“The most blisteringly impassioned music book of the season.” —New York Times Book Review
A thrilling account of the Altamont Festival—and the dark side of the ‘60s.
If Woodstock tied the ideals of the '60s together, Altamont unraveled them.
In Just a Shot Away, writer and critic Saul Austerlitz tells the story of “Woodstock West,” where the Rolling Stones hoped to end their 1969 American tour triumphantly with the help of the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and 300,000 fans. Instead the concert featured a harrowing series of disasters, starting with the concert’s haphazard planning. The bad acid kicked in early. The Hells Angels, hired to handle security, began to prey on the concertgoers. And not long after the Rolling Stones went on, an 18-year-old African-American named Meredith Hunter was stabbed by the Angels in front of the stage.
The show, and the Woodstock high, were over.
Austerlitz shows how Hunter’s death came to symbolize the end of an era while the trial of his accused murderer epitomized the racial tensions that still underlie America. He also finds a silver lining in the concert in how Rolling Stone’s coverage of it helped create a new form of music journalism, while the making of the movie about Altamont, Gimme Shelter, birthed new forms of documentary.
Using scores of new interviews with Paul Kantner, Jann Wenner, journalist John Burks, filmmaker Joan Churchill, and many members of the Rolling Stones' inner circle, as well as Meredith Hunter's family, Austerlitz shows that you can’t understand the ‘60s or rock and roll if you don’t come to grips with Altamont.
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About the Author
SAUL AUSTERLITZ is a writer and critic. His work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times,Boston Globe, Slate, the Village Voice, The National, the San Francisco Chronicle, Spin, Rolling Stone, Paste, and other publications. He is the author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes (Continuum, 2007), and Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy (Chicago Review Press, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Becky.
Read an Excerpt
They arrived in cars and repurposed school buses and with thumbs lifted heavenward in hopes of hitching a ride for the once-in-a-lifetime occasion. They came with friends and boyfriends and girlfriends and children, and with babies yet to be born still in their bellies. They yanked down fences and ignored so many requests for tickets that the show was eventually declared free. They came for the music. They came for the drugs and for the sunshine that arrived only in patches. But more than anything, they came to be together, to feel the power of an enormous mass of human beings gathered in the same place, at the same time, pooling their collective strength and love.
The weather did not cooperate. The site was a last-minute replacement, selected when two prior locations had fallen through. There were not nearly enough restroom facilities, and those that were available mostly flooded or malfunctioned over the course of the weekend. Security was minimal. Abandoned cars littered the roads for miles. Gate-crashing was omnipresent. There was so little food that a local Jewish community center sent along forty pounds of meat, two hundred pounds of bread, and two gallons of pickles to feed hungry concertgoers.
The acid was bad. "If you feel like experimenting," a voice announced over the public-address system, "only take half a tab. Thank you." Children were everywhere, naked, playing in the dirt, carried on their fathers' backs, banging on drum kits.
A doctor was called to the stage midshow and requested to bring full suturing gear to help deliver a baby. Nervous announcements went out over the PA system requesting that fans climb down from the rickety lighting towers, out of the unstated fear that they might topple over onto the crowd. During a freak thunderstorm, the stage equipment was hastily disassembled or covered with tarps. Nine women suffered miscarriages. Three people died. One man's appendix burst. An eighteen-year-old Vietnam veteran overdosed on heroin. A tractor ran over a sleeping teenage boy. The governor eventually declared the entire site a disaster area.
A young woman wearing dark sunglasses stood in line, talking to some documentary filmmakers while waiting to use a payphone to call her parents. "They think this is going to be another Chicago," she said, making reference to the massive unrest at the previous year's Democratic Party convention. "Like I'm going to get my head beaten in. They're terrified," she said. "So I'm going to call and tell them, 'Ha ha, fooled you! I'm alive.'"
Michael Lang and the promoters of Woodstock had hastily set up the phones on the grounds of Max Yasgur's farm in Bethel, New York, as part of the preparations for an influx of four hundred thousand young people who would gather on the weekend of August 15 through 18, 1969. The woman waited her turn to crow to her concerned parents about Woodstock's success, but failure had been avoided only by the narrowest of margins.
