Easily one of the best concert movies of all time, Gimme Shelter gives its audience a front row seat for The Rolling Stones on their 1969 tour of the United States, and ends with the notorious free concert at Altamont. Directed and edited by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, the film is much more than a concert or the story of a tour. It could be called a “documentary,” however the decision to frame it as such was made once it became apparent that Meredith Hunter’s death had been captured on film. Because the concert and Hunter’s death was a pivotal moment in rock history and was also a severe blow to the counterculture, Gimme Shelter became the story of a concert gone wrong. Had Altamont turned out to be all the planners hoped, the film would’ve probably looked more like Woodstock and the free concert would have been the crowning touch on what was already a very successful tour. The Maysles brothers were from the Direct Cinema movement, which encouraged filmmakers to let the story tell itself by capturing it as it happens. Think of it as “fly on the wall” film-making. This can be an effective way to tell a story, but it has limitations if information crucial to the action is omitted. There is an incredible amount of back story to how and why the concert turned out like it did, but because this information isn’t in the movie one is left, especially with the ending, that it was easier just to let the surface realities speak for themselves and not pull on any strings that might lead to even more confusion. There are no post-concert interviews with any of the organizers in the movie itself, but they do appear in the DVD bonus section. There are excerpts from these radio calls in the movie from tour manager Sam Cutler and Hells Angel Sonny Barger. What makes Gimme Shelter all the more surreal is that the film makers, The Stones and the audience all watch the film being put together after all of the events have unfolded and were captured on film, so it is almost an Orson Welles movie within a movie presentation. This also allows the film to constantly play around with the timeline of events, which can lead to deceptions that may or may not matter. The cinematography is awesome, whether it is at the rock and roll party of Madison Square Garden, or later on, capturing the absolute desolate nothingness that was the location of the Altamont Speedway. There were 20 camera operators, including future cinema star George Lucas, filming the concerts, the business negotiations leading to Altamont and The Rolling Stones, who were just hitting the peak years of their career. 1969 was a very turbulent time in The United States and everyone in the country was in the throes of craziness and strange days. There is something about this movie that says so much about EVERYTHING and it continues to be a very important piece of cinema 42 years later. While the Stones would play on for decades, they never sounded quite the same after this tour and there are some close to the band who say that Altamont changed them forever.
While the Altamont concert was a bitter pill for the hippie culture of San Francisco to swallow because of the high levels of physical violence that occurred, violence has always been a part of rock and roll music and the blues and country music that it is based on. I’m not excusing or condoning it, this is simply a fact. As I wrote back in this POST, blues music has always contained a whole lot of pain, blood, and death. Way back in 1955 when Rock and Roll was first put into movies like The Blackboard Jungle, screenings sometimes led to violence and vandalism by raucous teenagers who were getting their first taste of the energy rush created by this new music. During the first Rolling Stones tours in the early to mid 1960s there were full-scale riots at some shows and by 1969 the band had seen their share of violence perpetuated by fans and security people. The New York Times published an article by sensationalist writer Albert Goldman during the 1969 tour that compared their November 8th show at the LA Forum to the Nuremberg Rallies of 1930s Nazi Germany. During the Honky Tonk Women segment of Gimme Shelter there are people, mostly young women, rushing the stage and they have to be restrained and carried off; vestiges of the band’s teeny-bopper stardom days. This does have something to do with the decisions made before the Altamont concert to have some kind of “security” in attendance. There were also concerns about what some call, “the nut factor.” The span of time the Stones were in America for the ’69 tour (late October through early December) roughly parallels the time of the arrests of Manson Family members for the Tate and LaBianca murders that had been committed in August (right before Woodstock). One of the former members of The Manson circle, Squeaky Fromme, who later attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, tried to “contact” Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page on the group’s 1975 tour. I’m not insinuating that Manson was after the Stones, but sometimes people have this idea that 1969 was quaint and groovy and it certainly was not.
While Woodstock has long been held as the pinnacle moment, the great coming together of The Age of Aquarius, 4 months later it all fell apart, so the story goes. This is discussed in the radio broadcasts that happened after the concert on KSAN, San Fransisco’s rock radio. Callers and studio guests who had been at both Altamont and Woodstock observed that many at Altamont were very driven to have their own “Woodstock Moment” and if there was a spirit of “brotherhood,” it was, “the hell with you brother.” No one who was commenting on it knew what to make of this shift and the total lack of cooperation or care for other people displayed by many of the concertgoers. Emmett Grogan, a fascinating character and one of the original Diggers, is also interviewed. He was one of the people approached by The Stones to set up the concert and he details how what became the Altamont Free Concert was supposed to have been more like a San Francisco party, something he had helped organize many times. The party was all about a multitude of things going on, many stages, many acts and no single FOCUS. Of course, all of these gatherings (even Woodstock) ran into numerous hassles with local authorities when it came to getting permits and support to put these events together. No one wanted huge crowds of people gathering, not only because of the reputation of these events, but also because of the sheer logistics of dealing with so many people. There was even less incentive to undertake such an operation if there was no chance of making any money on the deal. I decided to do a little internet investigation of Grogan to see where that might lead concerning Altamont and Gimme Shelter.
Charlie’s good tonight isn’t he?
THE DIGGERS were a very influential group in the 1960s and even though very few people know about them today, they were responsible for making San Francisco and Haight Ashbury one of the cultural epicenters of the 1960s. Their legacy and aims of creating a free and just society live on in present-day organizations like Occupy Wall Street. Emmett Grogan was one of the founders of The Diggers and would probably have mainstream legendary status had he not died back in 1978. Not only did The Diggers bring their vision of a free society to fruition in San Francisco (at least for a short time), they coined phrases like “Do Your Own Thing” that became part of the lexicon of the whole country. HERE and HERE are some really good sites to read up on this whole period. They provide a very vivid account of the 1960s San Fransisco and the cast of characters is right out of a Jack Kerouac/Hunter S. Thompson novel…mostly because they are. It’s really all the same scene. Throw in a little Ken Kesey and The Electric Kool-Aid acid tests and The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin and you have a real party going on. This site, Manhood in the Age of Aquarius is especially awesome! Here’s a short story about Grogan and Bill Fritsch…
In late June 1967, Berg, Grogan, Fritsch, and Murcott decided to travel to Denton, Michigan to attend—and disrupt—a meeting of the Students for a Democratic Society. They rented a car using a stolen credit card. On the way, they stopped in a bar in Kalamazoo for food. The bar’s exterior fooled them: once inside, they unexpectedly found themselves surrounded by a hundred burly steelworkers celebrating the end of the work-week. The room fell silent when the four Diggers crossed the room to the bar. As the longhairs ordered food and drinks, the steelworkers began to stir and whisper; comments about “beatniks and hippies” hung in the air, although, according to Grogan, “never loud enough to become a challenge.” The situation seemed manageable: the hippies’ disciplined silence and avoidance of eye contact with all but the bartender (to whom Grogan had flashed a twenty-dollar bill, signaling that payment was certain) had kept the simmering workers from erupting. Then, Berg, “for some singular, absurd, irrational reason of his own,” took a pool cue from a rack and returned to his barstool. The working-class Grogan, who had spent time in bars and prisons, glowered at his companion, worried that the steelworkers would interpret this as a defensive posture. Many of the workers simply saw it as absurd: a roar of laughter swept through the room. But Grogan noticed that some were not laughing—and one, a bit drunk—approached “to see whether [Berg] wanted to play out the move he’d just made.”
