Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hell's Angels Vs. The Flower Child Dead: GIMME SHELTER (1970)

In the wake of Woodstock it was apparent to even the hardliners in office that "relating" to the youth movement had become intrinsic to long-term survival. Where the rock stars went, young potential voters followed in legions, a city's worth of population literally on the move. If they stopped getting high long enough to realize the power they had, these kids could overrun the capital without a single gun. In true American fashion, these youths were an organized political force and a swarm of ravenous locusts, eating, drinking, and smoking everything in sight and leaving only broken trees, cigarette butts, beer cans and mud in their wake. When the big rock acts came to play like some band of bespangled pied pipers it was up to the old guard to make sure they led all the rats to the swamps way outside of town.

Today we roll our eyes in outrage that FBI had files on rock stars like John Lennon but Altamont shows the feds weren't all wrong in seeing Christ-like rock stars as a threat to national security. Even so, they should have known how fast revolution gets postponed when one is fucked up, and fucked up these kids were. So, when Mick and Keith decided to do their own Woodstock out in California, the politicians and state leaders didn't try to talk any sense into them, or shut them down, or run them out of town on a rail, but instead rushed to accommodate with starstruck obsequiousness. All this is captured in Maysle's film: Among the sights and sounds is a chance to watch legal superstar Mel Belli come in to make sure local speedway managers don't stand in their way. When he tells the contrarian owner of the speedway on speaker phone: "The Stones will be there tomorrow morning," it's with granite certainty; no amount of cops can hold back this tide of youth. A platoon of cops would be as outnumbered as a skeleton UN peacekeeper force in the middle of a Rwandan genocide.

If you don't know what happened man, the Stones got Hell's Angels to do security and as there was no room for the Angels to hang out and drink their beer between the crushing rush of fans and the stage, dozens of people got tapped a little bit around the head with bike chains, pool cues, and in one case, a knife.

I've seen this film dozens of times since the late 1980s when my punk rocker friends and I would watch it every day after school, so I've had lots of time to study the footage and see what went wrong. As a kid I was all terrified of the Angels and what I thought was random violence. Now I see the film in the context of the endless Resident Evil and I think Altamont would make a great addition to the series: RE18:  Altamont 1969! The Angels Vs. the Living Flower Child Dead. I'm sure that it's what it felt like to the Angels, who were misled into thinking it would be a cakewalk and were thus unprepared for a job that entailed controlling a crowd of hundreds of thousands of bad acid-guzzling, late-to-the-lovefest poseurs, all suddenly remembering they know Mick Jagger personally and Mick invited them onstage and... oh wow, man this shit is kicking in and... it's all cool so let me just bite... a chunk... off the band's shoulder and climb into Charlie's bass drum and sleep it off.  The Angels were outnumbered and high as kites, who can blame them for going a little Street Fightin' Man on the glazed-eyed, needy throngs trying to climb over them? The whole Manson thing had, by then, occurred, so we knew west coast hippies weren't all folkie peacenik like the east coast, yeah I said it!

I mention this not to belittle the tragic events, but to illuminate how powerful and well-done the film is that for all the times I've seen it, I never remember much of anything except Mick's attempt to stay cool and happy onstage during the Altamont melt-down, something especially emblematic of the fall of the movement as a whole. He can't see or tell what's going on with the lights in his eyes, but he knows something bad is happening, and the confidence and sense of artistic freedom leaks so fast out of his voice you can hear the whole world's optimism going with it.

"People always seems to get in some kind of a scuffle every time we start to play that number," he says. His sexy rockstar cocksuredness becoming a "let's all remain calm, children" kind of principal at the school assembly. "People, Cool out! Sisters! Brothers and Sisters! We don't want to fight, do we?" But he asked another rhetorical question just a few scenes earlier: "You don't want my trousers to fall off, do you?" And in both cases the answer is the same subhuman, pre-or-post-lingual howl.

Rock stars asking for restraint? Hilarious to a faux-jaded teenager for whom it's all just yesterday's papers such as I and my punk pals in high school. But as I age into it, the pandemonium and moments of quiet beauty throughout the film are all too real and too true to be merely simplified, tag-lined, and forgotten.

