Saul Austerlitz’s new book Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy With the Rolling Stones at Altamont is the story of the concert that was going to be the West Coast Woodstock, and another triumph of the 1960s counterculture. Looking at the musicians, fans, filmmakers, bikers and journalists present that day, the book – out Tuesday – places the legendarily disastrous show in the context of the political and social changes of the era. In this excerpt, Austerlitz focuses on Meredith Hunter, the 18-year-old African-American man who never returned home from the show. Gimme Shelter, the legendary documentary by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, had shown moviegoers the moment of his death, but what did we know of the last day of his life?
Word spread, in late November and early December 1969, about a huge free concert set to come to the Bay Area, and 18-year-old Meredith Hunter told his sister Dixie he was thinking of attending. He had been to the Monterey Jazz Festival and enjoyed himself, and hoped for another glorious day of sunshine and good vibes and music. He did not much care about the Rolling Stones, but the idea of soaking in the love and warmth and companionship that came from hundreds of thousands of well-meaning young people gathered together was too tempting to pass up. Being out in the countryside for the day with his girlfriend and his friends, listening to music, interacting with thousands of like-minded souls – what could be better?
Dixie, reminded of her rides on her recently deceased husband’s truck and the burning crosses she had seen out the passenger window, told him it wasn’t safe in the outer fringes of Alameda County. Violent racism was still alive and well in America, and Meredith was too naïve – too trusting – to see it. “You do not need to be out there,” she told him firmly. Their family had long known that as African-Americans, you were treated differently, wherever you went. You were held to a mysterious standard, one whose rules you often would not know until you had been accused of breaking them.
Meredith was six-foot-two, with his father’s naturally straight hair. He would use Tide detergent and vinegar to reverse-engineer his hair into a natural do, fluffing it out into a small Afro. He wore big-brimmed hats and colorful jackets, sometimes with matching nail polish on his fingers, and there was a certain swagger to his walk, as if he were more comfortable in his skin than all the other teenage boys and girls still adjusting to their adult bodies.
Meredith was receptive enough to his sister’s concerns that he decided he was going to protect himself at the concert at the Altamont Speedway. “You know what happens to people who look like us,” he told her. Dixie responded with a chuckle. It was just like her brother to act tough but not even be capable of following through. “I see you got a gun,” she laughed. “I bet you don’t have any bullets for it.” It would just be there to scare off any hoodlums who decided to pick on a black teenager at a rock ‘n’ roll show. He told Dixie not to worry. He would not have to deal with any of that, anyway.
He called his girlfriend, a white teenager named Patti Bredehoft, and told her he was planning a trip to the free Stones show. He would have the use of his mother’s boyfriend Charles Talbot’s champagne-beige ’65 Mustang, and the show would be a blast. “Come on out,” he inveigled, and she readily agreed. Meredith got himself fully kitted out in his favorite lime-green suit, with a black silk button-down shirt underneath the jacket, and a broad-brimmed black hat atop his head. Patti was decked out, too, in more traditional flower-child garb, with a short suede skirt and a cream-colored blouse, covered by a white cable-knit top knit by her mother.
It was early December, still some weeks before the end of the year, and the decade, but that morning, when Meredith prepared to get on the road, his mother Altha already had a Christmas tree up in the living room. Altha, who had spent her life struggling with schizophrenia, had always loved Christmas, and the tree seemed to promise all the things she had never received: revival, redemption, new life. After the winter, new green shoots would come with the spring. Meredith drove away from the house and began heading east, toward the Altamont Speedway.
Patti was hardly surprised when Meredith came back to the car to join her for a respite that afternoon. This concert was a bust, and she was ready to leave, Rolling Stones or no Rolling Stones. She was dumbfounded when Hunter went over to the Mustang, unlocked the trunk, and removed a long-barreled .22 Smith & Wesson revolver with a blue-steel barrel. Bredehoft watched him put the gun in a pocket of his jacket. “Why are you getting that?” she wondered, shocked. “It’s just to protect myself. They’re getting really bad,” he told her, referring to the Hells Angels. “They’re pushing people off the stage, and beating people up.”
The couple had been among the fans terrorized by the Hells Angels’ presence. They had scurried out of the way when the Angels had roared up to the stage on their Harley-Davidsons with hardly a pause; if they hadn’t made room for the motorcycles, they likely would have been run over. They watched helplessly as the bikers used their pool cues as truncheons, beating fans who had violated the unspoken rules of proximity to the Hells Angels. Bredehoft was particularly troubled by the bland announcements that came from the stage, asking the audience to calm down and be cool. It wasn’t the audience causing the trouble in the first place, she thought.
Bredehoft wanted to leave. Altamont was no fun at all, and she was getting scared. Hunter wanted to stay, and encouraged her to return to where they had been standing. “Come on,” he gently told Bredehoft. “Come back with me. The Rolling Stones are finally getting ready to go on.” The teenage lovers walked away from the Mustang, and back toward the stage. It was now time for the headline act.
