Stones & Angels: Viewing the Remains of Altamont

“The Stones hired us to act as security for $500 worth of beer. That Mick Jagger, he used us for dupes.”


Stones & Angels: Viewing the Remains of a Mean Saturday
December 18, 1969

SAN FRANCISCO — On the morning of December 10, a scattering of friends and kin gathered in a foggy cemetery in the bedroom commuter community of Vallejo to bury Meredith Hunter, who had just turned 18. Hunter was the apparently drug-freaked young black man who’d been kicked and stabbed to death before thousands of impassive spectators during a brawl involving the Hell’s Angels at the mammoth free Rolling Stones concert in the Livermore Valley five days earlier.

Hunter’s murder took place, Lord save us, while the Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil.”* At press time, no arrests had been made in connection with the slaying, although it was reliably reported that the Maysles Brothers, who were authorized to film the concert by the Stones management, had shot the grisly episode in its entirety.

Similarly, the Alameda County sheriff’s department reported no leads in the search for the hit-and-run slayer of Mark Feiger and Richard Savolv, both 22 and both from New Jersey, via Berkeley. The two men were killed after the concert when an auto leaving Altamont Speedway plowed into their group, huddled around a campfire. Several other young people were critically injured in the accident.

Two days after the concert, Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland chapter of the Angels, called disc jockey Stefan Ponek at KSAN-FM, defending the Angels’ strong-arm tactics at Altamont. Barger’s statement was broadcast live:

“The Stones hired us to act as security for $500 worth of beer. That Mick Jagger, he used us for dupes. We were the biggest suckers of anybody. I’m not no peace creep by any sense of the word. I’m a violent cat when I gotta be, but I don’t really wanna be. I’m bum-kicked by the whole trip. I don’t like what happened… Some of those dudes out there, they started kicking and trying to destroy our bikes, and that made it personal. They got thumped. They got got. There ain’t nobody going to kick my bike. It’s my life and all I got. You love that thing better than anything in the world…”

Despite Barger’s flat claim that his group had been hired by the Stones personally, the report persisted that Rock Scully, ex-manager of the Grateful Dead and himself reputedly a former outlaw biker, had made the deal with the Angels. Another report named Emmett Grogan, founder of the now defunct Diggers and an advance man for the concert, as the principal negotiator of the arrangement.

Not with the intention of placing blame — Meredith Hunter was dead and buried, after all, and that couldn’t be undone by singling out the dolt who’d invited the wolves into the chicken house — but in a more or less plodding effort to string together the facts for the record, I settled down with the phone book close at hand and began asking the burning question of the week: who, exactly, had involved the Angels in the concert?

Jo Bergman, the Stones’ girl friday, was unavailable for comment. Perhaps she’d left town, I was informed, perhaps she hadn’t, who knew? Sam Cutler, the Stones’ Cockney road manager, who, curiously, had been left behind when the group flew back to London, was wherever Rock Scully was; in any event, neither was available for comment. Emmett Grogan was unavailable for anything.

The day following Hunter’s funeral, I managed to talk briefly with Chet Helms, top dog at the Family Dog rock ballroom on the Great Highway and one of the concert’s organizers. I asked Helms what formal connection he’d had with the event. “Victim,” he shot back tersely, “Just another victim.” And did he know who had engaged the Angels to serve as cut-rate rent-a-cops? Helms hesitated, then answered in a flat, weary voice: “I’d prefer not to make any comment on that. I don’t want to get into messing people’s lives around.”

Following through on a tip from John Sagen, a member of the rock group West, I contacted Laurel Gonsalves, who works in the advertising department at Rolling Stone magazine. She said she’d worked for the Stones in early efforts to set up the concert, but had withdrawn when the project deteriorated in organization. She referred me to John Burks, Rolling Stone’s managing editor. In a windy, rambling monologue, Burks conceded that, yes, he knew who had hired the Angels, but he hadn’t yet decided what stance to take about releasing the information.

At the suggestion of Steve Pillster, who lives deep in the heart of the labyrinthine rock circus in Berkeley, I called the Grateful Dead’s headquarters in Marin County. The call was accepted by a girl named Susan, who went on to identify herself as a member of a “family” called Alembic, which manufactures rock sound equipment. She said that Alembic and the Dead, who share the same quarters, had held a joint meeting early in the week and unanimously agreed not to discuss the question of who had hired the Angels. At the mention of the Stones, Susan painted it emphatically black: “The Stones screwed us all over royally. The Dead paid all of their own expenses to fly to Altamont and back by helicopter, and then they weren’t allowed to play. They put out money that hasn’t been reimbursed, and now they’re flat broke. The Stones are just not nice people, you know? I guess you should expect shit like that from the Angels — they’re totally devoted to violence.… One of them, Terry the Tramp, was nice to those of us who were working on sound, but the majority of those dudes were just crumby animals. They felt righteous about what they were doing, I guess — sanctioned, sort of. The whole bunch of them stayed around the bandstand until 4 a.m., getting drunker and drunker and punching out anyone who got in their reach. They burned all the packing crates for our spotlights, and at one time they threatened to set fire to the stage, but I guess they got loaded and forgot about it. A great, great many people got hurt out there. Even though I had a pass, I was bodily thrown off the stage by the Angels twice in a row. I guess they were just feeling mean, and I was handy.”

