Sam Green: a tour through "lot 63, grave c"
By Sam Green
For a lot of readers, the word "Altamont" probably doesn’t mean much. But for older folks, or people who know their rock trivia, or those who happened to have seen the great Maysles Brothers documentary "Gimme Shelter," the Rolling Stones’ 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway outside of San Francisco represents one of the most infamous moments in Bay Area cultural history.
Altamont was supposed to have been the west coast version of Woodstock, the huge peaceful rock festival that had happened in New York a few months earlier. Instead, the concert turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-like orgy of bad trips, rock fan stupidity, poor planning, and tons of violence. It culminated with the Hells Angels, who had been hired to do security, brutally murdering an 18-year-old Berkeley kid named Meredith Hunter in front of the stage as the Rolling Stones played.
I did a lot of research on the 1960s in order to make my last documentary, "The Weather Underground." During this process, I came across dozens and dozens of references to Altamont and was struck by the fact that, at this point, the concert has taken on an enormous — and probably somewhat inaccurate — symbolic significance. It’s as if the entire decade, along with all of the hope and idealism it represented, was snuffed out that night. Altamont today is regularly written about as "the nail in the coffin of the ’60s" or "the death of the hippiedom."
In many ways, Meredith Hunter has become synonymous with Altamont — he is the central figure in this myth of the concert as the death of the ’60s. (His brutal stabbing, as captured on film by the Maysles Brothers and used in the climax of "Gimme Shelter," is one of the most gruesome film moments I’ve ever experienced). Yet in all of my research, I never came across any details about who Meredith Hunter was, or what he was doing at the concert, or how his family responded to the killing. Being a curious person and someone who loves research, I began trying to learn something about him.
Going through old issues of the San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area publications on microfilm, I was able to piece together a few facts about Meredith Hunter, but nothing more. Had he been murdered today, in the front row of, say, a Coldplay concert, our personality-driven media would have gone into a feeding frenzy on the story, churning out countless articles about him — probably even a documentary film. At that time, however, there was almost nothing. No quote from his mother. I couldn’t even find a photo of Meredith Hunter. It probably didn’t help that he was poor and Black.
At some point, it occurred to me that if I watched "Gimme Shelter" really closely before the scene where Meredith Hunter is killed, I might see him in the crowd. When I went through the film, surprisingly enough, there he was, right in front of the stage. He was not hard to find, standing head and shoulders above everyone around him and wearing a bright green tuxedo and black bowler hat perched at a rakish angle on top of his large afro. He looked fantastic.
The shot itself is brief — only a couple of seconds long. Meredith Hunter raises his head, looks up at the stage, and then darts his tongue in and out of his mouth (toxicology reports later showed high levels of amphetamine in his blood, so he’s obviously tweaking). I slowed down the footage and played it again and again. It’s haunting to see that kind of moment, frozen in time — it is minutes before he is going to be murdered and will become forever after a tiny footnote in the history of the 1960s, yet, in that instant, Meredith Hunter knows none of this.
In all of my research, the only other good lead I could dig up on Meredith Hunter was a mention in one of the Chronicle articles of his funeral. He was buried on December 10, 1969, at the Skyview Memorial Lawn in Vallejo. Last summer, I drove out to the cemetery with my friend, the filmmaker Christian Bruno, to take a look at the grave.
We went into the office at Skyview Memorial Lawn and met Edward Wilkes, the funeral director. Mr. Wilkes had never heard of Meredith Hunter before, but he consulted an old filing cabinet and came up with the grave’s location: Garden of Terrace Lawn, lot 63, grave c. He offered to walk us out there — otherwise, he said, we’d never find it on our own.
As we walked through the cemetery, I asked Mr. Wilkes all sorts of questions about his job and about death, and was very taken with his manner — a kind of deeply soothing professionalism. If doctors have to have a good bedside manner, then funeral directors have to have just the right…graveside manner, I guess. Whatever it is, Mr. Wilkes has it. And you can see that with his dark suit and sunglasses, he also really looks the part. He’s a funeral director from central casting. I knew he would be a great character for a film.
When we finally got to Meredith Hunter’s grave, I was profoundly moved by what we found. I don’t want to spoil the movie by saying too much, but it did confirm my sense that although Meredith Hunter lives on as a symbol, as an individual, he’s been pretty much completely forgotten. In death, he’s never had the dignity of his own identity. This feeling got under my skin — it haunted me for some time after — and was the inspiration for my film "lot 63, grave c."
(— Sam Green)
"lot 63, grave c" plays the San Francisco International Film Festival in the "Live ‘n’ Learn" program, Sun/23 at 1 p.m., and Tues/2 at 1:30 p.m., at the Kabuki, SF.