Before Berg could respond to the man’s slurred challenge, Grogan slipped in front of his brother, and politely announced that he, not the diminutive Berg, was going to play a game. The drunken man, liking his odds less when faced with a more formidable opponent, sauntered back to his chair. Luckily for the group, a younger, nonbelligerent man accepted Grogan’s challenge. Grogan took care to rack the balls “using only his forearms and hands to shape them together,” signaling to his audience that he “knew what to do with a pool table.” Shooting first, he sank several shots quickly to establish his skill; then, he deliberately missed an easy shot, allowing the other man to take over and win the game on his home turf. Grogan shook the man’s hand, paid his lost bet, bought the victor a drink, and rejoined his companions at the bar. His deference to the locals paid off: the four Diggers emerged from the bar unscathed.
Even though he had a reputation for sometimes being hot-headed, confrontational and outrageous, I think the above story gives an insight into how Grogan handled himself and was able to mix with many different San Francisco communities. On the Gimme Shelter DVD he relates how he spoke with Mick Jagger weeks before Altamont about the possibility of putting on a concert. Originally, the idea was to play the Chino Prison, but that was out, according to Grogan, because of the Stones drug busts. As I said above, Grogan tried to get a San Francisco party going but the city officials and the Stones New York office were unable to make it happen, so the “party” began to morph into a “concert.” As late as when the event was supposed to be at Sears Point Raceway, the “party” meme was still happening, and Grogan had already enlisted many different San Francisco communities into the project and they had already begun putting their acts together. The Black Panthers were going to do their thing (I can’t make out what he says “their thing” is on the DVD), Chinatown’s Red Guard were going to have a fireworks display, the Hells Angels were going to give away beer ($1,000 worth!) and the Stones would have been just one of the bands playing simultaneously. But the owners of Sears Point suddenly decided they needed a quarter million dollar deposit and wanted all rights to recordings and films made at the site and if none were being made, they were going to make and distribute them. Grogan calls it “an extortion” and the fact that the concert was literally a couple of days away made it even more of a shady move. Depending on their respective relationships with their record labels, it’s unlikely The Stones and other bands like Jefferson Airplane would’ve been able to enter into negotiations of this nature because they were under contract with other entertainment labels who usually want a say in how or when their artists will appear in media put out by another label or management company. It was a deal that obviously a band like the Stones would have to walk away from. Some took the view that it was all about money and control (on the band’s part) but the nature of it, as described by Grogan, makes it sound like a complete shakedown, and he does not fault the band for bailing out. The stage, the lighting, toilets and concessions had already been set up at Sears Point and it all had to be torn down and moved to the Altamont Speedway the day before the concert. This shot the whole idea of a city-wide party and many people’s expectations of the event. From the 50 minute mark in the movie there are numerous scenes of the final organization for the start of the event. Michael Lang, one of the organizers of Woodstock, tries to help Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler deal with the chaos that is already developing.
Emmett Grogan was also the guy or one of the guys who put the Stones in touch with some of the Hells Angels. Sam Cutler was introduced to some of the Angels, including Pete Knell, vice-president(?) of the San Francisco chapter, who is also a caller into KSAN. Although it’s very clear there was never a formal arrangement for Hells Angels to provide security, it was obviously understood that in exchange for $500.00 worth of beer, they were to make sure nothing happened to the Stones and keep people away from the stage. According to Grogan, who was at Altamont, the Angels did give a lot of beer away to people who were around “the bus” that some of the Angels took to the site. (You can see shots of the bus early in the “Altamont” part of the movie). This wasn’t the first time the Angels had been this kind of “presence” on the scene. They were a formidable part of the community, attended some of The Acid Tests and concerts at Golden Gate Park and their presence alone was enough to keep some of the rowdier aspects of those events at bay. This was sometimes necessary in a community that existed outside the borders of conventional society and attracted its share of alienated people, some of whom were also doing copious amounts of drugs. Grace Slick says basically the same thing from the stage during Jefferson Airplane’s performance when things start getting out of hand: “People get weird so you need people like the Angels to keep people in line but the Angels also, you don’t bust people in the head for nothing…” (5:22 of the clip below). A similar sentiment is found in this interview with Peter Coyote, another Diggers founder and a guy who has done everything from act as Director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe to narrate the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics. In an interview here he is asked:
Coymoon: Lenore Kandel and Sweet William (Bill Fritsch) had the potential of being among the “best and brightest” of their generation. Yet, rather than becoming a beacon, they succumbed to lives “tipped into darkness” as you put it. It’s difficult for us common folk to understand anyone’s attraction to the Hell’s Angels. Can you explain it?
Peter: Lenore still is among the best and brightest of her generation, just unknown and in chronic pain. Bill is another story. I think the Hell’s Angels represent courage, independence, the willingness to throw oneself away for one’s beliefs. The fact that those beliefs may not always be enlightened or inspired is beside the point. One still challenges oneself, “Well, if an outlaw can do this, will I defend my own beliefs and aspirations as totally?” They were a challenging example, and all I can say is that when they came around, ALL the bullshit stopped.
Notice that Bill Fritsch is mentioned again (he appears up in the Emmett Grogan story). Also, from The Diggers oral history:
Somewhere along the line, Billy Fritsch, who has a left-wing, longshoreman, Communist Party, good Jewish boy, Jewish progressive radical from Brooklyn, background…
…They thought 1% Free meant we were the mafia. We’d beat them up if they didn’t give it to us. [Laughter.] And being around Billy Fritsch would give you that impression. Billy or Emmett. Both of them could perform “I’m going to kill you.” Fritsch performed that on Bill Graham once with marvelous results. Graham was writing checks like mad, and gave us the Fillmore theater one night to perform a Digger event. He was scared to death of Fritsch — thought Fritsch was going to kill him. And Billy never said anything like that. He just wore this black leather and lurched. Sort of a trick he did. Yeah, if you looked at it from the outside, you’d say, “He’s threatening Graham.” But I knew Billy, and Billy would’ve acted like that anyway. He liked to act like that. He liked to be menacing. [Chuckles.]
