28 March 2007

Gimme Shelter: "All My Love's in Vain" (part 2)


Four months after Woodstock came the perfect storm -- just like a Nor'easter with an extra-tropical hurricane rolled in, everything that could go wrong at the Altamont Speedway on Saturday, December 6, 1969 did. The stage -- set overnight by volunteers and pros -- was unbarricaded and far to low. The acid was either too strong, flat-out bad, or a host of good trips went bad because this free concert was going terribly awry. And that's just part of the story; other problems and minor successes are discussed in part one of this post. And the quasi-satanic detonator, the best blues rock band ever, headed tacking into the San Francisco firestorm play-acting with full-throttle peace, love, and music counter-culture.

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In Gimme Shelter, we arrive at Altamont with a audio segue way of the Stones in the studio doing "Street Fighting Man". First we see the "Friday nighters": the people who came to camp in the cold to get a dose of the Stones for free the next day. Bonfires and tilting jug-wine bottles fill the screen. As Saturday's dawn approaches, the bulk of the crowd streams in with 7 hours to catch their buzz in preparation for their dream festival -- a dream turned nightmare on a speedway with only one road in, and neighbors pissed off a week before the Stones hit town.

As festival day progresses, everything but the numerous bad trips make this seem like a peaceful scene mysteriously going bummer. Concert goers reported a lot of bad karma around that the cameras -- most of which are set to cover the stage -- didn't capture. This was not a scene of brother helping brother, but rather brothers and sisters stepping over those in need of help to make their plan for the day work out. And the "Friday nighters" -- they were toasted, tired and surly.

Cut to mid-morning at the Altamont stage: as the Flying Burrito Brothers play Six Days on the Road, we see our first fight break out between the crowd and the Angels there early. The bands change but the bad scene remains. All the while, more Angels arrive and more bikes parked near the stage get turned over as the crowd washes to the stage like an incoming flood tide.

The Maysles Brothers and Zwerin once again reassert themselves to present a succinct, cohesive vision of what happens next. Cut to the Jefferson Airplane --the tension breaks through the now shredded fabric of "Woodstock West". As Jagger will do later, Grace Slick begins both verbally and ad-lib vocally pleading for everyone to just cool out. Marty Balin of the Airplane is knocked out on stage, allegedly by an Angel, and this verbal indictment spreads to the crowd. It also reaches the musician community by word of mouth. We see Mike Shrieve, opening act Santana's drummer, briefing the Dead's Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir in a backstage chat.

And what was an incident is rapidly becoming a pattern: a band starts to play, a fight breaks out, a vain attempt to restore order ensues, the music starts again, and so does the violence. The film directors show us no more completed songs. All bands from here on out start playing only to find some strange alchemy makes the music a catalyst to confrontational aggression. Stranger in a strange land indeed.

The Angels become a source of no-nonsense authority.
Night falls, the Angels clear a path to the stage for the Stones, and the anarchy flows into this winter night of such high expectations. Now keep in mind, if you had to pick the absolute wrong situation for the Stones' music, it is this one. The two Stones songs that the directors' include are "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under my Thumb" -- both the the polar opposite of what's needed, John Lennon leading the crowd in a chant of "All we are saying, is give peace a chance." But Lennon's spirit is nowhere to be found.

The Stones take the stage, beginning their set with Sympathy for the Devil,but not getting more than 90 seconds into the song. Another fight breaks out -- keep in mind Mick, Charlie and you are watching this film afterwards in the editing room -- that Jagger sincerely but futilely tries to stop it. All the band members stop playing but Keith; it's that on-stage focus again that we saw at Madison Square Garden (discussed in part 1). Jagger pleads and shouts first to get Keith's attention and then to get him to stop playing. The Glimmer Twins are not shining tonight; the focus that served them so well in New York and Muscle Schoals is dragging them into the ominous evening they created. Jagger says to the crowd, "Something very funny always happens when we start that number," but the Stones head for the abyss by re-starting "that number".

The directors now give us an artful montage of the range of jet-fuel spiked emotions on and off the stage -- crowd members groovin' to the beat, trippin' hippies, mystified Angels, and organizer / disaster manager Sam Cutler resetting a knocked-over stage monitor.

Now the fights have got Keith's attention and he joins Jagger in vain efforts to manage the rising violence around the stage. The band raps up a short version of Sympathy and starts into "Under My Thumb" with Jagger ironically singing "I pray that it's all right", improvising to this authoritarian number.

Meredith Hunter, in the crowd, caught on film, cranks up the irony and starts the climactic finish of the film -- and the 60's. Hunter pulls a gun and goes for the stage; the Angels turn into Secret Service presidential bodyguards and take him out, permanently.

That's all the spoiler narrative you get. If you want to see Jagger's final reaction and the flashback closing of this artful documentary, you gotta see it for yourself; it's at your local library.

