More than a movement died at Altamont 50 years ago
Billed as “Woodstock West,” the hastily planned Altamont Speedway Free Festival descended into harrowing violence, leading critics and some supporters to conclude that the ethos of the 1960s counter-culture movement had died at the motorsports track in northern California during the chaotic and mind-bending events of Dec. 6, 1969.
Lost in that decades-old narrative until recently had been the brief and difficult life of Meredith Curly Hunter, Jr., the African-American from Berkeley, CA, who literally died at the event. A group of Hells Angels stabbed and beat Hunter to death after sunset as the Rolling Stones, the headline act, performed “Under My Thumb,” on a small, crowded stage. Hunter was 18.
Just more than 50 years later, the free show at Altamont remains synonymous with dystopia. But how Meredith Hunter’s tragic fate became entwined with a festival designed to showcase peace and love is an American story that is finally being told.
In recent years, authors, journalists, and documentarians have plunged deeper into the life of Meredith Hunter, the circumstances of his death, and how he was buried without a headstone. The reporting provides a more nuanced view of a young man that became a central figure in a historic event but was largely dismissed and forgotten. The aim here was not to depict Hunter as a martyr but to help provide a broader picture of the man and the events that shaped and ended his life.
A tall man with a perhaps exaggerated swagger, Hunter stood out from the almost exclusively white crowd at Altamont, located in Tracy, CA, about an hour east of Berkeley. Prior to the day-long festival, Hunter’s sister warned him not to go to the event with his white girlfriend because of the racial tensions of the time. Tracy was more conservative than Berkeley. While Hunter disregarded her advice, he did arm himself with a .22 caliber revolver. The flashy teenager slipped on his signature avocado-colored zoot suit, a black silk shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat, and picked up his girlfriend and another couple in a ‘65 Mustang that belonged to his mother’s boyfriend.
The Stones had informally hired bikers from the Hells Angels to secure the stage area for the gig in exchange for $500 worth of beer. Filmmakers for the legendary Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter” captured footage of the bloody confrontations between the club-wielding bikers and concertgoers, including a brief part of one of the stabbings that killed Hunter.
Released in 1970, the movie documented how various bands at Altamont — Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jefferson Airplane, and especially the Stones — played to more 300,000 concertgoers amid growing tension and violence endured by those standing around the front rows. Hunter was one of four people who lost their lives at Altamont. The three others were killed in accidents.
The movie portrays the killing of Hunter as the unfortunate but inevitable result of him pulling out his pistol, which can be seen in the movie. What the movie’s incomplete and largely one-sided footage didn’t show was how the incident started and ended. Over the years, Gimme Shelter helped cement an overriding view in people’s minds that Hunter had posed a threat to others, even the band. After all, a jury found Alan Passaro, the 21-year-old biker captured on film stabbing Hunter, not guilty of murdering Hunter in January 1971, deciding that he acted in self-defense.
Meredith Hunter Jr. had a tough childhood. His mother was a prostitute that suffered from schizophrenia, and he was named after his father, a Native-American who abandoned the family when Hunter was young, according to Joel Selvin, author of The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, published in 2017. Hunter’s older sister took responsibility for raising him. As a child, Hunter kept pigeons as pets and loved driving a car scooter.
Hunter’s sister left the house at a young age when their mother became involved with an abusive pimp, according to Selvin. Hunter started getting in trouble with the law when he was 11, and spent much of his teen years in juvenile halls, Selvin wrote.
As he got older, Hunter dressed in flashy outfits and acted out in an effort to attract attention, his sister said. Nicknamed “Murdock,” the 6-foot 2-inch teen met Patti Bredehoft, 17, also of Berkeley, at a party during the summer of 1969. The couple went to see The Temptations just weeks before Altamont.
Eager to capture the spirit of the successful Woodstock concert held four months prior in upstate New York, Altamont organizers settled on the race track for the festival just two days prior to the concert after other locations, including San Francisco, fell through.
As the sun went down on Dec. 6, 1969, Hunter and Bredehoft made their way to the left of the stage to see the Rolling Stones. By this time, the Hells Angels had been drinking for hours and parked their bikes in front of the stage, while speed-laced LSD circulated among those in the crowd. Bikers could be seen beating concertgoers, some of them naked, with pool cues. Not even Marty Balin, a singer in the Jefferson Airplane, was spared. A biker knocked Balin unconscious when Balin tried to intervene in a scuffle that broke out in front of the stage as the Airplane performed.
Footage shows the crowd and band members becoming increasingly agitated throughout the day. Minutes after the Rolling Stones took the stage, Meredith was among those in the crowd that pressed forward.
According to eyewitness accounts published in a historic article by Rolling Stone just weeks after the deadly incident, a Hells Angel started the altercation by grabbing Hunter’s head and punching him. The biker then chased a retreating Hunter into the surrounding crowd, where about four other bikers pounced on him.
The movie Gimme Shelter then picks up and shows a segment where Hunter, stumbling and apparently hurt, pulled out the firearm. Rather than tackling him and confiscating the weapon, Passaro immediately pulled out a hunting knife from near his ankle, leaped at Meredith and plunged the blade into his neck. The tussle then moved out of the camera’s view as other bikers joined in beating Meredith, according to eyewitnesses. Hunter was stabbed at least four times and repeatedly kicked in the head. As he lay dying, he reportedly told his attackers that he did not intend to shoot anyone. A biker stepped on his head and warned bystanders not to try to save him. “Don’t touch him, he’s going to die.”
Hunter’s body was eventually taken to a tent. He died waiting for an ambulance. His spilled blood was washed away with hot coffee. The movie shows Hunter’s girlfriend agonizing over his condition as Hunter’s body is wheeled away on a stretcher, part of his green suit sticking out the side of a blanket that covered his body. Perhaps fearful for their own safety, the band played on.
In the 2018 book, Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, author Saul Austerlitz focused heavily on Hunter and touched on racial elements of the day. Austerlitz said Altamont was about the fundamental trauma of race. “A black man had gone somewhere white men did not want him to be, and had never come home.”
No one from the concert contacted Hunter’s mother, Alta Mae Anderson, after his death. The Stones eventually settled with the Hunter family for a reported $10,000. Years after being acquitted of killing Hunter, Passaro was found dead in a lake, coincidentally with $10,000 in his pocket.
Hunter became lost to history. His remains were buried on Dec. 10, 1969, in an unmarked grave at Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo, CA, about 35 miles north of San Francisco, according to a short documentary made in 2006. As a result of Sam Green’s short film,“Lot 63 grave c,” a headstone was purchased for Hunter’s grave.
On Nov. 21, 2019, Hunter’s sister, Dixie Ward of Oakland, spoke about her brother in an emotional interview. She said she missed him. She recalled saying goodbye to him before he left for Altamont (see video here).
“The tragedy of what happened still bothers me,” Ward said. “My only regret is that I wished his life could have been much easier. And that’s what haunts me.”