All week long, Vulture is exploring the many ways true crime has become one of the most dominant genres in popular culture. Saul Austerlitz is the author of Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy With the Rolling Stones at Altamont, which is out now.
Darkness came early in the Bay Area in December, and with its arrival, the temperature fell precipitously. Some of the crowd had been overdressed for a warm day in the sun; now, most of the crowd was underdressed for what was proving to be a very chilly evening. It got colder here in eastern Alameda County than it ever did in Berkeley or San Francisco. All across the speedway, small tongues of fire lapped into the sky, with paper bags and trash set ablaze to provide some much-needed warmth. Across a shallow ravine from the stage, there were hills ringed with wooden fences, and fans had begun to disassemble them, tossing the fence posts onto bonfires. The air filled with the oily, acrid smell of burning garbage and creosote.
The concert’s hasty setup meant there had not been time to put up the arc lights, the assembly of which required a crane that never arrived. Instead, the boxes containing the arcs had been forgotten under the scaffolding. Now, those same boxes were being ransacked by freezing concertgoers, who tossed them directly onto bonfires to keep warm. The $7,000 arc lights burned unnoticed inside the boxes. Chip Monck, who had ordered the arc lights, would not know about the damage until they were already serving as tinder.
The wait after the end of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s set had extended for an uncomfortably long time. The Rolling Stones stayed in their trailers as darkness fell, and the crowd was left to stew, smoking joints and popping pills and sipping from bottles and cans to keep warm. The hope, unjustified by anything that had taken place so far that day, was that the star power of the Rolling Stones would be enough to calm the tensions in the crowd, to soothe all hurts with the balm of their fame. During the hour-and-a-quarter wait for the Stones, the backstage lights remained off, hampering the efforts of the concert’s medical staff to care for the injured. The lengthy delay before the Rolling Stones emerged only worsened the hostility in the crowd, and the sense of siege for those concertgoers trapped closest to the stage.
Two groups of young men faced each other, almost close enough to shake hands, or at least exchange greetings. On the one side, in their backstage trailer, a British rock group selling a persona two parts prince-of-darkness allure and one part hippie goodwill, all held together by a furious two-pronged guitar attack; on the other, surrounding the stage, a clan of California bikers, increasingly bitter over the thankless job they had been tasked with and sorely tempted to lash out violently. The Rolling Stones and the Hells Angels stared at each other from across a vast gulf, separated by mutual incomprehension. No word went between them, the Stones hoping for an improvement to the situation in the crowd and the Angels waiting for some hint of what might happen next. In the meantime, the Angels began pushing fans back anew, clearing out about forty feet of space between the stage and the audience.
Soon, more Angels came blazing in on their motorcycles, pushing concertgoers out of their way to form a path through the overcrowded thicket close to the stage. One fan, presumably thrilled by the Angels’ unbridled display of power, clapped each biker on the back as they rode by. One Angel stopped his motorcycle to take a lengthy swig from a jug of wine proffered from the crowd.
The band was still in their tiny, airless trailer, the smell of stale smoke filling their lungs as they grimly assessed the diminishing goodwill of the day. Having stayed up the entire night, Richards was drained and anxious to conclude the show. People poked at the windows, shouting and pining for a glimpse of the Stones. The band hoped to play an abbreviated set, then call a halt to the misbegotten concert and send the fans home. The Rolling Stones asked the Hells Angels to escort them to the stage, but Sonny Barger and the other Angels were turned off by what they saw as the band’s antics. Why had they waited so long to play before a clearly violent, dyspeptic crowd? Barger did not like what he saw as an unnecessary delay, intended, as he saw it, to heighten the dramatic tension on an already unbearably tense day. The Hells Angels would no longer serve as bodyguards to “a bunch of sissy, marble-mouthed prima donnas.”
