Americans love nostalgia, and if there’s one era that has been completely obscured by a veil of nostalgia, it’s the 1960s. That’s when it was all happening, right? Young people Believed in Things, and a totally groovy revolution was just around the corner, fueled by peace and love and optimism and great hair and no Twitter. Simpler times… right? Saul Austerlitz’s new book, Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont, blasts right through that rose-colored image of the decade.
There was a dark side to the 1960s, as this investigation of what really happened at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont Festival—meant to be a kind of Woodstock West—reveals. The haphazardly put together concert was a drug-drenched debacle from the get-go. And famously, by the end of the night, a teenaged boy named Meredith Hunter had been murdered. The chaotic and violent event came to symbolize the end of an era, but what makes this book so potent is how Austerlitz hones in on the human fallout. We get to know Hunter’s family in intimate detail, and come away understanding viscerally how non-symbolic, how deeply disastrous and destructive, Meredith’s death was for those who loved him.
Recently, Austerlitz—who has written three previous books, including Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes—and I corresponded via email.
The Rumpus: What made you want to write about the disastrous concert at Altamont, which has been written about so many times before?
Saul Austerlitz: Altamont had almost always from the perspective of a participant looking to exculpate themselves, or to point the finger elsewhere, or to render the 1960s in “long strange trip” tie-dye. I started off this project thinking of writing about the Maysles brothers and their transformative effect on American documentary, and then realized I wanted to write about Gimme Shelter in particular, and about the experience of the concert as a whole. I really wanted to combine the experiences of the concertgoers with the performers, and properly place it in the context of its era.
Rumpus: You write that Charlotte Zwerin, editor of Gimme Shelter, was the “the glue that held the Maysles’ work together.” Can you talk a little bit about how the documentary was made, and about why you write that Zwerin was “the true director”?
Austerlitz: Albert Maysles was a brilliant cinematographer, and his brother David was a superlative organizer, thinker, and all-around maestro, but neither of them were editors, and that’s where Charlotte Zwerin came in. Albert was allergic to the editing room, and David was content with overseeing the work, so they needed someone with the ability to transform their occasionally brilliant raw footage into a narrative. Albert and David knew they had captured something remarkable at Altamont, but had no idea how to make it into a film. The footage of Meredith Hunter’s killing was remarkable, but how could you tell the story of someone’s death when it occurred at the very end of what was otherwise a concert film, with no lead-up or foreshadowing?
Zwerin was not only the filmmaker who did the hard work of assembling their footage into a film, she was also the one who realized that, in order for the film to work, they would have to film the Rolling Stones watching the results of their efforts, and comment on what they saw. Without that footage of Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, which forms the backbone of the film, it is hard to imagine Gimme Shelter having the emotional heft that it does. In that sense, this is truly Zwerin’s film, and I give the Maysles brothers credit for granting her the directing credit she very much deserved.
Rumpus: What were some of the weirdest/craziest/most unexpected things you learned over the course of your research?
Austerlitz: The Hells Angels attempted to assassinate Mick Jagger on two separate occasions. The second time, they were planning to blow up his house in the Hamptons, but their boat capsized, and they lost all their explosives.
Also, I knew people in the late 1960s did a lot of drugs, but people in the late 1960s did a lot of drugs.
Rumpus: How did you get access to Meredith Hunter’s family?
Austerlitz: I knew that I particularly wanted to tell their story, so I reached out to Hunter’s sister Dixie Ward, and his niece Taammi Parker, and asked if I might come out to California to speak with them. They were initially somewhat leery of speaking with a journalist, but wanted their story to be told. I wound up spending five hours at Ward’s house, where she graciously told me some of her family history, and let me ask her some questions about her brother, and about her life in the years since her brother’s death.
Rumpus: Do you think Hunter’s actions at the concert—waving a gun, using drugs—made it easier for the media to write him off and/or blame him for what happened?
Austerlitz: Likely yes. The habit of blaming victims for their deaths—especially black American victims—is not a new development in American life, and there was a latent desire to fit Meredith Hunter into an easily graspable category so as to render his death more excusable. This fit hand in glove with a similar desire to understand the Hells Angels as the counterculture’s wild-man allies, whose violence could only be checked but never fully stymied. In this rendering, if you were so reckless as to get into a fight with the Angels—even one they had started—the onus was on you.
Rumpus: I was so interested in the detailed and compassionate portrait of Altha, Meredith Hunter’s troubled mother. Did you know before you started writing this what an interesting character she was? Why is there so much of her so early in this book?