Bill Fritsch appears at so many different intersecting points in the period of 1966-1970, I’d be surprised if he slept more than 3 hours in those 5 years. A street-poet who was romantically linked and later married to poet Lenore Kandel, (author of The Love Book) the two cut a very dashing profile in San Francisco street culture and became an integral part of the Digger community. Fritsch, in addition to appearing in stories like the ones above, was perceived as the only other person with as much energy and attitude as Emmett Grogan. When he joined the group in 1966:
…he grew steadily in stature by becoming a reliable participant in the free-food operation, a task requiring long hours of labor and early-morning appearances at the wholesale produce markets. Similarly, Fritsch devoted many hours to the tedious, behind-the-scenes effort required to make the first free store a reality. His reputation for integrity became such that the group entrusted him with its cash and a very loose accounting system called the Free Bank book.
Both Grogan and Fritsch were the antithesis of what later became accepted as the hippie stereotype. Fritsch also has the distinction of being accepted into the ranks of the Hells Angels. (This is important to remember for later on) By all accounts he is in the Angels by 1967 and at that point, because there had been some mutual networking between some members of The Diggers and The Hells Angels, they were known to each other in ways that outsiders don’t get to know people like the Hells Angels, or maybe The Diggers for that matter. A story I saw a long time ago related how Beatle George Harrison was in the Haight Ashbury district, allegedly stoned off his head on LSD in 1967 and proceeded to invite some of the California Hells Angels to London and when they showed up (much to many people’s surprise and chagrin) in 1968, Bill Fritsch, also going by the name of Sweet William Tumbleweed, was with them. HERE is a partial account of the visit: Miss O’ Dell, who lived with the Harrisons, watched The Beatles record The White Album, and was an employee at Apple, recalls going for a motorcycle ride with Bill Fritsch high on acid one snowy London night. Fritsch also appeared in Invocation of My Demon Brother, an 11-minute film directed by Kenneth Anger. The film also starred Anton LaVey, Lenore Kandel and Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil, who appeared as Lucifer. The music for the film was composed by Mick Jagger(!!) on a Moog synthesizer. Fritsch was also good friends with Janis Joplin and you can read a great story about the two of them HERE.
You can see Fritsch all through the Gimme Shelter movie and he was probably known by every San Fransisco band that played that day, most of the organizers and the Stones. (Remember he was a Digger before he was an Angel). At the end of the above clip that is Fritsch “talking” with Paul Kantner. I believe this clip has been edited because I’ve seen accounts online from people who were there and there was a “discussion” of sorts that went on between the two for a few minutes that wasn’t as inarticulate as the one in the movie seems to be. Whether you have just watched Gimme Shelter for the first time or the fifteenth, not knowing any of this background information can lead you to believe that Fritsch and all of the other Hells Angels were as the movie portrays them and many others (including writer Stanley Booth) describe them…basically as an “invading army”. But they were invited to serve in a “loose”, “official” capacity and some of their high-profile people were well-acquainted with the organizers and the performers. Obviously there was a big disagreement between the Airplane and the Angels that resulted in Marty Balin being “knocked out for a few minutes.” In the wake of the concert drummer Spencer Dryden left the Airplane, or was fired, supposedly, in part, because of the Altamont experience, saying “it did not look like a bunch of happy hippies in streaming colors. It looked more like sepia-toned Hieronymus Bosch.” In the following clip, after Sonny Barger gives his thoughts on the day (this call is also heavily condensed compared to whats on the DVD) I’m pretty sure that when drummer Charlie Watts is reminiscing about a “couple of those guys” being really nice, Fritsch is one of the “guys” he is talking about. Speaking of Sonny Barger, he was also a known guy in the community even though politically he was coming from a very different place than most of the counterculture. A long-time friend of the Grateful Dead, especially Jerry Garcia, and acquaintance of many others, Sonny was obviously not a person to be trifled with, but also not as unreasonable as he is sometimes portrayed:
Back in ’66 or ’67, we took the bus up to Berkeley for Vietnam Day. The day before the big rally, the Hell’s Angels said they were going to protest Vietnam Day by pounding the shit out of the protesters, and they were serious. Since we kind of knew the Angels, we went over to Oakland, to Sonny Barger’s house. [Allen] Ginsberg went with us, right into the lion’s mouth with his little cymbals. Ching, ching, ching. And he just kept talking and being his usual absorbing self. Finally they said, “OK, OK. We’re not going to beat up the protesters.” When he left, one of the Angels, Terry the Tramp, says, “That queer little kike ought to ride a bike.” From then on, he had a pass around the Angels. They had let all the other Angels know, “He’s a dude worth helping out.” They were absolutely impressed by him and his courage.
There were a few different Hells Angels chapters at Altamont and some have speculated that this is part of the reason why there was violence in the early part of the day, much of it handed out by Prospects, those looking to join up with the Angels. In the Jefferson Airplane clip most of the guys dispensing the ultra-violence don’t appear to be wearing the full Angel colors so maybe this is true. Another big problem is that, as Sam Cutler says on his KSAN radio call, there was no time to erect fences around the stage or secure the backstage and heliport areas. This put Angels and fans in constant direct contact with each other. (This is lack of backstage security is obvious when the Stones arrive at the site. Jagger is hit by a “fan”). During Cutler’s call there is also talk about a lot of people at the concert under the influence of bad LSD. Had the concert been held in Golden Gate Park or at Sears Point, with a higher stage and more secure backstage area, the Angels probably wouldn’t have had much to do. But the movie shows that even as Cutler is trying to accomplish the finishing touches on the stage he is having problems with people who are interfering. Even though the film tracks the Airplane playing after the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Airplane had the second slot on the bill. At the beginning of the song on the DVD, (not shown in this Youtube clip) Cutler tries to get some of the over 200 people who were on the stage and didn’t belong there, off. Also in the clip, notice the big African-American guy in the purple shirt onstage trying to stop some of the violence. He is also in the Honky Tonk Women clip hauling fans offstage. Later you’ll see him again when the Stones play. This is Tony Funches, a Vietnam vet who was part of the Stones security for the tour and was also a bodyguard for Jim Morrison. I believe this is Tony sitting behind Jimmy Johnson in the clip below. Incidentally, The Stones were at Muscle Shoals recording with Jimmy BEFORE going to Altamont although the film transitions from the Garden performance of Street Fighting Man to Altamont. This is another instance of creative “time-lining” in the film. Speaking of Muscle Shoals, HERE is an interview with Jimmy Johnson, who is the engineer for the Stones as they record and listen to playbacks of the songs they recorded right before Altamont. He has some interesting recollections on equipment and recording techniques.