The Rolling Stones finally appeared, and for a brief moment, a sense of relief spread through the speedway. The Stones would undoubtedly cool off the overheating crowd, get them back to concentrating on the music, and return the focus where it belonged. “Oh, babies,” Mick Jagger addressed the crowd. “There’s so many of you. Just keep cool down in front and don’t push around. Just keep still, keep together.” Jagger, resplendent in a red cape knotted around his neck and a ruffled orange-and-black silk shirt, had the presence, and the confidence, it seemed, to instantly reorient the crowd in the direction he wanted.
Keith Richards, his rhinestone-studded orange shirt left unbuttoned, his black sunglasses clipped to his T-shirt, fingered the opening notes of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and the rest of the band fell in, determined to bash their way through this.
The unrest in the crowd, agitated by the Hells Angels, continued unabated. “If we are all one,” Jagger announced, “let’s show we’re all one.” Jagger called for a doctor to come up front, next to the scaffolding, and Mick Taylor snuck a quick drag off the cigarette stuck into the fretboard of his guitar before launching the languorous melody line of “Under My Thumb.” The song felt stretched out now, elongated to encompass the crowd, the night, the enormity of this moment.
Meredith Hunter was intent on staking his claim to the Stones, and Bredehoft was there because he wanted her to stand with him. He had climbed onto one of the speaker boxes set up just next to the stage, in search of the best view, and the modicum of protection it granted.
As the drums entered once more, and Jagger repeatedly intoned the line “I pray that it’s all right,” another space ominously began to clear in the audience below. The huge mass of people near the stage was now disintegrating, crumbling under the weight of the fear sweeping its ranks. The Hells Angels swooped into the crowd, a leather-clad phalanx wading into the morass, and the fans in their vicinity rapidly backpedaled, seeking daylight from whomever or whatever had sparked the Angels’ ire.
A hefty Hells Angel jerked roughly on Hunter’s ear and hair, chuckling all the while at his daring as he yanked Hunter down from the speaker box and onto the ground alongside him. Hunter shook off the Angel, and the Angel grabbed him by the arm and hand. Hunter pulled back, and the Angel punched him in the mouth.
When Bredehoft glanced in his direction, having missed the opening beats of the skirmish, she thought she saw Hunter turning around and being approached by first one Angel, and then two or three more. The Angels knocked Hunter to the ground, and he leapt up, intent on defending himself against their assault.
Hunter attempted to flee into the crowd. The Angel then leapt off the stage and chased after Hunter, joined by four of his fellow bikers. They stepped on bystanders’ fingers and feet in their haste to pursue him. Five bikers surrounded one teenager, assaulting him without justification or fear of interruption, as on so many other occasions that day. Meredith Hunter pushed the crowd away from him in his desperate flight from the Angels, looking fiercely at his tormentors in a doomed attempt to scare them off.
Meredith Hunter was in flight from the Hells Angels who had beaten him. He had watched the pool cues raining down on concertgoers all day, had seen the manic glee with which the bikers had beaten others for the crime of enjoying themselves. He had undoubtedly noticed, as well, the viciousness with which the Angels had singled out other African-Americans. What thoughts must have surged through his mind in the moments during which he desperately sought to escape their frenzied grip?
Perhaps, too, the methamphetamine Hunter had taken during the day had lowered his inhibitions, and dulled the innate caution that anyone would have when surrounded by weapon-wielding bikers.
Reaching into the pocket of his suit jacket, he pulled out his pistol and held it up in the air. Both his arms were spread, with his left hand, clutching the gun, outstretched in the direction of the stage. Bredehoft shouted at Hunter not to shoot. She grabbed at Hunter, then turned, spun around by the momentum of the fracas. Hunter was still running away, even as he began to lower his gun. A short, stocky Angel named Alan Passaro, wearing a sleeveless light-brown vest with a “FRISCO” patch over the left breast jumped on him from behind, grabbing at his arm. The biker almost rode on his back as he raised his arm over his head and brought his knife down in a long, curving arc, stabbing Hunter twice. Bredehoft was now alone in the empty circle cleared out by the fearful audience as Hunter was carried away from her.
The momentum of the scuffle carried Meredith Hunter toward the nearby scaffolding, where he disappeared from sight, surrounded by Hells Angels intent on teaching him a lesson.
The Hells Angel stabbed Hunter no less than four more times, his knife repeatedly piercing his back. Hunter, wounded, dropped to his knees. The Hells Angel gripped him by the shoulders and kicked him in the face, over and over. The Angels surrounded him in a loose circle, pounding him with their boots until he collapsed face-forward. The Angels punched and kicked Meredith as they dragged him away from the stage and toward the scaffolding. Hunter fell to the ground, and bumped against some part of the scaffolding, perhaps its pillars. Hunter softly told his attackers, his strength already beginning to fade, “I wasn’t going to shoot you.”
