What did you do this weekend? Maybe you raked leaves, bought stuff at Costco, or even went out and saw some live music. Whatever it is was undoubtedly tame compared to the massive, raucous music festival held at Altamont Speedway 43 years ago: the infamous Altamont Free Concert.
There's a good chance that you could have been maimed or killed in the drug and alcohol fueled mayhem that reached its climax during the Rolling Stones' set, so your boring trip to the supermarket was actually a pretty good option.
You see, musicians and concert goers had yet to face the reality that the puerile hippie mores of the late '60s were about to give way to something harder. The people who helped them face that reality were none other than the Hells Angels.
Disclaimer: If you're a Baby Boomer — and there are a lot of you out there — you've probably heard of this mess before. But not everyone was around in 1969, so have patience for those to whom it's news.
Today, Altamont Raceway Park, as it's called now, is a mellow place that hosts events like the NASCAR Camping World West Series and a 24 Hours of LeMons race. But back in its early days, the track's organizers wanted to get the ball rolling by allowing the Rolling Stones to host a huge free concert, ala Woodstock. The concert featured a who's who of awesome late-'60s acts: Santana, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with the Stones playing last.
Unfortunately, Woodstock's peace and love vibe had been more or less spent by the time the idea of a huge hippie music festival hit California. The intention was still there, but the drugged-out minds of well meaning peaceniks and partiers were slow to realize than the hens of social unrest and drug abuse were coming home to roost.
Here's basically how the whole disaster went down. The stage at Altamont was really low to the ground, so concert organizers knew they needed security guards to keep people from rushing the stage. Someone — exactly who is disputed — hired the Hells Angels to protect musicians from overzealous fans. In retrospect, that sounds like a terrible idea, but at the time the Grateful Dead had had good luck using the Angels as security guards, and only had to give them free beer as payment.
Things ran more or less smoothly for a little while, but the Hells Angels had been paid in the form of $500 worth of beer (that's $3,041 in today's currency, or enough to buy 170 cases of Budweiser). As they got more and more drunk, concert goers were also getting hammered on booze, methamphetamines, and LSD. When Ken Kesey arrived with a bunch of acid, he invited the Hells Angels over to party. He and his group were convinced that they Angels were "noble savages" who were all part of the same counterculture as the hippies. As it turned out, the only thing the two groups had in common was their love of hoovering up booze and pills and their capacity for drunken violence.
Throughout the day, drunk/high Hells Angels and drunk/high concert goers clashed in front of the stage, so by the time the Rolling Stones showed up to play their set, the concert's mood had generally soured. Mick Jagger got punched in the face by some wasted asshat or other not long after he'd alighted from the band's helicopter, and the Angels responded by lashing out at the audience. At one point, an 18-year-old man named Meredith Hunter tried to rush the stage, only to be smacked down by Hells Angels. He approached the stage again, his mind clouded by a cocktail of party drugs reportedly with a determined, if somewhat absent, gleam in his eye. When all was said and done, Hunter lay dead and a Hells Angel was accused of murder.
Nearly two years later, when Hells Angel Alan Passaro was on trial for stabbing Hunter, a jury acquitted him based on footage of the event. In the film, Hunter pulled what appeared to be a long pistol from his jacket as he approached the stage the second time. Passaro rushed in and deflected the pistol as Hunter squeezed off a shot, simultaneously stabbing Hunter at least twice with a big knife. An autopsy revealed that Hunter was high on methamphetamine when he died.
But Hunter wasn't the only casualty that night. It was also the end of an era. Bye bye, Miss American Pie. The (relative) innocence of the '60s died, with American youth rebelliousness only to spiral further down into more violent anti-war protests, a just but increasingly militant civil rights movements, and catastrophes like the Isla Vista riots and the Kent State Massacre.
So if you ever happen to be up at Altamont watching a welded-together dragon version of a Ford Fiesta cross the finish line in first place as truculent judges destroy a non-compliant U.S. Postal Service Jeep with a flurry of sledge hammer blows, just be aware that nothing, and I mean nothing the 24 Hours of LeMons doles out will ever be as gnarly as that riotous concert held there so many years ago.
Photo credit: Associated Press