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The Legacy of Altamont

Joel Selvin's book casts a new light on the Rolling Stones' 1969 concert.

Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Altamont has by now acquired the kind of dynastic weight that even the Rolling Stones, for all their grandiose posturing as they promoted the concert, could never have imagined. Today, when we talk about the end of the Sixties, we talk about Watergate and we talk about the Manson Family and we talk about Altamont. But no matter what moment we settle on, we agree that the Sixties had an end: a moment when blind idealism was finally bested by unavoidable proof of man’s intrinsic violence and egomania and greed. This view is a grim one, but it is also a comfort. It means that any attempt to mitigate this Hobbesian brutality is not just a fool’s errand, but a dangerous one. Best to stay home.

Dey Street Books, 368 pp., $27.99

The story goes that the dream of Sixties ended because something weakened, something broke. Because the loving energy that emerged as a dominant force in society for a few short years was no longer strong enough to remain dominant. Because human nature tried too hard to be something it wasn’t. Because reality had to intrude one way or another, and so it made its presence known in a lion-colored field in California, as a temporary city sang along with its temporary anthem: “War, children, is just a shot away.” 

When they began their U.S. tour in 1969, the Rolling Stones were broke, still regrouping after the death of their founding member, Brian Jones, and desperate to achieve some solvency and stability. But the band also wanted to remain relevant to American audiences, and to prove that they hadn’t become out of touch profit-mongers whose celebrity allowed them—and perhaps even forced them—to inhabit a reality that bore very little resemblance to life as their listeners knew it. For the Rolling Stones, hosting a massive free concert was the simplest solution. The band couldn’t get its chosen venue, Golden Gate Park, and so, twenty hours before the concert began, they settled on Altamont Speedway: a patch of featureless ranchland 60 miles east of San Francisco, surrounded by conservative farming towns.

Joel Selvin’s new book Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, hinges on the argument that the Sixties was already more of an idea than a reality even before the decade itself was over. The Rolling Stones were determined to host a free concert, Selvin writes, because they wanted to create their own generation-defining cultural event. Altamont was meant to be the West Coast’s answer to Woodstock, which had taken place just a few months earlier, but was already enshrined in cultural memory. Altamont’s organizers anticipated a crowd of perhaps 100,000, but by the morning of December 6, 300,000 people were waiting for the show to begin. No one wanted to miss the Sixties.

But Altamont had bad vibes from the beginning. Four people died at the concert, and Selvin’s detailed account of the day’s events actually makes you wonder why more people didn’t. LSD laced with speed began working its way through the crowd hours before the first act took the stage, sending so many people on bad trips that the minimal medical personnel, too overwhelmed to offer talk therapy to patients, started administering Thorazine as an emergency stopgap—until they (quickly) ran out.

Bad trips were only the beginning. The Rolling Stones, wary of the police, had hired the Hells Angels to run concert security, offering them $500 worth of beer for their trouble. Because of the last-minute venue change, there had only been enough building material to raise the stage four feet off the ground; at the start of the concert, the audience was separated from the performers by nothing more than a thin piece of twine. As fans began to rush the stage, the Hells Angels held up their end of the bargain, punching and kicking anyone who crossed the line. When a new group of Angels showed up and parked their motorcycles beside the stage, the violence only escalated, and medics were soon treating not just scrapes and bruises, but skull fractures and lacerations.

“When they started messing over our bikes, they started it,” Hells Angel Sonny Barger said in a radio interview the following day:

Ain’t nobody gonna kick my motorcycle… When you’re standing there looking at something that’s your life, and everything you got is invested in that thing, and you love that thing better than you love anything in the world, and you see a guy kick it, you know who he is. You’re gonna get him. And you know what? They got got.

The Rolling Stones’ purpose with Altamont, Mick Jagger told reporters before the concert began, was “creating a sort of, uh, microcosmic society, you know, which sets an example to the rest of America.” The most horrific violence at Altamont occurred not because the Rolling Stones failed, but because they were too successful. They created not a “microcosmic society” within America, but a microcosm of America itself. 

“War, children, is just a shot away,” Mick Jagger sings on “Gimme Shelter,” a track the band recorded during the tour. But when Jagger is joined on the record by sessions vocalist Merry Clayton—who was pulled out of bed at three o’clock in the morning, Selvin notes, and came to the studio with curlers still in her hair—the vision changes. “Rape, murder, is just a shot away,” Clayton sings. In a song about violence, anarchy, and societal destruction, a white man envisions the coming storm in terms of large-scale historical change. But a black woman describes the revolution through the finite acts of violence it seems will inevitably define her experience of it, since they already define the America she knows.

If “Gimme Shelter” remains a culturally relevant song—if it atomizes some essential quality of its political moment; if it communicates an emotional reality by circumventing the listener’s analytical mind and going straight for the limbic system—then it is able to do so largely through the tension between those two voices: between the white man who wanted to perform his version of America, and the black woman who lived its reality.

Jefferson Airplane performed before the Rolling Stones took the stage at Altamont, and chose not to linger long enough to watch the headliners perform—a decision that may have had something to do with the fact that the Hells Angels knocked one of their performers unconscious. The band commandeered a helicopter reserved for the Rolling Stones, and as they departed, Selvin writes,

the pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement… They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter.

