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 him and his peacenik ilk as a threat to national security. No one at the time could have known how ably pills, pot, and potent potables could derail a protest movement. If they had, the powers that be would have been.... dispensing it.... importing... it. Oh my god! Conspiracy! LSD, tool of the CIA in keeping the kid nation pinned to the couch. Hey, they were just saying give peace a chance (i.e., if peace knocked on the door, Lennon would hear it out, like the pitch of a nervous vacuum salesman). The kids would try to stop the war with a clap their hands, or stage sit-ins, but there was a reason they were sitting --they couldn't stand up. Vertigo, man.
The kids, it turned out, were no threat, unless they didn't get their drugs, their music, and their isolated acres.
So, as the Stones hadn't been at Woodstock, and were naturally jealous of those who had, Mick and Keith decided to stage Woodstock West, so to speak, out in San Francisco. 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, as captured in Maysles' stunning documentary film. Legal superstar Mel Belli acts as the Stones' obstacle-remover, making sure local land owners and city sealers don't stand in their way. When he tells the contrarian owner of Altamont Speedway on speaker phone that "the Stones will be there tomorrow morning," it's with granite certainty. A platoon of cops would be as outnumbered as a skeleton UN peacekeeper force in the middle of a full scale Rwandan genocide.
I've seen this film dozens of times since the mid-1980s, when my punk rocker friends and I would watch it every day after school, to my hippy years in college and after, so it's managed to transcend several Erich phases. I've had lots of time to study the footage and see what went wrong and my sense of blame has shifted 380 degrees over the decades. As a punk teenager I was all terrified of the Angels and what I thought was random violence. Now I see the film in the context of the plethora of zombie films choking horrordom, and I think Altamont would make a great addition to Romero's series: Hell's Angels vs. the 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 of getting loaded and just keeping peaceful loving flower children from tripping over the stage, 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, lightweights, stalkers, jonesers, wallies, murfs, amateurs, perverts, and raging dillweeds -- 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 the glowing paisley handcuffs 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, treating their beloved bikes like stepladders. Maybe those people were unable to not trip over the bikes from people behind them frantically pushing as they were getting pushed, or maybe they were just idiots with no respect. I can't imagine getting to the front of that mess without being either some kind of pushy asshole with no regard for others or camped out in advance for so long you were practically dead, so I'm on the fence. 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 consistent, like RASHOMON, the "what happened" that's captured on film changes with every viewing. Mick's attempt to stay cool and happy onstage during the decent into a new level of violence 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/nights earlier: "You don't want my trousers to fall off, do you?" And in both cases the answer is the same inchoate howl from the keyed-up mob.
Rock stars asking for restraint? Hilarious and chilling to a faux-jaded teenager for whom it's all just yesterday's papers. But as I age into it, becoming the Stones' age in the film while being in a band in and after college, then dealing with the aftermath, the years of anguished pining for the lost sense of cool camaraderie and the afterglow from dancing, drugs, and fulfilled desire, watching movies like SHELTER, HEAD, YELLOW SUBMARINE, and MONTEREY POP over and over, like a heartbroken old maid reading and rereading love letters from a long-gone beau, now, the hurt is gone, a kind of jaded caustic stealth optimism remains, and seeing the film now is to look at people younger than myself, kids, their pandemonium and moments of quiet beauty, terror and despair all too real and too true to be merely glorified, worshipped, missed or condemned.
In the end, for all their peacenik lip service, GIMME SHELTER is the Stones as Circe's sirens bidding through their beguiling song the hippies swim through the crowd sea to be trampled under waves of biker jackboots, their brains dashed against the rocks on waves of Angel chains. Still coming, ceaselessly, the flower child dead horde ever trying to take a bite of Mick. How naive to think it would be anything else. The Stones weren't Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club but her Satanic Majesty's Request; they were never about peace and love in the cornball "this is called prana yoga, everybody. It gets you really high, okay?" way of (the restored footage of) WOODSTOCK, nor were they the working class yobbos like the Who. The Stones were dandies, art school and economics students, more concerned with their Carnaby Street clothes and chicks (or 'birds') and not going to jail for their Redlands scandal than protesting for peace.
As for the Angels --they had done good security for the Grateful Dead in the past, but nobody wants 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, however, were all very tasty. But they had already 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?The Angel's methods may have been too brutal for the Altamont scene, but that was their common resort - it was expected that, when things get out of hand, they'd shut it down. There just wasn't good enough security otherwise all down in front of the stage and without the Angels, Mick and company would have been overrun, and possibly ripped to shreds like the very Mick-like Sebastian Venable in Suddenly Last Summer . (I bet Sebastian would have been glad to see the Angels rumble to his rescue, instead of Liz Taylor's hippie pacifist virgin, just standing by the wayside, wringing her lily white hands!!)
I remember a bouncer saving me 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 of the stage into a mosh pit back when the days it was still called "slam-dancing" but was fast becoming far too violent for non-skinheads (thrash was ensuring bloody noses for all) and this big security guard--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. He pulled me behind him with one hand and held his own fist out and smashed it into the onrushing 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 one awesome bouncer, 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, covered in nose blood (not mine) Exene Cervenka was smiling down at me like I'd just been baptized.
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, but there's no "EXIT" to dump them out to (we can follow the movements of most of the people down in front if we pick one head and keep an eye on it) and when the hippies are swarming all over you, it definitely is like Dawn of the freakin' Dead. I know. I've played block parties while tripping. Or tried to escape sold out Dead shows while tripping. Or been to the mall while tripping. Or the zoo.
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, like Harpo Marx in the stateroom scene, zonked and oblivious to how much discomfort she's causing, acting like the humanity before her is just so much warm loving ocean to swim through; she's a monstrous Titanic dreaming it's still afloat as the ice and waves try to shake her down off them. There's no defense; punch her and she won't even feel it, and try lifting her up and out of the crowd and see where it gets you.
And PS - there is no 'out' of the crowd, no ground on which to dump her.
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... you could Exit easily... and that was only two years before Altamont. What happened?
The uncool masses, who shouldn't be given drugs, got some, is what happened. And they overdid it. Drugs aren't all good like Woodstock made it seem, nor all bad, like the sizzling eggs in the pan TV spots, but powerful, dangerous tools. 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. You end up trying to cut off your own hand at the gallery like Warren in PSYCH-OUT (1968).
One of the most beautiful love vibe sleepover parties I ever was at happened in a cabin in the mountains in Vermont in 1991 in the autumn: brotherly love, pure liquid LSD from Berkeley, dancing and discovery, everything became new and beautiful, the steam out of the next morning coffee cups like smoke signals from a far off mountain. It was so good, we bonded so completely, the host had a second party with all the same people, later that winter, and this time all the same "right" ingredients added up to something that was so depressing that 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. Awful realization. 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. When you expect it to be a disaster... who knows? Dionysus loves a lost cause and hates a sure thing.
As a rager tried and true, I hate to say this, but 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. The marathon runner, the loyal worker and devoted soldier all demonstrate an intrinsic understanding of balance. In pursuing pain and avoiding lazy pleasure they find true bliss. 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, just piling on the debt. 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.... Fuck rehab... but... where were we? Oh yeah, when they messed with the Angels' bikes, man, they started it.
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. The scene at Muscle Shoals 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 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 himself, 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." Not even Nixon could stop that all-consuming wave... what could he do but go on LAUGH-IN and say "sock it to me"?