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40 years since Altamont


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Good article in The Star today

Altamont, it could only happen to the Stones, man. Let's face it. It wouldn't happen to the Bee Gees and it wouldn't happen to Crosby, Stills and Nash.

–Keith Richards, 1971

In the middle of the night before the `free' Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway near San Francisco, Keith Richards drove to the last-minute site with the filmmaking team of Albert and David Maysles. The car passed a group of kids ripping apart a fence just for the hell of it.

Richards stared.

"The first act of violence," he quipped.

On the DVD commentary he recorded for the 2000 release of the definitive Altamont documentary Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles remembers looking back on what was about to transpire during the following day – Dec. 6, 1969 – and wondering, how did he know?

Within 24 hours, the name Altamont would become forever associated with many things, none of them having to do with car racing. It would be shorthand for the death of an era, the Luciferian powers of the Rolling Stones, the disillusioning rupture between rock music and its fans, and the moment when the violence latent in American culture finally caught up with countercultural idealism and fatally beat the flowers right out of its hair.

Today we look back across a passage of 40 years. What we see may be puzzling. Among other things, we may wonder how anyone, at any point in human history, could think that 300,000 pharmaceutically prone and comfort-deprived kids could gather at an isolated place policed by drunken, club-wielding thugs and presume things would turn out any way but ugly.

And it may strike us that, given the number of ugly concert incidents that have ensued (The Who's Cincinnati concert in '79, Woodstock '99) that the death of one fan – and an obviously armed and loaded one at that – has assumed a curiously disproportionate historical significance over the years. Most baffling, however, might be the contradiction contemporary observers will immediately apprehend between the sunny stated intent behind Altamont – which Mick Jagger told a press conference was "creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America" – and its grim reality.

But this is exactly why Altamont must be viewed in context. To understand both what it really was and the myth it became, we have to return to the moment that produced it.

It was the caught-on-camera murder of an 18-year-old concertgoer – less than 20 feet from the band – that gave Altamont its immediate vault to headline heaven.

However, timing was another key factor. Nineteen-sixty-nine was the year of Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia and Edward Kennedy's crash at Chappaquiddick. It was the year of The White Album and the allegedly Beatles-inspired Manson murders. It was the year of The Wild Bunch and the revelation of the G.I.-perpetrated massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. It was the year American troop levels in Southeast Asia peaked at 550,000, and the year that Brian Jones, the Rolling Stone who'd given the band its name, was found dead in his swimming pool at age 27. It was year the band released Let It Bleed.

Mostly, however, it was the year of Woodstock. And more than anything, Altamont became the anti-Woodstock. By any means used to measure the arc of the 1960s from peak to fall, the distance between the two festivals represents the shortest streak of the comet: four months to travel from Woodstock to Altamont, or from the garden to the gates of hell.

That's short, but not as short as the time in which Altamont became the site of the Rolling Stones' final concert of their triumphant 1969 tour: less than 48 hours.

There is much that remains murky about Altamont, but not much is murkier than the circumstances which led to the biggest touring rock act in the world playing for free on a four-foot high stage in front of 300,000 fans at a remote California raceway ribboned by freeways and miles from San Francisco.

Which is where it was supposed to happen. When the Stones first announced their plans to play a free concert – perhaps in response to Woodstock, which became free when nearly half a million kids showed up, and perhaps in response to a stinging article in the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing the band for gouging fans with a $15 admission fee – the site was Golden Gate Park, already legendary as a place where hippies gathered for free entertainment.

When that plan was trumped by a scheduling conflict with a 49ers game at nearby Kezar Stadium, the site was moved to Sears Point Raceway. But Sears Point was owned by a company called Filmways, which only agreed to host the event if it could secure film rights to the concert movie the Stones were making with the Maysles. (A year later, when Gimme Shelter was released, the Stones would be accused of `staging' the concert for cameras and profiting from murder.) The band balked, and a venue was hastily secured at the Altamont Raceway. This was Dec. 4. The concert was to take place Dec. 6.

Perhaps inspired by the fortune-kissed events on the other side of the country – Woodstock organiser Michael Lang had successfully shifted his event to Max Yasgur's farm when the original site plans at Wallkill, N.Y. fell through – everyone involved was convinced Altamont would be similarly blessed.

It wasn't. There weren't enough parking spaces. There weren't enough toilets. There wasn't enough food. The stage was hastily constructed. Electricity was a nightmare. And somebody suggested the Hell's Angels ought to be hired for security.

Just who made the suggestion remains one of Altamont's more persistent mysteries. Some have said it was Sam Cutler, the Stones' road manager. Some say Rock Scully, the Grateful Dead's manager. Some say Jerry Garcia, the Dead's late lead guitarist. Some blame the Stones, who had enlisted the London chapter of the club – and a far more peaceable franchise – to act as an "honour guard" at the band's free concert, a memorial to Brian Jones, in London's Hyde Park the past summer.

In any case, the deal ("with the devil", as it inevitably came to be called) was struck: for $500 worth of beer, the world's most notorious biker club was hired to escort the band safely to the stage and provide a deterrent for fans who might wish to join the Stones there.

