The girlfriend and I caught the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter on IFC the other night. It’s about the disastrous Rolling Stones show at Altamont in 1969, and it’s very good as those things go. There’s a lovely bit of moral catatonia from the Grateful Dead, who arrive to be informed that there have been scuffles and that Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin, trying to break up a fight, has managed to get himself knocked unconscious. “Oh bummer,” Jerry Garcia says. “Beating people up like that…that just doesn’t seem right,” Bob Weir adds.
But the most interesting part has to do with Meredith Hunter. You all remember Meredith Hunter, right? He’s the 18-year-old teenager who was set upon and stabbed to death by a bloodthirsty mob of Hell’s Angels, high on bad acid and the $500 worth of beer they were paid to provide security for the show. Hunter, the 60s martyr whose death marked the beginning of the end of Flower Power. Except that’s not what happened at all. In the movie Mick Jagger watches the crucial footage in slo-mo, and it is clear that Hunter rushes the stage and pulls a gun before any Hell’s Angel lays a hand on him. He may also fire a shot. There is a brief orange flash in the film but it is inconclusive, and eyewitness reports differ. What is absolutely clear is that Hunter started it; whether he should have been stabbed five times is of course another question. Yet to this day many accounts of Altamont, like this one or this one, don’t even mention the gun. Others claim Hunter pulled it in self-defense, which the movie clearly contradicts, or not at all. I confess that neither the girlfriend nor I knew the gun even existed, and I doubt we were the last two.
This description from Dick Carter, owner of the Altamont Speedway, jibes in every particular with what you see in Gimme Shelter:
Most of the books and articles about Altamont are filled with bull. Like the Hell’s Angels were the only security, and they were hired for $500 worth of beer. We had every off-duty police officer available and every security guard in Northern California there. There were about 17 Angels who came to the concert because they were in Oakland for a convention. Sam Cutler, the Stones’ manager, asked if the Angels would escort the Stones through the crowd on motorcycle and then sit around the stage during the show to protect the band. We had purchased $500 worth of beer for the bands, and Cutler told the Angels they could have some.
The Angels were blamed for the death of Meredith Hunter. But that kid was waving a gun and screaming that he was going to shoot Mick Jagger. One of the Angels jumped his back, after Hunter fired a shot at the stage, and stabbed him with a knife several times. The audience was going to tear Hunter limb from limb, but the Angels formed a circle around him and got him out of the crowd and into a bread truck where he could be moved to get medical attention. He died in the racetrack office, but the Angels tried to save him.
A few days later, the district attorney of Alameda called me and said that I was going to be blamed for the murder of Hunter, along with the Hell’s Angels and the Rolling Stones. I said, ‘For crying out loud, the kid had a gun, it was self-defense! You can see the gun on the film from the concert!’ The DA told me I needed to produce the gun. So I tracked down Sonny Barger [a prominent Angel] by calling every lawyer in the phone book. He said he would make some calls, that one of three Angels might still have the pistol. Later that day he called me and said, ‘We have the gun.’ So I called the attorney, Melvin Belli, who told me to bring it to him in a shoebox. The charges were dropped after that.
The three people besides Hunter who died at Altamont were not violent, merely stupid. Two were run over while sleeping, and one drowned in an irrigation ditch.