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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 nytimes.com 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.

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Why Norman Mailer Still Matters in 2018

This month the Library of America is releasing a two-volume collection of selected essays and four books first published during the 1960s by the late Norman Mailer, one of that decade’s most pugnacious provocateurs and a founder of the Village Voice. This was the decade that saw Mailer, who began publishing in the 1940s, at his most politically active. In 1960 he witnessed John F. Kennedy at the Democratic Convention, a moment he captured for Esquire in an essay titled “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” Some say that the essay — with its personal inflections, novelistic descriptions, and obvious political preferences — helped launch the New Journalism. By 1969, Mailer was running for mayor of New York City on a platform of secession from the State of New York.  

In the years between, Mailer wrote his most influential essays and books on politics and the Vietnam War, many of which are included in this collection. Among those included are two columns he wrote for the Village Voice, and The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s personal and historical book-length examination of the October 1967 Vietnam War protest in Washington, D.C., remembered most often as “The March on the Pentagon.” Thousands attended the protest, including Noam Chomsky, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg, and hundreds were arrested — including Mailer.

It’s hard to categorize The Armies of the Night. Some say Mailer invented a new genre by writing about his personal recollection of the protest in the third person, as well as from a more historical perspective that goes beyond what he experienced firsthand at the event. Often described as a “nonfiction novel,” it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.

This year that book turns fifty. Here, J. Michael Lennon, the new collection’s editor and Mailer’s official archivist and biographer, spoke with the Voice about the lasting influence of The Armies of the Night, what Mailer might have made of the Trump administration, and how we should be thinking about Mailer’s notorious misogyny in 2018.

Norman Mailer, August 10, 1968

The new collection focuses on Mailer’s writing of the 1960s. Why that decade?

We had a lot of debate at the Library of America about what to include in the reprint. We finally decided that the 1960s was really when Mailer was at this best, when he wrote his greatest books and won his awards.

Was it hard to decide what to include?

The most difficult thing was trying to decide which essays to use, because they aren’t all formal essays. Some were columns in newspapers and magazines, including the Village Voice. We had to pick the [ones from the Voice], because he was one of its co-founders. He put in $10,000, which was a lot of money in the mid Fifties. And he came up with its name. Well, there’s some dispute about that, but he certainly laid claim to it. You know, a tremendous amount of letters came in attacking Mailer when [the Village Voice] first came out, because he was very insulting and high-handed. But when he left, the same people wrote and said, you know, we kind of miss Norman Mailer — he made the Voice into a great counterculture newspaper. And that’s true, he did, but he also pushed it and pushed it, and he pushed it too far, which he admitted later. He said that if he’d stayed [at the Voice] he would’ve ruined it.

Mailer wrote about John F. Kennedy often, starting with “Superman Comes to the Supermarket.” Is it fair to say he was obsessed with him?

Mailer was terrifically energized by Kennedy. In fact, no person outside of his own family was more important than Jack Kennedy. All his life, he was obsessed with not just Kennedy but the fascination surrounding the man. He wrote about it several times, always trying to understand it.

What was the attraction?

He felt that the years before Kennedy were dominated by generals and patrician figures [in the White House]. He had great respect for FDR, but he didn’t think much of Eisenhower. He thought he was dull and boring. The first time Mailer sees Kennedy, it’s just before the Democratic Convention in 1960. Kennedy rides in in a convertible on a beautiful day, and he’s got this tan that makes him look like a ski instructor and flashing white teeth, and there’s a big gathering of gay people across from the hotel, cheering. And for Mailer it just snapped. He thought, here you have two parts of the Democratic Party coming together — the [counterculture] of gays and hipsters and artists, and the old trade unionists. That moment led to the “Superman” essay. Mailer always said that that essay got Kennedy 100,000 votes.

Kennedy won by 100,000 votes.

Well, you know, it was a very tight election. The magazine that the essay appeared in, Esquire, had a circulation of nearly 1 million. Pretty big for that era. Everybody knew about [the essay]. So it was clearly a factor [in the election], but how much, no one can know.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Armies of the Night, which is often described as a nonfiction novel. What kinds of artistic liberties did Mailer take with it, and what do you see as the book’s greatest legacy?