Patti Bredehoft and Meredith Hunter returned from the car and made their way back toward the front, where the Rolling Stones were about to take the stage, accompanied solely by their bodyguard Tony Funches. Bredehoft was afraid of the crowds, having already seen the Angels mauling concertgoers, but Hunter was intent on staking out a spot near the band. The crowd was fierce. No one wanted to cede an inch of space. No one wanted to lose out on their hard-fought proximity to Mick and Keith and the Stones, won with an intrepid spirit and the stubbornness that came of standing in the same crowded space the day long, as the sun arced over the Livermore fields and disappeared behind the horizon. Shoves and sharp elbows met their every step, demonstrations of intent by a crowd that had endured more than their share of discomfort and downright terror in the hopes of seeing history in the making.
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,” 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.
Astonishingly, the Rolling Stones were still expected, under these alarming circumstances, to play a concert, as if this were another night at the local basketball arena. 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. Some fans believed the band deliberately tanked its performance, hoping to deflate some of the frantic energy of Altamont with a mediocre gig, but the Stones sounded fairly solid on this night, given the unprecedentedly adverse circumstances in which they played. Bill Wyman’s bass was mostly inaudible, and Charlie Watts’s drums were poorly miked, but the night belonged to Richards, who played with a restrained frenzy.
After “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” came to its fiery conclusion, a young man with long blond hair tried to climb onto the stage, and was brutally confronted by the Angels, who swarmed around him. They punched him repeatedly, and one Angel kicked him in the face. He was soon motionless, spread-eagled on the ground, surrounded by a crowd so densely packed that there was no room for him to move, or for anyone to assist him.
The Stones’ laid into their cover of Chuck Berry’s “Carol,” a blues rave-up they favored on many of their ’69 tour dates, and immediately followed it with Jagger chugging from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s placed at his feet. “I’d like to drink one to you all,” Jagger chuckled, trying on a broad Southern accent for size. Richards picked up on the moment and launched into the stop-and-start riff of a jagged “Sympathy for the Devil.” A young woman next to the stage longingly held up a bouquet of pink roses as an Angel glowered next to her. The flowers still looked fresh, but their leaves—the ones almost touching the biker—were already seen to be wilting.
Even the Stones’ performance could not change the composition of the toxic stew down below the stage. The audience, thrilled to spot Jagger, surged forward once more. There were calls to clear the stage of everyone other than the performers, but the Angels flat-out refused, preferring to tell others to move. “Off the stage,” a biker, his eyes rolling back into his head, his teeth grinding, ordered. The bikers formed a wedge in front of the band, primed to leap into the crowd on the slightest provocation. The band, flummoxed in its attempts to move the bikers away, reluctantly pressed the Angels into service for the task of clearing others off the stage. The Angels’ excessive shows of force, flinging others from the stage, inevitably led to more scuffles breaking out, both on the stage and elsewhere.
The Angels, and their motorcycles, were still precariously propped up near the stage, and the crowd heaved forward once more, thousands of diehard fans craning for a glimpse of Mick and Keith. One fan kneeled on the motorcycle seat of a San Francisco Angel named Julio, and his weight shorted out the bike, starting a small fire. A thread of smoke began rising up toward the stage, and into the sky. Barger spotted the smoke from his perch on the stage and leapt off to shove the fan away from the motorcycle. Other Angels jumped down to put out the smoldering fire.
The burning motorcycle touched off the day’s severest round of violence yet. The proximity of the Angels’ motorcycles to thousands of wild fans emboldened by the presence of the Stones meant such skirmishes were inevitable. The Angels pushed fans away from their bikes, once more clearing out a demilitarized zone closest to the stage, and kicked, punched, and trampled audience members in the process. The frustrated crowd threw bottles and grabbed for the Angels’ motorcycles, only further agitating the bikers. The Angels surged into the crowd, attacking those they believed had manhandled their bikes and beating them mercilessly. Meredith Hunter was in the thick of the chaos as the Angels rampaged. He reached into his jacket pocket, where he had placed his gun, without removing anything, as if feeling for a totem of protection.