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The Rolling Stones, and all the other musicians for that matter, become supporting players in this Shakespearean tragedy unfolding on American soil. The stars of the film now are: Sam Culter (concert organizer turned controller of microphone, stage, and dispenser of common sense authority); the Angels -- a cohesive, strong, ruthless cohort of men who are decidedly not there to see Woodstock West; the crowd was much like the Woodstock crowd save for the decidedly angry, tired, determined cohort who were undeterred and unaware that their attempts to get closer to the stage may result in knocking over motorcycles and getting a thrashing from a group of real street fighting men; and a few crowd members on extremely bad trips at a black hole of bad karma. Oh wait, and of course, the requisite character for any non-military crowd-based 20th century tragedy, one lone nut with a gun.

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The California clubs of the Hell's Angels do not deserve the heat they've taken for their actions. If it had been the U.S. Secret Service ringing that stage when a prep pulled a gun and charged the stage, the now ex-perp would be just as dead and the agents given awards. Instead, the Angels did a hell of a job stopping a man with gun who looked like he was going for Jagger, Sirhan Sirhan style. Bottom line, the Angels tried to contribute in their own way, and history allows us to see their actions can be justified.

There are
plenty of ways to let the Stones off the hook (e.g. the Stones were trapped in a trailer for security reasons all day and didn't understand what what was going on outside). That said, Mick Jagger is the man who both gets, and as the editing room clips show, feels ultimate responsibility for this catastrophe that, ultimately, he could not control. As President Harry Truman's desk sign read, "The buck stops here."

The film Gimme Shelter is a successful at pulling the puzzle pieces together. Moreover, given the music included and events recounted, this is the best rock film ever. It's transcendent message shines as surely as Hendrix's cover of Like a Rolling Stone transcends time, space, and color. The film stands as a documentary statement on a slice of American culture that is long gone, and yet made eternal by the music.

If I thought that I could sum this up better than Michael Lyndon does in his essay referenced above, I would. But I can't; Lyndon tells us that ".... Gimme Shelter became a masterpiece woven from three strands: a fine rock ’n’ roll band in full flight, Altamont’s developing tragedy, and the Stones’ reactions to watching the savagery they helped create."

'Love, it's just a kiss away ... War, it's just a shot away, shot away, shot away...'

16 March 2007

The music that is now playing ...

An LSD molecule

.... during this intermission between parts one and two of us-and-the-film-Gimme Shelter:
"Factory Girl" from the Stones' Beggar's Banquet.

Thanks for your patience, our finale will start soon.

04 March 2007

Gimme Shelter: 'All My Love's in Vain' (part 1)

"It's hard to tell, it's hard to tell,
When all your love's in vain"


Preface: The editor at Carnal Reason began a recent post this way: "[w]hen I begin to write, I don't know exactly what I will end up saying." I didn't think that was true about my own writing. I realize now, however, when it comes to writing, I am nowhere near 'taking the pebble from his hand'. The original title of this post was to be "Gimme Shelter on the Festival Express", covering two films about important end-of-the-sixties North American rock festivals. By the time I got through writing about the film Gimme Shelter, I realized it would stretch far beyond a reasonable length for a post, so I've cut it into two parts. Below is part one of my discussion of the film Gimme Shelter. A post discussing Festival Express is next -- I think; I'm just gonna go with the flow.

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Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin's documentary Gimme Shelter, with only Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas approaching it, are the only works of art that teach so concisely why the naive, idealistic, flower-power-driven, psychedelic, insight-through-acid thinking of the Sixties was a doomed phenomenon. Thompson was the gonzo visionary who wrote the book. The Maysles Brothers and Zwerin got it on film.

This post is a written meditation on that film, it's raw documentary power and it's blunt, power-of-rock-turned-tragic message. If you want read a fine narrative on what the film covers, see Wikipedia's essay Gimme Shelter. If you want to read an excerpt from Hell's Angels / Altamont security leader Sonny Barger's book defending the actions of his men, see the Criterion (classic film series ) Collection's excerpt from Barger's book on the topic. That same essay collection also contains New York Times writer Michael Lydon's excellent "The Decade That Spawned Altamont." These essays are "homework" for preparing to seeing the film. As to homework on the Stones' 1969 U.S. tour: get a copy of the CD Let it Bleed and play it until you relish both Love in Vain and Merry Clayton's contribution elsewhere on the record. Then watch this documentary. You will be on your way to understanding the Stones' importance (and just how different they are from the pre-Revolver Beatles).

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This film tells a narrative, linear story -- real, unvarnished rock culture history -- but without narration. The directors' use extremely effective flash-backs and flash-forwards. The tale is told with out-of-sequence pictures, brilliant editing and sound segue ways, and some of the greatest double-edged-sword rock music ever made.