In the end, for all their peacenik lip service, GIMME SHELTER is the Stones as the sirens calling the hippies forward to dash their brain ships onto the rocks of Angel chains. The Stones were never about peace and love in the cornball "this is called prana yoga, everybody. It gets you really high, okay?" way of Woodstock; nor were they the working class yobs like the Who; the Stones were dandies, art school kids more concerned with their Carnaby Street clothes and chicks (or 'birds') than patchouli and sandal worship. The Angels had done good security for the Grateful Dead, but nobody needs to rush the stage at a Dead show. Ain't no one pretty enough in that band for even the hungriest zombie to want to maim, much as Bob Weir liked to think otherwise. The Stones had used a British chapter of the Angels at their Hyde Park Brian Jones memorial concert the previous July, but as Gadfly's David Dalton notes:

As security (for the Hyde Park performance) the (Stones) used Hell's Angels. Well, er, English Hell's Angels—the Stepney chapter. East End yobs playing at being in a motorcycle club. The Stones liked to flirt with pantomime violence—always fun and decorative, isn't it? And hadn't these rough lads given the show just that bit of Clockwork Orange frisson that the afternoon needed?

For years I thought Altamont as just a case of the Hell's Angels just being violent because they could--were bullies--a lifelong fear of mine (that never materialized) but as my viewings have increased and the image has become cleaner, I realize that while the Angel's methods may have been too brutal for the scene, there just wasn't good enough security otherwise all down in front of the stage and Mick and company would have been overrun, and possibly ripped to shreds like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer if the Angels hadn't been there to fight back the tide the only way they knew how, with pool cues and chains. I bet Sebastian would have been glad to see the Angels ride to his rescue, instead of Liz Taylor's hippie pacifist virgin, just standing by the wayside, wringing her lily white hands!!

I remember a skinhead bouncer saving my ass once in a similar situation at a show in Trenton's City Gardens for the LA punk rock group X around 1984. Some guys were trying to turn the front nto a mosh pit back when the days it was still called "slam-dancing" and this big bald punk guy, probably about seven feet tall yanked me out of the way of a drunken fist flying right at my head through the melee while I stood there, lightheaded and dumbstruck. The tall bald guy stuck his own fist out and smashed it into the face of the guy who was coming right at me, halting his frame and forcing his fist to pull up inches from my face as if he'd run into a concrete wall. I got blood all over my shirt and if not for that skinhead, I'd have been knocked the fuck out and likely trampled! It was the coolest moment of my life up to then and when I looked up on stage, Exene Cervenka was smiling down at me like she'd just knighted my teenage ass.

My point in recalling this anecdote is that violence is not always bad. It's just that, like the cops at the Democratic convention the previous year, the Angels do not practice "restrained" violence, especially in a situation where there's no "out" door to escort rowdy stage crashers through onto the street where they won't have to deal with the same stage crashing culprits just showing up again two minutes later. You can only try and move them back a bit, and when the hippies are swarming all over you, it definitely is like Dawn of the freakin' Dead. I know, my band played Syracuse U's block party in the late 80s.

The sight in GIMME SHELTER of all the crazies thinking if they stagger drunkenly enough they can just force their way to the front of the stage makes for a chilling comment on when the wrong people do drugs without observing the proper rules of set and setting. And man, Woodstock or Monterey may have been cool, but Altamont was no place to be dosing your face off, naked and insane, crawling over the tops of people. If you've seen the film you should right now be thinking of that big naked chick who shows up zonked out of her mind "down the front," near the end and just starts rubbing herself on anyone in her way, zonked and oblivious to how much discomfort she's causing, acting like the humanity before her is just so much ocean to swim through, like she's a monstrous Titanic. There's no defense; punch her and she won't even feel it, and try lifting her up and out of the crowd without a crane, and PS - there is no 'out' of the crowd, no place to eject unruly fans to.

 You didn't see people crowding the stage in a mad rush over Ravi Shankar at Monterey! People were sitting in fucking chairs! There were big empty aisles... and that was only two years before Altamont. What happened?

The uncool masses who shouldn't be given drugs got some, is what happened. Drugs aren't all good like Woodstock made it seem, brown acid aside; nor all bad, like the sizzling eggs in the pan TV spots. Drugs might bring you enlightenment but you can't stay there in it forever, and that's a bum trip, so if you're an idiot, you try and take more and stay high, which never works.

