In the Wake of Altamont: Who Hired the Hell's Angels?

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
December 18, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 62

Viewing the Remains of a Mean Saturday
by Grover Lewis

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the morning of December 10, a scattering of friends and kin gathered in a foggy cemetery in the bedroom commuter community of Vallejo to bury Meredith Hunter, who had just turned 18. Hunter was the apparently drug-freaked young black man who'd been kicked and stabbed to death before thousands of impassive spectators during a brawl involving the Hell's Angels at the mammoth free Rolling Stones concert in the Livermore Valley five days earlier.

Hunter's murder took place, Lord save us, while the Stones were playing "Sympathy for the Devil."

At press time, no arrests had been made in connection with the slaying, although it was reliably reported that the Maysles Brothers, who were authorized to film the concert by the Stones management, had shot the grisly episode in its entirety.

Similarly, the Alameda County sheriff's department reported no leads in the search for the hit-and-run slayer of Mark Feiger and Richard Savolv, both 22 and both from New Jersey, via Berkeley. The two men were killed after the concert when an auto leaving Altamont Speedway plowed into their group, huddled around a campfire. Several other young people were critically injured in the accident.

Two days after the concert, Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland chapter of the Angels, called disc jockey Stefan Ponek at KSAN-FM, defending the Angels' strong-arm tactics at Altamont. Barger's statement was broadcast live:

"The Stones hired us to act as security for $500 worth of beer. That Mick Jagger, he used us for dupes. We were the biggest suckers of anybody. I'm not no peace creep by any sense of the word. I'm a violent cat when I gotta be, but I don't really wanna be. I'm bum-kicked by the whole trip. I don't like what happened...Some of those dudes out there, they started kicking and trying to destroy our bikes, and that made it personal. They got thumped. They got got. There ain't nobody going to kick my bike. It's my life and all I got. You love that thing better than anything in this world..."

Despite Barger's flat claim that his group had been hired by the Stones personally, the report persisted that Rock Scully, ex-manager of the Grateful Dead and himself reputedly a former outlaw biker, had made the deal with the Angels. Another report named Emmett Grogan, founder of the now defunct Diggers and an advance man for the concert, as the principal negotiator of the arrangement...

Following through on a tip from Jon Sagen, a member of the rock group West, I contacted Lauren Gonsalves, who works in the advertising department at Rolling Stone magazine. She said she'd worked for the Stones in early efforts to set up the concert, but had withdrawn when the project deteriorated in organization. She referred me to John Burks, Rolling Stone's managing editor. In a windy, rambling monologue, Burks conceded that, yes, he knew who had hired the Angels, but he hadn't yet decided what stance to take about releasing the information.

At the suggestion of Steve Pillster, who lives deep in the heart of the labyrinthine rock circus in Berkeley, I called the Grateful Dead's headquarters in Marin County. The call was accepted by a girl named Susan, who went on to identify herself as a member of the "family" called Alembic, which manufactures rock sound equipment. She said that Alembic and the Dead, who share the same quarters, had held a joint meeting early in the week and unanimously agreed not to discuss the question of who had hired the Angels. At the mention of the Stones, Susan painted it emphatically black: "The Stones screwed us all over royally. The Dead paid us all of their own expenses to fly to Altamont and back by helicopter, and then they weren't allowed to play. They put out money that hasn't been reimbursed, and now they're flat broke. The Stones are just not nice people, you know? I guess you should expect shit like that from the Angels -- they're totally devoted to violence...One of them, Terry the Tramp, was nice to those of us who were working on sound, but the majority of those dudes were just crumby animals. They felt righteous about what they were doing, I guess -- sanctioned, sort of. The whole bunch of them stayed around the bandstand until 4 a.m., getting drunker and drunker and punching out anyone who got in their reach. They burned all the packing crates for our spotlights, and at one time they threatened to set fire to the stage, but I guess they got loaded and forgot about it. A great, great many people got hurt out there. Even thought I had a pass, I was bodily thrown off the stage by the Angels twice in a row. I guess they were just feeling mean, and I was handy."

Could she give me any specific details about the meeting between Alembic and the Dead?

"Well," she faltered, "I guess you could say that Emmett Grogan defended the hiring of the Angels...and I guess Rock Scully did, too"...

As the week wore on, the casualty list mounted in the aftermath of the mass gathering at Altamont. Belatedly, it was revealed that Mick Jagger himself had been assaulted by a shaggy blond kid when the Stones arrived by helicopter at the race track. "I hate you, I hate you," the unidentified boy reportedly screamed, lunging at Jagger and clouting him on the head. Flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, as it developed, had also been roughed up by an Angel near the bandstand, and Denise Jewkes, a singer with the all-girl rock group, the Ace of Cups, had suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a thrown beer bottle near the performance area. Denise was four months pregnant, but her doctors were hopeful that she wouldn't lose her baby...

On Friday, blindly following an impulse, I drove back to Altamont to view what can only be called the remains. At the 80-acre site, a few volunteer scavengers, stick figures in the hazy distance, were still picking up the tons of garbage littering the bald brown hills. Vast expanses of the scrubby slopes were scorched black where bonfires had been lit. Neighboring fences sagged and gaped under a dismal, overcast sky.

Surveying the empty amphitheater from a trash-strewn hilltop, I tried to comprehend exactly what had happened on that now bloodied ground below me a week before. The event sired by the Stones had been vaster than the mind could readily grasp, garishly colorful, mostly peaceable, frequently frightening, and perhaps well-intended. The end result was a mountain of litter, scores of injuries, a sea of stolen cars abandoned on the access roads to the track, thousands of bad drug trips, extensive damage to surrounding property, and four violent and senseless deaths.

Driving back to the city in a hammering rain, I couldn't help recalling what somebody had remarked to Ralph Gleason early in the week: "There was no love, no joy at Altamont. It wasn't just the Angels. It was everybody. In 24 hours, we created all the problems of our society in one confined area -- congestion, violence, dehumanization."

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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