Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

What Made Altamont Go Bad?

A new book explores the deadly concert and the documentary that cemented its infamy.

The most famous two seconds of footage in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter record an actual killing: Hell’s Angel Alan Passaro stabbing 18-year-old audience member Meredith Hunter in front of the stage at a free outdoor concert while the Rolling Stones play. The debacle of Altamont—the killing of Hunter was only the worst of many violent incidents that day in 1969, most of them perpetrated by the bikers—has long been viewed as the shadow side of the concert held at Woodstock a few months earlier. Altamont was the moment, the story goes, when the idealism of the 1960s counterculture collided with the darkness of human nature. This notion comes to us so deeply entangled with the bad-boy iconography of the Rolling Stones that when filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin were piecing their many hours of raw footage together, they at first struggled to locate images of the killing. They’d been convinced, along with everyone else, that it occurred while the Stones were performing “Sympathy for the Devil,” a song in which Jagger sings in the persona of Satan himself. (In fact, Hunter was stabbed while the band played “Under My Thumb.”)

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When I watched the film again—after reading Saul Austerlitz’s Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, a new history of the concert and documentary—a different clip popped. Before the band went on, the filmmakers captured crew members removing a woman from the empty stage. “I want to see Mick Jagger!” she wails petulantly, like a tantruming 2-year-old being dragged away from the candy aisle. “No! No! No!” In an earlier scene, as the band gets off the helicopter that deposited them at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California on Dec. 6, another fan, a male one, rushes up to Jagger and punches him, unprovoked. These two have their counterparts throughout the film, faces without names that flash across the screen: angry, ecstatic, weeping, or merely very, very focused but always, in every instance, hungry, the personification of avidity as they struggle to get as close as they can to the Stones, and especially to Jagger. Nearly 50 years after Altamont, the flower children have turned into gray-haired seniors and the Rolling Stones have aged with them, leached of the apocalyptic menace they once seemed to embody.
In retrospect, the stupid, muddled tragedy that ended Hunter’s life was horrible, yet you can see the carelessness and naiveté that made it possible and how it might have been prevented. Those faces, though. They’re now the creepiest thing on the screen.

For all the oceans of ink spilt in interpreting it, Altamont went south for obvious reasons. The Stones were finishing up their first American tour in two years, promoting their soon-to-be-released (and presciently titled) album Let It Bleed. The counterculture, high on the success of Woodstock—which came together gloriously despite countless shortcomings in planning and facilities—wanted to repeat the experience. A free concert on the West Coast, the birthplace of the hippie movement, seemed like a fabulous idea. The Rolling Stones’ representatives took the advice of musicians from San Francisco’s psychedelic scene, particularly the Grateful Dead, and hired the Hell’s Angels to ring the stage and keep overzealous or tripping fans from climbing up and interfering with the show. In exchange, the Angels were given $500 in beer. If this sounds daft, know that the Angels had a good long-standing relationship with the Dead, who used them to provide security for their free concerts in Golden Gate Park. Furthermore, the Rolling Stones had brought in a British group calling themselves Hell’s Angels to do the same for their triumphant free concert in London’s Hyde Park earlier that year, and that had gone smoothly.

The venue for the California concert changed several times for various reasons, until the Altamont site was secured less than 48 hours before the event. A good portion of Gimme Shelter features San Francisco celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli wheeling and dealing to set it up. Everything about the ramshackle race track 60 miles east of San Francisco was insufficient for the occasion, from the lack of toilets, medical facilities, and concessions vendors to the track’s topographical configuration: 300,000 people would cram themselves into a site shaped like an enormous shallow bowl with the tiny stage at its center. There was little parking and no public transportation. No one was entirely sure who was in charge. The Stones’ stage manager had to make do with what Austerlitz characterizes as “a skeleton crew of 50, composed of the bands’ roadies, union crews, and unpaid volunteers.” The whole thing ought to have been canceled or postponed, but the same type of haphazard preparation had worked out fine at Woodstock. Everyone wanted to believe that a blissed-out anarchism would prevail. “The stars,” Austerlitz writes, “counted on their audience to paper over any gaps in the preparations with their enthusiasm and benevolence.” The fans expected this from themselves, as well. They were neither the first nor the last generation to consider themselves uniquely poised to transcend the failings of their elders. Gatherings like Woodstock were more than just concerts. They were designed, Austerlitz writes, to express the counterculture’s “profound belief in one thing above all: each other.”

