No event signified the end of the 1960s more than Altamont, the free California festival where four people died on December 6th, 1969. The most notorious death was that of 18-year-old Meredith Hunter, who was knifed by the Hells Angels security force as the Rolling Stones played. Directors Albert and David Maysles told the story in Gimme Shelter, but longtime San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin felt the documentary, and most coverage since, have been superficial. “Nobody had done a comprehensive account of the debacle since the original report in Rolling Stone,” he says. He corrects that with Altamont: The Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day.
Employing the help of a private investigator and dozens of interviews with crew members and performers (including David Crosby and the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart), Selvin lays out how what was supposed to be the “Woodstock of the West” turned deadly. Blame goes all around: Mick Jagger, occupied with a U.S. tour, was uninterested in “practical realities” like food, water and bathrooms, and left logistics to the less-experienced team of the Grateful Dead. Selvin brings new details to light about the other deaths that received less media attention: a 19-year-old who drowned in a canal while sneaking in, and two men who were run over at a campfire by an unidentified car thief who managed to slip away from police after they questioned him. He also corrects many myths, like the story that three births happened at the fest (in fact, there likely weren’t any). “That myth was probably developed to ameliorate the violent deaths,” says Selvin. “We pieced together a portrait of a disaster that spun out of control almost as soon as the idea entered the ether.”