28 March 2007
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...'