• Ellen Petrie

The Rolling Stones at Altamont


Why was I not aware of the historic event until I listened to ‘American Pie’ for abut the hundredth time? In Don Mclean’s song, his lyrics are “So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick Jack Flash sat on a candlestick, 'Cause fire is the devil's only friend, Oh and as I watched him on the stage, My hands were clenched in fists of rage, No angel born in Hell, Could break that Satan's spell”. After some investigation, I discovered what Mclean alluded to was a Rolling Stone concert in which The Hell’s Angels were extremely violent towards some of the concert attendees. Anyone I discuss this event with seems also unaware, unless they are over 40. So why was the violent Rolling Stones concert not more talked about? It is hard to say, but this is a breakdown of events.

The concert was completely free. The Rolling Stones decided to hold a free concert in the San Francisco area because they had been criticized for having inflated ticket prices. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival had a set of Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with the Rolling Stones taking the stage as the final act. Altamont is a speedway and had a dull and lifeless landscape. Approximately 300,000 people attended the concert. The Rolling Stones management had hired the Hells Angels as a form of security for “$500 worth of beer”.

Everything seemed to be going pleasantly during the first few acts, though as the concert proceeded it was stated that both the crowd and the Hells Angels became more unrestful. When Denise Jewkes got on stage to perform with local San Franciscan band The Ace of Cups a empty beer bottle was thrown at her from the crowd. She was six months pregnant at the time and suffered a skull fracture from the incident. Proceeding this the Hells Angels armed themselves with sawed-off pool cues and motorcycle chains. The crowd later toppled one of the Hells Angels motorcycles and things continued to escalate. When the performer Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane jumped offstage to try and sort out the problem he was punched in the head by a Hells Angel and rendered unconscious. When the guitarist of Jefferson Airplane sarcastically thanked the Hells Angel for knocking out their lead singer the Angel took the mike from him and began to argue with him about it.

As soon as Mick Jagger stepped off of the helicopter at the concert a young concert goer raced towards him and punched him directly in the face, saying something along the lines of ‘I hate you’. By the time the time the Stone played it was sundown and Both the crowd and the Hells Angels were behaving extremely aggressively, fights breaking out fairy frequently. The band stopped their set a few times to encourage everyone to ‘cool down’. Then during their song ‘Under my Thumb” one eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter climbed on stage and pulled out a handgun. Upon seeing the gun, a Hells Angel charged at him and stabbed him twice; killing him.

Some say that the Altamont Speedway Free Festival marks the end of the hippie movement. I believe it is at least a major rock and roll history event, and yet I had never heard talk about it before. When one applies this situation to the modern age it is interesting to consider how events might have shook out differently. Anyways this event has given me a new perspective on the Rolling Stones, as it does for you too I hope.