For more than five decades, Mick Jagger has served as the definitive icon of rock and roll, from the Rolling Stones debut in 1964 all the way through today, as the band continues to tour, playing sold-out stadiums across the globe. Throughout that time, Jagger, who turns 73 on July 26, has survived all the usual pitfalls of stardom, including drugs, alienation, and working alongside Keith Richards. If that weren’t enough, Jagger also survived an assassination attempt by the biker gang, The Hell’s Angels.
The attempt on Jagger’s life was said to have been made in December 1969, and the information about it wasn’t a matter of FBI record until 1985. To understand the motivation of the Hell’s Angels, you have to go back to one of the darkest chapters in the Rolling Stones’ career: the Altamont concert.
The concert was organized by the Rolling Stones and held at San Francisco’s Altamont Speedway on Dec. 6, 1969. The event was free, and was marketed as a kind of West Coast response to Woodstock, held earlier that summer — a concert the Stones weren’t able to to play at due, in part, to Jagger’s early film career.
While organizing the concert, The Hell’s Angels were hired to do security. The group had become a definitive part of the counter-culture movement and were known for doing event security, particularly in the Bay Area. According to the lore, the Angels were paid in $500 worth of beer, or $500 and free beer, according to then-Rolling Stone columnist David Wild. The payment has recently been disputed by both Dick Carter, who owned the Altamont Raceway in 1969, as well as Ralph “Sonny” Barger, the leader of the Hell’s Angels.
Roughly 300,000 concert attendees showed up, a far bigger crowd than was anticipated, and regardless of how (or what) the Angels were paid, they curated an unfriendly, hostile, and outright violent atmosphere. They attacked Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin, which led to a verbal altercation between Balin’s bandmate Paul Kanter and another member of the Angels, all of which transpired over the PA system. By the time the Rolling Stones took the stage, the Angels took issue with Jagger’s dance moves, and a few songs into the Stones’ set, the hostility boiled over, resulting in the death of 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter.
Apparently, the Angels had taken notice of Hunter early on during the Stones’ set, which led to a confrontation that made Hunter irate and upset. Despite a tearful plea from his girlfriend, Patty Bredehoft, Hunter stormed back toward the stage and pulled out a gun. One of the Angels working security, Alan Passaro, grabbed him with his left hand and stabbed him several times with his right. Others joined in and gathered around to severely beat and kick Hunter, whose body was taken backstage. Dr. Richard Baldwin, the volunteer in charge of the medical facilities examined his wounds, and in an interview with Esquire in 1970 explained that there was “nothing they could have done to save him.” Hunter’s body was taken to the coroner’s office that night, where he was officially pronounced dead.
The Stones, unaware of what was happening, continued on with their set and only learned about Hunter’s death after the fact. That murder would end up immortalized in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, which includes a sobering segment where Jagger is shown the murder of Hunter as it had been captured on film. That murder has become synonymous with the Altamont concert, but is often seen as the definitive end to the free-spirited optimism of the 1960s.
While Passaro stood trial for the murder, he was eventually acquitted on the grounds of self-defense in 1972, but the damage had already been done. In the wake of Altamont, Jagger spoke out publicly against the group, saying he’d refuse to hire them for any future events, and even denied that they’d hired them to do security in the first place. The Hell’s Angels didn’t appreciate any of this and viewed Jagger’s public remarks as a personal betrayal; which allegedly led to the decision to try and kill Jagger at his holiday home in the Hamptons as a retaliation.
In 2008, during an interview for the BBC radio series The FBI At 100, FBI Agent Mark Young explained the Hell’s Angels attempt to kill the Stones’ frontman.
They were going to kill him in retribution for his firing their security forces. Their plan involved making entry into his Long Island property, going by boat. As they gathered the weaponry and their forces to go out on Long Island Sound, a storm rolled up, which nearly sunk the watercraft they were in, and they escaped with their own lives. (the New York Times)
Because of the plan’s failure by way of weather, the incident remained largely unknown for a number of years, and the Hell’s Angels who walked away from the storm seem to have just walked away from their vendetta as well. The whole thing came to surface as a result of FBI agents who’d been working undercover within the Hell’s Angels, and in 1985 confirmed on record that there was an intention to kill Jagger, roughly 15 years after the fact.
Jagger has never commented on the story, but one has to wonder what would’ve happened had the Hell’s Angels been successful that night. The Hell’s Angels have always had a reputation for lawlessness, even as counterculture mainstays, though their nefarious treatment of celebrities had been limited to beating up Hunter S. Thompson after he infiltrated their gang in the mid-1960s.
While Altamont is still regarded as the figurative end to the 1960s as much as it is a literal one, to end the era with a murder resulting from a criminal conspiracy would have caused a ripple through popular culture so severe it might have never recovered. While the 1970s saw a continued rise in violent crime across the U.S., Jagger’s death would’ve meant a much darker end to the peace-and-love era.
Instead, Jagger would lead the Stones through four and a half more decades as the biggest band in the world, continuing to defy everyone’s expectations on what it means to be a rock and roll icon.