“I was born in a crossfire hurricane…” Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones.
For the first time since 1966, The Rolling Stones were touring America. It was 1969, and the venues were large palaces like Madison Square Garden. It was a month-long tour that began in early November and cumulated one month later. The Stones were on fire. Jagger is in top form strutting on stage like a rooster let loose in a hen house. The music is raw, and the audience primed. The MSG concerts would be preserved with the best cuts eventually finding their way on vinyl in 1970 as Get Your Ya Ya’s Out. The Stones agreed to end their tour with a free concert in California, a sort of west coast version of Woodstock.
I have seen Gimme Shelter several times. Directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, today it remains a potent and unsettling document of a fractured period. The film opens with the Stones playing their final scheduled tour at Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, out on the west coast, famed attorney Melvin Belli is wrangling out arrangements with the owner of Altamont Speedway finalizing last minute provisions to ensure the concert is a go. (1)
With the agreement in place, just about everything that could go wrong does. Besides the widespread use of a variety drugs, the Hell’s Angels were brought in for security. Their pay? BEER! Make sure no crazed fans get on stage and drink all the beer you want! The Angels were recommended to the Stones by Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, one of the other bands performing at the free concert. They apparently used the outlaw motorcycle gang for previous events with no problem. It didn’t work out that way this time. The combination of the large group of music freaks who descended on Altamont, the Angels, the drugs, and the alcohol made it a powder keg situation for trouble. The Grateful Dead were supposed to play but backed out after hearing that Marty Balin of the Airplane was hit in the face by one of the Angel’s. By the time The Rolling Stones came on stage, there seemed to be a dark feeling of dread and chaos in the audience and on stage.
It reached its peak of horror with the stabbing to death of a black man, Meredith Hunter, by one of the Angels. The terror is all caught on film and it’s unsettling. It’s rare that rock stars of the Stones stature allowed themselves to be seen as so vulnerable. This happens during an intimate moment when we see Mick Jagger viewing the stabbing scene on a moviola. His face is ashen, he’s shocked at what he is watching, and there seems to be a realization on his face that he, and the band, may have been complicit in the events that unfolded during the concert. I’m not saying that Jagger, or the other Stones, are directly responsible for the stabbing of Hunter or the other violence. However, much of what happened that day: the bad vibes, to use a sixties phrase, the eerie momentum that was building all day, the stoned fans, the out of control outlaw gang, the Stones themselves not coming out on stage, keeping the fans waiting until way after sundown, well over an hour from the time the previous act performed, all contributed to what would happen.
Jagger was an artist when it came to enticing fans to excitement bringing them to a high-pitched frenzy and then pulling them back before he would lose control. Plainly said, he always had the fans eating out his hand. That is, until Altamont. For many fans, it all started the day before the free concert was to begin. Hardcore fans who wanted to be up front got there early and were at Altamont more than 24 hours before the show started.
As I mentioned, The Hell’s Angels were hired for security, to stop overly frantic and stoned fans from rushing up on the stage. “Tactfully” the Angels tossed fans off the stage banging heads if needed. As the day went on and the beer flowed skirmishes between fans and Angels seemed to grow. You watch the Stones try to perform Sympathy for the Devil while the Angels and fans are fighting right in front of them. The band would stop playing and plead to all to stop fighting and “let’s just enjoy the music.” They would start playing again and would have to stop again. There was more fighting in the audience, and for maybe the first time, Jagger lost control. The Maysles Brothers capture all these moments and more on film creating a fascinating document of the times.
Besides The Rolling Stones, performances are highlighted by Tina Turner, still with Ike, who gives an erotically charged performance of I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Her fingers, caressing the microphone ever so gently and sensuously moving slowly up and down. Every male watching must have been ready to explode.
Gimme Shelter is a powerful movie with some great rock and roll by one of the great rock and roll bands. It also contains some of the worst nightmares that one could imagine happening at a free concert with hundreds of thousands of people. At Altamont, the Love Generation, the Flower Children, the Woodstock Generation lost their innocence. The freeze frame ending, a close-up of Mick Jagger’s face, as he leaves the studio says it all.
(1) The concert was originally planned to be at a park in San Francisco.