Straight out of the gate, we see Jagger, Keith, Mick Taylor, Bill, and Charlie beginning their set at Madison Square Garden (hereinafter "The Garden"), in the winter of 1969, with a marvelously powerful live-as-it-gets Jumpin' Jack Flash. Mick Taylor and Keith Richards take about 15 seconds to let you know they are the most formidable power chord duo the planet has seen yet. Regarding the films' evolving story line, when Keith's instrumental break comes, Jagger tries to stage direct by pointing to Keith -- indicating "Keef" should move to the front of the stage and briefly take the spotlight. Note two things: Keith is so focused on his playing that he's oblivious to his surroundings -- this is part craftsmanship, part shyness, and possibly a little heroin on the side. When Keith fails to respond to Jagger's stage direction, Mick must fill the void by dancing into the spotlight, clearly frustrated by Keith. The other edge of this problem occurs Keith fails to notice when a fight break outs during Sympathy for the Devil at Altamont. But I'm getting ahead of myself in discussing this story.

From the Garden, the directors match cut back to footage of Mick and Charlie watching the film being edited together. The focus here is Charlie and Mick's reactions to (San Francisco radio station) KSAM's two most important calls, broadcast very soon after Altamont, as the radio station is trying to inform it's listeners about what actually went down. Sam Cutler, The Greatful Dead's manager and one of the concert organizers, calls in and gives a perspective on events much like the one Michael Lydon does in his essay referenced above. Then KSAM broadcasts a call from a still-quite-angry Sonny Barger, also referenced above. Barger blasts the crowd's behavior and his views on Jagger's role in orchestrating the tragedy. While Charlie is simply taking it all in, trying to comprehend, Jagger is clearly jolted by Barger's indictment, and silent. Charlie offers two observations: after listening to Barger's call, he says "well done, Sonny." After viewing more footage of the violence in front of the Altamont stage, Charlie, in a sad tone, observes, "Oh dear, what a shame."

And then it's back to the Garden for the Stones' classic Satisfaction. Here the directors give us a montage of each band members' contribution in weaving their simple, at times overpowering, mojo / magic -- at a time long ago before Satisfaction had gone stale.

Another match cut back to the editing room -- now we're watching a mid-tour press conference, Jagger playing with the press and spouting the last non-ironic Utopian, hippie rhetoric he would ever utter. As Mick watches himself on film at the press conference, he clearly is coming to understand his substantial role in the Altamont disaster. Keith is at this press conference, oblivious to Jagger's antics until Mick fields a question about the topic of a free concert to be given in San Francisco; Keith is startled from his detached haze when Mick starts his banter about the details of what would become Altamont. The filmmakers deliberately give us the impression that Keith ain't so sure about all this free concert jive, but he remains silent.

Match cut again, this time to Melvin "King of Torts" Belli in his office working to put together the nuts and bolts of this poorly planned "free concert".

The scene now moves moves, unexpectedly, to the Stones' arriving at one of America's premier R&B recording locations, Muscle Shoals (Alabama) Sound Studios. The background soundtrack is You Gotta Move, one of two gritty roots-blues tracks from between 1969 and 1971. At Muscle Shoals, we see Keith burst out of his fog and come to life -- drinking J&B scotch straight from the bottle all the while; then cut to Charlie, relaxing to the gentle strains of Wild Horses. Keith lip sincs to this love song of his, lying on the floor in decimated snake skin cowboy boots; then back to Charlie clearly pleased with one of his best drum fills ever for the Stones.

Less is clearly more here -- as the track ends, Jagger is clearly pleased with their work. This peek at the Stones in the studio, working on the road refining elements of what would become their next studio album -- it's no One Plus One: Sympathy for the Devil, but it's what we've got.

And then another match cut, this time to the band checking into a hotel, one "just about a moonlight mile on down the road." Keith immediately puts an early take of Brown Sugar on his tape deck -- before you know it everyone in the room is dancin'. Brown Sugar is not a song you listen to sitting down. The band is clearly riding on top of it's world.

Now it's back to the Garden. With only the red stage lights on, we see a slow motion montage of Jagger workin' and the crowd groovin', set to Love in Vain -- the Stones' cover of the Robert Johnson blues classic.

Then more Belli lawyerin' voodoo-cloaked-in-humor, then, back to the Garden and the real, real deal. Ike and Tina Turner, one of the tours warm up acts, performing I've Been Loving You Too Long. The camera stays glued to Tina, and it's a miracle the film doesn't melt given how hot Tina is in this performance.

Again at the Garden, for the still-standin'-today Honky Tonk Women.

It was clear from their set at the Garden that the Stones were at the top of their quasi-demonic power with people ready to go for it, some just because of Keith's danceable guitar riffs. Ludes, weed, hash, high-voltage acid, speed, liquor, wine, cocaine, heroin: they all had, even if gone today, a role in ending their own era.

Even at the close of the Garden set, some fans "lose it" and try to climb on the stage, one rushing Jagger. Security handles it and the band just doesn't let up: some of the best blues rock ever is comin' at you.

"There's just no place for a Street Fightin' Man [in London]", but there is in California.

Next time will talk about Altamont and how, into the slowly arising anarchy rode the Hells Angels in force.

Intermission (to be continued)

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