Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.
MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: The Rolling Stones were performing “Sympathy for the Devil” when a crowd member was killed at the Altamont Free Concert.
The song “Sympathy for the Devil” was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones and appeared on the 1968 Rolling Stones album, Beggars Banquet.
The song is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of Lucifer/Satan/The Devil. In the song, he takes credit for a great deal of current tragedies, including the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers.
For years, this dark song has been linked to the death of Meredith Hunter at a free concert that the Rolling Stones played at the Altamont Theater in December of 1969 (almost literally the end of the 1960s, let alone figuratively).
The biker group the Hell’s Angels had been hired as security for the event, and the rowdy crowd had already gotten into many altercations with the Angels by the time the Stones showed up to play, and the Angels, in response, had gotten more aggressive as the day went by. The Grateful Dead, in fact, left the arena after hearing that a member of Jefferson Airplane had been punched in the head and knocked unconscious.
Eventually, a young man named Meredith Hunter pulled out a gun and a member of the Hell’s Angels responded by stabbing Hunter five times, killing him (Hunter is the man wearing the green suit below).
The concert was being filmed for a documentary, so everything was caught on tape.
The documentary was released under the title Gimme Shelter.
As time went by, the story became that the song that was playing when all of this went on (the Stones played eight songs in total AFTER Hunter died – they were not informed until after the concert that a man had been stabbed to death, they just knew a commotion took place) was “Sympathy for the Devil.”
That is not the case, as it was the song “Under My Thumb” that is playing when the main altercation took place, and three songs were performed between “Sympathy for the Devil” earlier in the show and “Thumb,” in case one wished to argue that something occurred directly prior to the actual fatal stabbing.
The confusion might have come from the fact that, like “Under My Thumb,” “Sympathy for the Devil” was interrupted by fighting in the crowds (leading the Stones to stop playing until the crowd calmed down). And in fact, it was during “Sympathy for the Devil” (the third song in the concert) that the first piece of fighting took place.
In addition, in John Burks’ coverage of the event for Rolling Stone, he notes of the fatal altercation that
There is a soundtrack, but none of this can be heard, for the Stones are into “Sympathy for the Devil” at high volume.
So likely, those are the two reasons why the legend sprung up that it was “Sympathy for the Devil” that was playing as a sort of soundtrack for the violence, but I think that there are a few other reasons, including:
1. The fact that it just SOUNDED right – what BETTER song to be playing when a man is stabbed to death during a concert than a song about the devil?
2. There were a lot of folks who were at the concert who just generally blamed “Sympathy for the Devil,” as it was during that song that the violence really picked up, so while it was not playing while the actual stabbing (or the alteractions leading UP to the stabbing), it could still perhaps theoretically be called the INSTIGATOR for the stabbing.
3. Don McLean seemed to allude to “Sympathy for the Devil” during his song, “American Pie.”
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage / my hands were clenched in fists of rage. No angel born in hell /could break that satan’s spell. And as the flames climbed high into the night, / to light the sacrificial rite / I saw Satan laughing with delight / the day the music died.
Whether McLean was actually talking about Altamont or not, that certainly has been how fans have interpreted that lyric, and to make that lyric work almost literally (as fans of “American Pie” seem to love to do), you’d almost have to take it as referencing “Sympathy for the Devil.”
The legend is…
Thanks to Rolling Stone for the John Burks article!
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