The Rolling Stones, the ostensible stars of the day, perched above the hellish scene, utterly unable to prevent the violence. Guitarist Mick Taylor was stunned by the uncontrolled environment, and found himself incapable of enjoying what should have been a triumphant moment for his new band. He thought about walking off the stage, but was worried that this would only exacerbate the calamity unfolding at his feet.
Sam Cutler approached Jagger with a message about the violence, but Jagger waved him off. The lead singer called out to Richards to halt the song: “Will you cool it and I’ll try and stop it.”
Jagger asked the crowd to sit down, hoping that if more fans got off their feet, the less pushing there might be, and the sooner calm might be restored. The Angels began flapping their arms, gesturing to those fans near them to sit. Jagger called out to his “brothers and sisters,” pleading with them: “Everybody, just cool out!” The crowd reoccupied the space that had been emptied out by the Angels. Watts played drum fills to occupy the silence and Richards fingered his guitar. “All right?” Jagger asked the crowd. “Is there anyone here that’s hurt?”
“Something very funny always happens when we start that number,” Jagger impishly told the crowd. The Rolling Stones had only been too happy to seize on others’ claims of the band’s demonic powers, and now Altamont would be further evidence of their dark hold on their audience. The band started up “Sympathy” once more, Richards’s guitar shooting off sparks as it let loose. Richards, framed by the darkness, calmly let loose thunderbolts of rhythm. The elegant, woozy riff appeared to have momentarily lulled the audience into tranquility. As Jagger sang of czars and ministers, a dog casually strolled across the stage. The day had entered the realm of the surreal. But the violence had only temporarily abated.
As Richards let loose a beautifully limber solo, fluid and relentless, the music was overpowered by the sound of a horrified crowd. The Angels were beating a young man whose overly exuberant dancing—so daring when in the presence of such violence—had irritated them. An Angel shoved the dancer, and another biker began swinging his pool cue wildly at the crowd. The audience members in closest proximity to the Angels surged away from their reach, and the dancer took the opportunity to run away from the stage. The Hells Angels caught up with him, raining blows on his head with their pool cues and kicking him mercilessly, all for the crime of having momentarily enjoyed the concert.
The Maysleses’ cameras caught a goateed young man in a newsboy cap looking at Jagger, silently pleading with him to intervene on behalf of the audience. As Jagger kept dancing, his hands atop his head, his elbows out, encased in his own private world of pleasure, it was clear, to one concertgoer at least, that the lead singer of the Rolling Stones was ill-inclined to help. It was a damning moment. “The Stones’ music was strong but it could not stop the terror,” Stanley Booth would later write of the scene. “There was a look of disbelief on the people’s faces, wondering how the Stones could go on playing and singing in the bowels of madness and violent death.”
One young woman, close enough to rest her fingers on the stage, nodded her head as tears ran down her cheeks. Meanwhile, the fan next to her smiled beatifically, thrilled by his proximity to the Rolling Stones. It was a study in contrasts, with the unrest and uncertainty of the day parceled out unevenly and inconsistently. Some fans were overwhelmed by the chaos, while others were intent on boxing out all such distractions from the music.
A close look at the Maysles’ footage would also later reveal a brief glimpse of a young black man in a black shirt and lime-green suit, surrounded by the crush of fans near the stage. Meredith Hunter would appear for about eight seconds in his penultimate appearance onscreen, looking mostly calm and untroubled, even as he stood in the eye of the oncoming storm. He raises his head, the wide brim of his black hat ascending to reveal his face. He is sticking out his tongue, his eyes lifting to take in the stage, but the most telling detail is just how close he is to the Hells Angels. The burly biker in the black watch cap and the Angels jacket would seemingly only need to briskly shove two young women out of his way to stand chest-to-chest with Hunter.
The Angels were not merely the accidental purveyors of fear; they were studied practitioners of low-grade terror. By the Angels’ warped logic, their opponents understood violence would be the bikers’ response to all assaults on their honor. Altamont, by this logic, was less a mistake, or a wildly excessive counterattack, than simply a larger stage for what the Hells Angels had always done. The Angels were intent on dominating and terrifying all opponents, real and imagined; today, their enemies ran three hundred thousand deep. “Who’s fighting, and what for?” Jagger asked the crowd. “Who’s fighting, and what for? Why are we fighting?” “The fuckin’ Angels,” shouted a disembodied voice in the crowd.
