It was supposed to be "Woodstock West" — a free concert that would draw hundreds of thousands of fans, feature some of the biggest names in rock and solidify the still-blossoming Flower Power movement.
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was also envisioned as something that would emerge as the most famous music event in Bay Area history. It did just that, but for all the wrong reasons.
"It was just a big mess," says Rock Scully, the longtime manager of the Grateful Dead and one of the primary organizers of the festival. "But the ball was rolling and it couldn't be stopped."
Some 300,000 fans turned out Dec. 6, 1969, to the racetrack outside Livermore to see the Rolling Stones, Santana, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other acts. What they found was a venue ill-equipped to handle such a large crowd and a scene that devolved into a violent antithesis of the peaceful gathering in Woodstock, N.Y., 3½ months earlier. By the time the night was over four people were dead — two from hit-and-run accidents, one from drowning in an irrigation ditch and, most notoriously, one from repeated stab wounds at the hands of a Hells Angels member during a violent siege in front of the stage.
Forty years later, organizers and witnesses are still shaking their heads over the string of bad decisions and even worse breaks that added up to one of rock music's darkest days. While the tragedy was aired to the world in the Stones' documentary "Gimme Shelter," Scully says the 1970 film only hints at the horror that played out.
"Visually, I don't think anything could really nail down how terrible it was," Scully says. "Maybe you could get a feel about it from the movie, but my impression was it was a lot worse."
The Altamont story begins in London, where Scully had gone in mid-1969 to scout locations for a free concert featuring the Dead and Airplane. He ended up talking to the Stones, who were about to roll out on a North American tour, and were interested in doing their own free concert on the West Coast.
"They were taking some flak for their high ticket prices and I just suggested that they play in Golden Gate Park," recalls Scully, who now lives in Monterey. "That's where it all started."
Scully, who had helped put on numerous free shows in the Bay Area in the late 1960s, secured a concert permit for Golden Gate Park. One of the conditions, however, was that the concert couldn't be announced until 24 hours before showtime. Jagger, who either didn't know or didn't care about the rule, spilled the news to the media, and the permit was revoked.
Organizers found a new option in Sears Point — now Infineon Raceway — in Sonoma County, which had ample space and facilities. Work crews picked a small hilltop on which to erect a 4-foot-tall stage, which would have enabled performers to perform 10 to 15 feet above the crowd. As it turns out, that would have been a vital safety feature.
"If (the Rolling Stones) had played at Sears Point, nothing would have happened," says Dennis McNally, longtime Grateful Dead publicist.
But problems arose when it became known that the Stones were planning to use the event as a pivotal scene in "Gimme Shelter." Sears Point owners were peeved, negotiations broke down, and the festival again found itself without a home.
"We sort of felt like we got taken," says Alamo resident Bob Matthews, a recording engineer on several Dead albums who rolled tape at Altamont. "We were doing this because (the Stones) were going to do a free concert for San Francisco, which they did, but its focus was on this movie, not just on playing music."
With just two days until showtime, Altamont Speedway owner Dick Carter offered up his site and organizers began a mad scramble to ready the ill-equipped site.
By this point, the momentum to put on the concert was such that the likes of prominent San Francisco attorney Melvin Belli and Woodstock co-creator Michael Lang had signed on as organizers. But Bill Graham, the most experienced concert promoter in Northern California, wanted no part of it.
"He said it was unsafe," says Gregg Perloff, the co-founder of the Berkeley-based concert promoter Another Planet who worked alongside Graham for more than a decade. "Bill refused to promote the show."
The day of the festival, Scully recalls, was a "doomsday scenario." The venue lacked the proper medical staff, parking space and other facilities to host a crowd that size. Traffic was snarled for miles, as concertgoers simply abandoned their cars.
Arguably the most infamous decision was to invite the Hells Angels. Although the popular perception is that the bikers were hired as security, the arrangement was in reality much less formal. In exchange for $500 in beer, the Angels would park their bikes near the stage and provide a visual deterrent to anyone who might consider climbing on the equipment — much like they'd done for Grateful Dead free shows in the past.
But by the time the day's second act, Jefferson Airplane, took the stage, the scene was already beginning to unravel. The Angels and members of the increasingly unruly crowd began to fight. The film "Gimme Shelter" documents how Airplane singer Marty Balin was knocked out by an Angel.
"There were 30 to 50 (Angels), and however many hundred thousand people in front of them," McNally says. "There were a lot of very crazy, drug-addled people, because they were getting whacked and they weren't leaving."
Death of Hunter
Witnessing the security problems, the Grateful Dead decided not to play. But the show went on with performances by the Flying Burrito Brothers and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Then the Rolling Stones took the stage and within minutes, conditions further deteriorated. Fights continued breaking out between fans and Angels — and the Stones had to stop playing during the third number, "Sympathy for the Devil."
Although Jagger begged fans to "just be cool down in the front there," the scene grew uglier. Eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter reportedly tried to get onstage and was knocked back by the Angels. He returned with pistol in hand and was stabbed by Angel Alan Passaro — a scene captured in "Gimme Shelter."
Hunter died from his wounds, and autopsy reports showed that he was on methamphetamines at the time of death. Passaro was acquitted of murder charges after the jury viewed concert footage and ruled that he had acted in self-defense.
"I saw the guy, Meredith Hunter, with his gun out and I thought, 'Oh, crap, this is not good,'"" Scully says. "He was just running around the crowd — it was sick — just stepping on people. I just prayed that somebody would stop him, but who is going to wrestle a guy to the ground with a gun at a concert like that? "... Had (Passaro) not been there, there would have been havoc."
The Stones, who may or may not have known that Hunter had died, returned after the melee to play eight more songs. According to Matthews, who recorded the performance and still holds the tapes, the band delivered an inspired second set that closed with "Street Fighting Man," a song that might have rung the closing bell on the Woodstock era.
"There's more than a grain of truth to that," McNally says. "The whole point of Woodstock was, you put 400,000 people together in a somewhat stressful situation and everyone behaves beautifully. Then "... you get Altamont."
"That was such an awkward, horrible place to end up," says Scully, the anguish still evident in his voice 40 years later. "We had such lofty ideals going into the whole thing. It was awful."
Read Jim Harrington's Concert Blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.