(Fifty years go this weekend, the Altamont Free Concert, where the Rolling Stones tried to stage a Woodstock West, became one of the most notorius events in rock history. This review of the Maysles Brothers film is taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover image at the right for more info).
By autumn 1969, the Beatles had not played live for three years. Their mid-1960s tours had been the blueprint of all modern rock concerts to come, but beset by the teenybopper hysteria of their fans (and unable to replicate their increasingly sophisticated music on stage) they had retreated to the studio. Their place as a top concert draw was claimed by their bacchanalian counterparts from England, the Rolling Stones. The group hired the Maysles brothers, along with their frequent collaborator Charlotte Zwerin, to document their 1969 American tour, the first where they were introduced as “the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Right from Gimme Shelter’s first musical number, a turbo-charged version of “Satisfaction” from a Madison Square Garden show, the Stones do their best to live up to that hype. Times have changed since the Beatles’ touring days: witness the communal hero-worship, the sophisticated sound system, the druggy ambience. Certainly, the sexually-charged appeal of singer Mick Jagger is a far cry from the schoolgirl crushes inspired by the Fab Four a half-decade earlier. But the Stones had missed out on Woodstock, which had happened a few months before their arrival, and they were already looking ahead to staging a one-day free festival in California at the end of the tour, hoping to create their own “microcosmic society,” a memorable decade-ending event. That it certainly was (for all the wrong reasons, of course) and the Maysles brothers again were on the scene as they had been for the Beatles arrival in America, this time capturing one of pop music’s most infamous happenings.
The filmmakers alternate concert clips from the tour with the chaotic negotiations for finding a locale for the outdoor gig. Many of these entertaining scenes are set in the lavish office of celebrity lawyer Melvin Belli, who has been retained by the band. The original intended site was Golden Gate Park, an ideal and familiar location for the hippie masses. The permit may have been granted, and history altered, if not for an already-scheduled pro football game—the San Francisco 49ers then played in Kezar Stadium on the park’s southeast corner. As the scramble to find an alternate site continues, images abound of the Stones’ life on the road. The best of this footage shows the band doing some studio work at the famed Muscle Shoals facility in Alabama, especially when caught pensively listening to a playback of their haunting ballad “Wild Horses.”
The mere rumor that the concert had been moved to the Altamont Speedway (some forty-five miles east of Frisco) sends tens of thousands of kids heading that way. “It’s an amazing phenomenon,” says one of the suits in Belli’s office. “Like lemmings to the sea.” All the last-minute maneuvering left its mark: A hastily-constructed low stage and little in the way of food, water, toilet facilities, or medical help. Moreover, the treeless Altamont Pass is one of the least hospitable places in the Golden State—the speedway had been closed at the time and in disrepair, and the early December weather was chillier than usual. Enter three hundred thousand fans and the Oakland chapter of the Hell’s Angels.
It was possible to have had a good time at Altamont, esp. if you stayed well back from the stage area.
The popular notion is that the notorious motorcycle gang was formally hired by the Rolling Stones to provide security for five hundred dollars worth of beer. Leader Sonny Barger, on a radio call-in show the day after the concert, disputes this, saying they were told by promoters that if they would sit on the front of the stage and let no one pass, the beer was on the house. Semantics aside, the Angels were there as de facto bouncers and used their weapon of choice (sawed-off pool cues) early and often during the afternoon’s line-up of top California bands. Most notably, Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin leaps off the stage to try and help an assaulted spectator and is knocked out cold by the Angels for his trouble. Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, a band who had occasionally used the gang as security, are seen being told of the situation; they would eventually refuse to play. All interweaved with the brewing trouble, the Maysles brothers and the camera people they employed gathered together many shots of the audience “freak scene,” a standard-issue task during that era. But now the flower-power vibe of the Monterey Pop Festival and the brotherhood ethos of Woodstock appear to be overtaken by unchecked hedonism and moral relativism by default.
When the Stones finally take the stage after dark, the scene, with the many bonfires casting an eerie glow in the sky, was later described by the Jefferson Airplane’s Spencer Dryden as akin to one of Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell. They launch into “Sympathy for the Devil” but it soon sputters to a halt as a major fracas breaks out right in front of them. “Something funny always happens when we start that song,” Jagger tells the crowd, but the coy joke does not seem to take. The filmmakers could hardly have been any closer to the chaos, capturing some truly extraordinary mob-scene footage. The roiling mass of audience, fearful but still desperately determined to enjoy the show, are pushed up against the low-rise stage, further agitating the volatile and inebriated Angels.
“The mad bull has lost its way.”
Gang members, having already established that they will resort to violence at the drop of a hat, prowl the stage and the Stones themselves look like potential targets. Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards try to calm things down, careful not to lay blame (“Who’s fighting and what for?”). During their attempt to get through “Under My Thumb,” Jagger, much altered from the cock-of-the-walk we saw at Madison Square Garden, hunches despondently over his mike stand, changing the coda of the song from “you know that it’s all right” to “I pray that it’s all right.” It’s not. Suddenly a large space clears in front of the stage and a black man, later identified as Meredith Hunter, is seen brandishing a revolver before being set upon by knife-wielding Angels, who stab and kick him to death. Either unaware of the killing, which took place largely in darkness, or afraid of the consequences if they stop the show, the Stones play on, but the damage is done. The counterculture has lost forever the utopian glow it acquired only four months earlier in the farm fields of Bethel, New York.
Gimme Shelter ends with Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts watching and rewatching the murder on an editing room viewfinder. Interestingly, speculation over the years has centered on the theory that Hunter was about to point his gun at the stage, casting the Angels role in a somewhat different light. Did they save Mick Jagger’s life? It is something that could be on the singer’s mind when he is caught in the memorable freeze-frame that ends the film.
Gimme Shelter’s soul-searching ambience captivated the youth audience when it opened in New York City in late 1970, then fanned out to first-run theaters, college campuses, and midnight showings for years afterwards. The film was the bane of certain “establishment” critics at the time. Pauline Kael all but accused the Maysles brothers of having a hand in staging the Altamont show as a “cinema verite spectacular” that unexpectedly hit the “jackpot.” In truth, initial plans for a free concert in the Bay Area had begun before they had been signed on to replace the original director, Haskel Wexler of Medium Cool fame. Today, Gimme Shelter is usually placed at or near the top of any list of the greatest rock music documentaries.
You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.