Altamont, the Rolling Stones, and the Death of the Sixties Dream

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 of friends. He would never make it back.

The chaotic day was recorded by a camera crew led by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and the footage edited by Charlotte Zwerin, for what would become the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. Now, Brooklyn author Saul Austerlitz revisits Altamont, and pays tribute not just to Hunter’s death, but his short life, in Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont. The Voice spoke to Austerlitz about researching the events of the day, placing Hunter and his family at the center of the story of Altamont, and bursting the romanticized bubble of the 1960s.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969

I don’t want to go to Coachella, let alone Altamont, so a lot of what you describe in this book sounds like a nightmare to me. How did you set about re-creating the scene?

I ended up talking to about 75 people. There were some challenges in asking people about one day of their lives that was almost fifty years ago. Above and beyond that, a lot of the people are drinking or doing drugs that day, so their memories, which would be hazy no matter what, are even hazier.

I spoke to a filmmaker named Joan Churchill, who was one of the cinematographers there and has gone on to bigger and better things. Her account of being at the site the night before and dealing with the cold and misery of not being able to sleep and having nowhere to go, and then ending up getting dosed with LSD basically the second the event started, was really intense. It helped me understand what it might have felt like to be a part of it, and also to be, not a victim of it, but someone who endured it.

The book is not just about the festival itself, but the shaping of the story of Altamont as this cultural touchstone.

I was really interested in how it was covered journalistically, and one of the things that was striking to me was how misguided some of the early coverage was. One of the things I talk about in the book is that the guy who ended up writing what served as the early account that went out over the AP wire, he could only stay at the concert until about noon that day, because of deadlines. He did the best he could, obviously, but he was only present for two or three hours. The early report that went out across the country was like, “This concert was great, just like Woodstock, maybe even better. There were a few minor kerfuffles at the beginning but then everything got ironed out.” It ended up being Rolling Stone that did the major work of pushing back against that narrative, and telling a counterculture audience — an audience that wouldn’t instinctively trust the AP’s account of what happened — actually, it was totally different from what you’ve heard.

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The whole hippie idea of “personal bliss,” as you write at one point, feels to me like the inverse of the right-wing obsession with “personal responsibility” over collective action. I wonder if you saw this concert as a particularly damning event for the way that the left has romanticized its role in the Sixties.

I think so, yeah. A bunch of people that I spoke to who are among the more politically oriented, there was this sense that things were just going to keep getting bigger and better. We’ve had these anti-Vietnam protests, we’ve had these big gatherings like the Human Be-In, or Woodstock, which was earlier that summer, and all of them were great. This was sort of the party line — all of them were these amazing moments where we gathered together and it was wonderful, and the war was going to stop, and the youth were going to take over the country, and things would be permanently better. And concomitant with that was this sense of, we’re all on the same page. We all agree that we want to have a nice time and a nice event; we don’t really need to worry about anything. Woodstock went fine, this will also be fine. We don’t need to have plans for boring shit like, where am I going to go to the bathroom, how am I going to eat lunch while I’m there, who’s going to protect me in case anything goes wrong? Altamont was a kind of wake-up call in that fashion, to say, there are ways in which the adult world that you’re rejecting has notions that are still valuable, like planning ahead.

The counterculture understood itself to be this gathering force that was going to oppose and eventually undo the establishment. In coming to that conclusion, they ended up seeing themselves allied with people whom they very much were not allied with. It was interesting to me to learn about the ways that the counterculture had thought of the Hells Angels. The counterculture looked at them and said, “Hey, we don’t like the police, you don’t like the police, let’s be friends.” The counterculture liked to think of the Hells Angels as hippies, but they ride motorcycles. And the Hells Angels said, “Well, we like the bands, we like the drugs, we like the general lifestyle that you guys live, so we can get along.”

A still from the documentary film “Gimme Shelter” showing Hells Angels beating an audience member

It strikes me that the people making those decisions, and later, telling the story of that era, were almost all white men — not women or minorities, who probably weren’t having as much of a blast during the concert, or the Sixties in general.

It was helpful for me to understand how small the circle of pleasure was, in a way — how many people were having a really fun time, and how many people weren’t.

