Author Saul Austerlitz brings multiple shadowplayers to centre stage over the course of a thoroughly researched text
Book review: 'Just a Shot Away' looks back on the 1969 Rolling Stones tragedy at Altamont
Close to 50 years after its staging, the story of the free concert the Rolling Stones gave in California in December 1969 has long served as a cautionary tale and metaphorical endpoint to the free-loving 1960s, a few weeks before time properly ran out on the decade.
If the Woodstock festival, staged just months before, marked the highpoint of hippiedom in 1960s America, the Altamont Speedway Circuit concert was the calamitous moment that same counterculture crashed to a halt. It’s too trite to say it was the day the music died, especially when real lives, four in total, were lost. Three of the four were unhappy incidents – a pair of concertgoers died in a hit-and-run car accident, another drowned in a drainage ditch – the final death was also unquestionably avoidable.
As Saul Austerlitz writes in his new the book, Just A Shot Away: Peace, Love and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, Meredith Hunter, an energetic 18-year-old, “attended the concert and never came home”. Hunter was set upon by a pack of Hells Angels tasked with providing security at the Altamont Speedway Circuit concert on December 6, 1969, his final moments caught on camera by documentary filmmakers. The movie of the gig, envisaged as an easy exercise in public relations to burnish the reputation of the Stones, became a vital piece of evidence in the trial of the single suspect arrested in connection with the mob-handed killing of Hunter.
Austerlitz begins his narrative in August 1969 at Woodstock. It too had been close to disaster, the writer tells us, saved only by the “desire of its audience for a collective triumph”. The idea of staging a free concert on the other US coast gained traction soon afterwards. The Stones imagined a riot of free-love and tolerance, an exhibition of unruly harmony. The dream vanished in the vortex of poor planning and nightmarish misconception.
The band’s coterie leaned on counterculture lodestars, the Grateful Dead, as they began to bring the concert to life. The Dead, who were booked as the main act of the concert’s stellar undercard, used the Hells Angels as security at their shows and recommended them to the Stones. The suggestion acted as a transatlantic lost in translation moment of epic proportions: Jagger, Richards et al had used a British offshoot of the Angels to "police" their peaceful Hyde Park concert and, imagining the US iteration to be similar in temperament to the “hodge-podge of leather-clad poseurs” who turned out in London, gladly accepted the offer. The made in America version of the Angels was made of far more violent stuff. The fact that the Angels resented being short-changed by the Stones in their contract to provide security (a fee of $500 was agreed for the entire operation) did not help either.
There were other disastrous miscues: a suitable venue proved hard to find for the free concert. Altamont Speedway eventually emerged as a last-minute compromise candidate that left no one with good feelings: “It was a bit trashy. A mildly inclined bowl with a three-foot stage at the bottom of it, and no barrier, would mean that all the audience pressure would be pointed at the stage, with nothing in the way of protection. There would be no time to build a new stage, or do much at all in the way of advance preparation,” writes Austerlitz. It was a vast venue too, allowing 300,000 to flood the compound on that chilly December day. The hope was that music would stem any prospect of mayhem. The Hells Angels had other ideas: “From the moment of their arrival, violent conflicts broke out everywhere.”
Austerlitz, a regular contributor to this newspaper, sets sail using those doomed coordinates. We know in advance that this journey won’t end well - the events of that day in December have often provided a piece of code in the algorithm to unpick Sixties counterculture - but it is his intention in Just A Shot Away to expose the scale and complexity of the ineptitude and savagery.
His reconstruction jags, initially at least, from back stage, to centre stage and the audience. There was a sense of common purpose and kindness among most at Altamont despite the unsuitability of the venue and the lack of food and facilities. The presence of industrial-scale amounts of drugs did much to change the prevailing sentiment. Doctors treated hundreds of concertgoers for paranoia and nausea. The Angels would soon ensure they weren’t the only casualties.
A member of one of the support acts, Jefferson Airplane’s co-lead singer Marty Balin, was “viciously cold-cocked” by the Angels after jumping down into the fan pit to prevent the bikers handing out a senseless beating to a member of the audience. Wave after wave of violence is documented by Austerlitz: “Backstage, an Angel crouched atop a hapless concertgoer, punching him again and again.”
The Grateful Dead, meanwhile, opted to leave the scene, disturbed by the unfolding violence that their relationship with the Angels had brought to life. Crosby Stills Nash and Young struggled through a four-song appearance, their minds cluttered by what they were witnessing. The last hope was that the Angels would calm down when the Stones went on stage.
Instead, the bloodletting intensified. The presence of Hunter, a young black man wearing a lime green suit, and his flower-child white girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, near the front of the audience served to stir the Angels into a targeted, racially motivated assault on Hunter, who was stabbed four times and kicked mercilessly on the ground. Carried to a medical tent, he died soon afterwards.
Austerlitz does not sandblast Hunter’s upbringing nor does he decode why the youngster took an unloaded revolver to the concert, which he was waving in the air at the time the Angels attacked, save for saying he was teenager with a naïve sense of hope that he could quell the bikers’ ugly mood. The presence of the gun would later be used to justify the assault in court as part of a broader campaign to suggest the defendant had stopped a potential murderer in his tracks.
The concert’s complex cultural legacy is one of Austerlitz’s most compelling lines of inquiry. Those far away from the stage had no idea that Hunter’s life was being ripped from him. Neither did those who picked up their Sunday morning papers the following day. Hampered by an early print deadline, the San Francisco Examiner led with a boiler-plate headline of “300,000 say it with music”.
Its reporter had left the scene long before Hunter’s death. The local TV channels reported the event in a similar fashion. It was left to the Rolling Stone magazine, devoting an entire issue to Altamont fully six weeks after the concert, to unravel a more accurate representation of the show. Even then, writes Austerlitz, “none of the band’s members ever took any initiative to acknowledge Meredith Hunter’s death, or to express their dismay over the events at Altamont.”
Austerlitz brings multiple shadowplayers to centre stage over the course of a thoroughly researched text, knitting their stories together expertly and providing the reader with a sense of the pre-concert chaos, the mayhem while it took place and the strange cultural settlement afterwards, especially once the Gimme Shelter movie was released.
The Stones retreated into tax exile on the French Riviera and reportedly made two payments related to Altamont: $50,000 to the Angels to stop a campaign of intimidation against Jagger and $10,000 to Hunter’s family. The payments seemed to serve as another example of the rampant inequalities that are still alive in American society today.