JUST A SHOT AWAY by Saul Austerlitz: a goddamn book review

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I don’t know if there’s anything new to say about Altamont and the Rolling Stones that hasn’t already been said a hundred times before. But I couldn’t find anything else decent to read at the library.

One interesting tidbit. Meredith Hunter — the 18 year old Berkeley high kid who ended up getting stomped by the Hell’s Angels — surely mis-played that one. His girlfriend wanted to go home before the Stones came on. She had seen more than enough violence from the Angels and wanted to call it a night. And the couple they had come with had already left. But Hunter wanted to stick it out. He went back to his car to get a gun he kept in there to “scare off the Hell’s Angels,” in his words. Now anybody that thinks one guy with a gun is going to “scare off” an army of Hell’s Angels is either nuts or suicidal.

There were multiple reasons why Altamont went wrong. Probably the biggest reason was the “Woodstock myth.” This big myth that came out of Woodstock. That in spite of the rain and the massive overload of people and the equally massive shortage of every kind of supplies, the concert still worked because of the magic of hippie peace and love and psychedelic good vibes. In fact, Woodstock could have ended up as just a big a disaster as Altamont if the two promoters — who had never even put on a concert before — hadn’t realized the potential disaster they were facing. And started writing out checks left and right for hundreds of thousands of dollars to stave off — and just barely — all the desperate problems they were facing one after another.

THAT’S what saved Woodstock. Not hippie good vibes.

And it took the two promoters decades before they were finally able to work themselves out of debt from the Woodstock debacle.

You can even hear Jagger on stage — as the Angels are slaughtering people — appealing to hippie good vibes to save the day. “Brothers and sisters if we’re all one then let’s show it.” Unfortunately the Hell’s Angels didn’t get a contact high from Mick’s rap.

For the genesis of the Altamont tragedy you have to go back about 4 years to the idiot Ken Kesey. It’s hard to know what Ken Kesey was thinking — or if “thinking” is even the operative word to describe the processes that were going on in Ken Kesey’s brain — when he invited the Hell’s Angels to take part in his his Acid Tests. But to “invite” the likes of the Hell’s Angels into your world makes about as much sense as inviting a pack of sharks to a feeding frenzy.

Keep in mind, back in The Sixties, a certain faction of the hippie counterculture had a rather romanticized view of the Hell’s Angels. They looked at the Angels as outlaws (as opposed to criminals), righteous rebels and free spirits who were rebelling against the uptight mainstream American culture. Sort of Jack Kerouacs on motorcycles. . . . And an ivory tower intellectual like Kesey (which is what he was at that point) had even more of a delusional view of the Hell’s Angels, and of “the streets” in general. And Ken Kesey — as one of the great vain/glorious proselytizers of LSD — also wanted to use the Hell’s Angels as an example of the great spiritually transformative powers of LSD. Why, LSD could even transform those cro-magnon cavemen like the Hell’s Angels into mystic shamans. . . . Well . . Not quite..
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From Kesey, the Hell’s Angels were able to inveigle their way into the Grateful Dead’s scene. And the Dead were too much passive go-with-the-flow hippies to stand up to the Hell’s Angels (as well as being scared of them). . . And from there it was a short step to Altamont. . . People criticize the Rolling Stones for the long wait before they finally took the stage — which added greatly to the ugly mood at the time. And many chalked this up to the Stones ego, wanting to wait for nightfall to make for a really groovy backdrop to their “Gimme Shelter” movie. In fact, the long break between bands was because the Grateful Dead — who were slotted to play during that period — chickened out and refused to play. The only band to do so. . . Crosby, Still, Nash and Young (who were performing as a personal favor to Jerry Garcia who asked them to play at the festival) had the balls to take the stage. Even though Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane had previously been knocked out be a Hell’s Angel, and the bands on stage were just as vulnerable to violence as the people in the crowd. . . Let’s just say it wasn’t the Grateful Dead’s finest hour, even as they were as much responsible for the Hell’s Angles being at Altamont as anybody. The Grateful Dead were the ones who recommended the Angels work security to the Stones in the first place, after all..
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Overall the book is a pretty good read with some new tidbits of information on a well-worn story. Like, George Lucas — who later went on to do Star Wars — was part of the film crew at Altamont. And Chip Monck — the guy who built the 3-foot tall stage on a day’s notice and also was one of the stars at Woodstock — was the last victim of the violence at Altamont. The day after the show when they’re packing up Monck tried to prevent the Hell’s Angels from stealing the Rolling Stones’s rug that they used to cover the stage and got whacked in the face with a pool cue, losing most of his front teeth. And in a hilarious aside, the San Francisco Examiner gave a glowing front-page review of the show the next day. “300,000 SAY IT WITH MUSIC,” blared the headlines, and they likened the peaceful good vibes that allegedly abounded at the show to a Woodstock West. Ha ha. There’s some first-rate reporting for you!

The book goes into more detail about the life of Meredith Hunter than most of the other accounts. His mother was black and suffered from serious mental problems. His father was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian who left when Hunter was 1, never to return. Hunter was mostly raised by his older sister. Hunter got locked up in juvenile hall for the first time when he was 11 and spent much of his teen years in and out of juvie — mostly for burglary and petty crimes. He was high on methamphetamines at Altamount and his autopsy revealed fresh track marks on his arms — which might explain his overly confident manner towards the Hell’s Angels.

In another twist it turned out Marty Balin was actually long-time friends with the Hell’s Angel — Animal — who knocked him out. But after Altamont the Jefferson Airplane severed all ties with the Angels. Jerry Garcia however continued to be friends with the Angels and kept on hiring them to work security at his shows.

The book seems pretty well researched, aside from one glaring error. The author claims it was Jorma Kaukonen who angrily confronted the Angels from the stage after Marty Balin got knocked out. When it was famously the other Airplane guitarist, Paul Kantner, in one of the more dramatic scenes in the GIMME SHELTER movie.

The book also confirms a long-standing rumor that the Angels put out a contract on Mick Jagger’s life (long denied by Sonny Barger: “If the Angels had wanted Jagger dead he wouldn’t be walking on the earth right now.”). The author claims there were two bungled assassination attempts on Jagger’s life. And that Jagger ultimately paid the Angels $50,000 to get them off his back (which covered the legal fees of the Angel who stabbed Hunter — he ended up acquitted by the way.

After the show Keith Richards was the most furious at Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead’s manager. Scully had visited the Stones in London as an emissary of the Dead. And in between smoking joints and snorts of Nembutal with Richards, Scully had recommended the Angels for security. “If Rock Scully don’t know any more about things like that, man, to think the Angels are — what did he say? Honor and dignity?” Richards fumed. “Yeah man he’s just a childish romantic. The Hell’s Angels are homicidal maniacs and should all be in jail!!”

 

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