Exactly 40 years ago, the Rolling Stones’ lyrical carnages became a concert reality
“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.” — Mick Jagger, to Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner, 1995, explaining his reaction to the Altamont murder
Shortly after the Stones' disastrous concert 40 years ago, on Dec. 6, 1969, Rolling Stone magazine wrote a requiem, calling it “the product of diabolical egotism, hype, ineptitude, [and] money manipulation.”
As for the latter charge, Jagger had never made any bones about why he’d gotten into the rock 'n' roll business. It “seemed like the only way I was going to get the kind of bread I wanted,” he said.
During their 1969 U.S. tour, the Rolling Stones — introducing themselves for the first time as “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” — sold more than $1 million in tickets. When asked during a press conference if he was at last satisfied, Sir Mick famously replied, “Financially dissatisfied, sexually satisfied, philosophically trying.”
But, countering charges that his band was gouging fans with exorbitant ticket prices, Jagger agreed to a climactic free concert. Altamont was dubbed “Woodstock West,” after the historic love and peace festival which had taken place four months before while the "bad boys" of rock were in London recording "Let It Bleed."
Unaware that their lyrical carnages might become a concert reality, the Stones — allegedly at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead’s manager — engaged the California Hells Angels for stage security. Earlier that year, the band had successfully used a British chapter of the motorcycle gang for their Hyde Park concert held in memory of their founder Brian Jones, who had drowned in his swimming pool.
Fortunately for the frugal Mick, the California Angels demanded no cash for their services, but only 500 cases of beer. Which, during the earlier acts that day (Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, the Jefferson Airplane), they supplemented with fistfuls of reds and Owsley acid.
The unpleasantness began when the Angels got to chilling fans with sawed-off pool cues, then KOed the Airplane’s singer, Marty Balin, when he objected. At this point, the Dead split while the splitting was still good. “It was a nice afternoon in hell,” Jerry Garcia later recalled.
At 5:50 that cold, December afternoon, just after darkness fell, an 18-year-old black youth, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed five times. Fleeing the Angels, he had pulled a revolver while Jagger sang “Under My Thumb.”
A few songs before this, Sir Mick had already had to interrupt “Sympathy for the Devil.” “Hey, people — who’s fighting and what for?” he’d asked the wasted multitude. “Why are we fighting?”
After Hunter vanished under a hail of Angel blows, Jagger stopped dancing again. “If we are all one,” he pleaded, “let’s f—ing well show we’re all one!”
But Woodstock was ancient history. As the fans recoiled from the boy’s writhing body, Stanley Booth, the Stones’ biographer, caught a look. There was “a big hole in his spine … and his temple,” he later wrote. “You could see all the way in.”
Fifteen minutes later, stagehands had succeeded in carrying Hunter backstage through the mob. As he bled to death, the Stones played “Brown Sugar.” They followed it with "Let It Bleed’s" “Midnight Rambler.” “I stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts.”
By the time Hunter drew his last breath, the Angels were pummeling a naked girl unconscious on stage. Jagger, trying to appeal to their manly instincts, told them a group effort was not necessary for one acid-wasted chick.
Not appreciating security suggestions from a cross-dressing, mascaraed rooster, the bikers gave Jumpin Jack Flash the look Marty Balin had seen. Meanwhile, their leader put a gun to Keith Richards' head and said: “You keep f–in’ playing or you’re dead.”
The other half of the Glimmer Twins now began singing with new conviction.“Yeah, I see the storm is threatening my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, I’m gonna fade away.”
After "Gimme Shelter," Sir Mick exhorted the 350,000 breathlessly: “Are we okay, I know we are . Are y’havin a good time? OHH-yeah!” He took another shot of Jack Daniels. “Well, there’s been a few hang-ups you know, but I mean generally you’ve been beau-ti-ful – you’ve been so groovy!”
The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World wrapped the set up with their “Street Fighting Man” swansong.
Then they made a run for the ambulance which had come too late for Hunter.
Jumping from it into an awaiting chopper, Richards yelled, “They’re sick, man — they’re worse than the cops!”
“I’d rather have had cops!” Jagger shot back.
The Stones left for London the next day, escaping the process-server who tried to serve them Wrongful Death suit papers from Hunter’s mother, Altha. The band lawyers attempted to have her $500,000 lawsuit thrown out on a technicality. When the effort failed, Jagger & co. offered Altha $10,000. She accepted.
Meanwhile, the five Stones had attended a private viewing of their vanity documentary, "Gimme Shelter." After the climactic Altamont footage, they left the theater expressionless and without a word.
Since the event 40 years ago, the Stones have said little. But, when pressed, the ever candid Keith once explained: “For all the control you have over an audience, it doesn’t mean you can control the murders.”
Then he added: “What is evil?… Everybody’s Lucifer.”
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