Reading the book, it was hard not to notice all the parallels between then and now — even your description of this feeling like, “What could go wrong,” sounds a lot like the attitude on the left in the year or two leading up to the 2016 election.

Most of the work on this book happened in early-to-mid-2016. I’d be working on the book and switch over to to see what was happening in the world, and the parallels between Altamont and Trump rallies were kind of overwhelming — this sense of, we’re going to unleash chaos in a mass gathering, and it’s going to feel really cathartic. That was one aspect of it. In retrospect, after the election, I’ve come to realize the ways in which, for myself and for a lot of people I know, we’re kind of the outdated version of the Sixties hippie radical. I also had a mistaken belief that things would keep getting better, we’re going to keep winning, don’t need to worry about what’s going on elsewhere, and getting blindsided by reality. That feels, unfortunately, very resonant right now.

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It’s kind of amazing that Altamont didn’t ruin the Stones’ reputation forever. This episode probably even worked in their favor; like the residual darkness of that day only added to their mystique. Did writing and researching this book change your feelings toward the band?

One of the interesting aspects for me was how much even the darkest aspects of that mythologizing worked to benefit the groups involved. The Hells Angels would only see themselves as having benefited from being at Altamont; it established their bona fides. There was a sense that the Rolling Stones had this dark majesty — that they were actually summoning some sort of malign influences. Which is so strange to my ears, but it came up multiple times [while researching the book]. I thought it was really telling that people kept misremembering what song had been playing when Meredith Hunter was killed. People kept thinking it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” and at the time there was this sense that “Sympathy for the Devil” was somehow the devil’s song. That was kind of telling, and speaks to what you’re saying — it benefited the Stones in some ways. That was the band that was playing when someone got killed.

I don’t have anything good to say about the Stones’ behavior in the aftermath of the concert. In terms of the concert itself, they went out onstage and they tried to cool things down, which I give them credit for, because the Grateful Dead didn’t do it. While it’s understandable, it was probably not the right decision. In the aftermath it’s just puzzling to me, and unacceptable to me, that the Stones never apologize. They don’t apologize to Meredith Hunter’s family, and they also don’t apologize to any of the fans. Even if, for some convoluted reason, they decided they couldn’t get involved with Meredith Hunter and his family, there were hundreds of other fans who were assaulted or manhandled or mistreated at the concert. The idea that they didn’t say anything about that is puzzling. Even if you feel like Meredith Hunter’s death is ultimately not your fault, how do you not say something, at some point, about it?

Did you try to get an interview with any of the band members?

I did, yeah. They were not interested. It’s telling if you look at Keith Richards’ memoir, which is a very enjoyable book — it’s seven hundred pages long and there’s I think three pages devoted to Altamont. He knew that he had to cover it, but it’s also the absolute bare minimum of what he could possibly say.

Meredith Hunter

You had the challenge of writing about an event that’s been written about over and over in the years since it happened. Was there anything you discovered in researching this book that really surprised you?

A lot of it surprised me. The Sixties have been combed over ad nauseam, and yet it was interesting for me to understand what people were thinking at the time. It helped me to understand how everyone got to this place where this specific event could happen.

The most surprising thing for me was talking to Meredith Hunter’s family and learning more about his family history. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to sort of reorient some of the story, which I think is always about fans and rock music and hippies and Sixties culture, and had to be more of a story about race and racism and how that impacts a person and a family. I entered into this project wanting to tell Meredith Hunter’s story, because I felt like he was kind of the absence at the center of the story, but I don’t think I fully understood the ways in which his story and his family’s story tie into this larger picture of this still very unfortunate relationship with race in America.

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Was it hard to get his family to talk to you?

It required some convincing to agree to speak with me, and understandably so. [Hunter’s sister] Dixie and her daughter Taammi Parker both very graciously agreed to talk to me, and talk about some really difficult things. But I got the sense that they definitely were concerned that their story would again not be told properly.

Have they read the book?

I’ve sent them the book. I believe they’ve read some of it. I don’t know much more about their response.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

For the people who feel like they know the story already, I’d like for them to take away the part of the story that’s about Meredith Hunter and his family, and incorporate that into their mental framework of what this concert was about and what the late Sixties were about. And in a larger sense, just to think about some of the resonances that this moment that I’m writing about, and this moment that we’re living through, seem to have with each other. Which is definitely a source of pessimism but is potentially a source of optimism as well. All this energy, which sometimes is misplaced or misguided, can also be hopefully funneled towards something powerful.

