On December 6, 1969, an estimated three hundred thousand people converged on the Altamont Motor Speedway in Northern California for a massive free concert headlined by the Rolling Stones and featuring some of the era’s other great rock acts.1 Only four months earlier, Woodstock had shown the world the power of peace and love and American youth. Altamont was supposed to be “Woodstock West.”2
But Altamont was a disorganized disaster. Inadequate sanitation, a horrid sound system, and tainted drugs strained concertgoers. To save money, the Hells Angels biker gang was paid $500 in beer to be the show’s “security team.” The crowd grew progressively angrier throughout the day. Fights broke out. Tensions rose. The Angels, drunk and high, armed themselves with sawed-off pool cues and indiscriminately beat concertgoers who tried to come on the stage. The Grateful Dead refused to play. Finally, the Stones came on stage.3
The crowd’s anger was palpable. Fights continued near the stage. Mick Jagger stopped in the middle of playing “Sympathy for the Devil” to try to calm the crowd: “Everybody be cool now, c’mon,” he pleaded. Then, a few songs later, in the middle of “Under My Thumb,” eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter approached the stage and was beaten back. Pissed off and high on methamphetamines, Hunter brandished a pistol, charged again, and was stabbed and killed by an Angel. His lifeless body was stomped into the ground. The Stones just kept playing.4
If the more famous Woodstock music festival captured the idyll of the sixties youth culture, Altamont revealed its dark side. There, drugs, music, and youth were associated not with peace and love but with anger, violence, and death. While many Americans in the 1970s continued to celebrate the political and cultural achievements of the previous decade, a more anxious, conservative mood grew across the nation. For some, the United States had not gone nearly far enough to promote greater social equality; for others, the nation had gone too far, unfairly trampling the rights of one group to promote the selfish needs of another. Onto these brewing dissatisfactions, the 1970s dumped the divisive remnants of a failed war, the country’s greatest political scandal, and an intractable economic crisis. It seemed as if the nation was ready to unravel.