Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: 'Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with The Rolling Stones at Altamont"

Meredith Hunter. We all know the name Altamont and its associations, but too few know the name of the young man murdered at the hands of the Hell’s Angels at the infamous free concert staged at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. His name is Meredith Hunter, and in Just a Shot Away, author Saul Austerlitz makes damn sure that we know that Hunter was not just some pawn in an event lazy writers love to use as the anti-Woodstock or as a pat conclusion to the sixties and its peace and love ethos. No biography of The Rolling Stones, the band that headlined Altamont (of course, you already knew that), fails to mention Hunter’s name, but I’ve never read one that gave a full, breathing profile of the man’s life. Even before his tragic end, it was fascinating, horribly troubled, creative, deeply complex. Hunter was raised by a schizophrenic mother whose piece-of-trash husband forced her into prostitution. Hunter was an artist. He was a juvenile delinquent. He was a druggie. He was a loving and devoted uncle and brother. He was a complete human being who lived a multi-faceted life despite its brevity. I never knew any of these things before reading Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with The Rolling Stones at Altamont, and that's what makes it such a gift

It is also a genuine horror story as Austerlitz describes the sickeningly unfolding events of Altamont with a masterful grasp of tone, detail, and character (though he is not above a few sloppy gaffes, the most egregious one I caught being his attribution of Paul Kantner’s on-stage barbs against the Angels to the wrong Jefferson Airplane guitarist: Jorma Kaukonen). We learn all the events leading up to the matter that ostensibly justified the Hell’s Angels’ attack. Yes, Hunter had a gun, but he only took it from his car after the notoriously racist biker gang had been beating on the crowd for hours, and if they were treating white people like that, what would they do to him? I can never defend possessing a gun under any circumstances, but simply having one in one’s possession hardly justifies being stabbed multiple times, having your head kicked in and stood on until your nose is left a smashed mess that makes breathing through it impossible. Apparently, the gun wasn’t even loaded.

While the Hell’s Angels are without question the villains of this story, the Stones have also often been criticized for fashioning the situation that put a bunch of scumbag, violence-addicted, racist, right-wingers in the role of security. Austerlitz not only repeats the truth that too few people know—the Grateful Dead’s camp were actually responsible for hiring the Angels—but also emphasizes the Dead’s cowardice in turning tail on an admittedly hellacious scene while the Stones met it head on in a vane attempt to settle the crowd. Without question The Rolling Stones were a great band, but they certainly never seemed heroic. As described by Austerlitz , their taking the stage at Altamont is probably the closest they ever came despite their ineffectualness. Their silence about Hunter immediately following the concert, however, was unconscionable.

But this isn’t the Stones’ story. To a small degree it is the Hell’s Angel’s story, but it is really the tale of a young, black man murdered by racist “upholders of the law.” Sound familiar? The contemporary relevance of this story is not lost on Austerlitz, who explicitly ties it in with the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir, Rice, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and all the other men who have become the victims of racial violence at the hands of cops and vigilantes. In writing of how the Hell’s Angels acted “out a parodic version of American freedom, where freedom itself was an amoral act, unkind and selfish” and “required tuning out the quiet voices that insisted on the inherent dignity of others, and amplifying the ones that demand that others respect yours,” Austerlitz perhaps inadvertently ties this story to the grotesquely toxic White House of 2018. For such reasons, I defy anyone with a conscience to read this account of a 49-year old crime without getting angry as hell today. As you can probably tell, I did, and for that, Just a Shot Away is not only a great piece of historical journalism but an enduringly vital and relevant one too. 

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