'Just a Shot Away' redefines the 1969 Altamont tragedy as a racial crime

Writer Saul Austerlitz revisits the fatal stabbing at a disastrous late '60s rock concert to focus on the nearly forgotten victim.

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

From the start of Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, it’s clear how Saul Austerlitz will frame his searing account of the Bay Area festival that was supposed to be the West Coast version of Woodstock but culminated in the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old African American named Meredith Hunter.

The disastrous daylong concert is often depicted as the symbolic end of the 1960s. But for Austerlitz, who opens the book with a visit to Hunter’s sister to learn about the brother she lost almost a half century before, Altamont is “about the fundamental trauma of race. A black man had gone somewhere white men did not want him to be, and had never come home.”

The focus on Hunter is commendable. While it’s well known that the Rolling Stones headlined the free show on December 6, 1969, and that much of its violence was instigated by the Hells Angels, the biker gang that provided security, Hunter has remained a cipher. His death was captured by documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, who had been following the Stones on their American tour, and the brief, blurry footage became the centerpiece of their 1970 film, "Gimme Shelter." But Hunter is an anonymous victim in the documentary, remaining unnamed; even his grave was unmarked until about a decade ago. 

Austerlitz rectifies that erasure by recounting the details of Hunter’s brief life. He was born to a schizophrenic, impoverished mother, and, the author writes, his “teenage years were a closed circuit: home, the streets, and juvie.” Charming and kind, he was, despite his rap sheet for a number of burglaries, a loving brother to his widowed sister and a devoted uncle to her three young children.  

The author deftly creates a sense of foreboding, alternating Hunter’s story with the more familiar one of the slapdash planning of the concert, which ended up drawing 300,000 people to the Altamont Speedway, 50 miles east of San Francisco. Many of the arrangements were “left to chance, or to wishful thinking and misplaced hopefulness.” 

The most ill-considered decision was to place security for the massive event in the hands of the Angels. The bikers often guarded the stage for the Grateful Dead, who were also to perform at Altamont. The misguided affinity between the counterculture and the Hells Angels stemmed from the hippies’ deluded belief that the bikers shared their opposition to middle-class bourgeois values, when, as Austerlitz demonstrates, they gave ample indication of having racist and violent authoritarian tendencies. 

David Maysles instructed his film crew as they were about to fan out into the festival, “We only want beautiful things.” It was not to be. From the beginning there was a sense of menace in the air. There were too many people, and the speedway’s incline meant that concertgoers were crammed together, forced against the stage; additionally, tainted acid was making its way through the crowd. Those up close were unable to move except to attempt to back away when the Hells Angels pounced from the stage to dole out beatings to audience members guilty of touching the equipment or some other infraction. With hardly any police officers in attendance, the brutal Angels “were simultaneously the criminals and the police force tasked with preserving order,” Austerlitz writes.

The performers didn’t escape the violence. Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin was knocked unconscious – twice! – by an Angel named Animal; when the Stones arrived by helicopter a concertgoer ran to Mick Jagger and punched him in the face. Jerry Garcia and the Dead, taking the temperature of the crowd, decided not to go on, ostensibly to let the headlining Stones perform sooner and put an end to the calamitous affair. (Austerlitz deems their exit “ignominious.”) Jagger later quipped, “If Jesus had been there, he would have been crucified.”

When it was all over, the Maysleses had to figure out what to do with the mess of footage they’d acquired. One of the book’s most fascinating sections concerns the editing of what would become "Gimme Shelter." Co-director Charlotte Zwerin came up with the ingenious idea of filming Jagger, who hadn’t spoken publicly about Hunter, as he watched the footage of the teenager’s death. The sequence, Austerlitz argues, transformed the film “from a document of a misbegotten day in the world of rock ’n’ roll to a disquisition on death, moral responsibility, and the fate of youth culture.”

The author strains to link Hunter to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and others whose deaths have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. Hunter’s case is complicated by the fact that he was on methamphetamines and was waving a gun – one he seemingly pulled in response to being assaulted by the Hells Angels. Still, it’s easy to agree with Austerlitz that Hunter’s “punishment did not in any way match the crime.” (Alan Passaro, the Angel charged with Hunter’s murder, was acquitted following a six-week trial in which he argued he’d acted in self-defense.)

And what happened later is telling. The Angels demanded the Stones give them $50,000 for Passaro’s defense fund. They refused, but after the bikers made two bungled attempts to assassinate Mick Jagger, the band agreed to pay up. By comparison, Austerlitz notes, when Hunter’s mother sued the Stones for her son's wrongful death, they settled with her for $10,000.

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