Could she give me any specific details about the meeting between Alembic and the Dead?

“Well,” she faltered, “I guess you could say that Emmett Grogan defended the hiring of the Angels… and I guess Rock Scully did, too.”

After two days of incessant phoning, I developed an acute case of dialer’s cramp and decided to drop the burning question. Nothing — and far too much about the feverishly neurotic ambience of the Bay Area rock milieu — was revealed. In the end, three different people, all in a position to know, confirmed the identity of the person responsible for involving the Angels, but in all three instances they spoke off the record, not for attribution because of fear of retribution. The summer of love, it occurred to me, had taken place in another country, and besides, the old bitch was dead.

As the week wore on, the casualty list mounted in the aftermath of the mass gathering at Altamont. Belatedly, it was revealed that Mick Jagger himself had been assaulted by a shaggy blond kid when the Stones arrived by helicopter at the race track. “I hate you, I hate you,” the unidentified boy reportedly screamed, lunging at Jagger and clouting him on the head. Flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, as it developed, had also been roughed up by an Angel near the bandstand, and Denise Jewkes, a singer with the all-girl rock group, the Ace of Cups, had suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a thrown beer bottle near the performance area. Denise was four months pregnant, but her doctors were hopeful that she wouldn’t lose her baby.

Inevitably, threats of litigation surfaced. An irate group of ranchers from the Altamont area, led by a spokesman with the ironic name C.W. Tripp, estimated damage to their properties in excess of $500,000. Tripp told newsmen that the group planned to file damage suits “all the way up the line as far as we have to go… and that means the Rolling Stones and their managers.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors also leapt into the fray, moving to revoke the use permit granted to Richard Carter for the operation of Altamont Speedway and threatening damage claims against the concert’s promoters to recoup more than $100,000 the board had to pay to county law enforcement personnel for overtime duties during the weekend of the concert. Carter, who had managed a faltering operation until the Stones event put his shabby drag strip on the map, outlined grandiose plans for staging future rock festivals at the race track. “I think if we do another festival,” he beamed confidently at a press conference, “the first day of spring would be fine. That would give us time to make some preparations.”

On Friday, blindly following an impulse, I drove back to Altamont to view what can only be called the remains. At the 80-acre site, a few volunteer scavengers, stick figures in the hazy distance, were still picking up the tons of garbage littering the bald brown hills. Vast expanses of the scrubby slopes were scorched black where bonfires had been lit. Neighboring fences sagged and gaped under a dismal, overcast sky.

Surveying the empty amphitheater from a trash-strewn hilltop, I tried to comprehend exactly what had happened on that now bloodied ground below me a week before. The event sired by the Stones had been vaster than the mind could readily grasp, garishly colorful, mostly peaceable, frequently frightening, and perhaps well-intended. The end result was a mountain of litter, scores of injuries, a sea of stolen cars abandoned on the access roads to the track, thousands of bad drug trips, extensive damage to surrounding property, and four violent and senseless deaths.

Driving back to the city in a hammering rain, I couldn’t help recalling what somebody had remarked to Ralph Gleason early in the week: “There was no love, no joy at Altamont. It wasn’t just the Angels. It was everybody. In 24 hours, we created all the problems of our society in one confined area — congestion, violence, dehumanization.”

* Editor’s Note, December 6, 2019:
Half-a-century on we know that Voice contributor Grover Lewis got a few facts wrong, a major one being that Hunter’s murder occurred not, as he reported, during “Sympathy for the Devil,” but while the Stones were playing “Under My Thumb.” Still, we can cut Lewis some slack because he was working in that age before the easy recording of damn near everything on one’s iPhone. Back in those days, when reporters saw things just once, in real time, maybe with a tape recorder handy but generally with nothing more than a steno pad and pencils, “Sympathy” made more sense as a murder soundtrack than “Under My Thumb,” that beat-heavy paean to unbalanced relationships. Even Rolling Stone magazine, more than six weeks after the fact, in its January 21, 1970, issue (aptly headlined, “Let It Bleed”), still didn’t get it right, offering a blow-by-blow account of each song in the concert:

“Sympathy for the Devil”:
They stopped in the middle. A skirmish had broken out at stage left. This was the knifing/stomping of Meredith Hunter, perhaps 25 feet from where Jagger pranced and sang, then stopped. To one observer 20 feet to Jagger’s rear, the glint of the long knives was clearly visible. So, if the Stones were looking, they saw it too. The same observer spoke with several others who were onstage (as did Rolling Stone), and none, except for the onstage Angels, claim to have seen a gun.

The Maysles brothers’ documentary, Gimme Shelter, which clearly revealed the exact moment of the killing, was released on December 6, 1970, but commentators continued to make the same mistake, reiterating the myth that “Sympathy” had killed the Sixties. In 2010, the Voice ran Lewis’s article again, online, without noting the fact-check error. When we produced the last print edition of the paper, in September 2017, we finally ran a correction on the Contents page: “The Village Voice regrets the error. And the hyperbole.” —R.C. Baker