The 1969 tour was the Rolling Stones first tour of the United States in three years and many things had changed in that time. The equipment was better, the audience had changed and rock music had moved beyond the confines of trivial pop and/or dance music. People listened to the music and the improvements in PA systems, amplifiers, lighting rigs, and staging made for the type of show that people would today recognize as a primitive version of the modern rock spectacle. The Rolling Stones have always pushed the envelope on the possibilities for their live performances and 1969 was the first tour where they (especially Mick) took over creative control on how it would all happen. The band had changed too. Driven by their American music roots, Keith Richards’ interest in open-tunings and the blues revival that swept the music world during the 60s, the band entered what would be the most successful phase of their career. The addition of 20-year old Mick Taylor to take the place of the recently-departed Brian Jones gave the band a bigger sound and a degree of virtuosity that hadn’t existed before because he was (and is) such a fluid guitar player. Of course, as the movie demonstrates, Mick Jagger was the preeminent frontman of his time and the cameras focus on him every scene he appears in. It’s obvious watching the clips of the band in concert playing Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Satisfaction, Honky Tonk Women, Love In Vain and Street Fighting Man that the group was firing on all cylinders and could lay claim to being “The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.” Clips of them recording songs like Brown Sugar, Wild Horses and You Gotta Move at Muscle Shoals show what would be the beginnings of the 1971 album Sticky Fingers and this is an interesting peek into a new decade, which is something to remember for later on in this post. The Stones were at the top of their game and they knew it, but there is a possibility that they let it go to their heads. Not only were there complaints about ticket prices ($5.50), there were many accounts of the band making the audience wait a long time before going on at all of their shows because they wanted the crowd hopped-up and anxious. Mick apologizes for this at the beginning of the above Honky Tonk Women clip although he doesn’t sound very sincere. Sonny Barger, in his essay that accompanies the Gimme Shelter DVD accuses the band of doing the same thing at Altamont, although the Stones have always maintained that they were waiting for bass player Bill Wyman to get to the site and the transportation to and from was chaotic and behind schedule.
To this day, any Stones set has a huge amount of material from the 1968-1972 period and the sets for the 1969 tour drew heavily on material from Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and blues/Chuck Berry covers. Here is the setlist from the concert at Altamont: Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Carol, Sympathy For the Devil, The Sun Is Shining, Stray Cat Blues, Love in Vain, Under My Thumb, Brown Sugar, Midnight Rambler, Live With Me, Gimme Shelter, Little Queenie, Satisfaction, Honky Tonk Women and Street Fighting Man. Compared to the pop-star period of the band’s mid-60s successes, this is a very dark, blues-driven set with a whole lot of violent imagery, which expanded on the the bad reputation and notorious image the band had been cultivating since the early days. Many of the songs in the set have the patented Stones combination of debauchery, sex and blood perfectly suited for the American landscape of 1969 and especially Altamont. But as the song Street Fighting Man informs, the band is projecting all of these voodoo-driven topics…from a distance. London in the late 1960s did not have all of the turmoil that was going on in the United States, mainly because there hadn’t been political assassinations, race hostilities, or a draft that was sending young men to go fight in a war halfway around the world. While Jagger, Richards and Brian Jones had all been the victims of drug busts and Mick had been in the middle of demonstrations in Paris, London-town was as he says in Street Fighting Man, SLEEPY. I think this led to several misunderstandings on the tour; the arrogant nature of the band’s image combined with this inability to understand why the youth in this country were not “sleepy” was noticed in the rock press of the day and is also evident at Altamont when Mick realizes he is losing control of the crowd. This is another one of those things that make the film so interesting; that line between performance and reality. For the band and Mick especially, it was about putting on a great show, but in America many people, especially young people, were taking messages in rock music literally because they were caught up in all of the turmoil that was going on at the time. At Altamont the distance that the band had always been able to maintain eroded and they were face to face with all of the demons contained in their very heavy music. There are moments during the film where Mick Jagger (the performer) has to come out of character and try and keep the violence at bay. He would never again let himself be put in this position and from the standpoint of his persona as a front-man/writer, this is understandable. “Distance” is what made the band great in the first place and it has also made Mick one of the best rock and roll lyricists ever: his ability bring a subject to song while maintaining a distance from it allows a depth that isn’t present in lyrics written by those who are up close and emotionally invested in their song topics. He would probably think of himself as a kind of medium (shaman?) with everything flowing through to the audience from somewhere else. But the audiences in 1969 wanted all of that personified and wanted to know where people stood. Keith Richards has said that the audiences on the 1969 tour wanted to “suck you out.” The Stones had that level of celebrity going for them, which certainly wasn’t true of other bands on the bill or most of the bands that had appeared at Woodstock. The only people who could’ve commanded more attention at the time were The Beatles and Bob Dylan. This allure, combined with a low stage and a huge amount of people was a very dangerous combination and is another factor that is discussed on the KSAN radio calls. Speaking of Keith — this tour, Altamont and Gimme Shelter is his coming out party from being “the guitar player” in the band to a full-blown outlaw rock star personality.
Prior to the Stones appearance at the concert, Santana (not in the film), Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers (with Graham Parsons) and Crosby, Stills Nash & Young (not in the film) all played sets that had a varied amount of fun and chaos. HERE is a nice pictorial overview of some of the performers including Carlos Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young backstage and onstage at the show. The Grateful Dead were supposed to play and they can be seen in the above vid and in the movie trying to get to and arriving at the show. When they learned of all the difficulties, related in the movie by Santana drummer Mike Shrieve, they pulled the plug on their performance. It’s interesting to note that both Jerry Garcia and Phil Lesh of the Dead are surprised to learn that the Angels are “beating musicians” and I think this has something to do with the band’s past relationship with the Angels in the context of The Merry Pranksters and the mid-60s Acid Tests. As I have said about Grogan, The Diggers, The Grateful Dead and the Hells Angels, there was a “relationship” of at least tolerance or there would’ve never been any consideration given to the idea of approaching the Angels in the first place. While the film does show scenes of violence during the Airplane and Burrito Brothers sets, it’s hard to discern just how much there is. Some kid who is obviously on a bad trip and writhing through the crowd appears in both clips, until he obviously runs into trouble with the Angels at the end of The Burrito Brothers clip and is taken off by way of the stage. Of course there had to have been time in between the two sets so the film of this incident is layered over two different sets, which doubles the amount of trouble from this one incident. I know the film is trying to give the impression of violence, but obviously this can be minimized or exaggerated if events don’t track to what is actually happening as it happened. After the conversation between Garcia, Lesh and Shrieve there are shots of an increasingly aggravated crowd and then a column of motorcycles arriving as the crowd parts to let them through. Sonny Barger is the lead biker and he stops at one point to drink from a bottle that is offered to him. This is the Oakland Angels leadership arriving, from what I can gather from the film and Sonny’s commentary call to the radio station afterwards. At previous shows the Angels agreement included the ability to park their bikes in front of the stage and Sonny claims that this was what he was told to do at Altamont. He was told that “if he parked his bike in front and sat on the stage so that no one could climb over him, he could drink beer until the show was over.” In the earlier clips of the film, when the Airplane is onstage, it doesn’t look like there are bikes in front and supposedly Cutler asked to have them moved before the show started. Many of the fans who had camped out from the night before, trying to secure good spots, probably didn’t like the idea of the Angels showing up late in the afternoon and telling them to move so bikes could be parked there and Sonny confirms there were blow-ups. This is another breakdown in communication between the organizers and the Angels that helped to increase the animosity between everyone that was there. As the band takes the stage, Jagger is in a good mood and cautions people in the front not to push around. Since the band didn’t go on until sometime around 5, the crowd had already had a long day of partying, boredom and craziness and some were probably losing their patience with the whole thing.
