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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Altamont Speedway Free Festival

Altamont Speedway Free Festival

December 6, 1969
The Day the Music Died

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was a one-day rock concert held in northern California, just east of the San Francisco Bay Area. The event took place on a rural pass between Tracy and my home town, Livermore.

It was meant to be another day of peace and love. Nicknamed "Woodstock West," the event was patterned after the highly successful Woodstock festival held four months earlier in Bethel, New York.

The Rolling Stones headlined and organized the event, which also featured, in order of appearance: Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The Grateful Dead were also scheduled to perform, but declined to participate when the mood turned violent.

Just a Shot Away
Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont
by Saul Austerlitz

Peace, Love, and Tragedy
Despite the stellar talent onstage, the Altamont concert is remembered more for its violence than the music. Footage and photographs taken that day capture a lawless and disorderly crowd. Many of the 300,000 concert goers were fueled by LSD and amphetamines.

Three people died accidentally. Two were killed in a hit-and-run car accident, and one drowned in an irrigation canal. A pregnant woman suffered a skull fracture when an airborne beer bottle hit her in the head, and 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed by a member of the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club.

It was rumored that the motorcycle club provided security around the 4-foot-high stage in exchange for $500 worth of beer. It's more likely they were instructed to keep audience members away from the performers and their equipment.

The concert was immortalized in Gimme Shelter, a 1970 "rockumentary" directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.

End of an Era
The Altamont concert is often contrasted with the Woodstock festival that took place less than four months earlier. While Woodstock represented "peace and love," Altamont came to be viewed as the end of the hippie era and the de facto conclusion of late-1960s American youth culture.

Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day
by Joel Selvin

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Long Time Gone
At the band's request, their performance was not included in the film Gimme Shelter.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Live at Altamont (1969)

Gimme Shelter
Vintage Reproduction Metal Sign

Paul Kantner - Jefferson Airplane
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. I'd like to thank you for that.

Jefferson Airplane
The Other Side of This Life
During the set, Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin was punched in the head and knocked unconscious by one of the Hell's Angels. He was eventually helicoptered to a hospital for the treatment of his injuries. The Grateful Dead were scheduled to play two sets later, following The Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. When Santana drummer Michael Shrieve informed them of Marty Balin’s assault and the escalating violence, The Grateful Dead opted to leave the venue.

Jefferson Airplane Live at Altamont (1969)

Grace Slick - Jefferson Airplane
People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line. But the Angels also -- You know, you don't bust people in the head for nothing. So both sides are f***ing up temporarily; let's not keep f***ing up!

The Rolling Stones
Altamont Concert Framed Poster

The Rolling Stones
Under My Thumb
Upon landing by helicopter at the concert site, Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger was met with a punch from an audience member. He appears visibly shaken in this concert video, as he urges fans to “Just be cool down in the front there, don’t push around.” The rock star’s appeals for calm were in vain. Shortly afterward, Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed with a knife. The 18-year-old student was high on speed and began waving a revolver near the stage. Hell's Angel Alan Passaro reacted by stabbing Meredith Hunter several times in the back, an act that was captured on camera. Meredith Hunter's gun was stolen by someone in the crowd, even as the young man lay face-down dying. Alan Passaro was ultimately acquitted of murder charges on grounds of self defense.

The Rolling Stones
Vinyl Sticker

The Rolling Stones Set List
Altamont Speedway Free Festival
  • Jumpin' Jack Flash
  • Carol
  • Sympathy for the Devil (stopped then restarted because of fights breaking out)
  • The Sun Is Shining
  • Stray Cat Blues
  • Love in Vain
  • Under My Thumb (stopped then restarted because of fights breaking out)
  • Brown Sugar (first live performance)
  • Midnight Rambler
  • Live with Me
  • Gimme Shelter
  • Little Queenie
  • (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction
  • Honky Tonk Woman
  • Street Fighting Man

Gimme Shelter
Reproduction Poster

Gimme Shelter Audio CD
The Rolling Stones

Altamont Concert Montage
Photographed by Bill Owens

Mick Jagger
Altamont Speedway Free Festival (1969)

1969: The Year Everything Changed
by Rob Kirkpatrick

The Story of the Altamont Rock Concert
Including Footage from the 1970 Documentary Gimme Shelter

The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter
Criterion Collection DVD

The Coolest People on Earth Live in Altamont
See the Entire Coolest People on Earth Live in Altamont Collection

The Rolling Stones
Gimme Shelter Movie Poster (1970)

Archived Comments

Aug 16, 2013
Awesome coverage of the Stones Free concert at Altamont. My husband and I went as it was the day before his birthday. We drove until there was no more places to park and walked 2 miles to the concert. It was an adventure I will never forget. We did not know until the next day what happened by the stage. As soon as the concert was over we had to quickly get up as cars that made it into the area started driving everywhere as there were no roads. We just got up when a car came flying through where we were sitting.

Apr 06, 2013

The Altamont Speedway Festival will always be remembered, more for what went wrong than for the incredible performance of the Stones and other musicians. The film is a phenomenal documentary of the event, and captures the flavor of the era.

Sep 07, 2012

Thanks for the trip down memory lane for the music.

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