$11 Million Lawsuit Filed Over Rolling Stones' Free Altamont Concert

Attorneys file suit against Sears Point International Raceway, Inc., and Filmways. Inc., for breaking their agreement to allow the Stones to use Sears Point for the festival.

hells angels, mick jagger, keith richards, rolling stones, altomont speedway
Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones warily eye the Hells Angels onstage at The Altamont Speedway on December 6th, 1969 in Livermore, California.
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San Francisco — Attorneys involved in setting up the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont have announced filing of an $11 million lawsuit against Sears Point International Raceway, Inc., and Filmways. Inc., for allegedly breaking their agreement to allow the Stones to use Sears Point for the festival.

It all appears to be one very sick theatrical stunt pulled off to gain publicity for San Francisco junior jet-set attorney Melvin Belli and for Young American Enterprises and Stones Promotions Ltd., the two plaintiffs who together call themselves The Rolling Stones Free Concert.

The Stones themselves seem to be no more than pawns in the game.

Joint press conferences were staged here, in New York and in London, and Belli spoke via telephone from Johannesburg, South Africa. The Stones actually have nothing to do with the lawsuit being filed in their name, a confession made by John Jaymes of Young American, who chaired the New York press conference in his office. Ron Schneider of Stone Promotions was in London, and one of Belli's partners, Vasilios Choulos, made the announcement at the Belli Building here.

The suit centers around the fact that until just hours before the actual event, the concert was to be held at Sears Point, north of San Francisco in Sonoma County. However, at the last minute Filmways — which owns Sears Point — demanded either a lot of money or rights to the film that was being made of the concert. The Stones' management wouldn't go along with that, and moved the concert across the Bay to Altamont Speedway. There followed one of the blackest days in rock and roll history, and this lawsuit is at least in part an attempt by Schneider and Jaymes to bail themselves out on that one.

But the lawsuit itself is almost incidental to the various shenanigans accompanying it. The Stones themselves are being exploited unmercifully; three days after the press conference, Jaymes admitted to Rolling Stone that the band was upset about a UPI story in the New York Times that listed them as plaintiffs.

He also confessed that the Stones had nothing to do with the lawsuit — it was "a business proposition" so that he and Schneider could recover the losses they'd incurred when the site was switched to Altamont. What emerged from the smooth talking at the New York conference was a clear picture of buck-passing and publicity-seeking.

According to Jaymes, Young American handled the "promotion, logistics and security" for the Stones' U.S. tour, and has been in the youth marketing and concert promotion business since 1966. Stone Promotions Ltd., he said, is wholly owned by Ron Schneider, who is now handling 80 percent of the Stones' business and will soon handle it all. Which is another whole story in itself, because if it's true, that means Allen Klein, longtime business manager of the Stones, is on his way out.

Jaymes said that his firm's services to the Stones ended November 30th, but when the Grateful Dead organization (he meant Sam Cutler, Mike Lang, and Chip Monck as well as the Dead people) were unable to get a site in San Francisco, Schneider asked him to step back in.

"All I had to do was to get a site, take care of the insurance, and see that the money was there," Jaymes said. He believes that had his own people handled the original negotiations with San Francisco officials, the concert could have been held in a park here.

That's because his company has a consultant in Buffalo named Mariano Lucca who is close to S. F. Mayor Joseph Alioto. "He is a little 78-year-old man who does everything for the cause," Jaymes chuckled, adding that "the cause" was making sure everyone knew Columbus discovered America.

Jaymes told the New York reporters that from the money he hopes to win on this suit, he will be able to pay out on suits filed against him because of the Altamont disaster. Foremost, he said, is a $2 million action brought by the mother of Meredith Hunter, the black man killed there.

He said that while he's not sure whether to call it "murder or justifiable homicide," the Maysles Bros. have film footage showing Hunter rushing the stage with a gun and shouting something about killing whitey. "But," Jaymes interjected, "he's still a lovely boy as far as his mother's concerned."

It's a bullshit charge which the film does not bear out. And where Jaymes got the figure of $2 million is a mystery, because the attorney for the Hunter family says he hasn't filed suit yet.

Additionally, he said, there is a $500,000 suit brought by a farmer in the area claiming the concert emotionally disturbed his cows. Residents of the Altamont area had brought another $300,000 worth of claims against the concert, but Jaymes says they settled out of court for $7000 cash. He made another cash outlay of $50,000 to repair fences and damages to the speedway.

Jaymes also claimed at the press conference that he has a tape recording of an oral contract between Sears Point and Filmways people and himself and Schneider. He didn't play it, however.

At the San Francisco press conference, the theatrics were even thicker. After Choulos has announced the lawsuit, he fielded a few questions himself, answering each one with an appropriate cliche.

"This suit of ours will clear the air," he said. "There's been lots said and written about the concert, and this suit will develop what happened at Altamont. If there's responsibility, we'll find out where it rests. Filmways acted fraudulently, and it cost the plaintiffs a great deal of money. Sears Point was so well organized and planned out the festival would have been great. What happened at Altamont was a direct result of Filmways' actions, and litigation is a necessary action in this case."

Then he got Jaymes on the phone in New York to talk to the San Francisco press. Jaymes basically reiterated the same cliches, and said that had the festival been held at Sears Point, there would have been no trouble.

"Does that mean the Hell's Angels wouldn't have been there if it had been at Sears Point?" a reporter asked.

"I sincerely doubt that they wouldn't have been there," Jaymes replied. "But at Sears Point we had it worked out so we could have controlled their assembly into the area. We don't know what they were doing there; we didn't ask them to come. Someone just asked them to come and they took the stage."

Which is also bullshit because it was determined and confirmed long ago that the Angels were there as security at the request of Sam Cutler, the Stones' road manager.

After Jaymes got off the phone. Choulos and his staff started trying to reach Belli by phone in Johannesburg. As Let It Bleed played in the background, the press sat around waiting. Finally, the call got through.

Belli then said over the phone that Filmways "was trying to hold up the Rolling Stones with the deal they demanded. We ran into problems as soon as we had to break one contract and move." That said, the real reason for the press conference and phone call became clear as Belli started charming the local reporters.

"Say, I need some of that green ointment for the crabs right away," he told Choulos.

"It's not green, Mel, it's kinda violet and there'll be some for you in the mail special delivery tonight," Choulos promised. "All the reporters here send you their love, by the way."

"Well, tell them not to send me too much, because I've got more than I can handle right here already," Belli answered.

"You don't know what's in this room right now," Choulos responded, gazing around at the lady reporters present.

"You don't know what's lying here right now!" Belli shot back.

It was so fucking pathetic.

Contacted by telephone at his New York office after the press conference, Klein said, "I know the Stones are not a part of this. They have nothing to do with the lawsuit."

Klein said that during the Stones' tour Young American was "hired to get transportation," and that he had never met Jaymes. He dismissed all claims that Schneider was taking over management of the Stones. Schneider, he said, is his nephew.

Was all of this just a publicity stunt for Young American Enterprises and Melvin Belli?

"I think you're absolutely right," replied Klein.

Perhaps the reason Jaymes and his gang are very anxious to come out of Altamont with a clean record is because they plan to do a five-day rock festival in July in the New York area. Although he (again) couldn't supply any details, he said in a phone conversation with Rolling Stone that it would be different from any previous festivals. Everything would be kept completely under control, he said, by emptying the town (unnamed) of its residents and sealing it off with ticket-taking checkpoints which would be set up around the area.

The lawsuit, by the way, is for $500,000 general damages, $500,000 special damages, and $10 million in exemplary damages.

This is a story from the March 7, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 53: March 7, 1970