ANOTHER fiftieth anniversary being marked this week is the 1969 Altamont concert by the Rolling Stones at which Meredith Hunter was killed by members of the Hell’s Angels hired as security for the event. A new book has inspired Mark Bannerman to argue the Stones’ selfishness ended the era of peace and love which had been showcased at Altamont’s nice opposite: Woodstock. Bannerman isn’t the first writer to make the unfavourable comparison, mourn the loss of supposed hippie innocence or tout commercial ruthlessness as the sinister backstory to a killing. Whole verses of Don McLean’s American Pie do the same.
A victim with his bandmates of one of the biggest rock ‘n roll swindles ever (by Allen Klein), Mick Jagger certainly wanted to make the concert pay. The headliners were equally greedy for cash at Woodstock. Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and The Who all refused to play until they had greenbacks in hand. As for the Angels, they had been hired by tour point man Sam Cutler through the good officers of the Grateful Dead. It has been said in Cutler’s defence that he was only familiar with the genteel British variety of bikers. Californian Hell’s Angels were something else entirely. They were practitioners of extreme violence.
The Stones and Jagger in particular have been praised for their physical courage. In the dark, they were faced by 300,000 people. Many if not most of them were affected by hard drugs, including a batch of bad LSD. The Angels were drugged and drunk. Hunter’s body had been taken away mid-set. The Stones were no sure thing to get out alive. “I was really scared,” recalled new Stone, Mick Taylor. “I was frightened for all of us, particularly for Mick.” To avoid an even more appalling disaster, Jagger decided not to leave. The show had to go on. Jerry Garcia and his bandmates escaped hours earlier. For some reason, Bannerman claims “not one cent was given to the dead man’s family” by the Stones when the profits from the tour (and a film) came in. They were paid $10,000 (about $65,000 corrected for inflation). That was generous in the circumstances.
A few witnesses said Hunter had been baited by a Hell’s Angel, reacted and was then mercilessly stabbed to death. Others say he was directly in front of the band, high and menacing. Nobody disputes he was armed with a revolver. His killer was acquitted when the jury saw the footage. The use of the Angels is regarded (rightly) as possibly the stupidest decision in the history of concert management. But claiming Woodstock or the so-called movement it came to symbolise were pure in comparison is romantic nonsense. There were 742 overdoses at Woodstock. Raymond Mizsak, 17, was crushed to death by a tractor and 18 year-old Richard Bieler died of a drug overdose. I very much doubt that Jimi Hendrix – who demanded $18,000 for his performance on day four of Woodstock (more than anyone else) – ever heard of them.
Asked about Hunter’s death in a 1995 interview, Jagger was asked how it made him feel at the time:
Well, awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility … 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 of 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 …
While journalists were saddened by the death of a phony utopia, Jagger saw the nightmarish tragedy with more lucidity than many of them. Altamont wasn’t the antithesis of Aquarius. It was its inevitable culmination. The anything goes selfishness, the drug-taking, the narcissism and greed draped in tie-dye. Thousands more would lose their lives before the “counterculture” was finally buried. It isn’t missed.