In the film, once the scene of the Angels making their way through the crowd is shown, the Stones take the stage. According to Sonny Barger there was a long delay from when he got there to the time the Stones took the stage and it was pissing him off. He says in the essay that the crowd was getting antsy and aggravated waiting and when the band is shown climbing onto the stage it is completely dark. This is immediately before when the above video begins. I don’t know if the film is clipped between Jagger’s introduction and the beginning of Sympathy for the Devil or if he tells everyone to cool out right before the song begins. Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Carol have already been played and it’s obvious by then that the crowd has pushed forward again (as any crowd does once a performance starts) and is now right in front of the stage. The problem is, the bikes that the Angels parked in front of the stage are still there. You can see some people seem to be climbing up on something as Sympathy progresses and I would assume that what they are climbing on are the bikes that are still parked there. At about the one minute mark you can see Angels start to push people out of the way and this leads to a really big scuffle between the audience and the Angels to the point where the Angels push some of the audience way back (1:20 mark). Tony Funches appears onstage, now with his right arm in a cast, allegedly from a fight with one of the Angels. Before all of this happens there is smoke emanating from right in front of the stage and Sonny Barger says on his call that because a fan (or two) was kneeling on a bike in the front, the battery shorted out and led to the engine catching fire and he is the first person into the crowd to try and get people off the bike, but people were unwilling to move. Other Angels followed and pushed the crowd back, which led to a shoving match and bottles being thrown, which led to even more violence from the Angels. Mick tries to stop everything even though Keith doesn’t want to quit playing. It’s at this point where it appears Mick knows he doesn’t have control over the situation. His rap and tone of voice are completely different from the introduction. The film cuts to Mick watching this in the editing room. As he is talking to the crowd Keith comes to the mic and says, “A bike blew up man” and Jagger says “I know, I’m here,” so Sonny Barger’s account is validated by the band from the stage. Instead of moving on, the Stones start Sympathy up again as the crowd drifts back to the front of the stage. At 3:58 a legendary moment as a large German Shepherd ambles across the stage in front of the band. This leads directly into another famous shot of San Francisco chapter president Bob Roberts staring at Jagger (who is almost out of focus in this shot—the only such scene in the movie) in the middle of the song. I think this was layered in from somewhere else in the performance because while Jagger is obviously singing in the music behind this clip, in the video he doesn’t appear to be. Much has been made of the stare-down but I don’t think it was a case of the “clash of cultures” or “look at that sissy boy” thing that many people think it was. Roberts had certainly seen more than his share of outrageous stuff over the years. It’s possible that for a guy like him or Barger a song like Sympathy for the Devil had a completely different meaning than what Jagger intended (he supposedly wrote the song after reading The Master and the Magarita) and to them there is no difference between performance and reality. Perhaps the Angels were not amused that at times Mick seemed to be taunting what was an already edgy crowd. It was made known to the Stones people in early negotiations that the Angels could not be “hired to police the event.” Sonny says this on his call into KSAN: “…I ain’t no cop. I ain’t never gonna pretend to be no cop,” and another Angel, Pete, who is probably Pete Knell, confirms that they only agreed to make sure nothing happened to the band and the stage, but said, “if we say we’re going to do something, we do it, no matter how far we gotta go.” Of course, they are not going to be happy if the band appears to be trying to get the audience riled, which may lead to the audience trying to get to the Stones and then have the band complain that the Angels are being violent if the Angels do what they were asked to do. This is probably what soured everyone’s time throughout the whole day; the Angels were put in the very weird and unenviable position of being AUTHORITY FIGURES for bands and fans of bands who were very anti-authoritarian minded (the Angels are anti-authoritarian themselves). What’s obvious though is that EVERYONE involved is behaving naturally: this is how the Stones put on a show, this is how the audience responds, this is how the Angels react to people who give them trouble. The fact that the song being performed is an acknowledgement and a “sympathy” for conflicting elements and can be viewed as the Stones heads is tails philosophy—“just as every cop is a criminal…” makes the whole scene completely surreal. While Sonny’s call into the radio station may be interpreted as a loaded, self-serving rant (which is how those at the station interpreted it) the sometimes frenzied tone he takes may reveal that the Angels were genuinely worried about trying to handle such a huge group of people and what would’ve happened if hundreds decided to rush the stage. If they were over the top at times it’s likely that it wasn’t done just for the Stones safety but perhaps their own as well.
The song continues in it’s blazing frenzy without problems until about the 5:30 mark when a very wasted, topless, overweight woman starts trying to claw her way through the crowd to the stage. Keith Richards reacts to this and gets some Angels to get her out of the way. According to Stanley Booth in his essay that accompanies the DVD, this actually happened during Live With Me, which was much later in the set. It does look like it has been lifted because on the soundtrack Keith is playing while the film shows him with his hands off his guitar. Sonny Barger also talks about this incident on his radio call. As the guitar solo starts Mick begins mugging until a big mountain-man of an Angel comes up and whispers something in his ear. (Would love to know what the content of that conversation was). Mick looks a little bit shaken when it’s over. He does a little bit of dancing and then comes stage right and is looking out over the crowd. There are people in the front who have their back to him and then turn around and notice he is there. The man is shaking his head but the woman seems embarrassed(?). I can’t figure out what she was looking at or what Mick is trying to see. The guy looks unhappy but it’s hard to tell if it’s the Angels or the crowd that might be misbehaving. Notice that Bill Fritsch is seen siting at Mick’s shoulder looking at him. Mick, unable to even know what is going on, dances to stage left and begins mugging to the crowd as Keith’s solo comes to a close. At 8:14 is another iconic moment of the film — the shot of the young lady who has tears in her eyes as Jagger tries to cool everyone with the final lyrics to the song.