This hubris proved most fatal when it came to the Hell’s Angels. The hippies liked to think that their shared status as refugees from “straight” society made the bikers their natural allies. The Angels—not yet as heavily involved in the drug trade as they would become in the 1970s—rocked a pirate flamboyance that encouraged this illusion. But as Austerlitz tells it, the bikers were a vanguard of the angry white working-class masses that would go on to support Nixon, Reagan, and eventually Trump. Many were veterans who espoused a crude patriotism, and in 1965, Hell’s Angels had attacked and beaten anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California.
They observed a violent honor code that they conflated with manhood and had little use for the peace-and-love rhetoric and androgynous trappings of hippiedom. They were also racist, particularly the San Francisco chapter, whose leader walked through the Haight–Ashbury with a Huey Newton badge into which he’d cut notches for every black man he’d assaulted. Members of the San Francisco chapter had attacked three black men for merely pulling up in front of their clubhouse and asking “What’s happening?”

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The role of race in Meredith Hunter’s death remains murky. Hunter was black, but as the mood at Altamont degenerated, the Angels beat on many white individuals as well. Hunter was the only concertgoer killed, but he was also the only one who drew a gun. Passaro was acquitted based on the Angels’ argument that Hunter was waving the pistol around and possibly intended to assassinate Jagger, but Austerlitz doesn’t believe it, and he’s not alone in that. Pulling a gun on an already riled-up group of Hell’s Angels was a colossally foolish act, but as Austerlitz points out, the teenaged Hunter may have thought he needed the weapon at a predominantly white event he was attending with his white girlfriend.

What got the Angels so worked up was the press of bodies at the front of the stage. This was partly the result of geography, the downward slope of the field condensing the crowd toward the center. And it was partly the product of a type of crowd behavior with which the San Francisco bands who often relied on the Angels for security were unfamiliar. The Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane had robust local fan bases, but they were also familiar figures around town. The Rolling Stones were rock superstars, remote from the lives of their fans and charged with an erotic power intensified by their inaccessibility. Jerry Garcia’s fans might have loved him, but they were not willing to claw and scratch and crawl over the prone bodies of their fellow fans just to get close to him. What no one who organized Altamont seems to have fully reckoned with was the sheer toxic potency of the Stones’ fame and its ability to blot out the easy hippie equanimity that typically prevailed at the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. To top it all off, some idiot instructed the Angels to park their Harley-Davidsons around the base of the stage, and when the mass of concertgoers got pushed up against the Angels’ sacred bikes, some kind of violence was inevitable. Needless to say, almost everybody involved, included the Angels, was drunk or on drugs.

Austerlitz is not an especially accomplished reporter. He makes at least one major mistake, attributing onstage criticism of the Angels to the Airplane’s lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, even though Paul Kantner can clearly be seen making the comments in Gimme Shelter—even the event’s Wikipedia page attributes them to him. Austerlitz does make a substantial original contribution to the writings on Altamont by profiling Hunter and his family, tracing their long trek from Texas to California in search of a better life, and the toll taken on Hunter and his siblings by their mother’s schizophrenia. In these chapters, apparently built from extensive interviews with Hunter’s sister Dixie, Austerlitz employs a style of feature reporting associated with the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar, in which the journalist eschews quotes, submerges his own subjectivity, and attempts to produce a simulacrum of the subject’s own life narrative. This is a delicate art, always in danger of processing the subject’s distinctive voice into a bland, standardized diction, as happens here. Austerlitz means well, but his propensity for maudlin clichés (“Life could be so fleeting, and so cruel”) and a pervasive sense of uneasiness in telling this black family’s story makes the chapters on the Hunters feel frustratingly generic. I found myself wanting to hear Dixie speak directly, not through Austerlitz.

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Where Just a Shot Away shines is in Austerlitz’s survey of how people—participants, reporters, editors, critics, and the filmmakers themselves—tried to make meaning of the catastrophe of Altamont. Initial reports, astonishingly, didn’t characterize it as a failure at all. “If this was a Kingdom of Young People as one of the songs suggested,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote the next day, “it was one that was civil and fun. As spectators shouted repeatedly during the concert, ‘We’re really getting it together.’ ” (As Austerlitz points out, the sound system was so inadequate that most attendees who weren’t relatively close to the stage had no idea what was going on right in front of it.)