Just a Shot Away: Peace, Love, and Tragedy with the Rolling Stones at Altamont
By Saul Austerlitz
Thomas Dunne Books
336 pp.


Gonzo Salutes Hunter S. Thompson’s Substance

“In a nation of frightened dullards, there is always a sorry shortage of outlaws, and those few who make the grade are always welcome.” So wrote Hunter S. Thompson of the Hells Angels after riding with California’s motor-psycho Mongol hordes in the mid-1960s, a feat of embedded journalism that left him mauled, marked, and famous. But the sentence’s true subject—as with so much of what Thompson wrote in the years after his nervy, electric Angels book—is its author.

Alex Gibney’s Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson makes the familiar case that Thompson’s notoriety eventually capsized his career, well before his long-foretold suicide in 2005. Over a quick scan of Thompson’s personal effects (whiskey bottles; a note that cautions: “Never call 911!”), unseen jurors hand down the verdict: “He’d lost that gonzo edge . . . ” But while the evidence of his spotty post-1970s work is hard to refute, Gonzo proves what a vapid, overvalued commodity edginess is, championing Thompson’s best work for brass-tacks insight more than brass-balled outrage.

“The edge . . . there is no honest way to explain it, because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” Like the rest of the movie’s narration, the words are Thompson’s, read by Johnny Depp in the voice he mastered for Terry Gilliam’s movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a clenched murmur through grinding teeth. Thompson’s authorial voice had a hardboiled Beat-poet sprawl—Howl by way of Hemingway—which became more pronounced over the years, especially once (like the drugs outside of Barstow) the concept of “gonzo” began to take hold.

Gonzo! Coined to describe Thompson’s anarchic means of toppling the inverted pyramid, the term even comes first in the movie’s title. Yet, as friend and biographer Douglas Brinkley tells the camera, the book that made Thompson’s outlaw rep, Hell’s Angels, was “not gonzo, just participatory.” At the time, Thompson wasn’t far removed from being the Fitzgerald acolyte who typed The Great Gatsby to study its sentence flow. Nor was he far financially from the freelancer who hunted and gathered elk liver to feed his first wife.

That would all change for the better, at least for a few years. Buttressed by interviews and documentary footage that make the author a complex, looming presence, the bulk of Gibney’s film is devoted to just three books: Hell’s Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and his last major work, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72—a trilogy in which Thompson wrote the epitaph for ’60s idealism in psychedelic hyperbole and lightning-strike invective. By ditching the drone of journalistic objectivity for a sharp new voice—strung-out, cynical, relentlessly self-aware—Thompson pioneered what might be called psychic-war correspondence.

Within the stylistic fireworks, Gibney locates the heart of the books: Las Vegas‘s piercing elegy for the moment the Flower Power wave began to wash back; the Campaign Trail‘s savage but sage assessments of George McGovern and Thompson’s bête noire, Tricky Dick. The director boldfaces Thompson’s still-pertinent rationale for gonzo style as duty, not distraction: “It was the built-in blind spots of the objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House.” Remove Nixon from that sentence and fill in the blank.

But Gonzo is just as clear-eyed about Thompson’s limits and contradictions. A tightly wound bundle of everything and its opposite—an anti-authoritarian who ran for sheriff of Aspen, a peace-loving gun nut, an iconoclast who relished winners as much as any football coach—Thompson was capable of chiding the Washington press corps for “gross cynicism” about McGovern, then turning on the hapless candidate when blood was in the water. More illuminating than McGovern campaign manager Gary Hart’s acid assessment of Thompson’s oddly romantic worldview—a black-and-white arena where politics is “all fun, all amusing, all good-and-evil over-dramatizing”—is Pat Buchanan’s fond remembrance.

Still, shooting in the snarky vein of his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room rather than the cold fury of his Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, director Gibney relies too often on glib simplification. He offers up a vague anecdote about Thompson’s early run-in with the Louisville police as if it were some sort of defining Rosebud, while skimming the last 25 years of Thompson’s life in about 20 minutes of screen time. But if these are misdemeanors, Gibney’s music montages are felonies: smirky pairings of golden oldies and stock-footage upheaval—a Social Unrest Classic Rock Weekend. Does anyone really need a subliminal flash of George McGovern whenever they hear “You Sexy Thing”?

