In the Aftermath of Altamont

Footage of the fatal stabbing of Meredith Hunter emerges

Rolling Stones Altamont Hells Angels
Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
A girl lies in front of the stage at The Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California on December 6, 1969.
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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.

The Rolling Stones Disaster At Altamont: Let It Bleed

"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.

The coroner says there were five stab wounds. The film accounts for only two, once again suggesting the possibility that Hunter may have been stabbed earlier.

Then Angels and others carry Hunter away.

According to Bibb, the killer splits immediately after the other Angels gather around Hunter and is not seen again in another frame. No telling where he went.

In one frame, just before he is jumped, there is an unmistakable orange flash at the end of the pistol, Bibb adds. It lasts only for this one frame. Bibb is not saying this is a gunshot, and he's not saying it's not. It might be, say, a reflection off someone's watch or glasses. "The Angels say there was a shot fired," says Bibb. "I can't tell you. It's impossible, really, to tell what it is. None of us heard a shot."

Bibb was eager to make one point: "This film is not going to exploit the killing. We had decided before Altamont to do a film, before we had seen any film of the killing or any of that. It doesn't hinge on the murder. We don't want to exploit the sensationalism of the thing."

The arrangement with the Stones is that they and the Maysles own the film 50-50 and are co-producing it. The Stones will help with the editing, but the Maysles have creative control over the cutting. This should begin before February.

There will be, in addition to the Altamont scenes, footage from the tour in New York, Boston, Florida, and the recording studio sessions in Muscle Shoals.

David Maysles was quoted in Rolling Stone's first Altamont story as telling one of his camera-men not to shoot one especially grotesque scene, to seek out good vibes instead. It's true, he did say that, according to Maysles executive producer Porter Bibb, but that was before the Maysles had truly grasped that ugliness and violence was the true nature of the day.

"We want to make it clear," Bibb said repeatedly, "that this film is going to be about violence — about the relationship between the Stones and their American audience, and about the relationship of both to violence."

It was understood that Allen Klein, the Stones' manager, was going to make some sort of statement concerning Altamont on January 12th. But it never happened, and Klein was said to be en route to England, unavailable for comment, the following day.

Neither did anyone have anything to say about the insurance policy the Stones were said to have taken to pay for any damages during the concert. Plenty of ranchers whose fences were brought down, people whose heads were split, and so on, would like to know about that one.

Though Sam Cutler, who was responsible for paying the Angels $500 worth of beer to police Altamont, claims he's just been taking it easy since Altamont — "my part in it is finished, it's up to others to take care of the left-over details" — Sheriff's investigators have spoken with him twice, it is learned.

Detectives Chisholm and Donovan, who are pursuing the murder case for the Alameda County sheriff's department, say it's very nearly together enough to be presented to the District Attorney and the Grand Jury. They have two eye-witnesses, including Patty Bredahoff, Hunter's girlfriend, and are eager to get in touch with the eyewitness quoted in the last issue of Rolling Stone, since his testimony would make their case that much stronger.

The eyewitness, who preferred to remain anonymous, fearing that the killer and his friends might get him, should be aware that he is one of several who saw it happen, and would not stand alone, and therefore has, the detectives feel, little to fear. To reach them, the phone number is 483-6520.

"It looks good," says Donovan of the information they've got. Asked whether it was an Angel who killed Meredith Hunter, Donovan said that was "reasonable to assume." Porter Bibb, of the Maysles organization, says the killer is quite recognizable in profile, in full face, and in three-quarter view. Donovan agrees (though Rock Scully, one of the Grateful Dead's managers, has seen the same footage repeatedly and claims identification would be very difficult).

One weird Altamont story has to do with a young Berkeley filmmaker who claims to have gotten 8 mm footage of the killing. He got home from the affair Saturday and began telling his friends about his amazing film. His house was knocked over the next night, completely rifled. The thief ripped off only his film, nothing else.

Another far-out (and unconfirmed, because the Angels are not talking with the press) report from someone close to the Angels was that they were in possession of Meredith Hunter's pistol, wanted to turn it over to the Sheriff's investigators — obviously, it would be useful to establish self-defense — but didn't know how to go about doing it. If true, the Angels evidently solved their own problem. It is learned that investigators have had the gun since shortly after New Year's.

Mrs. Alta Mae Anderson, Meredith Hunter's mother, still had not been contacted by anyone involved with the free concert by January 5th, when she appeared before the Alameda County Planning Commission to request that the Altamont Raceway, where Hunter was killed, be turned into a public park.

"My son's blood is on the land," she said, "and I would like to see the land serve a useful purpose for the youth of Southern Alameda County. I cannot bring my son back, but by your action you may prevent any more wrongful deaths at Altamont."

In the end, the commission voted to allow the speedway to continue holding races, but barred any future rock and roll events, and limited the number of spectators to 3,000.

One sympathetic mother whose own teenage son was only a few feet from the killing, Mrs. Cayren King, of Oakland, put Mrs. Anderson in touch with Ephraim Margolin, a respected (and tough) San Francisco civil liberties attorney, to represent her interests in the trial that is (reasonably) certain to come.

Meanwhile, many were growing impatient with the length of time it's taken for the District Attorney to move. He hasn't moved yet. Some claim that Alameda County authorities do not want to damage the fragile truce which exists between police and Hell's Angels.

But Rock Scully said it would be a "drag if it has to go through a courtroom scene." He has tried to put Altamont out of his mind, to concentrate on more positive matters. But Scully, the man who worked with Stones road manager Sam Cutler on advance preparations before the Stones' higher managerial echelons arrived in the Bay Area, says everybody he knows "is still upset about the whole thing."

"We were all dupes," he says, rather cryptically. "The thing wasn't ever straight. Everybody got had."

Having met with the Angels a couple of times, Scully says they don't dig having the film shown, because they feel it would be exploitation of the Angels.

(Another source says that the Maysles showed the film to the Angels in San Francisco, privately, and that the Angels' leaders demanded $6000 each for nine different California chapters. A total of $54,000. No confirmation on this from the Maysles. The Angels are said to have demanded the money or else . . .)

In any case, Scully now feels that the whole thing was a disaster, and feels foolish, in a way, about his participation in it.

"The Stones, man," he says, "they wrote the script. They got what they paid for. Let it bleed, man. There's never gonna be another one like it. Anybody should have seen this would have happened — this whole trip, man — if somebody tried to buy another Woodstock. We should have seen it, but we couldn't see that."

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

From The Archives Issue 51: February 7, 1970