As Sympathy shudders to a close, there are close-ups of some guy being handed through the crowd to Angels, presumably to be taken for medical attention. Whether from a fight, an overdose or general system failure, it’s hard to know, but Bill Fritsch is once again in the movie (at 1:17:19) helping get the guy off. The Angels handle this person gently and he is carted off stage left. While this is going on Jagger asks the crowd, “who is fighting and what for?” Keith starts to get into the act by actually pointing out people in the crowd (presumably Hells Angels) who are misbehaving. “Either those cats cool man it or we don’t play.” Keith’s stage presence on this tour is pretty incredible. Not only did he play really well, but his attitude at Altamont solidified his reputation as a guy who has no fear, even though it’s obvious he would’ve gotten his ass handed to him had it come to a fight. An announcement is made by I don’t know who (it isn’t the Stones or Cutler) that says “…if you don’t cool you ain’t gonna hear no music do you wanna all go home or what?” Mick is seen having a genial conversation with an Angel with a large animal pelt for a hat and Ian Stewart, “the sixth stone” enters the frame and is seen talking with Richards. In his book, Life, Keith says the conversation went something like: “Getting a bit hairy Keith.” “We’ve got to brass it out Stu.” Stewart then goes to the mic and asks for doctors to come down to the front. According to writer Stanley Booth, who was there with the Stones, this all happens at the end of Sympathy. The band played 3 songs in between Sympathy and Under My Thumb, the next song shown in the film. The Sun is Shining and Love In Vain were mellow but some violence flared up during the intervening Stray Cat Blues. Supposedly, at some point during this sequence of songs, Sonny Barger alleges he put a gun in Keith’s side and told him to play if he valued his life, but I think this is probably some of the post-concert slinging that went back and forth in the wake of what happened. It’s not shown in the movie and unless Sonny has the sequence of tunes wrong, his threat didn’t work because Keith threatens to pull the plug again after Hunter is killed, which is after he had Barger’s gun in his ribs. It seems from Sonny’s radio call to KSAN is that he didn’t know the Stones well enough (at least at the time) to discern Mick from Keith because he attributes what Keith says in the film from the stage to “Mick Jagger.” At 1:18 in the movie, as Jagger is trying to get everyone to chill out, Meredith Hunter appears twice close to the front on the left side of the stage. He’s hard to miss as he is wearing a lime-green suit and his tongue lolls out of his mouth twice. He either has some bad dry-mouth or is tweaking on something. Jagger instructs everyone to keep down and stay down before Under My Thumb starts and asks the crowd to “show we’re all one.”
The movie picks up where the above clip starts (the stuff in the middle in not on Youtube). Notice at the 22 second mark the nod of approval Keith Richards gets from Bob Roberts, who is still stationed stage right, on his mighty riffing. At the 28 second mark you can see Bob tapping his toes to the beat. At the 35 second mark an Angel (who was standing directly behind Hunter in the scene I just mentioned) can be seen calmly threading his way through the crowd to right another upended bike (1:15). He talks to people on either side and no violence occurs. Jagger stops singing the verse and the camera shifts to a guy onstage behind Roberts in the midst of what is probably a heavy acid experience. Both he and Roberts are in the frame through another Keith guitar solo and it’s obvious the guy is not doing well. As Mick comes back to the mic, one of the people standing behind Roberts, who are probably Angels or with them, taps him on the shoulder and gets him to turn around and talk. As Jagger starts singing again, the guy on the bad trip has taken off his coat and his head drops onto Roberts’ shoulder. Robert smiles for a second, probably because he thinks it’s the same person who had just tapped him. At the 2:40 mark he turns and does a double-take at who had actually just hit him and says something, obviously realizing the guy has no business being onstage. By the 2:53 mark Roberts gets him offstage in a fairly efficient manner. Although another Angel comes over to help, Roberts is able to lower the guy to the ground without shoving him off into the crowd. Before the end of the song there is another shot of Bill Fritsch sitting on one of the stage monitors. The crowd seems to have chilled out, the Angels have chilled out and then the crowd on the left side of the stage parts and Meredith Hunter is seen in the clearing. Hells Angel Alan Passaro moves from the center of the stage and with his arm up holding a knife, disables Hunters shooting arm, stabs Hunter in the back and drives him left out of the frame. Keith announces that the band is splitting until he is told that “a guy has a gun out there and he is shooting at the stage.” The film shows medical people talking to the police and Hunter’s body being helicoptered off the sight as his girlfriend breaks down. Mick requests a Zapruder-style roll-back on the film from the editing room that confirms the presence of the knife and gun. The film then cuts back to the Stones playing Street Fighting Man with a few of the Angels throwing roses out into the crowd (Mick is seen doing this at the Garden show). The band, Cutler and some other people with the Stones climb aboard a helicopter in a frenzied state and take off. There is a ghostly shot of people leaving(?) the Altamont site in darkness almost as if it’s the surface of the moon. Mick views the final scene in the editing room and the movie ends with the song Gimme Shelter to shots of people arriving at Altamont.
Except that isn’t really how it played out. The film had to end as it did because Hunter was killed. What really happened is that the Stones played Under My Thumb twice, the first time stopping somewhere because Hunter was killed and then replayed it and did 8 more songs (1+ hour of music and the debut of Brown Sugar) and then everybody went home. Sam Cutler was on KSAN the next asking for volunteers to come out to the site to help clean up and take down the stage and towers because immediately after, everyone, including the Stones split. Stanley Booth writes in his essay for the DVD is “…We didn’t know if Hunter had been killed, wounded or what, but the mood seemed to change; it was if the atmosphere had been purged.” The rest of the show went off without any trouble except for the above-mentioned large lady trying to get onstage. No one knows for sure what prompted Meredith Hunter to pull a gun or who he was aiming for. Some people have said he was helping with getting people off the speaker boxes when he got into an argument with six or seven Hells Angels, was pushed back and then rushed forward with a gun in his hand firing once before he was stabbed a total of six times and beaten while on the ground. In an interview that appeared in the Sunday Times seven years ago, Hunter’s girlfriend at the time, Patti Bredahoff (the woman in the crocheted dress) had this recollection of the event:
Patti can see herself at the concert, even now. White blouse, suede wraparound miniskirt, the crocheted top her mum made. She is 52 and doesn’t look the way she once did. She says she hasn’t made much of her life, but she dated Murdock then, for just a few weeks. He took her to see the Temptations, the original line-up, at a San Francisco club. He then took her to Altamont. She and two friends got bored and sat in the car, which was parked on the verge of the freeway, the I580. Murdock came back. He said, come on, Patti, let’s go see the Stones. He went to the boot and Patti saw him put the gun in his waistband. They had seen the fighting with the Angels by the stage earlier. The atmosphere had been tense, unpleasant. Murdock was packing now, just in case.
He stood by the stage and Patti saw him climb onto one of the boxes — monitor speakers — at the front. An Angel pushed him away. The Angel maybe punched him and jumped down and they began scuffling, then Murdock was trying to get away and Patti could see he had the gun in his hand. She was screaming now and other Angels jumped him — she never saw a knife, could not identify Passaro — then he was under the scaffolding on the ground and they were kicking and stomping him and she was sure he would be beaten to death. Nobody came to help, not at first. Then the Angels stepped back and others came forward. Other witnesses would say they tried to help but were kept back by the Angels. Let him die, they were told, he deserves to die, he wanted to shoot Mick Jagger, look, he had a gun.