The brightest of Gibney’s archival finds is an ancient episode of To Tell the Truth, on which “the real Hunter Thompson” is asked to stand up. For surreal hilarity, nothing in the movie rivals dowager panelists Peggy Cass and Kitty Carlisle grilling their hunched-over guest about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. It’s a clever way to convey Thompson’s growing cult of personality, and the ultimate emptiness of the celebrity gathering around him. By refocusing attention on Thompson’s blazing gift, however unevenly it burned, Gonzo reclaims him from the fate he described for the Angels: “The mystique was stretched so thin it finally became transparent.”


Shirley Manson Progresses From Foreplay to Banging Full-On

In 1998, when Shirley Manson sang, “I think I’m paranoid and complicated,” she wasn’t kidding. She’s got a voice that feels like a nocturnal emission, her haughtiness could make Hell’s Angels pee their chaps, and she’s got it goin’ on like rowwwr. But she can’t see that last bit due to body dysmorphic disorder—a distressing condition whereby people obsess over some aspect of their physical appearance. There’s a likely connection between this strife and the merciless bullying Manson endured during her adolescence and her subsequent history with self-mutilation. The vicious resentment that has become the eau du Garbage is ripe on Bleed Like Me. In the first single, the uncomfortably frenetic “Why Do You Love Me,” she suggests, “I’m not as pretty as those girls in magazines. I am rotten to the core if they’re to be believed.”

Yet the flip side of Manson’s self-contempt is her infamous love of sex, evident in the opener “Bad Boyfriend.” The foreplay that defined Garbage’s early material has been substituted by aggressive, flashy guitars and rock drumming power-pounding the G-spot. So how can a woman who can’t stand herself be so at home body-banging? Sex for Shirley isn’t merely physical; in “Sex Is Not the Enemy,” fucking becomes a psychological playground where she disassociates from the ugly and boldly turns empowered minx. In April at the Hammerstein Ballroom, Manson was all body: hips and legs comfortable in a tight miniskirt that offered copious crotch shots. Go, baby, go, go.

But for a woman who loves pleasures of the flesh, Manson prays to be less human (read: less paranoid and complicated) in “Metal Heart.” By contrast, “Run Baby Run” and “Right Between the Eyes” urges ugly ducklings to bloom and flourish—on Bleed Like Me, it isn’t their poignant pain that sticks out, it’s Manson’s bravery in the face of it all. In a huge display of balls, “Hurt” by Johnny Cash was Garbage’s entry song at their show. It mirrored the confrontational title track about people dealing with anorexia, cutting, and gender crises. A glacial, angelic chorus of “you should see my scars” offers an exclusive invitation to these sacred hells. We’re asked, “Hey, baby, can you bleed like me?” but we obviously can’t. However distorted such perceptions of the self are, they are absolute realities nonetheless. As Manson’s fellow sexual provocateur Anaïs Nin explained: “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”


The Life Aeronautic

There’s no overestimating the contributions Martin Scorsese has made to American cinephilia. More than just a moviemaker, he has been a restless, tireless gadfly nagging the memory-loss culture around him to hold onto the past. Italian neo-realism, Michael Powell, film preservation, John Cassavetes, the blues, the reputations of studio auteurs like William Wellman and Sam Fuller—he devotes so much celluloid and interview time to his various causes it’s a wonder he can find the time to make his own films. Now, Scorsese the director finally has an opportunity to cannonball into the old Hollywood he knows so well; hard as it is to believe, The Aviator is the first non-documentary feature in the man’s canon to serenade the act of making cinema.

Or at least in part—however much a Hollywood gossip page ubiquity, Howard Hughes was hardly a vital Hollywood producer (ruled by erratic and exploitative instincts), and can barely qualify as a director. (His two credits, 1930’s Hell’s Angels and 1943’s The Outlaw, are woeful and sensationalistic claptrap.) Hughes is more accurately remembered as a half-baked engineer, an irresponsible pilot, an underhanded billionaire capitalist, and most spectacularly, a world-class neurotic whose famous descent into unwashed, paranoid junkie madness in the years before his death assured his notoriety after many other late industrialists had faded from the country’s consciousness.