Competing philosophies — one passive and happy-go-lucky, the other conspiratorially minded — surged through the crowd. JerryGarcia of the Grateful Dead gushed about the "Biblical, epical, unbelievable scene," and a shirtless man with a ponytail encouraged a group trying out kundalini yoga that "all you gotta score is some clean air." Others muttered darkly about the helicopters hovering overhead at the start of the concert and insisted that airplanes had been seeding the clouds so the concert would be rained out. Why didn't the media report that?
The concert was a catastrophe, but mostly a well-natured one. Attendees treated the setbacks as badges of honor, and mellow good cheer was the rule, on display everywhere. People let their toddlers run free in giant crowds, or took copious amounts of drugs procured from strangers, or arrived nine months pregnant and simply trusted in the goodwill of others. The fields were trampled, the second-cut hay all vanished by the end of the weekend, but even the locals were placid about the interruption to their lives. Residents who had not been able to buy food for days praised "the kids" for their enthusiasm and spirit. Woodstock was an act of learned naïveté, celebrated in part because so much went wrong, and so much more could have.
Everyone was taken aback by the sheer number of people gathering in relative peace. One concertgoer declared Woodstock to temporarily be the second-biggest city in the state of New York. Another, her grasp of math less assured, called it the third-largest city in the world. And the sheer numbers granted a collective force to the hopes and ambitions of the people in the crowd. Woodstock was more than just a concert for the musicians and attendees; it was a mass effort to change the world and reverse the course of a disastrous war in Vietnam. The U.S. Army sent in medical teams to assist the overworked doctors and nurses on site. As camouflage-colored helicopters hovered overhead, symbolically bringing the war home to upstate New York, an ebullient announcement came from the stage: "They're with us, man. They're not against us!" There was power in a crowd, a force and cohesion beyond words or demonstrations of intent. There was joy, too, in sharing a space with so many others, content in the knowledge that shared purpose had been transformed into physical contact.
The crowd had magical powers. "If you think really hard," someone told the audience during the freak thunderstorm, "maybe we can stop this rain!" Even the hated war in Vietnam could be ended if only people wanted it enough. "Listen, people, I don't know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can't sing any better than that," Country Joe McDonald chastised the crowd during his rendition of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die-Rag." "There's about three hundred thousand of you fuckers out there. I want you to start singin'." Woodstock sought to start a dialogue about the future of the country and open a space for American youth to have their say. These gatherings were a kind of secular ritual, a mass whose officiants donned guitars and held microphones and drumsticks instead of censers and holy water.
The musical performances themselves displayed a hodgepodge of styles, from Sha Na Na's matching astronaut-leisure-suit outfits and coordinated dance moves to the Who's rock-god heroics to Arlo Guthrie's drug-mule blues. Joe Cocker's sweaty, ecstatic, head-thrown-back rendition of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from My Friends," a paean to comradeship, moved the crowd, as did Jimi Hendrix, wielding his white-on-white guitar like a feedback-drenched angel, looming over the audience as he wailed out the piercing opening notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Meanwhile, Jerry Garcia came off the stage at Woodstock, convinced he had blown the opportunity to impress the largest crowd he had ever faced. He was only mildly frustrated that his band, the Grateful Dead, had bungled their chances at a defining moment in their careers. This had been their opportunity, and they had not made the most of it. Perhaps it was the overwhelming infinitude of the crowd, stretching for what seemed like miles in upstate New York, or perhaps it was the inevitable nerves that arose from knowing so many eyes were on you. "We fucked up all the big ones," Garcia would later note, with Woodstock joining Monterey, where the Dead had been sandwiched between the Who and Jimi Hendrix, in the pantheon of the band's missed opportunities.
By the time the concert neared its end, the mishaps had mostly been forgotten, overwhelmed by the sheer relief of Woodstock having gone off without any major calamities — or so they believed. "It's looking like there ain't gonna be no fuckups," singer John Sebastian shouted to the crowd, as surprised as he was pleased. "This is gonna work!" Sebastian suggested that everyone "just love everybody all around you, and clean up a little garbage on your way out, and everything gonna be all right!"