No witness could testify to seeing a second stabber. One witness thought there were two, but couldn’t be sure. He said he heard Murdock say: “I wasn’t going to shoot you.” But from what most people describe, Murdock was pretty quickly rendered incapable of saying anything. He must have died more or less straight away. Sam Cutler helped carry him and went home with Murdock’s blood on his jacket. Patti remembers sitting in the ambulance looking at Murdock’s ripped shirt and thinking how upset he would be when he woke up, that they had ruined his lovely shirt.
There are a few interesting facts about this account: If Patti wasn’t at some or most of the show because she was bored and doesn’t mention anything about being hassled by the Angels personally, I think this puts to rest the longstanding rumor that Meredith Hunter was prompted to pull his gun because he and Patti were being taunted by the Angels for being an interracial couple. In the shot before the Stones start Under My Thumb Meredith can be seen in the front of the stage, but Patti is not there (and was trying to keep him away from the stage). Since it was dark and there was so much else going on, it’s likely that the Angels weren’t even conscious that the two of them were together (or would have cared). Her story of Hunter pulling the gun from the trunk of the car and putting in his waistband and the reasons for it are troubling. I have no idea where their car was in relation to the front of the stage, but it seems that more than anyone else in their group, Meredith Hunter was highly motivated to be right in front of the stage. Given that they had seen trouble earlier, thinking that having a gun was somehow going to prevent anything was obviously not a good move. Patti and Meredith didn’t know each other that well and had only been dating for a few weeks, so it’s not like she can say that she knew what his true motivations were. Her account differs from the film because when Meredith pulls the gun he is now behind her and further stage left. He doesn’t look like he’s trying to “get away” from anyone, but is moving forward and she and other people are trying to stop him. Almost everyone in the audience (in the frame of the movie) are now looking in Meredith’s direction. You can hear Patti scream and you can see Alan Passaro also sees all of this, sees the gun, and takes him out of the frame. In the essays that come with the DVD, Stanley Booth relates that “Mick had only sung the first line when there was sudden movement in the crowd at stage left. A tall black man wearing a black hat, black shirt, and iridescent green suit was waving a nickel-plated revolver. The gun waved in the lights for a second, two and then he was hit, so hard, by so many Angels that I didn’t see the first one as he jumped.” So if this is correct then, probably the footage of Under My Thumb in the movie is the complete 2nd take (at the end Mick is already singing “I pray that it’s alright”). After the song ends and the “grafted” shots of Hunter appear with the Angels responding, Keith immediately goes to the mic and announces that “we’re splitting.” As he is talking about leaving an Angel comes up and says “a guy’s gotta a gun out there and is shooting at the stage,” so it’s obvious that Angels felt that at least one shot had been fired long before there was any idea that the whole thing had been captured on film or any accusations of blame would be thrown around. Sonny Barger would later say that an Angel had been hit with a minor wound that was treated without medical attention because the person in question was a fugitive. If you watch the end of the Under My Thumb clip again, when Hunter comes into the frame keep your eyes on the people in front of him (bottom of the frame). They all scatter and several seem to fall or are pushed over. Bill Fristch ducks behind a stage monitor and then stands up as other Angels run into the crowd. It would be interesting to know why no cameras picked up the initial scuffle between Hunter and the Angels. It obviously began before Hunter pulled his gun and there were plenty of people who saw him trying to get onstage. There was also a camera focused on him and that side of the stage before the song starts. From wikipedia:
Some of the Hells Angels got into a scuffle with Meredith Hunter, when he attempted to get onstage with other fans. One of the Hells Angels grabbed Hunter’s head, punched him, and chased him back into the crowd. At that point, Hunter returned to the stage where, according to Gimme Shelter producer Porter Bibb, Hunter’s girlfriend Patty Bredahoff found him and tearfully begged him to calm down and move further back in the crowd with her; but he was reportedly enraged, irrational and so high he could barely walk. Rock Scully, who could see the audience clearly from the top of a truck by the stage, said of Hunter, “I saw what he was looking at, that he was crazy, he was on drugs, and that he had murderous intent. There was no doubt in my mind that he intended to do terrible harm to Mick or somebody in the Rolling Stones, or somebody on that stage.”
Earlier I wrote that Stanley Booth said that between Sympathy and Under My Thumb, the violence mellowed, except for a brief dust-up during Stray Cat Blues. This must’ve been when Hunter and others tried to get onstage and were pushed off or knocked around by the Angels if the above account is correct and Booth is correct that Hunter pulled his gun at the beginning of the first run through of Under My Thumb. It couldn’t have all happened during Under My Thumb if Hunter is already pulling his gun out before the first verse is sung. Love in Vain was played in between the two songs and this would allow for Patty to try and calm Hunter down and for him to return to the front of the stage. Her account makes it seem like it all happened at once. Given the nature of the day (and what people remembered or saw afterwards) it’s not completely out of the realm of possibilities that no cameras picked up the initial scuffle; the cameraman who filmed Hunter being stabbed didn’t even know he had that part of the fight on film. While additional footage of the Stones at Madison Square Garden has appeared over the years, I have never seen anything else that was captured at Altamont. It’s ironic that on the 2nd version of Under My Thumb cameras pick up Roberts getting someone off the stage in a very calm and professional manner, while the same type of disagreement led to Hunter’s death. The coroner found methamphetamine in Hunter’s system and needle tracks on his arms, so his behavior, if captured on film, could have led to a completely different view of how and why he was killed. Keith Richards, (in his book Life) writes that Hunter was “…foaming at the mouth too. He was as nuts as the rest.” He doesn’t say whether he actually saw this or heard it from others, but his allusion to speed or methamphetamine, which is often overlooked, not only at Altamont, but also, in the San Francisco community in general, may have been another cause for the bad day and Hunter’s death. One of the first anti-drug messages ever coined, Speed Kills, was in response to large numbers of people using the drug post-1967. People wired on crank or bad acid are not going to be full of love vibes and a huge gathering of people with violence and only the bare minimum of toilets and concessions would aid the general atmosphere of frenzy and paranoia. Of course, film of the initial scuffle could have also shown Angels on that side of the stage going overboard trying trying to deal with Hunter. It’s hard to know, because that important initial scuffle is missing from the film. The way Booth describes it above is basically what the movie shows; Meredith Hunter was suddenly waving his gun in the air. The fly-on-the-wall seems to have missed some of the most important moments of the concert. Because he was from a poor family, for many years Meredith Hunter was interned in an unmarked grave. In 2006 a documentary by Sam Green called Lot 63, grave c explored Meredith Hunter’s short life. As of 2008, funds had been raised to provide a headstone for Hunter’s grave. Alan Passaro was found not guilty of murder by a jury in 1970. After serving time in prison for a few years, Passaro died under “mysterious circumstances” in 1985.