The Aviator, working with a script by John Logan (Gladiator, The Last Samurai), skims the surface, of course. Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a paradigmatic brash young powermonger, spitting out orders, puzzling his minions with his mania for details, courting starlets. As is de rigueur for its genre, the movie’s narrative feels like a long string of boxcars—incidents from the Hughes biography are dutifully re-enacted: meeting Katharine Hepburn, conceiving of the Spruce Goose, crashing the XF-11, “discovering” the 15-year-old Faith Domergue, defending himself against accusations of war profiteering. Meanwhile, the parlor-game-casting cameos demonstrate the futility of reincarnating yesteryear’s icons by way of today’s movie stars (holy Toledo, Kate Beckinsale is no Ava Gardner). Scorsese has an Oktoberfest with the period ambience, as he did in New York, New York, orchestrating busy crowds, swooping his camera through the Tinseltown chintz, and staging frantic overlapping patter across dinner tables like Howard Hawks eagerly returned from the grave.

But where’s Hughes? In the public bathroom, frozen in fear of the doorknob he must turn in order to exit. Given the amount of time devoted to depicting if not understanding Hughes’s pathologies, Scorsese may have made the first epic portrait of OCD. Controlled by his cleanliness compulsions and neat-freak-hood (when Jude Law’s Errol Flynn steals a single pea off Hughes’s plate, it’s enough to scotch the meal), our semi-hero is something of a study in self-immolating, verminophobic frustration. At times, the movie’s title seems ironic—The Hand Washer might be more to the point. When the FBI ransacks his home at the backroom behest of competitor-Pan Am prez Juan Trippe (a suave Alec Baldwin), Hughes squeals in horror, “They’re touchin’ things!” How exactly Hughes manages to sleep with—exchange fluids with—so many women while he can scarcely tolerate shaking hands is a mystery the movie doesn’t try to solve, but his allure as the subject of a nearly three-hour examination is evasive. Certainly, wealth, womanizing, neuroses, and larceny hardly make for a distinguished profile in Hollywood. (The post-crash addiction to morphine is elided altogether.) Unaccountably, Hughes’s 1938 global circumnavigation, cutting Lindbergh’s 11-year-old New York-to-Paris record in half, is summed up in a newsreel.

Scorsese gets down to it with the air action, and if the Hell’s Angels sequences and the searing Beverly Hills smash-up of the XF-11 are the film’s fiery peaks, it may be because there’s a scent of sulfurous, Scorsese-ite danger in the otherwise well-regulated air. (It’s hard not to wonder who else was hurt or killed in that crash, but their names are apparently lost to or bought out of history.) The omnipresence of digital unreality provides another layer of safety and homogeneity. Still, DiCaprio is The Aviator‘s pivotal quantity—that is, if you buy him as a master of the universe-man of action, bedeviled by impulses. But the conscious contrast between today’s baby-faced, teen-voiced, toddler-men movie actors and the golden age’s grown-ups is unavoidable, and though DiCaprio is the same age here as Hughes was in 1934, he may not be convincing as a 30-year-old until he’s 50. When Hughes is swapping repartee with Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, who nails the vibe stunningly) during a Bringing Up Baby-ish nine rounds, it plays as if she’s interviewing him for an internship.

No small obsessive himself, Scorsese dares to limn Hughes’s midlife breakdown—holing up in his private screening room naked and unshaven, filling hundreds of empty milk bottles with piss—in repetitive enough terms to try the uncompulsive’s patience. Similarly afflicted viewers, however, may have shivers of empathy, just as ex-cokeheads sweated through the final act of GoodFellas. But the thorough dissolution of the ’60s and ’70s is only hinted at, a tactful strategy that asks us to provide The Aviator with its gruesome denouement. Instead, Hughes’s temporary self-collection and defiant grandstand before slimy Senate goldbricker Owen Brewster (Alan Alda) serve as the only conceivable triumph a screenwriter could locate in the man’s messy, ethically crippled life. The Aviator could’ve been a Raging Bull brother film, given that masterpiece’s crystalline purity of purpose and humiliated courage. But it brakes far short.