Woodstock had been close to a disaster, though: poorly planned, poorly executed, with little foresight and less on-the-ground leadership. The festival had been saved by the desire of its audience for a collective triumph, in which an overcrowded, drug-infested, occasionally unruly mass gathering became an instant cultural high point for a decade, and for an entire generation of American youth. A frosty New York Times editorial compared the pull Woodstock had on young men and women to "the impulses that drive the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea." But other, hipper publications immediately understood the near-biblical import of Woodstock on youth culture. "They came to hear the music, and they stayed to dig the scene and the people and countryside," critic Greil Marcus wrote in Rolling Stone, raving about the sheer firepower of the musical lineup. "It's like watching God perform the Creation. 'And for my next number.'"
* * *
Earlier that same summer, the Rolling Stones had been preparing for a massive outdoor concert of their own. It would be the first live appearance for the wildly successful British rock group in more than two years, after being sidetracked by numerous arrests and drug problems. Much had changed for the Rolling Stones and the world of popular music in the time between the Stones' last show and the one set to take place in London's Hyde Park in July 1969. While "Like a Rolling Stone" and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and "Purple Haze" had each remade the landscape of rock, the Stones had matured from youthful blues enthusiasts armed with an impressive arsenal of Keith Richards's killer riffs and Brian Jones's ear for pop melodies to craftsmen capable of such sustained bursts of musical innovation as their most recent album, Beggars Banquet, which featured the indelible hits "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Street Fighting Man."
Mick Jagger had been a middle-class teenager in Dartford, Kent, with the disposable income to buy blues albums directly from the United States. He had sent in his orders to the Chess label in Chicago, home to Etta James, Howlin' Wolf, and Muddy Waters. He began with Waters's epochal Live at Newport, then branched out to more esoteric fare. Jagger would carry three or four discs at a time under his arm around the school playground.
He met Brian Jones, another middle-class kid with a startling rebellious streak that scandalized the polite Jagger. Jones was a father at the age of sixteen, having impregnated a fourteen-year-old; by twenty, he had three children with three different women. He was, an onlooker from the era once noted, "a beautiful mixture of politeness and rudeness." Jagger and Jones shared an abiding love for the Chicago blues, and when they decided to form a band, Jones named it after their mutual hero Waters's song "Rollin' Stone." Jagger, still carrying his records under his arm, met his former childhood schoolmate Keith Richards on a train platform; they bonded over their mutual love for Waters and Chuck Berry, and formed a lifelong attachment. He, too, would join the band.
The Rolling Stones were, at first, Jones's band; he was the front man, the preeminent figure, and the mastermind of the group. He was also, by a substantial measure, the most skilled musician in the group, which besides Jagger now also included Richards on guitar and pianist Ian Stewart. They played their first gig in July 1962, and bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts joined soon after.
Then the Beatles broke, and the Stones found a new manager named Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham promoted the Rolling Stones as the anti-Beatles, unkempt and quasi-criminal where their putative rivals were polite and fun-loving. It was ironic for a group primarily composed of art-school students, and doubly so given that the polished Beatles were the actual working-class heroes. Oldham placed deliberately inflammatory stories about the band in the London press, like the one in the Daily Express that wondered "Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Rolling Stone?" Oldham also booted Stewart from the band (he looked "too normal") and shifted the focus of attention from Jones to Jagger.
The British Invasion revitalized rock in the early 1960s, its paragon acts catapulting to fame on the strength of deceptively simple two-minute numbers. The music was the expression of an attitude. The Rolling Stones were ritualistically contrasted with the Beatles, the London bad boys pitted against the genial, charming Liverpudlians. The Stones were thought of as crude, sex-obsessed, thuggish, their music dense and pitted where the Beatles' was airy and harmonic. It was odd that so much intellectual energy was invested into defining, and contrasting, the two signature groups of the British Invasion when what united them both was a restless experimentalism and a desire to expand outward, from the simple to the complex.
The caricature did not match the Stones' music, which grew increasingly subtle and varied over the course of the decade. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were guitar-slinging British rockers whohad co-opted the blues, created and nurtured by African-Americans, and made it safe for screaming teenage girls. Over the course of six years, the Stones had grown from blues enthusiasts emulating their musical heroes to the creators of a sound all their own, mingling sex and politics, blues and country, Richards's tossed-off electricity and Jagger's erotic swagger.