Mailer could’ve written about [the March] like a New York Times reporter by keeping himself out of [the narrative]. But he was a part of the protest. He went there to get arrested, and he did. So the question became, how does one write about an event and one’s own participation in it at the same time? He used the fictional techniques of the novel — the scenes, the dialogues, the setting. He also decided to use a style that Henry Adams, Gertrude Stein, and Julius Caesar used —writing about one’s self in the third person. America was divided, so he would divide himself, and in that division he would try to find the truth about the country. Personally, I think the book probably turned the tide more than any other written during that period. It changed the country.

Did it change Mailer, too? He ran for mayor the following year.

Right, so he wins the Pulitzer for The Armies of the Night, and he wins the National Book Award, and a big magazine award, too. All of this is happening at just about the same time that LBJ resigns, so Mailer, riding on the fumes of these victories, says, “That’s it, I’m going to run for mayor of New York.” He donated the Pulitzer check to his own campaign. Gloria Steinem agrees to be his treasurer, Allen Ginsberg gets involved, and all of New York’s intellectuals get behind him. He didn’t do very well, but he didn’t come in last — he came in fourth out of five and took it all very seriously. Many people said later that his campaign was really about ideas: The idea of a rail line around New York City, the idea of farmers’ markets in New York, which of course are everywhere now. He had the idea of having one Sunday a month when no one could drive a car in the city. He wanted to make New York City the 51st state. Some of the ideas were crazy, some impossible, but they made people think about community in new ways.

You knew Mailer personally. What might surprise us about him?

Over the course of time, I managed to put my hand on virtually every book in his personal library. [It] includes books about butterflies, beetles, and stones, ancient history, local history. People tend to remember him as a crazy wild man, because the media loved that stuff. But he was actually a very bookish guy.

Was he someone who actually liked to be challenged in public? Or was that all a performance?

He thought that truth comes out of opposition and that when you got into a good debate with someone, the idea wasn’t to win but to encourage each other to ask better questions. And so at dinner parties, cocktail parties, riding in the car with him, there was always a debate. He didn’t do this as a stunt. I think that anyone who reads his work seriously will realize that he was quite a serious thinker and really wanted people to think about deep questions and especially about the fate of the United States as a democratic experiment. He’d be right on point right now with our new president.

Did Mailer know Trump?

Oh, yeah. They weren’t close friends or anything, but they were both part of the same social scene. Trump used to fly his friends down to Atlantic City to casinos and boxing matches. Mailer went down there with Jack Nicholson once in one of Trump’s helicopters.

What would he have made of Trump’s presidency?  

There’s no doubt that there are certain things about Trump that Mailer would’ve admired. One of them was the idea that the white lower class has been forgotten. Mailer wrote about them a lot, about how they were being left out. Remember, Norman was always looking for a bridge between the left and right. He was good friends with William F. Buckley and Pat Buchanan. He admired Senator Dole. Ultimately, when push came to shove, he was a man of the Left: He flirted with the Communist Party and supported the progressive candidates in 1948 against Harry Truman. He thought that socialism had a lot to offer, and he was all for social programs. But from the mid Sixties on, he described himself as a Leftist conservative and wanted to be in touch with both sides.

Let’s discuss Mailer in the context of our current post–Harvey Weinstein moment. How should we be thinking about his treatment of women?

[Mailer] came out of the Mad Men era of the Fifties and thought that men needed to be strong and masculine, but [he] was never accused of hurting any women.

He stabbed his wife!

Oh, he stabbed his wife, yeah. He…had a complex relationship with women, and he regretted many of the things he said about them. He knew those things were stupid. But his point of view was, well, “I am doing this to create a debate.” The women’s movement [back then] wasn’t perfect, and Mailer wanted to question [the women involved in it] and have a debate. But there’s no doubt that his views of women writers were twisted, and he only realized later on that he was being very sexist and hadn’t appreciated some great writing by American women.

If he was a man of his time, why should we read his work in 2018?

Because he was a hell of a writer. And because his understanding of the American experience was fantastic. But it was also flawed in many ways. He was outspoken on many occasions when he shouldn’t have been. He wasn’t sympathetic when he should’ve been. He was an imperfect American, but he loved America and wanted the country to survive. He changed the course of prose writing in this country, and no one in the literary world told us more about what was going on in the 1960s politically, socially, and sexually than Mailer.