Keith Richards, never as enamored of hippie romanticism as Jagger, harbored no illusions about who was at fault for the disorder in the crowd. “Listen, man. Either these cats cool it, man, or we don’t play,” Richards announced from the stage, taking a notably more confrontational stance than Jagger had by pointing directly at the Angels below him. The stern warning, clearly directed at the Hells Angels, had little effect on the chaos below. An Angel grabbed one of the microphones and implored the crowd to calm down, as if they had been the instigators of the chaos: “Hey, if you don’t cool it you ain’t gonna hear no more music! Now, you want to all go home, or what?” Stones roadie Ian Stewart frantically called for a doctor to approach the stage, and Sam Cutler made an announcement about a five-year-old girl who had gotten separated from her parents. Jagger conferred with Animal, still highly visible in his fox-head hat, who seemed to be keeping the Stones singer informed about disturbances in the crowd.
Patti Bredehoft would have been just as content to leave, having had more than her fill of the festival ambience, but Meredith Hunter was intent on staking his claim to the Stones, and she was there because he wanted her to stand with him. In the ongoing melee near the stage, Bredehoft was separated from her boyfriend, but still able to see him. She could see Hunter, like many other concertgoers positioned near the stage, still aggressively attempting to lay claim to his own space. 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.
“Let’s play cool-out music,” Richards told Jagger, uncoiling a languorous blues melody on his guitar. Sonny Barger later claimed that, at this point, he approached Richards and pointed his pistol at him. Keith would play his guitar, he claimed to say, or he was dead. “He played like a motherfucker,” Barger crowed. But Barger could not be seen next to Richards in the film footage shot that day, nor was his bragging entirely believable. If Barger had pointed a gun at Richards, the Rolling Stones would have had a legitimate claim to playing Altamont as hostages to a hostile, armed force, compelled to play by the threat of being maimed or killed. The Stones never made such a claim, nor did they ever mention it in the years and decades that followed. Barger likely confused fantasy with reality here, mistaking his undoubted verbal intimidation of the day’s headliners with a more physical brand of assault.
“If we are all one,” Jagger announced, “let’s show we’re all one.” “Preach it, brother,” a voice called out from the crowd, and Jagger called on the crowd once more to sit down, hoping to cool some of the overheating tempers on the speedway. 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. Here was the Stones’ moment of triumph, feted and adored in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands.
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, pressed together so tightly that they had practically formed a single, manylimbed organism, Homo rockismus, 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. The Rolling Stones had initially instructed the Hells Angels that their main responsibility was to keep the audience off the stage. The Angels had devoted much of their day to throwing fans off the stage, often with more enthusiasm than the bands might have envisioned or desired. During the Stones’ set, too, the Angels intended to keep the stage unoccupied. Their charge, as they saw it, extended beyond the stage to the bands’ equipment. One of the people in the crowd standing on a speaker box was Meredith Hunter.
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. But Hunter was not just another concertgoer. He was a black man amid a sea of white faces, and perhaps his reckless calculation was predicated on the knowledge that he had already been singled out for punishment by a group of white men known to target black people.
Reaching into the pocket of his suit jacket, he pulled out his .22 Smith & Wesson 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 and pulled closer to her boyfriend. 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 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.
