The Hells Angels and The Altamont Concert

September 30, 2013
Altamont Speedway Concert, 1969

Altamont Speedway Concert, 1969

“Every cop is a criminal – and all the sinners saints”
So say the Rolling Stones in their hypnotic homage to “the fallen angel” in “Sympathy For The Devil”, played out in gory detail at The Altamont Speedway Concert December 6 1969. Rock pundits say “If Woodstock was the birth of rock festivals, Altamont was the death”.
From the start, everything that could go wrong went wrong. The Rolling Stones had been receiving tons of grief because of their extravagant lifestyle – for instance:

Recent Update: I review Joel Selvin’s excellent new book “Altamont – The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, And The Inside Story Of Rock’s Darkest Day” at this link:

“The festival was conceived in the first place to redeem the group’s flagging image. The press had laid into Jagger and crew, emphasizing their greed, “The stories of the Stones’ avarice spread,” journalist Robert Sam Anson reported, and critics pointed to Mick’s $250,000 townhouse, the collection of glittering Rolls Royces, “and [they] wondered how revolutionary ‘a man of wealth and taste’ could be. A token free appearance would still those critics. The concert, problems and all, was going to happen, For the Stones’ sake, it had to.”

The Stones, who would soon lose member Brian Jones in a suspicious death, were occasionally plagued with bad management. From “Inside The L.C.- The Strange and Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon”:

“Also hooking up with the Stones around that same time was Phil Kaufman, a recently-released prison buddy of Charlie Manson. Kaufman initially lived with the Manson Family after being released in March of 1968, and he thereafter remained what Kaufman himself described as a “sympathetic cousin” to Charlie. He also went to work as the Rolling Stones’ road manager for their 1968 American tour, which is the type of job apparently best filled by ex-convict friends of Charles Manson.” fills in the beginning of the problems:

“In San Francisco as part of the Maysles’ team, he realized, at a meeting at the Grateful Dead’s ranch, that “no one was in charge of obtaining a site.” Basic questions were being ignored, like “who was the lessor, who would pay for insurance, rent, etc., who was getting the permits and in what name.” He saw that the group needed a lawyer and he put the Stones’ management in touch with Melvin Belli.
Despite Belli’s involvement, the group suffered a series of canceled clearances and broken deals that led from Golden Gate Park to Sears Point to, finally, just 24 hours before the show, Altamont.”

Hiring Melvin Belli may have been part of the problem. From “The Covert War Against Rock”:

“He was not only an ambulance chaser par excellence. The legendary Melvin Belli was one of the CIA’s most trusted courtroom wonders until hypertension and cardiovascular disease claimed him on July 9, 1996. His client roster included Jack Ruby, Sirhan Sirhan, Martha Mitchell and Jim Bakker. His first high-profile client was Errol Flynn, who, according to thousands of FBI and military intelligence documents released under FOIA to biographer Charles Higham, was an avid admirer of Adolf Hitler, recruited by Dr. Hermann Friedrich Erben, an Abwher intelligence agent, to spy on the United States.”

Belli was a government “fixer”, one of a long roster of lawyers used to cover-up government misdeeds. And this is where we go down the rabbit-hole with Alice and some LSD; was the ill-fated Altamont concert intended to cast the Hippie movement in a scandalous light?
What we do know is that the CIA had indeed been involved in de-railing the runaway youth movement train. Agents were setting people up everywhere; something that continues to this day. From Wikipedia, on “Operation Chaos”:

“Operation CHAOS or Operation MHCHAOS was the code name for a domestic espionage project conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. A department within the CIA was established in 1967 on orders from President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson and later expanded under President Richard Nixon. The operation was launched under Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Richard Helms, by chief of counter-intelligence, James Jesus Angleton, and headed by Richard Ober.
When President Nixon came to office in 1969, existing domestic surveillance activities were consolidated into Operation CHAOS.[5] Operation CHAOS first used CIA stations abroad to report on antiwar activities of United States citizens traveling abroad, employing methods such as physical surveillance and electronic eavesdropping, utilizing “liaison services” in maintaining such surveillance. The operations were later expanded to include 60 officers.[3] In 1969, following the expansion, the operation began developing its own network of informants for the purposes of infiltrating various foreign antiwar groups located in foreign countries that might have ties to domestic groups.[2] Eventually, CIA officers expanded the program to include other leftist or counter-cultural groups with no discernible connection to Vietnam, such as groups operating within the women’s liberation movement.”

These covert operators began peeling away at the icons of the progressive movement; Jack and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been killed by the military-industrial complex. Any hint of progressive movements were a threat to the status quo. That included the youth movement – an unkempt leaderless wave of people that would eventually be intentionally drugged out of their potential for revolutionary change.

The Rolling Stones had hired a movie crew to film some of their concerts that year, including Altamont. Again from Salon:

“The way the film’s three directors — David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin — shape the material, the movie is a tribute to the Stones as popular artists wrapped inside a cautionary tale for the counterculture. The filmmakers crystallize the jagged contradictions that gave rise to an epochal fiasco.”

