Hi folks welcome back to our final episode on the Altamont Free concert of Dec 6th 1969, and the killing of Meredith Hunter. We have quite a bit to get through today. There are several elements I would love to break down further, but am skipping through a few things today so as to keep the train a rolling. If you have any questions please shout out below – I will answer best that I can.
I should also mention I almost put a simple black screen up as the main photo today. As a quick historical side note, English author Laurence Sterne first did something like this in 1759 in his novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ – a character ‘Yorick’ (no, not the one from Hamlet) dies, followed by a black page… Alas poor Yorick! This seemed clever, then on reflection seemed a little tacky. Instead I went with one of the few photos I could find of Mr Hunter.
At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they did not have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years she turned to electro-convulsive therapy. From what I have read, after this she seemed a shell of her former self to her nearest and dearest. His sister, Dixie, could not bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that in the case of a white man charged with killing a black man the white man would walk – a little on this later – and did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.
It was Dixie who had plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.
Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been maybe, having taken methamphetamine that day. The latter was true.
Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers had rocked up through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. They were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and gone back to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would head back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?
What could go wrong? Everything, and it happened very quickly. Why it all unfolded is a little subject to guesswork – following the incident the president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger did state on KSAN Radio San Francisco “When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it” He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like a phalanx of Greek infantry. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before this, and may have felt safe up there, but a Hell’s Angel reached up, grabbing him by the ear and throwing him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, trying to put some distance between him and his assailant. He drew his pistol and pointed it in the general direction of his assailant, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled, with Passaro following him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.
Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men laid into Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He did eventually manage to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and in to a medical tent. A helicopter was called in but he passed before the copter could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.
Post Altamont the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans, with a high number coming back wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins had flown in to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson had slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do…
The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.
Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously, be found drowned in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.
I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.
The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert, Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger to get revenge. Their plan was to get a death squad together, get hold of a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day they planned this a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, feeling the worse for wear, and by accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – when Mick himself only just found out how lucky he had been.
Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.
“After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?” Jagger replied.
“Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? 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 any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”
Thanks for tuning in guys. Next week I’ve got a short piece coming. Ever look at some slick sales person and think “they are so persuasive I bet they could sell coals to Newcastle”? Let’s do a quickie looking at how we’re all looking at that wrong. Sorry for the delay this week folks, I did get burned out from too much going on between the day job, the blog and writing for the podcast and put my typewriter away for a few days. Not long now. As always, like, comment, share – Simone
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode
Originally posted 30th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.