LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - December 6 is a day that will live in infamy in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.
On that day in 1969, the Rolling Stones gave a free concert at the Altamont Speedway, east of San Francisco, and watched helplessly as their gesture of goodwill spurred random beatings and the fatal stabbing of a fan by a Hells Angels member.
The events are captured in the Maysles brothers’ 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter,” the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll snuff film. And “Altamont” has become a byword for chaos, the gold standard for how not to organize a concert.
Many commentators have dissected Altamont, generally blaming either the Stones, because they should have handled things better; or the Angels, because clubbing fans with pool cues is never a good idea.
The Stones themselves have generally shied away from the issue. But a new memoir by their former tour manager, Sam Cutler, is the closest thing to an insider’s view.
Cutler appears in “Gimme Shelter” as the mustachioed roadie who coolly pleads with fans to climb off the scaffolding or get off the absurdly tiny stage. His bold forecast to the 300,000-strong crowd that “this could be the greatest party of 1969” turns out to be a little off the mark.
In “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (Random House Australia), Cutler blames the disaster on “criminal cowardice” by the authorities. Law enforcement departments wanted the event to be a disaster to create a backlash against politically radical elements in the rock ‘n’ roll world, the British native said in a recent interview from his new home in Australia.
“The feds were there, there was all kind of people, all kinds of heavy law enforcement people and they chose absolutely not to do anything during the event,” Cutler said.
Maybe a half-dozen uniformed policemen were on duty at the speedway, Cutler said, and they were more interested in towing away cars. And thus it fell upon the Hells Angels to provide a semblance of order at the hastily organized event. As legend has it, they were paid $500 worth of beer for their services.
The Rolling Stones’ set, along with those of opening acts such as Jefferson Airplane, was interrupted from the start by brawls. The Hells Angels did not exactly feel kinship with the flower-power crowd, and they were also anxious about their beloved Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the crush of humanity.
As the Stones performed “Under My Thumb,” 18-year-old Meredith Hunter appeared to pull out a gun, perhaps for self-defense. Hells Angels member Alan Passaro pounced on Hunter with impressive athleticism, stabbing him multiple times as the Maysles’ cameras rolled. Hunter was whisked away, and soon pronounced dead. The Stones, unaware of the gravity of the situation, kept playing.
The band and their entourage were lucky to escape with their own lives after the show was over. They piled on top of each other in a small helicopter.
Almost immediately, Altamont triggered recriminations. Hell’s Angels leader Sonny Barger said Stones frontman Mick Jagger “used us for dupes.” The band was also pilloried by the media, even though the Stones had little to do with the show’s organization. Since they were on tour, the management of local rockers the Grateful Dead handled such issues as the hiring of the Hells Angels.
“The Rolling Stones came to play music for people, to bring people a good time, and it all went pear-shaped,” Cutler said. “I don’t think it was the fault of the Rolling Stones.”
No official enquiry was launched into Altamont, which Cutler considers shocking.
Nonetheless the band hurriedly left the country, fearful of legal action. A penniless Cutler stayed behind to clean up the mess, and never saw Jagger again. In his book, he details how he risked his life to attend a basement summit with a dozen angry Hells Angels members. After everything was settled, Cutler went on to work for the Dead, and he devotes the second half of his book to his exploits with them.
Passaro went on trial, and was acquitted after claiming self-defense. He was later found drowned under suspicious circumstances with a large amount of cash in his pockets, according to Cutler.
The movie, at least, was a hit. Co-director Albert Maysles often tells the story of a group of Hells Angels members who attended a theatrical screening and laughed hysterically during the death scene.
“It’s not one of my favorite movies of all time,” said Cutler.
Editing by Mary Milliken