Bredehoft grabbed the jacket of one Angel near her, attempting to pull him off her boyfriend, but he simply threw his arms back, shrugging her off without lifting a hand to her. The Angels were now locked in on Hunter, and Bredehoft’s efforts were incapable of distracting them from their vigilante justice.
Meredith Hunter was in front of them and under their feet, and something had enraged them, something had set the Hells Angels into a frenzied motion that would not be sated. Any threat that Hunter’s gun might have posed had long since been quelled, but the assault went on until he was battered and bruised and completely still.
One of the Angels grabbed a cardboard garbage can with a metal rim and proceeded to bash it against Hunter’s skull. He then dropped the garbage can and, joined by his fellow bikers, kicked Hunter repeatedly in the head. The Angel who had stabbed him, not yet done with Hunter, stood on top of his battered head for a full minute before finally stepping back. “Don’t touch him,” he told a bystander who had been watching the fight. “He’s going to die anyway.”
Bredehoft attempted to break through the tight circle of bikers, hoping to pull Hunter out to safety, but a burly Angel stopped her, telling her that he was not worth it. “He was gonna kill us,” the Angel told Bredehoft. “He deserves whatever he gets.”
A pair of bystanders, including a young man named Paul Cox who had witnessed the entire ordeal, helped flip Hunter onto his stomach, hoping to clear the blood away in order to assess the severity of his wounds. Cox had the horrifying sensation of looking directly into another human being’s lacerated body. The wounds were at least an inch deep, and soon enough, Cox was soaked in Hunter’s blood.
Cox picked up Hunter’s legs and, with others’ assistance, attempted to remove him from the scene. The Hells Angels would not let him through, and Cox thought that they might have been calculating that Hunter would soon be dead.
Cox began carrying Hunter in the other direction, away from the stage. After fifteen minutes, Cox reached the Red Cross tent. Hunter was placed on a metal stretcher.
Medical staff saw that little could be done for Hunter. He was still breathing, but his pulse was weak, and his body had gone completely limp. Hunter’s nose was so thoroughly crushed that he gasped for air, attempting to breathe through his mouth. Dr. Richard Baldwin, the head of medical services at the festival, believed that Hunter’s wounds were so severe that even if he had been stabbed in a hospital operating room, he still would have been likely to die.
The Red Cross workers rushed Hunter into a waiting station wagon, and urged Bredehoft in to accompany him. They took him the half-mile to the speedway’s racetrack, where a helicopter might be able to take him to the hospital. “Don’t let him die,” Bredehoft pleaded, with everyone and no one. “I don’t want him to die.”
The plan was to evacuate Hunter by helicopter to a nearby hospital, where he might be able to receive the lifesaving care he needed. A doctor and a number of other medical personnel examined Hunter at the gates of the speedway track, giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage, but their efforts were fruitless. Meredith Hunter was dead. There was no need for a helicopter.
Patti Bredehoft was escorted back to the first-aid tent. For some time – she could not say how long, but it felt like centuries – Bredehoft sat alone. She was surrounded by her fellow Americans, her fellow Bay Area residents, her fellow music fans, and she was abandoned. No one could aid her, no one could rescue her from the abyss she had invisibly stumbled over. A day to see the Rolling Stones and hang out with friends had turned into the last day of her boyfriend’s all-too-short life, and there was no undoing the notes of the song, no lifting the needle from a skipping track and resituating it at the outer edge of the black vinyl circle. Meredith was dead, and she was alone.
Most Altamont attendees didn’t learn a fellow concertgoer was dead until they heard the news on the radio that night, or later that weekend. The further you were from the stage, the less likely you were to have any idea what might have happened. While Meredith Hunter was dying, hundreds of thousands of other young men and women, separated from Hunter only by their relative good fortune, continued to party obliviously. One young black man died while thousands of white concertgoers carried on enjoying themselves, unable to see or hear the news of his brutal fate.
The family’s Christmas tree was already in place in the living room at Altha Anderson’s house, its branches drooping down toward the floor like a weeping willow. Soon, there would be tinsel draped around the tree, and presents covering the ground beneath it, totems of a happy and fruitful year to come. At two thirty in the morning, the telephone rang at Altha’s. It was a family friend, looking to commiserate over the terrible news. This was how the family first heard of Meredith’s death.
Meredith Hunter’s funeral took place four days after the concert, at the Skyview Memorial Lawn in East Vallejo. Only thirty people attended, partially because the funeral notice had not been published until Wednesday, the day of the funeral.