Most of Altamont’s 300,000 spectators also had no idea a murder had taken place—or that violence had dominated the area surrounding the stage from the concert’s beginning. One of the most insidiously frightening insights that Selvin’s Altamont allows us is that a day now remembered as “rock’s darkest day” was seen by the majority of its participants, at least in its immediate aftermath, as a pretty good concert. Even the performers themselves weren’t entirely sure what happened until later.

What happened was this: Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black man, brought his white girlfriend, Patti Bredehoft, to the free concert at Altamont. He also brought a gun. When Alan Passaro, the 22-year-old Hells Angel who stabbed Hunter to death, went to trial for murder, his attorney would focus the jury’s attention on the fact that Hunter had a gun to begin with.

“I think some fear came over me,” Passaro said at trial. “I was looking after my people.” Passaro was acquitted, on the grounds that he had acted in self-defense.

The jury could be sure that Meredith Hunter had a gun because Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles’s documentary of the Stones’ tour, showed him holding one. One frame from the documentary shows the Hells Angels pulling Meredith away from the stage, and Meredith withdrawing his weapon. He doesn’t have time to aim it at someone. He doesn’t have time to do anything but pull the gun free of its hiding place and extend the arm that holds it, perhaps to aim it, perhaps simply to show that he has it—as any young black man surrounded by a gauntlet of white gang members might. No matter what its organizers’ goals were, Altamont belonged, recognizably, to the America Meredith Hunter already knew. Rape, murder, is just a shot away.

Meredith Hunter died before he could be taken to a hospital, and likely would have died in transit even if an airlift could have been arranged. But the way things were, he never got off the ground. The helicopter pilot who could have taken him to a hospital refused to act without authorization from the concert’s headliners. This helicopter, he explained to the doctor who pled with him to try to save Meredith Hunter’s life, was reserved for to the Rolling Stones.

Gimme Shelter, which was released in 1970 and helped cement Altamont’s reputation as “rock’s darkest day,” should have been included on the Voyager probe’s golden record: That’s how perfectly it demonstrates the meaning of the phrase rock star. “We’re gonna have a look at you,” Mick Jagger says in the documentary’s opening moments, addressing a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden with the lazy intimacy of a lover. “We’re gonna see how beautiful you are. Oh, New York City, you talk a lot, let’s have a look at you. Let’s have a look at New York City.” The Rolling Stones have come to turn on America, and the crowd roars, reveling in the joy of being seen.

Gimme Shelter was never meant to capture a murder, or to offer itself up for forensic analysis of the moment a movement died. It’s to the Maysles brothers’ credit that they didn’t try to present a more cohesive narrative of the concert at Altamont than their crew managed to capture (or even might have captured, if so many of them hadn’t been dosed with speed-laced LSD). Instead, the documentary cuts disorientingly between faces in the crowd: a man roaring like a lion as he writhes in the grips of a bad trip; a family arriving with their baby; a naked woman, her skin red and raw, being led toward the parking lot by two men; a square-looking white chick collecting donations for the Panther defense fund (“after all,” she says, “they’re just negroes, you know”).

In Altamont, Selvin criticizes Gimme Shelter for imposing too much of a linear framework on the concert footage—for swapping the order of the opening acts performed by Jefferson Airplane and the Flying Burrito Brothers, for example, to suggest a straightforward escalation of violence throughout the day, rather than a series of spikes and lulls. But Selvin also relies heavily on an artificially omniscient point of view: Altamont is deeply researched, but Selvin merges the hundreds of voices that inform his account into one coherent vision. It takes what might have been a collage of disparate voices and turns it into a smooth page-turner. The book a pleasure to read, but one of the pleasures it offers the reader is a sense of certainty as to just what happened, and who is to blame.  

“The Stones brilliantly, intentionally it would seem, positioned themselves to be in control, but not be responsible,” Selvin writes of the Stones’ role in Altamont. “Like capos in the criminal underworld, they built deniability into the system.” According to Selvin, the sole motive that could explain Rolling Stones’ decision to go forward with the concert is greed: greed for money, greed for fame, greed for the power these commodities brought with them. Yet by naming the Rolling Stones as villains—and fairly boring ones at that—Selvin contradicts his apparent goal in writing Altamont, a book that otherwise tirelessly and judiciously contradicts the cause-and-effect narratives that other chroniclers of the Sixties rely on so frequently. Such a reading reduces the tragedy of Meredith Hunter’s murder to the discrete choices of a few bad actors—and saves us from seeing it as the result not of “rock’s darkest day,” but his nation’s values.

With Altamont, the Rolling Stones wanted to create a temporary anarchist society, a communal love-in. Instead they created a monarchy, and told the Hells Angels to protect the royals—them—at all costs. The Hells Angels did. Later, those who positioned Altamont as the end of the Sixties argued that this was the moment when the decade’s ideals were inevitably contradicted by reality—the moment when believers in gentle anarchism encountered a force of dark anarchy, and decided the risk wasn’t worth it. Yet the Hells Angels’ presence at Altamont represented, if anything, the American societal norms that the concert was meant to provide an antidote to: the ones that said some lives were more valuable than others, and that violence was sometimes the only way to maintain this crucial distinction.

One of the most unsettling revelations Altamont offers—and the one that seems most worthy of our attention, nearly fifty years later—is that the powerful are not always in control. As the Hells Angels stomped, stabbed, and kicked Meredith Hunter to death, the Rolling Stones could only watch helplessly from the stage, implore the crowd to “cool out,” and wonder just what they were seeing.