Saul Austerlitz

But Rolling Stone’s seminal coverage of the concert, which took up 15 pages of the magazine’s Jan. 21, 1970 issue and helped establish it as a venue for serious reportage, forever cemented the concert’s reputation as a countercultural nightmare. The magazine’s Greil Marcus was so disillusioned by his own experiences at Altamont that he felt unable to listen to rock music at all for a year afterward. When Gimme Shelter was released on Dec. 6, 1970, the one-year anniversary of the concert, reviewers like Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby received the film as a depiction of the baleful influence of Jagger’s persona on his gullible young fans. The film itself, as Austerlitz relates, only came together as a whole when co-director Zwerin decided that it needed to include scenes of the band members reacting to the footage, to provide “a genuine moment of reckoning.” The apotheosis of the blame-Jagger take on Altamont, Austerlitz notes, is Don McLean’s song “American Pie,” which depicts Altamont as a witches’ sabbath led by “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick” (that is, Jagger as Jumpin’ Jack Flash), culminating in a human sacrifice.

The Rolling Stones were in their performing prime in 1969, and Jagger’s overwhelming charisma seemed to distort everyone’s understanding of Altamont, like a black hole warping the gravity of whatever planet gets near it. Five decades on, long after the youth culture of the ’60s scared middle-aged movie critics, with Jagger merely a garden-variety celebrity, the notion that the jejune Satanic pretensions of “Sympathy for the Devil” somehow incited the violence at Altamont seems laughable. The Hell’s Angels, who cared little for the Rolling Stones and regarded Jagger, not inaccurately, as an art-school ponce, were the source of the violence, and they tap into an old and deeply rooted form of American atavism. The Stones and their staff were responsible for the fiasco not because they embraced “evil,” even as edgy affectation, but because they were as naϊve as their fans and the San Francisco bands, believing in the foggy power of “peace and love” to overcome bad vibes and bungled logistics. In 1989, Jagger told an interviewer, “It was a complete mess, and we were partly to blame for not checking it out. You expected everyone in San Francisco—because they were so mellow, nice, and organized—that it was going to be all those things. But of course, it wasn’t.”

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Much has been read into the impassivity of Jagger’s face as he watches the raw footage shot at Altamont in Gimme Shelter; one critic likened his expression to “the pusher watching the junkie go down.” The Jagger who appears in the film’s early concert scenes, shot at Madison Square Garden, is a consummate performer, but to expect him to summon for the camera a response commensurate to the tragedy was misguided. As the object of all that adulation and lust, the focus of all that psychic energy, he was as unsuited to making sense of the chaos of Altamont as the object of a demented, obsessive crush is to explaining the inner thoughts of the person who fixates on him. There’s an element of “Look what you made me do” to the notion that Jagger had to be called to account for how weird people got when he was around. The madness in the air at Altamont was the child of the crowd around the stage, the fans who kept pushing relentlessly forward into the Angels’ fists and pool cues.

Onstage in Gimme Shelter’s climax at Altamont, the usually confident Jagger mostly looks lost and confused—according to Austerlitz, he genuinely expected a peace-and-love-fest, and in the film his efforts to soothe the crowd come across as wobbly and spooked. But was the monster he faced “the dark side of the counterculture,” a vein of evil and chaos running through the hippie dream, or something a lot more widespread? A facile notion of the power of anti-establishment brotherhood to overcome the Hell’s Angels’ violent nature led to the catastrophe, but that was not the only form of hippie exceptionalism at work. A caller to a local radio show the day after the concert astutely cited another cause: celebrity. The heedlessness of the crowd in its frenzy to get as close as possible to the Stones proved, he said, that the counterculture, which prided itself on its easygoing egalitarianism, was just as susceptible to the “so-called Hollywood culture” as straight society. If Gimme Shelter were just a story of poor event planning, hippie foolishness, and brawling bikers, it wouldn’t retain its power to chill after five decades. The ravenousness in so many of the faces in the crowd at Altamont was never exclusive to the counterculture. Of all the rough beasts the Stones spied from their vantage onstage, this is the one that has never been tamed.

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