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Altamont, the Rolling Stones, and the Death of the Sixties Dream

In “Just a Shot Away,” Saul Austerlitz revisits the concert that started in hope and ended in bloodshed

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In the nearly fifty years since the Rolling Stones played a free outdoor concert at a racetrack in Alameda County, California, the word “Altamont” has become synonymous with the end of the 1960s, and the death of the hippie dream. On December 6, 1969, the Stones played for a crowd of over 300,000 people, with the Hells Angels serving as an ad hoc security team at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead — who would end up so cowed by the bikers’ overzealous tactics that they left the grounds without playing. The concert had been hastily arranged, and the location chosen at the very last minute; the lack of planning or foresight, combined with a deeply misguided trust in the Angels as counterculture allies, resulted in an infamously disastrous show that culminated in the death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, an African American concertgoer who had traveled to Altamont from the Bay Area with his girlfriend and a couple of friends. He would never make it back.

The chaotic day was recorded by a camera crew led by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and the footage edited by Charlotte Zwerin, for what would become the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. Now, Brooklyn author Saul Austerlitz revisits Altamont, and pays tribute not just to Hunter’s death, but his short life, in Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. The Voice spoke to Austerlitz about researching the events of the day, placing Hunter and his family at the center of the story of Altamont, and bursting the romanticized bubble of the 1960s.

I don’t want to go to Coachella, let alone Altamont, so a lot of what you describe in this book sounds like a nightmare to me. How did you set about re-creating the scene?

I ended up talking to about 75 people. There were some challenges in asking people about one day of their lives that was almost fifty years ago. Above and beyond that, a lot of the people are drinking or doing drugs that day, so their memories, which would be hazy no matter what, are even hazier.

I spoke to a filmmaker named Joan Churchill, who was one of the cinematographers there and has gone on to bigger and better things. Her account of being at the site the night before and dealing with the cold and misery of not being able to sleep and having nowhere to go, and then ending up getting dosed with LSD basically the second the event started, was really intense. It helped me understand what it might have felt like to be a part of it, and also to be, not a victim of it, but someone who endured it.

The book is not just about the festival itself, but the shaping of the story of Altamont as this cultural touchstone.

I was really interested in how it was covered journalistically, and one of the things that was striking to me was how misguided some of the early coverage was. One of the things I talk about in the book is that the guy who ended up writing what served as the early account that went out over the AP wire, he could only stay at the concert until about noon that day, because of deadlines. He did the best he could, obviously, but he was only present for two or three hours. The early report that went out across the country was like, “This concert was great, just like Woodstock, maybe even better. There were a few minor kerfuffles at the beginning but then everything got ironed out.” It ended up being Rolling Stone that did the major work of pushing back against that narrative, and telling a counterculture audience — an audience that wouldn’t instinctively trust the AP’s account of what happened — actually, it was totally different from what you’ve heard.

The whole hippie idea of “personal bliss,” as you write at one point, feels to me like the inverse of the right-wing obsession with “personal responsibility” over collective action. I wonder if you saw this concert as a particularly damning event for the way that the left has romanticized its role in the Sixties.

I think so, yeah. A bunch of people that I spoke to who are among the more politically oriented, there was this sense that things were just going to keep getting bigger and better. We’ve had these anti-Vietnam protests, we’ve had these big gatherings like the Human Be-In, or Woodstock, which was earlier that summer, and all of them were great. This was sort of the party line — all of them were these amazing moments where we gathered together and it was wonderful, and the war was going to stop, and the youth were going to take over the country, and things would be permanently better. And concomitant with that was this sense of, we’re all on the same page. We all agree that we want to have a nice time and a nice event; we don’t really need to worry about anything. Woodstock went fine, this will also be fine. We don’t need to have plans for boring shit like, where am I going to go to the bathroom, how am I going to eat lunch while I’m there, who’s going to protect me in case anything goes wrong? Altamont was a kind of wake-up call in that fashion, to say, there are ways in which the adult world that you’re rejecting has notions that are still valuable, like planning ahead.

The counterculture understood itself to be this gathering force that was going to oppose and eventually undo the establishment. In coming to that conclusion, they ended up seeing themselves allied with people whom they very much were not allied with. It was interesting to me to learn about the ways that the counterculture had thought of the Hells Angels. The counterculture looked at them and said, “Hey, we don’t like the police, you don’t like the police, let’s be friends.” The counterculture liked to think of the Hells Angels as hippies, but they ride motorcycles. And the Hells Angels said, “Well, we like the bands, we like the drugs, we like the general lifestyle that you guys live, so we can get along.”

It strikes me that the people making those decisions, and later, telling the story of that era, were almost all white men — not women or minorities, who probably weren’t having as much of a blast during the concert, or the Sixties in general.

