The Tate-LaBianca murders and the violence at Altamont in 1969 have become emblems of the end of “the notion of spontaneity,” writes Richard Brody at The New Yorker, “the sense that things could happen on their own and that benevolent spirts would prevail. What ended was the idea of the unproduced.” Perhaps it’s important to keep in mind that this was only ever an idea, nurtured by those with the means and talent to produce it, and to overshadow, for a time, figures like Manson, a Laurel Canyon hanger-on before he became a cult-leading, spree-killing mastermind.
Likewise, the Hells Angels had been present at the birth of the counterculture. As anyone who’s read Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test knows, they were regular attendees of Ken Kesey’s Acid Test parties and early Grateful Dead shows, at the same time as the release of the famous 1965 Lynch report, a six-month study detailing the criminal activities of motorcycle gangs in California. Two years later, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hells Angels book would both corroborate and downplay the report’s shocking revelations.
It was evident to people paying attention that the supply chain moving drugs through the scene was a particularly nasty business, a shadow side of hippie culture as menacing as Manson’s power tripping race war delusions. Leave it to the Rolling Stones to move this background to the foreground when they hired the Hells Angels to do security at Altamont on December 6, 1969, paying them in beer. The drunken bikers responded to unrest in the crowd by beating fans with weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains before stabbing 18-year-old black fan Meredith Hunter to death, as the band, unaware, played “Under My Thumb.”
All of this now plays out before us close up in footage from the Maysles brothers’ iconic documentary, Gimme Shelter, with a view almost no one among the 300,000 fans present that day could claim. “Many people who attended Altamont thought it was a great day and a great concert,” says Joel Selvin, author of Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day. No one at the back of the crowd noticed the fights in front of the stage, such as those that breaking out between fans and bikers during “Sympathy for the Devil,” above.
George Lucas happened to be there, working with Robert Elfstrom on the Maysles crew. The two were sent “to the top of this hill and they spent all day futzing with this long lens,” says Selvin, “trying to keep it in focus. When it was all over, they were both convinced they had been to Woodstock.” Indeed, “Woodstock of the West” is how Altamont was characterized until Rolling Stone published its in-depth coverage of events. How then did Altamont become known thereafter as the “anti-Woodstock” that broke the sixties?
Woodstock itself “was very close to being a total disaster,” Selvin points out, a point Jerry Garcia himself makes in post-Altamont interview above. They were “two sides of the same coin, two ways that that kind of expression can go.” The stigma surrounding the Hells Angels greatly contributed the infamy, as news of their full involvement spread. Had accused killer Alan Passaro not been in a notoriously violent biker gang, Selvin believes, he would have been seen as a hero, since Hunter had rushed the stage with a gun after an earlier altercation with the gang. (Passaro was not charged.)
But perhaps no artifact has helped mythologize the tragic events at Altamont more than Gimme Shelter, a film that also documents just how electrifying the Stones were onstage, how transformed as a band after the death of Brian Jones months earlier and addition of guitarist Mick Taylor.
They debuted “Brown Sugar” at Altamont (hear it above), a song that wouldn’t be released until three years later on Sticky Fingers and that would define their take on roadhouse blues in the early seventies. At least in performance, they held up remarkably well in a festival that bristled with restless, overcrowded menace even before the bikers started a riot. (A fan punched Mick Jagger as he got out of his helicopter.)
As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of Altamont, we might also rethink its immortalization as a symbol of the death of sixties’ innocence. Something else died instead, writes Brody. “The haunting freeze-frame on Jagger staring into the camera, at the end of the film, after his forensic examination of the footage of the killing of Meredith Hunter at the concert, reveals not the filmmakers’ accusation or his own sense of guilt but lost illusions” of control over the culture’s darker side.