It was perhaps rock and roll's all-time worst day, December 6th, a day when everything went perfectly wrong. Altamont remains Topic A among the musicians who were there.
After all, it's not every day that a rock and roll band's performance, let alone the Rolling Stones', is accompanied by a knifing, stomping murder within a scream of the stage.
"The violence," Keith Richards told the London Evening Standard, "just in front of the stage was incredible. Looking back I don't think it was a good idea to have Hell's Angels there. But we had them at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead.
"The trouble is it's a problem for us either way. If you don't have them to work for you as stewards, they come anyway and cause trouble.
"But to be fair, out of the whole 300 Angels working as stewards, the vast majority did what they were supposed to do, which was to regulate the crowds as much as possible without causing any trouble. But there were about 10 or 20 who were completely out of their minds — trying to drive their motorcycles through the middle of the crowds.
"Really, the difference between the open air show we held here in Hyde Park and the one there is amazing. I think it illustrates the difference between the two countries. In Hyde Park everybody had a good time, and there was no trouble. You can put half a million young English people together and they won't start killing each other. That's the difference."
While Richards was satisfying the British press with his incredibly naive view of Western civilization, Meredith Hunter lay dead.
The Maysles Brothers, the film company which had shot the whole Stones' tour, complete with its violent climax at Altamont, had gotten some remarkable footage of Hunter's killing. No less than three cameras had caught the action, and one of them had the entire sequence from the time Hunter was knifed and down, surrounded by Angels. The face of the knifesman was clear, according to Maysles executive producer Porter Bibb.
Which makes it the hottest film property of 1970. Universal Pictures has already weighed in with the highest bid, (reportedly a higher than $1,000,000.00 guarantee) and will release the movie by early summer.
The principal camera on this sequence was positioned 15 feet over the stage, on the Grateful Dead's truck, perhaps 30-35 feet from the spot where Meredith Hunter was fatally stabbed. Amazingly enough, according to Bibb, the whole sequence is perfectly exposed and perfectly in focus.
He could not let the press see it, he said, because the killer was too easily identifiable — especially by his Angels' colors on his back. If this information were to get out, Bibb and the Maysles fear they would be killed. They won't tell the cameramen's names for the same reason.
But Bibb was willing to give quite a detailed account of what's on the film, as he sees it.
For one thing, the film shows Hunter making at least two charges on the stage during the 45 minutes before his stabbing. Many others did the same that afternoon.
Then the camera picks up Hunter some 18 or 20 rows out in the front-stage audience. (According to Rolling Stone's eyewitness in our last issue, the incident began at stage left, with an Angel grabbing Hunter's head, then punching him, then chasing him into the crowd, then knifing him in the back, as Hunter ran. It would be at this point that Hunter would appear back in the crowd, about to pull his gun. Which is what happens. Sheriff's detectives investigating the killing believe — based partly upon photos subpoenaed from Rolling Stone — that Hunter was at stage left, and was chased back to where the Maysles cameras pick him up.)
A pair of white men, one of them an Angel, run by Hunter, the black man. The Angel apparently brushes his arm. It looks as if Hunter is trying to brush something away where the Angel bumped him. He makes a face at the stage (perhaps a grimace), sticks out his tongue, and, as the lights catch his eyes, they look glazed.
With his right hand he reaches within his lime green suit coat — the look on his face is extremely agitated — and pulls a dark object out of his pocket. Simultaneously, he begins lurching forward, but unevenly, so it's difficult to tell what he's doing.
Six or eight Hell's Angels, who are standing at the front of the stage, start toward him, forming what looks like a protective football cup in reverse. A semi-circular cup facing Hunter.
A white girl in a white knit overblouse grabs Hunter's right arm, and appears to be shouting at him. There is a soundtrack, but none of this can be heard, for the Stones are into "Sympathy for the Devil" at high volume. (The girl is evidently Hunter's girlfriend, Patty Bredahoff, who affirms that she was wearing a white knit overblouse. She has been instructed to give no interviews by the sheriff's men, and is following orders. Except to tell Rolling Stone that she has no recollection of tugging at Hunter's arm.)
Hunter brushes the girl aside. She grabs his left arm. He keeps on walking, dragging her forward.
The Angels begin to close in on him.
"It seems," says Bibb, "to last a thousand years, but it's maybe only five seconds."
For one fleeting moment, Hunter brings his right arm across the girl's white dress, in the camera's line of sight. There seems clearly to be the outline of a gun, though there's no detail on the object itself.
For that moment, the girl is the center of the action, frantically trying to pull Hunter away.
The crowd steps back.
Behind the semi-circle of Angels, between the stage and their backs, another Angel appears. Another of the cameras catches him reaching down to pick something up. It glints.
This Angel is wearing an orange bandanna around his neck — probably a handkerchief knotted at his throat — and full Angels' colors. (Meaning that he is a full brother, not a prospective joiner; it was the prospects, as they are called, who were responsible for a good portion of the earlier violence.)
A few frames later it is clear that he is holding a long silvery knife.
Suddenly he leaps through the air, over the backs of the other Angels, like a halfback slicing through the line.
His arm sweeps up to its highest reach, knife in hand, the knife once again clearly visible.
In one sweeping arc, the Angel grabs Hunter's right hand with his (the Angel's) left, spinning Hunter around so that he is facing away from the Angel, away from the stage — and — down comes the long knife, plunging deep into Hunter's right shoulder blade.
The Angel rides Hunter to the ground, knifing him at least once more on the way down, mid-back.
It's a classic street-fighter's move, beautifully executed.
And that is the last we see of Hunter for a long two minutes or so, as the Angels gather tightly around, keeping everyone else at a distance. Before Hunter disappears, blood stains can be seen widening on his suit.
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