Epistle Whipped

Fear and Loathing in America, volume 2 of Hunter S. Thompson’s collected letters, might just as well have been titled “The Brutal Education of a Native Son.” The years covered here (1968-76) find the most talented and outrageous of America’s New Journalists in a perpetual state of panic, struggling like hell to alchemize his psychic turmoil into a suitably bent prose, an avalanche of word fury that would accurately render the hallucinogenic weirdness of the country’s social/political scene. And despite nagging uncertainties, Thompson’s tremendous ambition was always pushing him to take on bigger and bigger subject matter. In the collection’s earliest letters, for instance, one discovers that it was far more than the spontaneous, serendipitous agony of journalistic circumstance that led a drug-addled Thompson to slapdash his finest work—the implosive and insanely sane “gonzo” masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

At first, Thompson is genuinely terrified by the prospect of a sophomore-type slump following the moderate success of Hell’s Angels, his close-to-the-bone, firsthand account of time spent among the notorious gang of bikers and bullies; he flails around in desperation, searching for a hold on his next unwieldy book project, a sort of unanchored, telescoping epic about “The Death of the American Dream.” Though he knows he’s just the writer for such a grandiose undertaking, Thompson is incapable of locating a hinge upon which to hang his apocalyptic screed. Hence there’s a very pleasurable kind of suspense in reading the reams of querulous, queasy letters he rifles off (always between four and seven in the morning, ripped to the gills on speed) to his publisher or his agent, bemoaning endless struggles and a frustrating lack of focus. “The angst has become malignant,” he confesses to Jim Silberman of Random House. “I feel it growing in me, choking the energy . . . there is a weird, helpless kind of rage in not understanding how I can write so many pages and still not get anything written.”

Such epistolary litanies afford an electrifying glimpse of a surprisingly vulnerable artist at the outermost reaches of despair, which becomes all the more poignant when he begins, ever so gradually, to close in on a potential solution. “Maybe the only way to get at the vitals of the American Dream is to come at it crab-wise,” he writes to Silberman, ” . . . focus down close on something specific, then slam the enemy in the balls from some wholly unexpected vantage point.”

And still, before this nut-busting quasi-ambush could take the literary world by storm, Thompson would receive a pair of crucial de facto lessons in national politics. The first lesson, what Thompson refers to in a letter to Lawrence Turman of 20th Century Fox as “The Cauterization of the Duped,” occurred at the disastrous ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Facing “the National Guard’s bayonet picket fence” on Michigan Avenue, Thompson tried to cross the line after flashing his press pass to a cop, “and I was still looking at the snarl on his face when I felt my stomach punched back against my spine; he used his club like a spear, holding it with both hands and hitting me right above the belt.”

Thompson was certainly no stranger to physical assault—he received a legendary ass-stomping from the Hell’s Angels—but this state-sponsored gut-punch was symbolic as well as personal: The fascist worm had turned, and all Thompson’s worst fears had come suddenly, devastatingly true. It’s after this definitive moment that Thompson’s writing becomes at once more pessimistic and more urgent, as he fights to wrest a survivalist’s wisdom from his growing despondency. In an incisive 1969 letter to Ron Dorfman of the Chicago Journalism Review, Thompson discusses the notion of “the media provoking violence,” and it’s clear from the clarity and intensity of his writing that the deeper significance of the DNC debacle was not lost on him. “Should the news media deal with this kind of violence? I think so. A middle-class voyeur who gets his kicks from watching Mannix or Marshal Dillon punch people around should be given the chance to watch a real beating—a terrified man, like himself, screaming and crying for help with blood in his eyes and not able to breathe.”

Thompson’s second collision with political reality, then, was as redemptive as the first was disheartening—to wit, his wily spearheading of the campaign to elect “hippy lawyer” Joe Edwards as mayor of Aspen in 1969. Though, in the final tally, his “Freak Power” campaign was defeated by a single vote, Thompson found his faith in the system miraculously revitalized. “The joke in all this is that I suddenly see a bedrock validity in the American Dream,” he wrote (again to Silberman). “The Joe Edwards campaign was a straight exercise in Jeffersonian Democracy . . . [and] a wilder trip, for me, than any acid I’ve ever eaten.” The drug comparison is apt: From this point forward, Thompson’s penchant for political gamesmanship would become a full-blown addiction, compelling his failed bid for sheriff of Aspen in the next election (on the “mescaline ticket”), and then driving him to compose his most enduring work of renegade political reportage, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.