If we were to pause here, we could picture a moment when the clash might have been resolved in markedly different fashion. The danger had been mostly checked. The gun had likely already been wrenched away from Hunter, and even if it had not yet been, he was hardly in any position to fire it anymore. If the Hells Angels had believed in good faith that Meredith Hunter was a threat to the Rolling Stones, or to the crowd, they might have hauled him away, and dispatched one of their men to call the police. The threat would have been defused, and Hunter might have been taken to the hospital, his wounds serious but quite likely, given their location, not life-threatening. Meredith Hunter might have eventually been arrested, and charged with possession of a deadly weapon. But this was not the story of the day, nor of the men tasked with protecting the crowd. Vengeance, not justice, carried the day. Punishment was dealt out swiftly and brutally. 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 faceforward. 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 watched as a small group of Hells Angels surrounded Meredith and pummeled and stomped him, their boot-clad feet and fists surging into his helpless body with terrifying relentlessness. She screamed at the Angels, pleading with them to stop: stop the fighting, stop the assault on her boyfriend, stop the madness. 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.
“Look, we’re splitting!” Keith Richards angrily shouted into his microphone. “If those cats don’t stop beating everyone in sight. I want them out of the way!” A Hells Angel instantly approached Richards and began tugging on his arm. “Hey!” he yelled at the Stones’ guitarist. “The guy’s got a gun out there and is shooting at the stage.” The story of Hunter’s shooting at the stage, however implausible, was spreading from the moment of the encounter with the Angels. (How had Hunter fired his gun in the crowd without hitting anyone or anything? And where had the bullets that had supposedly been fired gone?)
Hunter was now down on the ground under the scaffolding. 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 ha stabbed him, not yet done with Hunter, stood on top of his battered head for a full minute before finally stepping ack. “Don’t touch him,” he told a bystander who had been watching the fight. “He’s going to die anyway.”
Giving up on fighting off the Angels herself, Bredehoft stepped out from under the scaffolding and approached the nearest members of the crowd. Please, she asked, would somebody help out her boyfriend? No one moved. They had seen what the Hells Angels were capable of, and were frightened of becoming their next victims. They moved back, still able to see a fellow audience member being assaulted by the bikers, but out of the reach of their fists and pool cues. They warned her to get back, otherwise she might be the next one hurt.
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.” Why was she trying so hard to help him, anyway? The Angel appeared not to realize that Bredehoft was Hunter’s girlfriend, assuming, perhaps, that she was merely a well-intentioned hippie girl hoping to intervene to protect a stranger. He shoved Bredehoft back, and an onlooker caught her before she crumpled to the ground.
Bredehoft gave up. She had tried to stop the fighting herself, and had futilely attempted to enlist the help of others in fending off the Hells Angels. Nothing had worked. She could do nothing. She sat there crying, pleading with them to stop, watching helplessly as they pummeled her boyfriend. She was still begging them to stop, but the hope she had had, only a few minutes prior, that she might convince them to behave rationally had dissipated into despair. They would not be done until they said they were done—until they had extracted payback from Meredith Hunter for his perceived crimes against the collective body of the Hells Angels.
The whole scuffle, from start to finish, had taken not more than five minutes, but for Bredehoft, it felt like an entire lifetime had passed—an eternity of bearing helpless witness to a terrifying assault. At long last, when most of the Angels moved on from Hunter, and the beating came to a halt, she made her way over to him. An Angel stepped into her path and asked her where she was going. She told him that she was going over to help Hunter, her boyfriend. “You shouldn’t be crying over him,” he responded. “He was gonna kill innocent people and he should be dead.”
The Angel stood in her way, and would not let Bredehoft approach Hunter. She remembered that earlier in the day, she had spotted a first-aid station nearby. She stumbled over to the Red Cross tent, hysterical but resolute, and pleaded with them to help. The Hells Angels had beaten someone up, and he was lying nearby, just around the corner.
A pair of bystanders, including a young man who called himself Paul Cox, and 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. He had wounds at his temple, and on his upper and lower back, and 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. A doctor examined Hunter’s wounds and asked the Rolling Stones to call for an ambulance.
Cox picked up Hunter’s legs and attempted to remove him from the scene with the help of Sam Cutler and some other onlookers. They thought they might carry Hunter onto the stage, hoping to capture the attention of the Rolling Stones, and thereby stop the concert. 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, hoping to get to the medical tent. Audience members close to Hunter held up bloody hands in the fervent hope that Jagger would see them, and respond. Whether moved by the sight of bloodied concertgoers, or because word of the stabbing had reached the stage, Jagger took to the microphone and pleaded with the audience to make room: “We need a doctor here, now! Look, can you let the doctor get through, please. We’re trying to get to someone who’s hurt.”
