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Free Concert Turned Tragic 25 Years Ago

December 6, 1994

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ In 1969, it was billed as the West Coast Woodstock.

Today, the free concert at Altamont - which turned into a deadly brawl between strung-out fans and Hells Angels security guards swinging pool cues - is a dark rock ‘n’ roll memory.

More than 300,000 people turned out 25 years ago today for the concert organized by the Rolling Stones as a holiday gift to fans. Held about six months after Woodstock, it also included Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Organizers got permission to hold the concert at the Altamont motor speedway less than 12 hours before it began, and the Hells Angels were paid in beer. Then disorganization quickly degenerated into violent chaos.

An 18-year-old fan was fatally stabbed in a brawl near the stage. Another concert-goer drowned in a canal and two more died after being run over by a car. Thousands of dollars in damage was done to neighboring ranches. Doctors treated 850 people for bad ″trips″ from LSD.

″What happened, what went wrong?″ the Stones’ Mick Jagger asked at the time. ″If Jesus had been there, he would have been crucified.″

There was no single flashpoint for the violence, which has been blamed on clashes between security guards and drugged fans.

Sightseers are still drawn to the site in the rolling hillside about 50 miles east of San Francisco.

″From all over the country and the world. We just had some people stop by from Sweden,″ said Bill Kabage, general manager of the racetrack.

Among the concert-goers was Pat Craig, now a reporter with the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, about 20 miles east of San Francisco. He recalled how the crowds poured in when the gates were opened.

″It was like the Oklahoma land rush in tie-dye and granny glasses,″ he wrote in Sunday’s paper.

And almost everybody was hungry.

″We’d imagined snack stands with sizzling burgers and deep-fried burritos,″ he wrote. ″But there was nothing other than the food that spilled from the hippie buses and was shared in the true spirit of Woodstock. Drugs, on the other hand, were abundant.″

Hells Angels were seen beating fans with pool cues. Even the band members got into it - Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin was punched and lead singer Grace Slick got into a shouting match from the stage with the unidentified assailant.

A Hells Angels guard was acquitted in the death of Meredith Hunter, claiming it was self-defense because Hunter had a pistol. The death was captured by filmmakers Albert and David Maysles in the documentary, ″Gimme Shelter,″ showing Hunter being stabbed to the tune of ″Under My Thumb.″