One of the most beautiful love vibe sleepover parties I ever was at happened in a cabin in Vermont in 1991 in the autumn: brotherly love, pure liquid, dancing and discovery, everything became new and beautiful, steam out of the morning coffee cups like smoke signals from a far off mountain. It was so good the host had a second party with all the same people, in the winter, and this time all the same "right" ingredients added up to something that was so depressing  the acid just amplified the unbearable feeling of cut-offedness. No way to claw my way out of the saran wrap of depression, short of literally clawing my way out of my own skin. That's GIMME SHELTER. Woodstock had been trying to be a normal concert, so enough expectations were in place that the communal vibe had the element of surprise. When you expect it to all just miraculously work you're headed for a fall.

In the end it's all about balance. You can try to redress a longstanding imbalance with drugs, but you can't "outwit" balance. All good times have a bad times bill at the end, and vice versa. No pain no gain goes both ways... or to paraphrase Bill Cosby: "drugs don't kill pain, just postpone it." The marathon runner, the loyal worker and devoted soldier all demonstrate an intrinsic understanding of balance. The post-rave depression girl who pops one more hit because she just can't stand the pain, she's not helping redress the balance. You don't get a pendulum to stop swinging by pushing it harder. You have to wait.... shhhhhh. Calm down. That's what rehabs are for.... shhhh....

I wish I'd had a chance in this post to talk about how much I love seeing the Stones looking all hungover and adrift in the dirty south on their 1968 tour all through GIMME SHELTER. The scene at Muscle Shoals studio listening to "Wild Horses," which Kim Morgan writes brilliantly about here, or the emotion-cracked voice of Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who becomes kind of the de facto soul of the band via his seat at Maysles' moviola for the framing device. It's all brilliant and like all the best concert documentaries,--and like the movement itself--over much too quickly. But thank the devil for the Maysles, who make sure what we do have is fuckin' awesome. GIMME SHELTER reminds us of how the biggest highs crash hardest, while giving us priceless fly on the wall glimpses of the Stones at the pinnacle of their greatness. Best of all, it captures the peak moment when the great Satanic majesty Mick Jagger realized he'd accidentally stirred up some elder god of chaos and destruction beyond his control, a juggernaut of self-absorbed drug-guzzling pain that time would dub "the Seventies."


  1. Erich:
    Another great essay, some real spot on points.

  2. Agreed! This post makes me wanna watch GIMME SHELTER again. It's like a splash of cold water to the face after the love-in of watching WOODSTOCK.

  3. I love this movie. Saw the 35mm (full-frame Academy) twice at Film Forum in NYC. I was fifteen when i first saw it, late at night on a small B-W television. I went to school the next day and couldn't get it out of my head.

    Interesting take you have on it. (Ivan sent me your link.) I basically agree with what you say. I tied this movie to the Biker Movie genre in the link below.

  4. Thanks Ivan! And thanks for bringing this guy Otto. And Mr. Mannix, love your site! And I too love Hell's Angels on Wheels, the all-too-often under-appreciated great biker flick not made by Roger Corman and badass Lazlo Kovacs pull focus camera... Fuckin' A. And J.D., you are so right about Woodstock. I just saw the extended version and couldn't believe it. "Yoga gets you high!" and TWO freakin' Joan Baez songs.

  5. I really enjoyed this piece on such a great film, a real top 10 movie for me. The Criterion disc has some fantastic special features, like the whole radio show we hear excerpted in the movie (where the Angel calls in to blame the Stones and whoever pushed over his bike for the all the mayhem). That show, with clips of Let It Bleed pulsating across the San Fran airwaves, the calm, cool, hipper-than-thou DJ (he calls Jefferson Airplane "The Airplane"), with callers-in trying to assess what they just saw, captures the vibe of late-sixties as well as anything in the film.

    A hard movie to put into words - its effect is so visceral. However, this was one of my favorite of your essays.

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  7. Thanks MM, yeah it's a whole new movie everytime you see it. I took your tip and listened to the radio show extra just now. Love the woman who shows up in the booth to ask some question (maybe a relative of the kid who was killed?) and Sonny doesn't let her get a word edge-wise! Badass vindication at its best.