The concert and the subsequent film had a big impact not only on the world of rock and roll, but also on the San Francisco / 60s community that had been very positive about the possibilities of new beginnings and a new society. Even Mick Jagger said before the concert the intent was to create a “microcosm of society.” In an article that was written by noted San Francisco scribe Ralph J. Gleason after the event and preserved HERE some interesting quotes appear: Bill Thompson, the Airplane’s manager, remarked that “a lot of personal relationships were burned behind Altamont.” The event challenged the basic “do-your-own-thing” ethic on which the whole of San Francisco music and hip culture had been based. “It wasn’t just the Angels. It was everybody,” one young lady said later. “There was no love, no joy. In twenty-four hours we created all the problem of our society in one place: congestion, violence, dehumanization. Is this what we want?” Mick Jagger is also quoted as saying, “I know San Francisco by reputation. It was supposed to be lovely here — not uptight. What happened? What’s gone wrong? If Jesus had been there, He would have been crucified.” Immediately after the event and for many years after, the Rolling Stones tacitly blamed San Francisco and the Hells Angels for what happened at Altamont and San Francisco, the Angels and everyone else (even Don McLean!) blamed the Stones because it was felt that the band had brought evil to the positive revolution with their cynicism, dark music and aloof star-tripping. It was inevitable that even before the concert and forever after, Altamont would be compared to Woodstock and how the darkness in California signaled the end of the hippie era. 25 days after Altamont the 1960s ended and what is very clear in Gimme Shelter, with the live performances and recordings that would show up on Sticky Fingers 2 years later, the Rolling Stones had already said goodbye to the 1960s (probably in late 1967). Even though there were people who showed up for the tour to say goodbye to the band because it was felt at the time they were an anachronism compared to all of the new music that was the soundtrack for the counterculture’s future, it was the Rolling Stones who kept right on rolling through the next four decades. In The Rolling Stones: The First 25 Years, an essay by Dave Dalton quotes Mick as saying, “Of course, some people want to say that Alamont was the end of an era…People like that are fashion writers. Perhaps it was the end of their era, the end of the naivete. I would have thought that it would have ended long before Altamont.” His point is worth noting and I’d like to add that if all it took was one bad concert to sink the hippie era, there couldn’t have been a whole lot to it. A whole lot has changed since 1969 — it’s interesting how the punk and metal scenes of the 1970s and 1980s borrowed quite a bit from the “dark side” of Altamont — the leather, chains, beer, violence and philosophies that attempted to be virulently “anti-hippie.” It’s possible that rather than ending one era, the concert was the bridge to what followed. I would imagine that for the generations of people who have grown up since, there is much more of an awareness and maybe even indifference toward violence in general than was true in 1969 and plenty of the music that has been created in the intervening decades reflects this change.
This has been an interesting exploration for me and I feel that I’ve learned a whole lot of background on Gimme Shelter and the story of Altamont. I hope whoever reads this enjoys the post as well. The research I was able to do turned up quite a few interesting characters and sub-plots. I’ve tried to avoid drawing any conclusions because I wasn’t there and don’t know anyone who was. What always struck me about the movie echoes the quote I referenced from Spencer Dryden above. While there were definitely some happy party people in attendance, there were also something off about the whole thing. Perhaps it was the bad drugs, the bad vibes, or the insane desperation of the times. At the same time, there are plenty of instances in the movie where the audience IS cool and the Hells Angels DO perform the tasks they were asked to do very efficiently, even though they said from the beginning they were not trained to be security operatives. While it is obvious on the KSAN radio broadcasts (I place a fair amount of importance on these calls because they occurred right after the concert) that some people thought the Angels were too heavy-handed, no one remarked on an incident at Woodstock when Pete Townshend of The Who knocked Abbie Hoffman off the stage when he attempted to interrupt their performance. Pete wasn’t gentle about it, the audience applauded after Hoffman was knocked or fell off the stage and it doesn’t seem that Pete was ever seriously taken to task for how he went about it. Most of the violence in Gimme Shelter occurs because of the same dynamic in action. In the wake of guitarist Dimebag Darrell’s onstage murder in 2004 by a mentally ill person, his family sued the club where the incident took place because it was alleged that security had allowed the gunman backdoor access to the club. One statement of interest in the suit is that, “One of the security guards said that he didn’t want to mess with him [Gale] because he was a big dude.” Say what you want about the Angels and Alan Passaro, they didn’t hesitate to step up and do what they were supposed to do even when that included dealing with a guy who was waving (and firing?) a gun. There are very few people in this world who would take on such a task when beer is the only compensation. I think this might be what Sonny Barger means on his radio call when he says that “the Angels were used for dupes.” I’m sure from their perspective there was plenty of regret not only for what happened at the concert (both Sonny and Pete Knell say this) but also maybe for signing on in the first place. As I’ve detailed above, as the party morphed into a concert and changed locations right up until the last minute before showtime, the Angels’ role changed in the process. The concert was completely off the grid because those in the establishment who had the chance to help put on the event declined to do so. Who would’ve stepped up had the Angels also declined to be involved? I don’t know, I’ve never seen that anyone offered any alternatives (at the time or after). Perhaps the whole idea should’ve been shelved, but many events that happened in this period were borderline disasters, even Woodstock. In an early clip of the movie, before there is any music, Cutler, Tony Funches and some others are standing around talking and they acknowledge that everything is already totally wrong. One man (I don’t know who he is) says basically “…We’ll wing it, if only for experimental purposes.” This was a big part of what made the 1960s interesting; people experimented with many things, individually and as members of this “new” culture. Mick Jagger once bristled at the notion that he was one of the leaders of all of the social changes that occurred during the decade — “We just all went along together, didn’t we?” That was what everyone hoped for and tried to make happen at Altamont, but unfortunately, experiments sometimes go wrong and “winging it” can be dangerous. Certainly the 60s had many casualties from too much experimentation. Violence has continued to be a part of rock and roll in the years since Altamont and even under the best, tightly-controlled situations, problems can arise. Anyone reading this post can certainly call to mind trouble at an event, maybe even on they attended. The ending to Gimme Shelter has puzzled many over the years and maybe still does: The song Gimme Shelter plays as people are shown arriving at the concert. A quick dissection of the lyrics, especially “War children, it’s just a shot away” or “Love sister, it’s just a kiss away” perhaps explain the movie better than any article or discussion. The line between violence/trouble and having a good time can sometimes be a very thin one indeed and there is always an opportunity for people or groups of people to respect that line and not let their good time get out of hand. This is something everyone should consider as they arrive at each new destination. I don’t know if that is what the film makers intended, but I think it serves as a good ending to a very complicated and important event in rock and roll history.
This entry was posted on April 24, 2012 at 3:10 pm and is filed under Music Business, Players, This and That with tags 1969, Abbie Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, Altamont, Bill Fritsch, CSN&Y, Dimebag Darrell, Emmett Grogan, Flying The Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, Hells Angels, Jefferson Airplane, Jerry Garcia, Manson Family, Pete Townshend, Santana, Sonny Barger, The Diggers, The Grateful Dead, The Maysles Brothers, The Rolling Stones. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.