For anyone who wants to be reminded that rock ’n’ roll has always had a dystopian element, Altamont is never more than a shot away—'Altamont,' of course, being not just the name of a long-vacant speedway in Northern California but also shorthand for the end of the ’60s, the death of the counterculture and the ultimate correction to Woodstock idealism. That’s a lot of weight for one disastrous concert to cover, but Saul Austerlitz’s recounting re-establishes that the Dec. 6, 1969, show headlined by the Rolling Stones is still just about up to the sorry task ... And Austerlitz makes one other passionate choice that readers may find either rewarding or risible — or both. Because of the stabbing death that day of Meredith Hunter, a black teenager, Austerlitz has determined that Altamont is at its heart a precursor to modern tales of violent racial injustice like that of Trayvon Martin.
In the nearly fifty years since the Rolling Stones played a free outdoor concert at a racetrack in Alameda County, California, the word 'Altamont' has become synonymous with the end of the 1960s, and the death of the hippie dream. On December 6, 1969, the Stones played for a crowd of over 300,000 people, with the Hells Angels serving as an ad hoc security team at the suggestion of the Grateful Dead — who would end up so cowed by the bikers’ overzealous tactics that they left the grounds without playing. The concert had been hastily arranged, and the location chosen at the very last minute; the lack of planning or foresight, combined with a deeply misguided trust in the Angels as counterculture allies, resulted in an infamously disastrous show that culminated in the death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, an African-American concertgoer who had traveled to Altamont from the Bay Area with his girlfriend and a couple friends. He would never make it back.
Austerlitz...recounts the rushed, slapdash planning for the show, which didn't even have a venue until a couple days before curtain. He dissects the disastrous plan to have the Hells Angels police the 300,000 people at the free concert, and to pay them in beer.
He dives into the brutal, virulently racist culture of the Angels and their uneasy alliance with the counterculture. He marvels that the Grateful Dead, the band largely responsible for hiring the Angels in the first place, managed to erase their role in whole debacle, starting with their decision to scamper away and refuse to play their set ... But the book's beating heart lies with Hunter and his family. Austerlitz spent time with Hunter's sister, Dixie Ward, and her daughter, Taammi
Parker, who had been taught to never discuss Hunter and his tragic end. Hunter's mother, Altha, suffered from schizophrenia, and the disease ravaged other members of the family as well. So did the permanent absence of a beloved family member.