And then, of course, there was Watergate, which Thompson describes to his agent, Lynn Nesbit, in September 1976 as the “dramatically perfect climax to what now seems like one, long, violent and incredibly active story.” Indeed. Fear and Loathing in America itself reads like one long, rambunctious, crazed, and oddly touching epistolary novel, written by a brilliant nervous-wreck of a man who finds himself caught in the middle of a very American nightmare. (Thompson wanted more than anything to be his generation’s F. Scott Fitzgerald.) The collection is rarely dull, and often downright hilarious, especially Thompson’s endless stream of scurrilous assaults on a nickel-and-diming Jann Wenner (“Jann your most recent emission of lunatic, greed-crazed instructions to me was good for a lot of laughs here in Saigon . . . “). Most interesting, however, are the long letters in which Thompson waxes philosophical on the subject of writing and reporting; in working out his ideas in this format, he provides important insights into his wildly subjective “gonzo” style of journalism.

All of these letters—to Tom Wolfe, William Kennedy, Ralph Steadman, “Samoan Attorney” Oscar Acosta, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern—wind themselves like enervated commentary into the narrative stitching provided by the sweep of big historical events, augmenting our understanding of Thompson’s development as one of this country’s most imaginative and prophetic social observers/critics. While the collection as a whole could certainly benefit from a more meticulous system of annotation—the whirl of names and dates is dizzying—it nonetheless stands as an extremely valuable historical document, and a testament to Thompson’s lasting importance as both a journalist and stylist.

Thompson himself best sums up the book’s sociological worth in a letter to Silberman near the end of the anthology: “I have never had much respect or affection for journalism, but for the past 10 years it has been both a dependable meal-ticket and a valid passport to the cockpit(s) of whatever action, crisis, movement or instant history I wanted to be a part of. . . . I managed—by using almost any kind of valid or invalid journalistic credentials I could get my hands on—to get myself personally involved in just about everything that interested me: from Berkeley to Chicago, Las Vegas to the White House, shark-fishing, street-fighting, dope-smuggling, Hell’s Angels, Superbowls, local politics and a few things I’d prefer not to mention until various statutes of limitations expire.”


City on Trial

The date is August 5 and police have raided the Hells Angels’ clubhouse in search of a stolen motorcycle. It’s a Keystone Kop moment, brought to you live by the NYPD:

Cop with video camera: Are we clear to go upstairs yet? To video it upstairs?…Or do you want to wait until we get a warrant?

Detective Nicholas Cinalli: Yeah, because the search warrant’s really for the first floor. So unless we get it revised, I don’t think we should be up there, because it’s going to show that we were up there searching.

Cameraman: OK, so you don’t want a videotape?

Cinalli: Right. I don’t want to videotape it. I mean, we went up there just to secure the premises.

Cameraman: I was just thinking for the future—

Cinalli: Yeah.

Cameraman: Anything in the future you have to do here, it would be good to have a videotape.

Cinalli: Put it this way, if you want to do it, all right…put it on another tape or something.

Cameraman: Put it on a separate tape?

Cinalli: Keep it like that.

Cameraman: Are they getting a search warrant for the upstairs?

Cinalli: We’re going to try to get it revised.

Cameraman: OK. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll do a separate tape. We’ll do it on a separate tape.

The video’s clock shows this exchange took place at 9:49 p.m., and a few minutes later, the recording stops. (While the cops make their bootleg tape?) Filming resumes at 11:26—long enough for someone to announce, “I think that’s it, man.” End of tape.

When detective Cinalli applied for a search warrant a week earlier, on July 31, he claimed the Angels were dangerous. “Because giving notice may endanger the life or safety of the executing officers or others, I request permission to enter the target premises without giving prior notice,” Cinalli explained to the judge. “Based on information provided by the [Drug Enforcement Agency], this organization ‘concentrates heavily on the production and distribution of illegal narcotics’ [and] with this business of extensive drug trafficking, the Hells Angels have traditionally engaged in various types of criminal activity including robbery, burglary, vehicle theft, rape, assault and firearms violations.”