Bredehoft waited in the tent while the Red Cross volunteers ran off in search of her boyfriend. The sound of the crowd receded, and she was left to sort out the disordered swirl of thoughts and feelings and hopes that raced around her mind. After fifteen minutes, Cox reached the Red Cross tent. Hunter was placed on a metal stretcher.
In the medical tent, Bredehoft noticed for the first time Hunter’s condition. His suit jacket was bloody, and he was unconscious. She realized that something more must have happened to him than the punches and kicks she had seen, something she had been unable to spot in the din and frenzy of the fight. Surrounded by onlookers, Bredehoft was continually being reassured that Hunter would be fine, that all would be well, that there was nothing to worry about. In truth, 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. He had deep wounds on his lower and upper back and his left temple. 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.” A man standing next to her under the helicopter tried to console her: “They’re gonna do everything in their power.” “I have to go with him!” she pleaded.
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. She was surrounded by the other, less serious casualties of the day: the broken bones and the drug freakouts. She was given a tranquilizer to calm her frayed nerves, and reassured not to worry. Hunter would be fine. He was undoubtedly receiving the best of care as they spoke. Only a few minutes later, two new figures, a man and a woman, approached Bredehoft. They confirmed what a part of her had already known: Hunter had not survived.
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.
“Under My Thumb” should have been the conclusion of the Stones’ set. But unsurprisingly for this day of fizzled opportunities and disastrous encounters, the Stones dutifully chugged on. Amid the murderous frenzy, the Rolling Stones kept on playing, hoping to preserve what they mistakenly hoped might be the tattered remnants of a fragile peace. “Hells Angels, everybody,” Jagger implored the crowd. “Let’s just keep ourselves together. You know, if we are all one, let’s fucking well show we’re all one.”
The band debuted their new song “Brown Sugar,” which they were playing live for the first time. They tore through “Satisfaction” and “Gimme Shelter” before wrapping up with their customary closer “Street Fighting Man.” The violence never stopped; during “Live with Me,” a naked woman sought to climb to the stage, and was assaulted by a team of Angels, who kicked and punched her with brutal abandon until she fell back onto the crowd below.
Keith Richards’s guitar loped and rattled, expressing Richards’s commingled fury and elegance. Mick Taylor eschewed the stage dance between Mick and Keith, preferring to pose seriously between the Stones’ two stars while silently wielding his guitar.
“Street Fighting Man” was a perversely appropriate closer, a celebration of bare-knuckled violence that served the day as an anthem of praise for the very men who had dashed the Stones’ dreams. An Angel stood on the stage, flinging flowers into the crowd with gleeful abandon. The Hells Angels were not just defending themselves from a hostile and aggressive crowd; they were actually having a blast while doing so. This was their party now.
Throughout the Stones’ set, the majority of the crowd was only aware of a series of interruptions to the music, and Richards and Jagger’s complaints about unspecified behavior near the stage. 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.
The counterculture for which Altamont was intended to be yet another coming-out party prided itself on its political progressive-mindedness, devoted as it was to ending the war in Vietnam and advancing the cause of civil rights. But even at their own celebration, the counterculture could not prevent another outbreak of violence. More than that, it remained unaware of the violence even as it happened. Hippie culture was devoted to the idea of the maximization of personal bliss. Music and drugs and sex were gateways to pleasure, the royal road to a gentler, kinder America. But the brutish corners of American life lingered, even in the very epicenter of hippie ecstasy, and no amount of wishing away the bloody reality of racially motivated hatred and discord rampant in American life with paeans to harmony could make it otherwise. The counterculture was idealistic but blinkered, and Altamont was its metaphoric nadir. 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.
Excerpted from Just a Shot Away by Saul Austerlitz. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.