The following was originally released in four parts, on the Facebook page, in June 2019. I’ve heavily edited, & collated the piece into one blog post.
One: That Dick Cavett Interview…
Hi folks, I should say up front I thought I understood Altamont. In researching this Tale, I found out much of what I thought I knew was superficial, or wrong. I think it’s also worth spending a little time on the reason I came to revisit the infamous concert – old episodes of The Dick Cavett show on YouTube. As with episodes of What’s My Line? I’m a sucker for good, old television, and in 2019 I was regularly binge watching old interviews on The Dick Cavett show. Some clips (Segregationist Governor of Georgia Lester Maddox storming off for example) are historically important, others (Orson Welles, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) perhaps less so, but make great viewing for a pop culture junkie like myself.
The episode in question was filmed in 1972. The setting, backstage at Madison Square Garden. The Rolling Stones – last stateside as a band in December 1969 – had returned. Cavett is speaking with bassist Bill Wyman; and clearly has a question which must be asked.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?“
Wyman replies he’s just tired. Cavett asks would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett continues…
“You’re still protected from the…”
Wyman runs him off at the pass. He states he’s just a little tired this tour.
Cavett “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?”
Wyman replies “Just the energy…“
Knowing when to pivot, Dick Cavett changes tack. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause
“No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know“
“Was there much of that this time?“
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.“
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble“
Dick Cavett moves in, he deindividuates asking about “the guys in the group” rather than “you” but all the same, he knows he’s landed the hook. Now is the time to reel his catch in.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?“
Bill Wyman answers.
“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”
Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to some ‘other’, as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall gig at the Station Night Club, Rhode Island, February 20th 2003, where malfunctioning pyrotechnics set fire to the club, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more? It puts me off.
What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There’s a look on his face that implies the day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards also downplayed the incident, but rumours abound during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security” -oh and we are not talking about the police – sought revenge.
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all on the bill. The Grateful Dead were meant to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to play. The assault on Marty Balin was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin“.
“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness“.
I get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It turns out this was not exactly the case.
Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
When one thinks big, open air concerts in the 60s, people generally think of a little thing called Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly needed to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain, people danced, got high – some involuntarily, they put flowers in their hair and got closer to nature. It took on the aura of the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.
Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th, 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-loos. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Food was terribly scarce – were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been nothing provided whatsoever. Back to the toilets, there was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. For all the peace and love there was a little violence – notably Pete Townshend of The Who beat up a stage invader with his guitar. Besides the death of Raymond Mizsak, two others died of drug overdoses.
In the aftermath, the people of Bethel got rid of the town supervisor at the next election. The people clearly stating the concert was their reason for punishing him in the polls. A couple of musicians who played the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however.
Soon after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to plan a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. They decided to ask fellow Woodstock alumnus The Grateful Dead– and The Rolling Stones – arguably the second biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, to be on the bill. Both bands signed on. The Stones likely did so because they were heavily criticized for the high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA – and this was a free concert. They were also filming a documentary, and footage of a large, open air concert would look fantastic. The Grateful Dead? Well they were friends. They gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They played the two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, so it made sense to include them on the third.
With next to no planning time, the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in California) had a large practice field that could be used to host large concerts, but the university were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the other acts on the bill. However there was a scheduling problem. On 6th December Kezar Stadium – located in a corner of the park – was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears. (if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21). To have two large activities going in the park at the same time would be a logistical nightmare.
Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but organizers ran into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front, and they did not have the cash to spare. Second, the owners of the raceway were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, best known now as the creators of a much of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my personal favorite – Green Acres. Filmways wanted to film and distribute the concert – the Rolling Stones refused as they were intent on their own crew filming for their documentary Gimme Shelter.
On the 4th December 1969, Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Running out of options, the organizers signed up to put on the concert at the poorly set up venue.
Three: A large visible space…
Hi all, this week let’s bake a disaster. What’s the recipe?
First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking for Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont was no Woodstock. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane describing the atmosphere
“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.”
Next add a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there are far too few toilets. A shortage of medical tents will prove very problematic as the day wears on also. At Woodstock there was no shortage of tents, something which came in handy in dealing with many cut feet and, allegedly, burnt eyeballs from tripping kids looking up at the sun. More on first aid later.
The stage would prove a massive headache for organizers. It was far too low – just four feet off the ground, constructed in a dip owing to the slope of the racing track itself. The organizers had no security barriers to keep the concertgoers a safe distance away so a ball of string was run at chest height, in a line in front of the stage, to mark where the crowd should stop. Making up for the lack of barriers, the Hells Angels were stationed front and centre to keep the crowd back.
Now add security. The Hells Angels were hardly new to doing concert security, having worked many shows without incident. Altamont was a difficult gig for them for a number of reasons.
First, their role was poorly defined. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stating
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”.
They came to the concert with no idea just how much they would be required to do.
Second, they agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now. Adding a large amount of alcohol to the mix would prove disasterous. Third, no provision was made for a safe place for the Hells Angels to park their bikes.
Add to the bowl an expectation 100,000 people would attend, sprinkle in 200,000 excess concertgoers. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels had to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.
Drunken Hells Angels were one thing – no doubt their judgment was impaired by the beer; the drugs were far more concerning. Early in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed was passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of tripping fans, nothing new there, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff, treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day. Many a concert goer became strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene.
Now mix ingredients thoroughly.
Santana were the first act up. They got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, then by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to intervene, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd.
“Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit”
Sarcastically he addressed the security “I’d like to thank you for that.”
A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel named Bill Fritsch – a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and fires back.
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.”
Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.”
Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.”
All the while Hells Angels continued to trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.
Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what just happened, and the Dead decided they’d seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.
The fighting died down while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted – and escalated. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. To paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence is wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. All the same, concertgoers who dared get close to the front were beaten senseless with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point was dragged across the stage by her hair.
A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.
As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett’s (1972) guest Bill Wyman – he missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going out to play, regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set. The helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene
“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.
Four: The Ballad of Meredith 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 didn’t 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 after she turned to electro-convulsive therapy to manage her depression over her loss. After the killing she was a shell of her former self. His sister, Dixie, couldn’t bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that when a white man is charged with killing a black man, the white man walks – a little on this later. She 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 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, as he was high on methamphetamine. The latter was true.
Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers flew through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. The couple were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and returned to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would go 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?
Everything – everything could go wrong – and it happened very quickly. Why it unfolded is a subject to guesswork – following the incident, president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger stated 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 an Athenian phalanx. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before the surge, perhaps feeling safer up there – but a Hell’s Angel grabbed him by the ear and threw him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, putting some distance between himself and his assailant. He drew his pistol and tried to back himself away from the bikers, 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. Passaro followed 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 continued to strike 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 eventually managed to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and to a medical tent. A helicopter was called for but he passed before it 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 dead Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia and Laos – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans. and a high number of wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins returns to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, in an attempt to start a race war in the USA. 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 – edit. 2020. with the release of the film on Netflix maybe I should have- still should? write a post on them), 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 drown 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 in revenge. Their plan, to assemble a death squad, hire a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day of the assassination, a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, the worse for wear, and by all 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 – Mick himself only found out how lucky he had been when the public did.
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?”
“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…”
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
Originally posted in four part May – June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow