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