Oldham locked Jagger and Richards in an apartment and refused to let them out until they had written a song together. The Stones' early hits were mostly blues covers, thrilling in 1964 and mostly unexceptional thereafter, but Jagger and Richards soon discovered that they could write their own songs, indebted to the blues but possessed of their own rude, brutal force. Beyond the driving numbers like "Get Off of My Cloud" and the timeless "Satisfaction," the Stones became, to their own surprise, masters of the blues ballad, penning songs like "Time Is on My Side" and "As Tears Go By" (originally written for Jagger's girlfriend Marianne Faithfull).
Jones was now a decidedly second-tier band member, but his musical daring gave the Rolling Stones the sonic filigree that would dot superb midperiod albums like 1966's Aftermath: the sitar on "Paint It Black" and "Mother's Little Helper," the marimba on "Under My Thumb."
Jones began taking acid and beating his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and slipping out of the orbit of the band, which increasingly belonged to Jagger and Richards. Richards looked like a recently exhumed Cro-Magnon and had a drug habit that would fell five NFL offensive linemen, but he proved himself a surprisingly limber songwriter with a gift for melody that even Jones could not match. And Jagger? Mick Jagger was simply a star. Andrew Oldham had known, even before the singer himself had, that this young man was born to stand in the heat of the spotlight. Here was the rare figure who would flourish there.
* * *
A band devoted to cranking out singles for a rabid audience of infatuated teenagers had grown into artists entering the most fruitful phase of their careers. Savvy lead singer Mick Jagger, on the cusp of turning twenty-six, had the brilliant idea of coming up with the money for the Hyde Park show by offering British television network Granada Television the opportunity to make a documentary film of the concert.
Hyde Park came at a hinge point in the Rolling Stones' story: the band's past tragically shucked off, and its future still unknowable. Brian Jones, the band's cofounder, had died only three days prior to the show, drowned in his own swimming pool at the age of twenty-seven. Erratic personal behavior, drug addiction, alcoholism, and persistent run-ins with the law had led to Jones departing the band just a few weeks earlier, and now, shockingly and yet not at all surprisingly, he was dead.
The Hyde Park show's organizer, Sam Cutler, took to the mic before the Stones started their set to tell the crowd they should feel proud. There were three hundred thousand people present, three times as many attendees as at a recent sold-out Wembley Stadium British Cup final, and "there's not yet been one incident reported to the organizers. We managed to assure everyone that crowds that attend pop concerts attend because they want to listen to music."
Jagger asked Cutler to prepare the audience for a somber moment midconcert, calming the deafening roar of the crowd so he could deliver his planned tribute to his former bandmate and comrade. Having quieted the crowd to his satisfaction, Jagger went on to read a portion of Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Adonais," an elegy written for Shelley's friend and fellow Romantic poet John Keats, dead at the age of twenty-five. "'Tis we, who lost in stormy visions keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife. And in mad trance, strike with our spirit's knife," Jagger read. "Fear and grief convulse us, and consume us day by day ..."
After some polite applause, Jagger shouted "All right!" as if to call a halt to the depressing lesson. The Rolling Stones, young men in love with not just the sound of rock 'n' roll but its embrace of youth and vigor, could face the idea of death for only so long before itching to return to life, and to music. Stones crew members released a horde of butterflies — many of them already dying or dead — from boxes poised at the edges of the stage.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Just a Shot Away"
Copyright © 2018 Saul Austerlitz.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
PART 1- PREPARATIONS
Chapter 1- Woodstock West
Chapter 2- Burning Crosses
Chapter 3- Staging the Show
Chapter 4- Outlaw Pride
PART 2- UNRAVELING
Chapter 5- The Outer Circle
Chapter 6- “Let’s Not Keep Fucking Up!”
Chapter 7- Whippin’
Chapter 8- Gun and Knife
PART 3- CARRYING ON
Chapter 9- Last Chopper Out
Chapter 10- Dupes
Chapter 11- “We Only Want Beautiful Things”
Chapter 12- “We Blew It”
Chapter 13- Spontaneous Declaration
Chapter 14- 8:15