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On This Day: Four Die at Rolling Stones’ Altamont Concert

Last updated: February 11, 2023

On Dec. 6, 1969, concertgoer Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel biker as he approached the stage with a gun. Three others at the Altamont Free Concert were killed in accidents.

Altamont Concert Ends in Disaster

Originally planned for San Francisco, the free concert was relocated after the city revoked its permit. It was then moved to Sears Point, but a dispute forced a second relocation to the disused Altamont Speedway just two days before the concert.

Concert organizers rushed to build a stage, transport equipment and find security. They hired the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang with a history of violence and involvement in a host of illegal activities, to provide security, allegedly in return for $500 worth of beer, though both parties deny this claim.

The concert was marked by violence from the start, as the Hells Angels used pool cues to control the crowd and protect the four-foot stage. During a performance by Jefferson Airplane, singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by an Angel who jumped onto the stage to break up a fight. The incident, as well as the general violence, convinced the Grateful Dead to cancel their performance.

The Rolling Stones took the stage in the evening, when the violence would turn deadly. Meredith Hunter, an African-American teenager, approached the stage armed with a knife and gun. Hells Angel Alan Passaro attacked Hunter, stabbing him several times with a knife as the Stones finished “Under My Thumb.”

The incident was captured on film by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who created the concert documentary, “Gimme Shelter.” The footage shows Hunter, at stage left, fighting with a group of Hells Angels and holding a gun; Passaro sees the gun from his position near center stage and attacks Hunter.

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“He rushes forward and is at Hunter’s back, his left hand gripping Hunter’s gun hand, forcing it down, while raising the knife in his right fist and plunging it into Hunter’s neck,” The Times of London describes. “Hunter lurches forward, back towards the darkness from where he came. The Angel clings on, moving with him, again raising his right fist and bringing the knife down on Hunter’s neck.”

Hunter was stabbed five times and died on site. Three other concertgoers died that day: two died in a hit-and-run car accident and one drowned in a drainage ditch.

“It was perhaps rock and roll’s all-time worst day, December 6th, a day when everything went perfectly wrong,” wrote Rolling Stone’s John Burks.

Opinion & Analysis: The End of an Era

Sources in this Story

  • PopMatters: Gimme Shelter
  • Esquire: Aquarius Wept
  • The Times of London: The death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont
  • Rolling Stone: Rock & Roll’s Worst Day
  • American Heritage: Woodstock Goes to Hell
  • Robert Christgau (Newsday): The Rolling Stones: Can’t Get No Satisfaction
  • Stoneslog (Hartford Courant): Ill-Fated Altamont Is A Far More Fitting Symbol Of The ’60s Than Glorified Woodstock

The Altamont Concert, held only four months after the generation-defining Woodstock Festival in upstate New York, was seen by many as the end of hippie culture, and marked the death of the ’60s, a decade famous for social, musical and sexual revolutions.

Mick Jagger rejected this notion. “Of course some people wanted to say Altamont was the end of an era,” he said. “People like that are fashion writers. Perhaps it was the end of their era, the end of their naïveté. I would have thought it ended long before Altamont.”

Eric Danton of the Hartford Courant argues that Altamont is a more accurate representation of the ’60s than Woodstock. “In too many ways, Altamont was a condensed version of the preceding decade, with queasy race relations, well-intentioned non-conformism turned reckless and a bid for peaceful, harmonious co-existence—among the most valued ideals of the ’60s—shattered by senseless violence,” he writes.

“Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended,” wrote rock critic Robert Christgau in 1972.

Reference: The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones’ official site should answer most questions about the long-lived British rock band.


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