaken and that doesn’t exactly blend well with already rowdy “security” and 75 minutes of no stimulation for a massive crowd. With Stones bassist Bill Wyman not at the festival yet, there was no chance of moving the set up.
The Stones role in the festival they were headlining was chaos from the start. As Jagger got off his helicopter to enter the fest, a fan walked straight up to him, said “I hate you” and punched this demi-god from across the pond square in the face. An already shook Jagger and his band finally took the stage after the pause and opened up with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” followed by Chuck Berry’s “Carol”. By the third track “Sympathy For The Devil”, the crowd had grown closer and more chaotic than Jagger was comfortable with after his knuckle sandwich and he attempted to settle them down with no effect. By song number 7, things appear to be complete chaos and as “Under My Thumb” played, the event that would seal Altamont’s fate as a grim close to the decade occurred.
It’s still speculated exactly what went down, but what's for certain is that 18 year old festival attendee Meredith “Murdock” Hunter was brutally stabbed and beaten to death by Hells Angels. When Murdock tried to hop on stage as some other fans had, one of the Hells Angels punched him in the face and threw him to the ground. His girlfriend at the time, Patti Bredehoft, begged Murdock to come with her and get out of the heat of it, but it was already too late. During the 75 minute accidental intermission, Murdock had returned to his car and grabbed his .22 caliber revolver and after this unfortunate encounter, he pulled it out. Bredehoft later recounted that he was pulling out the gun in self defense against the Angels and others speculate that he had more sinister motives that involved the Stones. Either way, Hells Angel Alan Passaro acted quickly and stabbed Hunter twice in the back sending him to the ground. At a standard Stones show this encounter would’ve been enough to shut the whole thing down, but because of all the rowdy scraps that had been occurring all day at Altamont, the band kept on playing without realizing just what had happened. The Rolling Stones finished off their 15 song set (including their debut performance of “Brown Sugar”) before they realized the gravity of the situation. It wasn’t until after the fest when photo and video footage captured by Eric Saarinen and Baird Bryant that Hunter’s death was confirmed.
Although this festival had a lot of moving parts contributing to its gruesome turnout, from a media standpoint the blame for Altamont landed primarily on The Stones. This day will live in infamy as the literal and metaphorical end of the sixties and the ideals it carried with it.