Culture  /  Vignette

The Chaos of Altamont and the Murder of Meredith Hunter

A lot has been written about the notorious concert, but so much of the language around it has been passive and exonerating.
Bill Owens

A few weeks after the concert, Rolling Stone published an exhaustive report titled “The Rolling Stones Disaster at Altamont: Let It Bleed.” The piece opens with an account from a witness who later testified at Passaro’s trial. An unidentified Angel, the witness said, “reached over and grabbed the guy beside me”—Hunter, that is—“by the ear and hair, and yanked on it, thinking it was funny, you know, kind of laughing. And so, this guy shook loose; he yanked away from him.” Another Angel “hit him in the mouth,” the witness went on, and Hunter tried to run, “and four other Hell’s Angels jumped on him.” According to the witness, after Passaro stabbed Hunter in the back, Hunter “pulled out a gun and held it up in the air you know . . . like that was kind of his last resort.” Passaro stabbed him in the neck, and someone, likely Passaro, stabbed him in and around the kidney. Other Angels kicked Hunter, stood on his head, and hit him with a garbage-can lid. Before Hunter died, audience members lifted his body onto the stage and the Angels pushed it off. In a photograph of the moment taken by Beth Bagby, Mick Jagger, looking dismayed, raises a hand to his face.

Several months after the Rolling Stone story appeared, the Stones, through a lawyer, sent the Hunter family ten thousand dollars, which Hunter’s sister Dixie Ward described to me as “a very nominal sum.” To this day, the Stones have never spoken to Hunter’s family.

“Gimme Shelter,” the movie that the Maysles brothers made about the Stones, was released one year after Altamont; the second half of the movie is dedicated to the concert. Hunter’s murder ends up providing a sort of climax, but his name is never said out loud in the course of the film. What’s more, although the Rolling Stone report on Altamont made it clear that Hunter was running from the Angels, “Gimme Shelter” implies that Hunter was the real threat. Toward the end of the movie, the footage of Altamont stops abruptly, and the film cuts to Jagger and David Maysles sitting in an editing suite. Maysles replays the footage that was just shown and slows it down to isolate and point out Hunter’s gun, set against the white crocheted dress of Hunter’s girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft. We are treated to a closeup of Jagger, looking sad. The film cuts back to footage of Altamont, where we see Hunter lying on a stretcher, dead. An unidentified bystander says that Hunter “pulled out a gun.” “The Hells Angels took away the gun. One of them has it now; he showed it to me,” he says. Four months before the movie opened the Cannes Film Festival, Passaro was acquitted of Hunter’s murder.

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