That movie became the cult classic “Gimme Shelter”. Here’s a clip from when things start going bad. The Jefferson Airplane was one of the warm-up acts, and here we see Marty Balin get knocked out by a Hells Angel and Grace Slick tries to pull it together:

The Hells Angels had been used by The Grateful Dead and other bands to provide security in the past, but at Altamont we begin to wonder if they were actually sent there to disrupt the concert. From “The Covert War Against Rock”:

“The second Big Mistake of Altamont was the hiring of Ralph “Sonny” Barger and a contingent of Hell’s Angels to keep the peace.
Barger, it has since been divulged, was an informant and hit man on the payroll of the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). When Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver fled the country for Algeria, the ATF negotiated with Barger to “bring Cleaver home in a box.” He often made deals with law enforcement in exchange for dismissal of charges against fellow Angels. Barger was even hired by federal agents to kill immigrant farm labor activist Cesar Chavez, and may well have if Barger hadn’t first been arrested by police in the Bay area on a prior homicide charge. [7]”

That story about the attempt to assassinate Cesar Chavez is confirmed in this profile of Chavez (link).

“Inside The L.C.” provides further history demonstrating that The Hells Angels were no friend of the Hippie culture:

“It was certainly no secret that the reactionary motorcycle clubs, formed by former military men, were openly hostile to hippies and anti-war activists; as early as 1965, they had brutally attacked peaceful anti-war demonstrators while police, who had courteously allowed the Angels to pass through their line, looked on. It was also known that the Angels were heavily involved in trafficking meth, a drug that was widely blamed for the ugliness that had descended over the Haight.”

Altamont 4

From Salon:

“It wasn’t unusual to see Angels at the Bay Area rock shows of the time. The Stones’ road manager, Sam Cutler, asked Rock Scully, his counterpart with the Grateful Dead, to extend the invitation. “A meeting was arranged at which it was agreed that the Angels would have an area set aside for them,” Goldstein writes. Everyone understood that the Angels would both serve as Honor Guard “and perform other, normal ‘watchdog’ functions” that they were accustomed to providing at Bay Area rock concerts …” And finally, “They would receive $500 worth of beer as a gratuity.”

So here we have The Hells Angels, fresh from beating antiwar protestors as police watched on. They were as distant from the Hippie movement as Charles Manson, wolves sent in to watch the sheep.
Now, truthfully there is no way to say the Angels were in collusion with the authorities. Bad shit was bound to happen, and people complained that there was bad acid going around which made things worse.

But here is a very revealing quote from Sam Cutler, The Stones road manager:

“…in “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a new book by Sam Cutler, former tour manager and roadie, the cops played a part.

“The feds were there, there was all kind of people, all kinds of heavy law enforcement people and they chose absolutely not to do anything during the event,” Cutler writes, according to Reuters.
He claims the authorities hoped for a disaster that would lead to public backlash against hippie types and their radical tendencies.
About a half-dozen uniformed cops were on duty but were more interested in towing away cars, Cutler reportedly says
. The Hells Angels were given security duties and, according to legend, paid $500 worth of beer for their services.
“The Rolling Stones came to play music for people, to bring people a good time, and it all went pear-shaped,” Cutler writes. “I don’t think it was the fault of the Rolling Stones.”


In the aftermath of the disastrous Altamont Speedway Concert, four people were left dead. Two men were run over by a car while they were sleeping, another drowned in an irrigation ditch. Meredith Hunter, an 18 year-old black man was stabbed to death by Hells Angel Alan Passaro. Hunter, perhaps in self defense, had pulled a gun. The murder is caught on tape, and at the end of “Gimme Shelter”, the producers show the stabbing to Mick Jagger on a video editor.

From “The Covert War Against Rock”:

“After the concert, reports Anson, “there was a mysterious shake-up in the Angel hierarchy, and the suicide of one Angel who had been particularly close to the rock scene.” Alan David Passaro, 24, one of Barger’s soldiers and an ex-convict, was charged with Hunter’s murder. But Barger himself was unapologetic.” I’m no peace creep by ny sense of the word. Ain’t nobody gonna kick my motorcycle.” [15] Passaro, already serving a prison sentence on an unrelated offense when served, was eventually acquitted on grounds of self-defense.”
The same source details an alleged grudge carried by The Angels against The Rolling Stones:

“Barger’s booze-swaggling, two-wheeling entourage were paid killers. And since the carnage at Altamont, the Hell’s Angels have twice attempted to kill the Rolling Stones. In March, 1983, a witness calling himself “Butch,” his true identity protected by the federal witness program, testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee about plots to kill the Stones. “There’s always been a contract on the band,” he admitted under questioning. There were “two attempts to kill them that I know about. They will some day. They swear they will do it.” The vendetta, Butch said, originated with the killing at the Speedway concert, and was motivated by the failure of the Stones to back the Angel prosecuted for the killing. The first attempt to assassinate the entire band took place in the mid-’70s. “They sent a member with a gun and a silencer” to a hotel where the Stones were staying. The hit-man “staked out the hotel, but [the Stones] never showed up,” said the government informant. And in 1979, the Angels’ New York chapter “were going to put a bomb in the house and blow everybody up and kill everybody at the party.” But this conspiracy sank with a cache of plastic explosives, accidentally dropped overboard from a rubber raft. Killing the Stones, he testified, was an “obsession” with the bike gang. [11]

Who in 1969 suspected that the Hell’s Angel was in reality a death squad leader in the pay of “conservative” political operatives? The swastika tattoos and gothic jewelry? Window dressing. The roughing up of peace demonstrators? The shootouts? The terrorizing of small towns? The rapings? The drugs? A refreshing break from the status quo.”


And so ended the 1960’s…

Read my review of Joel Selvin’s new book on Altamont:

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3 Responses to The Hells Angels and The Altamont Concert

  1. chris on January 25, 2014 at 5:04 am

    I hope sonny barger and his crew are already in hell

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