Notes From The 3rd Shift: Book Review - “Just A Shot Away: Peace Love and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont”
The Grateful Dead are more to blame than the Rolling Stones for the concert at Altamont, and the murder of Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels did not take place during ‘Sympathy for the Devil”, but four songs later during “Under My Thumb”. These are the two major takeaways from Saul Austerlitz’s new book, “Just A Shot Away: Peace Love and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont”. So the Stones lose a bit of evil lustre. There goes the satanic ritual/human sacrifice angle so dear to the hearts of suburban 16-year-olds listening to “Beggars Banquet” in the 1970s on their cassette players, arguing about which rock band was the most evil.
The illusions of youth must die sometime.
Austerlitz describes the Stones as disinterested, not diabolical. The Hells Angels are brutal thugs. The concert organizers are both incompetent and self-interested. The audience of 300,000 is drunk, high, and delusional. All the elements for what the author calls a ‘misbegotten’ show are in place (great word, if used too many times).
The book is fascinating. Who knew the Grateful Dead were responsible for most of the
organizing, and that they turned chicken and ran to a helicopter to escape the violence they’d helped bring about? Or that they and others behind the fiasco tried to put together a major event in less than a week? Or that Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane got punched in the face for swearing at a Hells Angel who complained the fans were knocking over and vandalizing the Angels’ motorcycles? Or that Meredith Hunter, the murder victim, was a junkie and not such a nice guy? Almost 300 pages of entertaining incidents and details.
Good job so far. Then, Austerlitz goes astray.
The story of Altamont has holes in it. Facts that will never be known. Of course it does. How could it not, when most of the witnesses to the event are guilty of criminal or at least irresponsible behavior, stupidity, and being loaded with alcohol, weed, and acid?
Unfortunately, Austerlitz chooses to fill in the narrative gaps himself.
He puts thoughts in people’s heads, words in peoples’ mouths. Describing the last moments of Meredith Hunter’s life, with music playing at rock concert volume amid screams of enthusiasm and terror, Austerlitz claims the dying Hunter, lying on the ground after being stabbed six times, said, “‘I wasn’t going to shoot you.’” He further claims the dying man said this “softly”. No source is given for this direct quote. It’s a shame Austerlitz chooses to discredit himself this way as a writer of fact, while writing about a subject he claims to care so deeply about.
Read the book, but don’t trust it too much. Just like Meredith Hunter and several other violence-and drug-induced casualties at Altamont learned the hard way not to trust all those professed ideals of peace and love preached by the ‘60s counterculture.
(Host of The Haunted Cabaret on RI Free Radio)
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