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The Rolling Stones at Altamont: What Went Wrong?

"I don't think the Rolling Stones, as a group, have acted honorably," ex-road manager Sam Cutler says of the aftermath of the tragedy-marred free concert

The Rolling Stones perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
April 30, 1970

SAN FRANCISCO — 21-year-old Hell's Angel has been indicted for the murder of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stones' disastrous free concert at Altamont.

Alameda County District Attorney Lowell Jensen announced the March 24th arrest of Alan David Passaro, who was taken into custody at Soledad Prison, where he was already serving a term for grand theft and sale of grass. Jensen said Passaro was out on bail, awaiting trial on those charges, the day of the concert. He has since been transferred to the Alameda County Jail, where he is being held without bail on the murder charge.

Passaro has a long prison record dating back to 1963 in Antioch, when he was arrested for auto theft and sent to Juvenile Hall. He has been arrested six times in the past, four of them resulting in convictions. At the time of his arrest for murder, he was serving time for back-to-back convictions in June and July of 1969 in San Jose.

According to Alameda County Sheriff Lt. James Chisholm and Detective Sergeant Robert Donovan, their three-month investigation included interviews with more than 1000 people. The key evidence, they said, was footage by crews of the Maysles Brothers, who filmed the entire concert for their documentary on the Stones tour. Several crews had the murder on film.

At almost the same time as the Grand Jury indictment. San Francisco attorney Ephraim Margolin, who was representing the Hunter family in a possible lawsuit, pulled out of the case. Allan Brotsky, a member of attorney Charles Garry's law firm, is considering taking on the case for the Hunter family, who have yet to hear a word from the Stones or any of their representatives. (Garry is best known as the Black Panthers' attorney.)

There was some surprise at the indictment. Many say some sort of hands-off deal exists between the Alameda County Sheriffs and the Angels, and the manner in which the investigation dragged on seemed to indicate little was being done by the law. Now, there is speculation that more indictments may come down, since Hunter was brutally stomped before the actual knifing.

The Alameda County Coroner's report on Hunter, the 18-year-old Berkeley black who was one of four to die that dreary December 6th at Altamont Raceway, also confirms that he was beaten as well as stabbed. While the cause of death is listed as shock and hemorrhage due to multiple stab wounds, the report also lists no less than nine head abrasions large enough to be classed as wounds.

There are five stab wounds listed on the back of the body, nine on the head, and two on the neck. (The "wounds" listed on the arms and inside of the elbow are actually needle-marks, consistent with the finding of 1.0 MG% of methamphetamine in the urine and 0.1 MG% of amphetamine in the liver.)

"Shock and hemorrhage" means that blood flowed to one particular part of Hunter's body after he was stabbed, thereby causing what is known as "blood shock," or just "shock." This might not have been fatal but for the fact that the pulmonary artery, the one that supplies blood to the lungs, was severed by one of the stab wounds, thereby causing the hemorrhage. The viciousness of the knifing is best seen in the stab wounds themselves, which ranged from two and three-quarters to four and one-quarter inches in depth.

Forthcoming from Rolling Stone will be a new inquiry into many of the unanswered questions from Altamont. While much of what went on down there is still a mystery, some things have become more clear in the last four months.

The Rolling Stones, 1963-1969: Behind-the-Scenes Snapshots

Sam Cutler, the Stones' road manager for their American tour, returned to San Francisco two months after Altamont to tell the whole story, as he saw it. There are several things to keep in mind in reading Cutler's comments. The first is that, because he is no longer with the Stones, he isn't acting as their apologist. Also, he was there for the whole tour, for all the wheeling and dealing, including the free concert. So he should know what goes on. Finally, he has his own ass to look out for, too.

"You can say the main threat to the Stones was the Angels. Undoubtedly, there were a few Angels that would have been only too happy to do Jagger – and me – but equally there were a whole bunch of people in the crowd who would have been only too happy to do the same thing. It was such a weird trip. It was a violent, heavy, downer, black trip. Evil," Cutler summarized.

The man Cutler keyed on, however, was John Jaymes, whose role in the Stones' organization had never been made clear – for good reason, as it turned out. Jaymes seemed to be everywhere on the tour, like he was running it single-handed or something. Who is he?

"John Jaymes is a nobody," Cutler says. "He's not the business manager of the Rolling Stones, he never has been and he never will be, though he has been represented that way. John Jaymes is like a crass hustler. I mean, like one comes in and says, Ok, this is what I've got to offer, right, and I'll give it to you, and although I'm not extorting a promise from you to do anything about it, it would be groovy if you could see your way towards doing this, right?

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones

"Well, that's John Jaymes. John Jaymes came on the tour – the reason he came to Los Angeles was because the Chrysler Corporation had managed to have 18 cars for the Stones' use in Los Angeles, which we've lost, man. We couldn't locate. We found three of them or something. We rented 18 different cars and we could find three. So Chrysler sent their public relations man, the You Could Be Dodge Material man, John Jaymes. So this fat, very monstrous, very archetypal American . . . arrives from Young American Enterprises, right? Who – as far as I've been able to establish – own the advertising rights to the fickle finger of fate, Laugh-In – they own all the concessions for Laugh-In. So they sell ten million fucking plastic fickle fingers of fate.

"Jaymes is bad karma to boot. From Los Angeles to when we arrive in New York, he builds this incredible kind of trip like The Man Who Can Get Everything Done with a minimal amount of problems. Well, that really wore thin, because in fact it wasn't true. He'd gotten six members of the New York Narcotics Bureau – full members, man. This is John Jaymes' trip: he can get you a bent cop when he wants to. I didn't want bloody narcotics agents from New York with loaded guns standing around behind the Rolling Stones on stage. That's your East Coast Mafia bullshit trip. John Jaymes' partner has just retired from 20 years on the New York Narcotics Bureau. Leave the rest of it up to you. You work it all out. I mean, it's such a fucking rotten trip, it's incredible," Cutler said.

Jaymes is a man with connections, then, and it was through these connections that he was able to secure Golden Gate Park in San Francisco for the concert. He struck out. Cutler and Rock Scully of the Dead were in a bind now, because they'd been doing nothing while Jaymes took care of everything. There were no permit applications for the park, so now there was no site for the concert. Then, Cutler recalled, the City came up with three possible sites, all of them owned by the Bank of America, two of them "fucking useless." The third, Deer Island near Novato in Marin County, 35 miles north of San Francisco, turned out to be just fine, but the bank was asking for too much bread.

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The Rolling Stones perform at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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