EDITOR’S NOTE: Forty-eight years ago, on December 6, 1969, 18 year old Meredith Hunter was killed by the Hell’s Angels at the foot of the stage while the Rolling Stones played a free concert at Altamont Speedway for an audience of 300,000 people. The following excerpt from Saul Austerlitz’s forthcoming book, Just A Shot Away: Peace, Love and Tragedy With The Rolling Stones At Altamont describes in graphic detail that awful moment in the dying light of the 1960s.
ROLLING STONE: The Rolling Stones finally appeared, and for a brief moment, a sense of relief spread through the speedway. The Stones would undoubtedly cool off the overheating crowd, get them back to concentrating on the music, and return the focus where it belonged. “Oh, babies,” Mick Jagger addressed the crowd. “There’s so many of you. Just keep cool down in front and don’t push around. Just keep still, keep together.” Jagger, resplendent in a red cape knotted around his neck and a ruffled orange-and-black silk shirt, had the presence, and the confidence, it seemed, to instantly reorient the crowd in the direction he wanted.
Keith Richards, his rhinestone-studded orange shirt left unbuttoned, his black sunglasses clipped to his T-shirt, fingered the opening notes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and the rest of the band fell in, determined to bash their way through this.
The unrest in the crowd, agitated by the Hells Angels, continued unabated. “If we are all one,” Jagger announced, “let’s show we’re all one.” Jagger called for a doctor to come up front, next to the scaffolding, and Mick Taylor snuck a quick drag off the cigarette stuck into the fretboard of his guitar before launching the languorous melody line of “Under My Thumb.” The song felt stretched out now, elongated to encompass the crowd, the night, the enormity of this moment.
Meredith Hunter was intent on staking his claim to the Stones, and Bredehoft was there because he wanted her to stand with him. He had climbed onto one of the speaker boxes set up just next to the stage, in search of the best view, and the modicum of protection it granted.
As the drums entered once more, and Jagger repeatedly intoned the line “I pray that it’s all right,” another space ominously began to clear in the audience below. The huge mass of people near the stage was now disintegrating, crumbling under the weight of the fear sweeping its ranks. The Hells Angels swooped into the crowd, a leather-clad phalanx wading into the morass, and the fans in their vicinity rapidly backpedaled, seeking daylight from whomever or whatever had sparked the Angels’ ire.
A hefty Hells Angel jerked roughly on Hunter’s ear and hair, chuckling all the while at his daring as he yanked Hunter down from the speaker box and onto the ground alongside him. Hunter shook off the Angel, and the Angel grabbed him by the arm and hand. Hunter pulled back, and the Angel punched him in the mouth.
When Bredehoft glanced in his direction, having missed the opening beats of the skirmish, she thought she saw Hunter turning around and being approached by first one Angel, and then two or three more. The Angels knocked Hunter to the ground, and he leapt up, intent on defending himself against their assault.
Hunter attempted to flee into the crowd. The Angel then leapt off the stage and chased after Hunter, joined by four of his fellow bikers. They stepped on bystanders’ fingers and feet in their haste to pursue him. Five bikers surrounded one teenager, assaulting him without justification or fear of interruption, as on so many other occasions that day. Meredith Hunter pushed the crowd away from him in his desperate flight from the Angels, looking fiercely at his tormentors in a doomed attempt to scare them off.
Meredith Hunter was in flight from the Hells Angels who had beaten him. He had watched the pool cues raining down on concertgoers all day, had seen the manic glee with which the bikers had beaten others for the crime of enjoying themselves. He had undoubtedly noticed, as well, the viciousness with which the Angels had singled out other African-Americans. What thoughts must have surged through his mind in the moments during which he desperately sought to escape their frenzied grip?
Perhaps, too, the methamphetamine Hunter had taken during the day had lowered his inhibitions, and dulled the innate caution that anyone would have when surrounded by weapon-wielding bikers.
Reaching into the pocket of his suit jacket, he pulled out his pistol and held it up in the air. Both his arms were spread, with his left hand, clutching the gun, outstretched in the direction of the stage. Bredehoft shouted at Hunter not to shoot. She grabbed at Hunter, then turned, spun around by the momentum of the fracas. Hunter was still running away, even as he began to lower his gun. A short, stocky Angel named Alan Passaro, wearing a sleeveless light-brown vest with a “FRISCO” patch over the left breast jumped on him from behind, grabbing at his arm. The biker almost rode on his back as he raised his arm over his head and brought his knife down in a long, curving arc, stabbing Hunter twice. Bredehoft was now alone in the empty circle cleared out by the fearful audience as Hunter was carried away from her.
The momentum of the scuffle carried Meredith Hunter toward the nearby scaffolding, where he disappeared from sight, surrounded by Hells Angels intent on teaching him a lesson. The Hells Angel stabbed Hunter no less than four more times, his knife repeatedly piercing his back. Hunter, wounded, dropped to his knees. The Hells Angel gripped him by the shoulders and kicked him in the face, over and over. The Angels surrounded him in a loose circle, pounding him with their boots until he collapsed face-forward. The Angels punched and kicked Meredith as they dragged him away from the stage and toward the scaffolding. Hunter fell to the ground, and bumped against some part of the scaffolding, perhaps its pillars. Hunter softly told his attackers, his strength already beginning to fade, “I wasn’t going to shoot you.”
Bredehoft grabbed the jacket of one Angel near her, attempting to pull him off her boyfriend, but he simply threw his arms back, shrugging her off without lifting a hand to her. The Angels were now locked in on Hunter, and Bredehoft’s efforts were incapable of distracting them from their vigilante justice.
Meredith Hunter was in front of them and under their feet, and something had enraged them, something had set the Hells Angels into a frenzied motion that would not be sated. Any threat that Hunter’s gun might have posed had long since been quelled, but the assault went on until he was battered and bruised and completely still.
One of the Angels grabbed a cardboard garbage can with a metal rim and proceeded to bash it against Hunter’s skull. He then dropped the garbage can and, joined by his fellow bikers, kicked Hunter repeatedly in the head. The Angel who had stabbed him, not yet done with Hunter, stood on top of his battered head for a full minute before finally stepping back. “Don’t touch him,” he told a bystander who had been watching the fight. “He’s going to die anyway.” MORE