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book review

Recalling Altamont as a crime story

Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane confronts members of the Hells Angels at Altamont.
courtesy of Robert Altman
Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane confronts members of the Hells Angels at Altamont.

Taammi Parker was a toddler when her uncle was murdered. She never pressed for the details. His death was clearly too hard on her mother.

As an adult, Parker was watching a TV show about shocking moments in rock ’n’ roll history when she heard her uncle’s name: Meredith Hunter. Decades after the infamous Rolling Stones concert at which Hunter was stabbed to death, Parker watched the fleeting footage of her uncle’s killing in horror. Then she lay down and sobbed uncontrollably.

Just a Shot Away” tells the true story of Altamont, the free concert that was intended as a West Coast Woodstock, a fond farewell to the 1960s, but instead turned into a psychotic nightmare. Culture journalist Saul Austerlitz frames his book as a crime story, opening with a visit to see Dixie Ward — Taammi’s long-suffering mother, Meredith’s sister — and concluding with the 1970 acquittal of Alan Passaro, the Hells Angels biker who attacked Hunter. 

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It’s a good strategy, considering that longtime San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin published a definitive account of the Altamont fiasco two years ago. Selvin’s book has more particulars about the event itself. Austerlitz emphasizes Hunter’s short life and ugly death — “his was a name with no face, no body,” he writes, laying out his bid to change that — and the cultural impact of “Gimme Shelter,” the landmark Stones documentary that made Altamont, right or wrong, a one-word crossword answer for the clue “death of the Sixties.” 

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The many reasons behind Altamont’s hideous failure have been handed down through the decades. The Stones, already billed by then as “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band,” felt they’d missed out on Woodstock, the epochal festival that took place in mid-August of 1969. Touring America in late 1969 for the first time in three years, they hatched a plan with the Grateful Dead to throw a free all-star festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

With little time to coordinate and an abundance of faith that the thing would just come together of its own accord, the Stones stood by as the festival site moved from Golden Gate Park to a race track in Sonoma and then, at virtually the last minute, to a desolate speedway about 60 miles east of San Francisco. The band also took the word of the Dead, who explained that the Hells Angels had served as an effective security detail at plenty of outdoor Bay Area performances since the Summer of Love. 

By the time the show at Altamont began, an estimated 300,000 young people had abandoned their cars on the highway and grabbed their sliver of turf on the vast hillside overlooking a tiny, hastily constructed stage. They carried in their own food and drink, or had none at all. (There’d been no time to arrange for concessions.) Strangers offered strangers swigs from jugs of wine or juice, many of which turned out to be dosed with LSD. Even before the band Santana kicked off the show at midday — the other acts included the Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Jefferson Airplane — the medical tents were overwhelmed with bad trips.

Most anyone with a passing interest in the ’60s or the classic rock era knows something about what happened next. Throughout the day and into the increasingly chilly night, the Hells Angels — who’d taken their pay in the form of $500 worth of beer — prowled the stage scanning the crowd, swinging sawed-off pool cues at anyone who stumbled into one of their motorcycles. Hunter, an 18-year-old from Berkeley in a lime-green suit, had a gun, for protection. It did him no good. And it allowed Passaro’s lawyer to argue his client acted in self-defense. 

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The resulting coverage in Rolling Stone and in “Gimme Shelter,” the documentary directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, created a set of enduring myths about the concert. The magazine erroneously reported that Hunter’s murder took place during the Stones’ black-hearted opening number, “Sympathy for the Devil.” (It actually happened a few songs later, during “Under My Thumb.”) 

Believing the mistake required “a kind of magical or religious thinking,” Austerlitz writes, “in which infernal powers superseded human authority.” If “Sympathy for the Devil” could curse a massive gathering, “it meant that rock ’n’ roll was powerful enough to change the world.” Change it, just not in quite the same way the flower children originally imagined. 

JUST A SHOT AWAY: 

Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont

By Saul Austerlitz

St. Martin’s, 316 pp., illustrated, $27.99

James Sullivan is the author of five books, including the forthcoming “Which Side Are You On?” He can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.