Austerlitz: I had little idea of Altha’s life before beginning to research this book, but the more I learned about her, the more I felt that understanding her was essential to grasping where Meredith Hunter came from. Her life, struggling with mental illness and dysfunctional relationships and a racist culture all around her, was tragic and stark and emotionally complex, and I wanted readers to think about the beauty and terror of her life, and what it might mean to be the recipient of that inheritance. It was important to me to tell her story so we might better understand Meredith Hunter as a person, and not a symbol, someone grounded in a particular time and place, the product of a family with its own demons and its own triumphs.
Rumpus: On that same note, you spend so much time and attention in the book letting the reader really get to know Meredith Hunter and his family. Why was it important to humanize Hunter’s side of the story?
Austerlitz: I felt that Meredith Hunter was the invisible figure at the center of the story. His name was still familiar to many music fans, but his life beyond the handful of seconds captured by the Maysles’ cameras were almost entirely unknown. I wanted readers to think about the actual teenager who had left his house that morning to attend a concert and never gotten to come home. Without that, Altamont is a disjointed narrative: a bunch of bands put on a concert and some stranger got killed.
Rumpus: This book reads a bit like a thriller. Even though I obviously knew what was going to happen, I read the pages about the disastrous, sloppy planning of the concert with baited breath. How did you think about structure, and manage to create such suspense, when you were writing?
Austerlitz: I thought of the concert as the funnel at the center of the story, and so I first wanted to get all the key players on the stage, so to speak, before the show, and then watch them drift in their differing directions afterward. I especially wanted to include the people present to tell the story: the journalists covering the show for Rolling Stone, and the filmmakers recording the show, and realizing that this was not the peace-and-love triumph that had been promised.
Rumpus: You note that the Rolling Stones’ songs addressed the “volatility of the era” but in a remote, removed way. The last part of the book focuses a lot of attention on the Rolling Stones’ and the Grateful Dead’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for what happened at Altamont. What do you think? How could they have responded better?
Austerlitz: I think a good start would have been to simply apologize. Apologize for putting on a concert that did not adequately look out for the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of fans who attended. While perhaps the fans themselves should have been savvier about protecting themselves, it was not entirely unreasonable of them to assume that if a massive free concert was announced, that some thought would have been put into their well being. Both the Stones and the Dead, each in their own way, sought to pretend as if Altamont had nothing to do with them, and that the Hells Angels’ behavior was not their responsibility. I would argue that it was, and that they are at least partially responsible for Meredith Hunter’s death, but the bands never even apologized to all of the other fans who had been manhandled, beaten, or terrorized by the Angels at the show.
Rumpus: There is some canny political analysis in here, and I know you are politically involved in real life. You note that during this era, one side saw the apocalypse and one side saw liberation, and that the country was experiencing a kind of awakening. Do you see any analogues in today’s political climate?
Austerlitz: Dismayingly so. I was writing much of this book during the 2016 election season, and I couldn’t help thinking about the Hells Angels and their hunger for cleansing violence each time I switched tabs to the New York Times website and read another story about rallies where a presidential candidate called for violence against his perceived enemies. And in retrospect, I can’t help but see some of myself in the optimists who believed that we were due for ever-more progress and enlightenment, and were sideswiped by reality at Altamont.
Rumpus: You’ve written several books about comedy, but this story is decidedly darker. What was that pivot like for you?
Austerlitz: Well, most comedians have led really depressing personal lives, so the challenge for me was less the switch in topics and more the switch in styles. This was the first book I’ve done that leaned on interviews and original research, and the shift from analysis to storytelling was a challenge for me. I felt the burden of telling others’ stories, and of doing them justice, while also balancing them with the recollections of other people that might not jibe with theirs. It made me appreciate what a gift it can be to have other people share their stories with you. At times, these stories veered sharply from the actual subject I was writing about, but I wish someone would write a book about Adele Kubein, the former Hells Angel associate who became an Iraq War protester and then went on to receive a PhD in anthropology and become an academic.
Rumpus: Did you ever question your own authority in terms of telling this story, as someone who is too young to have been there?
Austerlitz: Absolutely, and some of the people I interviewed for the book made no bones about pointing out the same thing to me. I knew that there were elements of the concert—of life in America in December 1969—that I would never understand. I chose to treat a disadvantage as a benefit, and see myself as someone not inherently invested in the internecine battles of the 1960s. Coming to the story almost fifty years later, it was easier for me to begin from a place where I would not necessarily have to pay tribute to all the liberal shibboleths of the time.
Rumpus: I don’t want to give away the ending, but I totally cried. Are you still in touch with the Hunter family?
Austerlitz: I am still in touch with them, especially Taammi Parker. I can’t say how they’re feeling about the book (although Taammi and possibly her mom are going to join me for some of my book events in California), but I hope that it brings them a semblance of peace. That would mean everything to me.