Monday, May 21, 2007

The Rolling Stones: Gimme Shelter

Altamont. People who study music history know that word as signifying one of the darkest points it contains. For those not so learned, the Altamont Free Concert took place on December 6th, 1969, and featured such acts as the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. The movie that was filmed during it (and the subsequent American Rolling Stones tour) reveals a turbulent time of chaos, drugs, violence, and ultimately, death. Gimme Shelter is a haunting and disturbing film, and also one of the best documentaries ever made.

I’m not a huge fan of the Rolling Stones, but I recognize and appreciate the very important role they play in the development of popular music. Thankfully, this concert film contains performances of only songs I like, so I was never tempted to hit the search button. It starts out innocently enough, as indeed the filmmakers thought the entire film would be. They had no idea at the time that it would escalate to such horrific circumstances. It’s punctuated at random times with Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts in a video studio watching rough cuts of the film. Even then, you can see it on Watts’ face. He’s saying, “This is not what we had planned for at all.”

The movie features some nice performances, with “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Women” being standouts. Honestly, though, they are somewhat separate from the main thrust of the film, which is the Altamont incident. The concert itself was fraught with problems before it even took place. It suffered from two forced venue changes, the last one being three days before the concert was scheduled to go on. When the Rolling Stones revealed that they would be the headlining act, Golden Gate Park backed out, fearing a repeat of the crowd control problems that plagued Woodstock less than a year earlier. It was changed to Sears Point Raceway, but they backed out due to film distribution rights, since the Stones would be filming a concert movie at the event. So it finally settled at the last minute on Altamont, and things finally seemed to be going well.

The biggest mistake the Rolling Stones made, clearly, is hiring the Hell’s Angels to do security. The Rolling Stones had heard that the Grateful Dead (who were supposed to play on the Altamont bill) had hired the Hell’s Angels to work security for them multiple times before, and it had worked out well. It was ill-fated, though. One, there weren’t enough of them to handle the 300,000 strong crowd. Two, the agreement the concert promoters had with them was incredibly flimsy, being little more than “if you show up and keep people away from the generators, we’ll give you free beer.” Three, these were civilians, not professional security people. Four, they’re a biker gang. Does this not bode well to anyone else? They weren’t there to police the crowd (and consequentially, no one was), but obviously the Hell’s Angels clashing with a bunch of hippies will cause problems. The promoters and the Stones themselves should have realized this is one belligerent bunch. Even Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane got knocked unconscious when he tried to help a concert-goer that was getting the crap kicked out of him by a Hell’s Angel.

After viewing this film, I have concluded that Mick Jagger is (or was at the time) just a fun-loving guy who’s into love and sex, not violence. He was a true proponent of the simple-minded phrase “make love, not war.” When things were going wrong at Altamont, he met the mood first with his usual joviality, and then with child-like horror. When the deadly debacle was over, his reaction was one of sadness, not of anger, as can be seen from his somber rendition of “Under My Thumb.”

The event ended with the murder of one Meredith Hunter, an 18 year-old African-American who was packing a long-barreled revolver. He was stabbed five times by a Hell’s Angel, presumably in self defense, and died at the concert. The worst part of it: the murder was caught on film by multiple cameras.

To many people, Altamont is the anti-Woodstock. Woodstock represented, as the posters say, “love, peace, and music.” Altamont, which was held just months later, and was unofficially promoted as “Woodstock West,” proves that the rosy glow associated with the hippie generation wasn’t completely real. Or if it was, it wasn’t strong enough to win out over humanity’s curse of self-destruction. Altamont truly represents the death of the 60s and the dismantling of what the flower children stood for; Gimme Shelter captures it in harrowing and unflinching detail. The film ends with concert-goers walking back to their cars on the morning after Altamont, all somehow different. The sound is the Stones’ live version of “Gimme Shelter,” which eerily captures the “death of the 60s” thing with its sense of impending apocalypse. Funny thing is, that song was released just a few days before Altamont happened. Maybe they sensed it coming.

Iconic Lines:

22 Rating: 14

Particle Man

1 comment:

Wicked Little Critta said...

Very interesting account. I guess that'll teach you: if you're having a rock concert with hundreds of thousands of people, hire security.
Further research on this event led me to it's connection with the song "American Pie," which I never got before. Thanks, PM, for an educational post!