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

Enter (again) Jaymes and Schneider, who have discovered Sears Point International Raceway. Which, it turns out, is owned by Filmways, which also own Concert Associates; the latter had presented the Stones in Los Angeles, and complained about the hard bargain the Stones drove on their contracts. Just when the site is almost set up for the concert, Cutler says, Filmways decides to claim 50 percent of the film revenues. Thus, another deal falls through.

In almost no time, some more wheeling and dealing brought them Altamont. Scully and Cutler arrived at the new site to view it for the first time just twenty hours before Santana's set was to begin. Scully almost croaked right there, but Cutler felt the show must go on regardless of the inherent ugliness of the site, and by 10 AM Saturday, the PA was set up and the stage had been moved over from Sears Point.

That, Cutler felt in retrospect, had been a big mistake; the stage built for Sears Point was to be on a hill-top. It was obviously inadequate for Altamont, but time was too short to build one right.

"One of the biggest mistakes – which we could do nothing about – is that the whole thing would have been very cool if we'd had a twelve-foot high stage, with one set of steps at the back," he says now.

But they never seriously considered cancelling, he admitted, because," . . . the energy that had been going all the time was a kind of buoyant, vibrant energy, and it was also a very powerful one.

"I think it disintegrated because no one knew how to handle the fact that the Stones had decided to come and play for free, quote, quote, in San Francisco. No one knew how to handle it. No one knew how to handle it, and I don't think I knew how to handle it. We did our best. But we got caught up in the bullshit."

The Rolling Stones on the Cover of Rolling Stone

That nobody knew how to handle it was obvious by the manner in which the Hell's Angels completely took over the festival. Even today, Cutler still doesn't like to talk about the Angels; it looks like he's becoming a San Francisco resident, and people in San Francisco don't generally criticize the Hell's Angels publicly because it's neither cool nor healthy.

Or, as Cutler explains it, "I'm not putting the Angels down at all. There's no doubt, for example, that the Angels – that a lot of cats got hurt that didn't deserve to get hurt. Because they were in the way . . . The Angels had a bum trip on 'em. No doubt about that – they like walked into it. There ain't no doubt about that either. Right in the beginning a number of Angels tried to sort it out as best they could and it just got worse and worse for them. And it just got blacker and blacker and blacker. Talk to the Angels. You'll find 20 Angels out of the 300 or however many were there who had a groovy time. They were the 20 who stayed at the Angels bus. The rest of them had a total bummer."

The exact nature of the understanding between the Angels and the concert promoters, if indeed there was any understanding, is still uncertain. Cutler admits the Angels were given $500 worth of beer by the Stones, but insists they were not hired as security. They were told it was going to be a party, and, presumably, the beer was to make them more festive.

According to Cutler, prior to the festival, "I asked how one deals with the different groups in this area. If you're organizing a thing for 300,000 people, how do you deal with 300,000 people? What do the Angels want, what does anybody want out of it? So as part of this process of finding out, we went to see the Angels. Rock Scully and I and Emmett Grogan went to see the Angels.

"Now the Angels didn't want anything out of it. The Angels aren't cops; they wouldn't police an event, and nobody would invite them to."

The obvious question, then, is how they ended up in that role. To which Cutler only replies that they did even though nobody expected them to, and that he didn't want any police in any form for the concert.

"The only Angels I ever talked to were the San Francisco Angels," he claims. "They were coming to a party. And it was clearly understood between them and me and Rock and everyone else that it was a party. That's what we wanted it to be."

But the Angels definitely were given $500 worth of beer – "Five hundred bucks? Peanuts. What's five hundred bucks to the Rolling Stones? Nothing – paid for by the Stones, prior to the concert.

The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007

"The Dead have bought beer for the Angels. The Airplane have bought beer for the Angels, lots of groups have. The traditional way of making it all cool and groovy and calm and nice for the Angels and for everybody else is to get a supply of beer in; the Angels give it out and drink it and have a party at their bus. It's happened before and it's happened successfully. No reason to believe that it wouldn't happen successfully again."

Then why do the Angels claim they were hired as security?

"That's an honest misconception on their part. No one in the whole world can hire the Angels to do anything."

Cutler has now worked himself somewhat into the Grateful Dead circle, and seems to be pretty happy with them. "As people, they are real, there's no bullshit about them, there's no pop star charisma about them," he says.

"It's a sad thing that lots of things that I will say will kind of fuck up whatever kind of degree of friendship that exists between me and the Rolling Stones," he laments. "I guess that with some members of the Rolling Stones that kind of friendship is pretty low and with other members it might be a bit better, but that's life, ain't it? Or that's life with the Rolling Stones, life in the pop melee. I think it's miserable.

"I don't think the Rolling Stones, as a group, have acted honorably. They haven't acted honorably quite simply because of all the shit that's been flying, directed at me, and Mick Jagger has made no attempt, at all, to protect me. Maybe I'm old-fashioned. I believe that if I work my guts out for somebody, and make 'em a lot of bread – which I did for example at Hyde Park – from the Hyde Park concert which the Stones made $400,000 out of, that's what they got for the American film rights. I got not one penny. And I dug doing it.

"The Rolling Stones can get up and say, 'Sam Cutler is a shit,' maybe, but he's not as much of a shit as everybody's made out. Because the whole Altamont trip personally cost me a lot. It cost me, for example, the whole financing of a series of festivals I was going to do in Europe, which in fact while it's been embarrassment, is groovy, 'cause that's the last festival I want to be involved in anywhere. It's the death of festivals. Bloody good thing as well. It can go in some other direction as far as I'm concerned."

Cutler, as his remarks make obvious, was miffed at the Stones. He had sought to see Mick back in London, but his request for a meeting got shuffled aside. Finally, he got to see Jagger for 10 minutes – an "embarrassing" 10 minutes, according to Cutler, because neither could think of anything to say to the other. But Cutler does have ideas about how the Stones might begin to improve matters.

"Well, for the start they should clearly and unequivocally come out with what they're going to do with the money," he suggested. "The Maysles Brothers should quite clearly state that their half of the film is profit. In other words, that the money is not being given to anything, it's not being given to any kind of a charity or anything."

This story is from the April 30th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 57: April 30, 1970