It was helpful for me to understand how small the circle of pleasure was, in a way — how many people were having a really fun time, and how many people weren’t.

Reading the book, it was hard not to notice all the parallels between then and now — even your description of this feeling like, “What could go wrong,” sounds a lot like the attitude on the left in the year or two leading up to the 2016 election.

Most of the work on this book happened in early-to-mid-2016. I’d be working on the book and switch over to nytimes.com to see what was happening in the world, and the parallels between Altamont and Trump rallies were kind of overwhelming — this sense of, we’re going to unleash chaos in a mass gathering, and it’s going to feel really cathartic. That was one aspect of it. In retrospect, after the election, I’ve come to realize the ways in which, for myself and for a lot of people I know, we’re kind of the outdated version of the Sixties hippie radical. I also had a mistaken belief that things would keep getting better, we’re going to keep winning, don’t need to worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and getting blindsided by reality. That feels, unfortunately, very resonant right now.

It’s kind of amazing that Altamont didn’t ruin the Stones’ reputation forever. This episode probably even worked in their favor; like the residual darkness of that day only added to their mystique. Did writing and researching this book change your feelings toward the band?

One of the interesting aspects for me was how much even the darkest aspects of that mythologizing worked to benefit the groups involved. The Hells Angels would only see themselves as having benefited from being at Altamont; it established their bona fides. There was a sense that the Rolling Stones had this dark majesty — that they were actually summoning some sort of malign influences. Which is so strange to my ears, but it came up multiple times [while researching the book]. I thought it was really telling that people kept misremembering what song had been playing when Meredith Hunter was killed. People kept thinking it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” and at the time there was this sense that “Sympathy for the Devil” was somehow the devil’s song. That was kind of telling, and speaks to what you’re saying — it benefited the Stones in some ways. That was the band that was playing when someone got killed.

I don’t have anything good to say about the Stones’ behavior in the aftermath of the concert. In terms of the concert itself, they went out onstage and they tried to cool things down, which I give them credit for, because the Grateful Dead didn’t do it. While it’s understandable, it was probably not the right decision. In the aftermath it’s just puzzling to me, and unacceptable to me, that the Stones never apologize. They don’t apologize to Meredith Hunter’s family, and they also don’t apologize to any of the fans. Even if, for some convoluted reason, they decided they couldn’t get involved with Meredith Hunter and his family, there were hundreds of other fans who were assaulted or manhandled or mistreated at the concert. The idea that they didn’t say anything about that is puzzling. Even if you feel like Meredith Hunter’s death is ultimately not your fault, how do you not say something, at some point, about it?

Did you try to get an interview with any of the band members?

I did, yeah. They were not interested. It’s telling if you look at Keith Richards’ memoir, which is a very enjoyable book — it’s seven hundred pages long and there’s I think three pages devoted to Altamont. He knew that he had to cover it, but it’s also the absolute bare minimum of what he could possibly say.

You had the challenge of writing about an event that’s been written about over and over in the years since it happened. Was there anything you discovered in researching this book that really surprised you?

A lot of it surprised me. The Sixties have been combed over ad nauseam, and yet it was interesting for me to understand what people were thinking at the time. It helped me to understand how everyone got to this place where this specific event could happen.

The most surprising thing for me was talking to Meredith Hunter’s family and learning more about his family history. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to sort of reorient some of the story, which I think is always about fans and rock music and hippies and Sixties culture, and had to be more of a story about race and racism and how that impacts a person and a family. I entered into this project wanting to tell Meredith Hunter’s story, because I felt like he was kind of the absence at the center of the story, but I don’t think I fully understood the ways in which his story and his family’s story tie into this larger picture of this still very unfortunate relationship with race in America.

Was it hard to get his family to talk to you?

It required some convincing to agree to speak with me, and understandably so. [Hunter’s sister] Dixie and her daughter Taammi Parker both very graciously agreed to talk to me, and talk about some really difficult things. But I got the sense that they definitely were concerned that their story would again not be told properly.

Have they read the book?

I’ve sent them the book. I believe they’ve read some of it. I don’t know much more about their response.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

For the people who feel like they know the story already, I’d like for them to take away the part of the story that’s about Meredith Hunter and his family, and incorporate that into their mental framework of what this concert was about and what the late Sixties were about. And in a larger sense, just to think about some of the resonances that this moment that I’m writing about, and this moment that we’re living through, seem to have with each other. Which is definitely a source of pessimism but is potentially a source of optimism as well. All this energy, which sometimes is misplaced or misguided, can also be hopefully funneled towards something powerful.

Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont
By Saul Austerlitz
Thomas Dunne Books
336 pp.

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