The family could not afford a gravestone, so the final resting place of their son and brother would remain unmarked for decades to come, a symbol of the forgetting already taking place. Meredith Hunter’s name would be a footnote to music history, but its link to the real young man who had lived, not just died, disappeared under the earth, with no marker to serve as a reminder.
The police eventually towed the beige 1965 Mustang to an impound lot, and Dixie would have to drive out to Alameda County to retrieve it. The Mustang, its two front wheels hefted into the air, returned home, a strong and beautiful machine now without its last driver. It chilled Dixie to watch it, and think about all the places it would never go with Meredith, all the streets it would never trace with its wheels, all the people who would never fit themselves into the contours of its seats.
The family seemed unable or unwilling to grapple with the details of Hunter’s death. That he had died was already too much. For them, the story and its complexities – rock bands and outdoor concerts and security arrangements – only distracted from an elemental American story, still maddeningly unexceptional in 1969. A black man had gone somewhere he was not supposed to be, with someone he was not supposed to be with, and he had been killed for his presumption. The rest was commentary.
What did it mean to be a family in the aftermath of so harrowing a loss? Meredith’s brother Donald would sit out in the front yard, day after day, staring out into nothingness. It was as if he were waiting for Meredith to return, loping along the street, adjusting his hat to the proper tilt, crammed full of stories of his time away. His mother Altha underwent weeks of electroshock therapy at a hospital in Berkeley, and came home, ashen and partially absent, as if a part of her had been excised.
Dixie kept her head down. She went back to school, studied fashion arts, got her teaching certificate. She had so much experience raising children, she figured she might as well make a career of it.
Dixie wanted all the children to know that they were provided for, that someone was there to dry their tears, that someone would listen to them. Who knew what they might encounter when they walked out her door?
She had not been much interested in the trial of Alan Passaro, the Hells Angel charged with murdering her brother. The case would bring her no closure, and it certainly would not bring Meredith back. The verdict, too, was no surprise. Dixie firmly believed that a white man would never be convicted of killing a black man in America, and the trial did nothing to disabuse her of the notion.
Dixie was more struck by the response, or lack thereof, of the Rolling Stones and the other parties involved with the concert. No one (with the lone exception of stage manager Chip Monck) had come to apologize, no one had offered their condolences, no one had even acknowledged the extent of her family’s loss. What would it have cost Mick Jagger or Keith Richards to merely acknowledge her grief? She never watched Gimme Shelter, either. She did not want to see her brother in his terrified last moments, did not want to remember him that way.
Dixie didn’t talk about Meredith with her family because she didn’t want to remember the nightmare of his death. She didn’t visit his grave, a short drive away. She wanted to remember him quietly, with joy. But each year, when early December came around, and she spotted the Christmas trees beginning to sprout in living room windows around the neighborhood, she remembered the tree that had been in her mother’s living room that day. Christmas was a time of painful remembrance, bringing up all the memories she tried so hard to stifle. The tree was supposed to represent life, and it hadn’t. The tree was supposed to spread and grow, and it hadn’t. Neither Dixie nor her mother ever had a Christmas tree in their homes again.
For Taammi Parker, Dixie’s daughter and Meredith’s niece, the family’s history was a palimpsest, with traces of the past now rendered illegible, but still visible under the surface.
Parker was in her early thirties before she discovered the truth about her uncle’s death. Her mother’s silence on the subject had left her unaware of how he had died or the larger significance of his death.
She was watching a VH1 program called The 100 Most Shocking Moments in Rock & Roll when she heard the name “Meredith Hunter” mentioned, and saw the now ubiquitous footage from Gimme Shelter. Parker was flabbergasted. Shock forced a laugh out of her chest, then she went quiet. She turned off the television, turned off the lights. She lay down and cried, letting the tears roll down her face. She didn’t bother to wipe them away. There was no point.
It was too much for her to take in, to know that her uncle’s last moments had been spent fleeing from a man who was intent on piercing his body, over and over, until he could not lift himself up anymore. Only then did Parker begin to understand the enormity of what her family had endured, and the weight of what her mother had silently carried for her entire life. Her family had been forgotten, too, a footnote to a footnote. It was terribly painful that something so enormous in their lives could feel so unacknowledged.
Taammi crafted her own ritual for the uncle she had never really known. Every night at 8:15, a reminder on her phone beeped. It was time for her to honor her ancestors. She would mention them each by name, her uncle Meredith’s prominent among them, and let their presences slip past like images on a screen. In this way, she paid tribute to the lost members of her family, and to her mother, who bore it alone for so long.
Taammi was determined to remember what her mother simply could not, and in so remembering, to honor what her family had experienced. This was the story of black people in the United States, she thought, but her family had been served an even more distilled potion of bitterness to choke down. Meredith Hunter was not just a name, not just a dead man at a rock concert. He was her uncle, and he was loved. Each night at 8:15, she remembered.