The judge granted Cinalli a warrant to surprise the Hells Angels with a search of the ground floor, the location most likely to yield a stolen motorcycle.

But officers ignored that mandate.

And then forgot that the videotape was rolling and recorded themselves plotting to break the law.

And then forgot that they recorded themselves plotting to break the law and handed over the videotape to Hells Angels’ attorney Ron Kuby.

Insisting that the tape is our window on the workings of the NYPD, Kuby is filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city, claiming that his clients’ civil rights were casually violated.

It all began on that sweltering night back in August. The city’s cops, ever-vigilant, responded to a complaint about a stolen motorcycle the way they typically react to news of vehicular theft: they called out 100 FBI agents and police officers, dispatched a helicopter, cordoned off several blocks of the Lower East Side, and stormed a building—the Hells Angels headquarters. All because a New Jersey biker, Dennis Jones, said the Angels had lifted his bike.

Eleven bikers were roused from their homes above the clubhouse. “My door was kicked open and the police came in with their assault rifles pointed at us, telling us to get down on the floor,” says Steve Bonge, who was hanging out in his apartment with his girlfriend and a friend. Soon, all three were handcuffed, arrested, herded into a paddy wagon, and taken to the 9th Precinct, along with eight others. As one group of officers continued “securing the premises,” another busted the storefront window of the adjacent building, Mother’s Messengers. Since these neighbors occasionally accepted mail for the Angels, they were swept up in the search warrant, which permitted police to rifle through company files. (“When we came down here that night, they were sitting on our desks, using our phones like this was their command center,” complains Stephen Athineos, owner of the messenger service. He’s still waiting for a check from the NYPD to cover repairs for the broken window.)

Meanwhile, back inside the clubhouse, the cops began their search. Typically, they use a video camera to record the sequence of events and the location of any evidence they unearth. On this night, the cop operating the video camera got his instructions from a superior officer: “Tape whatever your little heart desires.”

And so, it appears, he did.

The U.S. Attorney’s office says only that it is “monitoring the state’s proceedings.” Detective Cinalli and the assistant D.A. who is prosecuting the case have refused to comment on it.

The Hells Angels’ attorney has not. “This is just raw

intelligence-gathering,” asserts Kuby. “And I suspect in this age of surveillance, in Rudy’s New York, it’s all too common.” Noting that no drugs were found, not a single joint, Kuby insists the cops overreacted to a report of an unarmed robbery, using the occasion to compile information on and harass the Angels. Drugs were clearly high on the agenda, with the Times describing the raid as a “drug bust” and reporting that cops were “working on a tip that narcotics were being sold in the motorcycle club.” (The bike club has long been a target of the law. In 1994, the government tried, unsuccessfully, to confiscate the East 3rd Street building, insisting that drugs were being manufactured and sold on the site. And as long ago as 1986, U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani and Senator Al D’Amato used the Angels as a symbol of the seedy underworld of drug dealers, dressing up in the gang’s colors to stage an undercover crack buy for the press.)

Kuby’s civil suit on behalf of the bikers charges, among other things, that they were falsely arrested and were the victims of an illegal search and seizure by the NYPD, who apparently combed their upstairs apartments in defiance of the warrant. The videotape certainly makes this a strong case.

Kuby is also representing the two Angels who were accused of stealing the bike in a criminal trial; here the case is far murkier. The biker from Jersey claims he had a beer with one of the Angels, then went to the clubhouse, where three Angels beat him up and stole his bike. And indeed, his helmet was found in the Angels’ clubhouse along with a pair of unregistered guns.

The criminal case is on hold while attorneys wait for the police to produce the bootleg tape of the upstairs. But given the cops’ own damning words, recently introduced in court, it’s unlikely it’ll ever come to trial. The civil suit, however, is just getting started.

Thanks to the tape, New Yorkers are privy to the consequences of police misconduct. One, arguably meritorious cases get dismissed. Two, jaded citizens have their worst fears confirmed. “What is caught on this tape is the real world of police work, which bends all the rules,” says Michael Spiegel, an attorney who has pursued a number of police brutality and police misconduct suits against the city. “From the very casual way this conversation takes place, you can imagine that it’s a common occurrence. That is a very troubling thought.”