In the movie the Maysles made of the event, the epochal Gimme Shelter, we see what the Stones – who were securely trailered and consistently importuned to stay there until a reportedly unruly crowd cooled out – could not.

We see concertgoers tripping out and stripping down, we see disputes erupting between organizers and the Angels, and we see the Angels carrying out their responsibilities in time-honoured Angel fashion: with lead-weighted pool cues, leather boots and fists, and seemingly upon anyone who gets either too close to the stage or – strangely, in the same proximity – where they've parked their bikes.

Not seen in the movie but widely reported was the boredom-killing fun the Angels had hurling full cans of beer into the crowd. As Maysles collaborator Sam Goldstein observed of the way things played out that day, "It's the Angel way."

In an article written for the 30th anniversary of the event, Goldstein elaborated. "In retrospect, of course, everyone should have walked away. But, there was no one, no way to say STOP! NO! And, we shouldn't forget that, in the aftermath of `Woodstock,' there was a general euphoria – more than a feeling – the sure knowledge that we, the rock 'n' roll, be-in, wear a flower in your hair community had triumphed and could, in anarchy, find peace, and overcome with love any who had an interest in violence. Not everyone believed that. Some raised concerns about public safety, control, etc. Those voices were overwhelmed."

Not that the band hadn't had certain intimations. The Maysles did capture the "fan"-generated punch Mick Jagger took to the head when he emerged from the helicopter. And Keith Richards had foretold the future with that crack about Altamont's "first act of violence." Moreover, the Stones had heard that Marty Balin, of Jefferson Airplane, had actually been knocked unconscious by an Angel during the band's performance.

The band took the stage late, but it would have been a lot later if the Grateful Dead hadn't decided to pass on playing. (Again, various reasons converge. Some say the decision was based on placating the crowd. Others say the Dead were simply making the reasonable decision not to leap into the inferno.) It was dark over the speedway just about everywhere except the stage, and the band opened with "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Albert Maysles was standing on top of truck just behind the stage, shooting the band and the first few rows of surging crowd. It's an absurdly chaotic scene: Angels drape the stage like leather-clad gargoyles, hurling overzealous and apparently overstimulated unfortunates back into the darkness. A German shepherd calmly crosses the stage right in front of Jagger at one point, and a naked woman is seen scrambling vacant-eyed over the riser. Jagger calls for a halt near the beginning of "Sympathy for the Devil" because of a fracas that's broken out. "Who's fighting and what for?" he pleads.

Forty years on, it remains a good question. The band begins its seventh number, the classic chick-sneering "Under My Thumb," when it happens: a scuffle stage left that causes the crowd to ripple back and re-surge like the surface of a splashed pond. You can't really see what happens, unless you view it in slow motion, which is exactly what you do – along with Mick Jagger and drummer Charlie Watts – if you're watching Gimme Shelter.

The Stones had no idea that Meredith Hunter, a black teenager with a lime-green suit, bowler hat and a pistol in his pocket, had been stabbed to death by an Angel when he pulled his weapon less than 20 feet from the stage.

On the contrary, things seemed to settle after that, and the band continued to play another eight numbers, leaving many with the immediate impression they'd seen the world's greatest rock and roll band living up to their name.

It was the Maysles' editor, Charlotte Zwerin, who came up with the idea to film the Stones watching the movie, an idea that single-handedly lifts Gimme Shelter from the realm of typical cinéma vérité rock doc into something else entirely: an exercise in unsettling, deconstructive self-reflexivity, an investigation into truth, reality, violence and show business that would cause more than one critic to liken the movie to the Zapruder film for the rock generation.

When David Maysles slows the footage down for Jagger to watch, we see him seeing what really happened for the first time: the kid, the gun, the knife, the death. As he gets up to leave, Jagger fixes his death-mask gaze on Albert Maysles' lens and the image freezes. His eyes on ours, it's an infinitely implicating lockdown of looks.

By the next day, Altamont had already begun its journey to myth. The '60s were over and this concert had killed them. The Stones had lived up to their Satanic majesty and stood by as a kid was killed in the process. Blood had stained what Rolling Stone Magazine rushed to call "Rock & Roll's Worst Day," and there was no washing it out. Woodstock had morphed into something ugly in its slouching crawl westward, a beast borne of its mere crossing of the American landscape.

It stuck, as bloodstains do. The myths surrounding Altamont as curtain-closing generational bummer were as easily debunked as those that anointed Woodstock the apex of the dream – for one thing, the dream was never more than that: a vision of peace that flashed briefly in a violent time and age. But the convenience was simply too neat and compact to resist. A rise had to be followed by a fall, a revolution with its reckoning.

Despite the fact that wreckage of the '60s idealism was everywhere evident even while the decade was playing out, a certain comet-streak trajectory was needed for purposes of pop mythological convenience.

That cameras were present for the recording of both events, that they were movies as well as history in the making, is of course essential to their memory.

Woodstock needed Altamont to fully become Woodstock, and Altamont likely wouldn't have made quite so much history if it had happened to any other band at any other time.

Something had to bring the fall. What better than Stones and Angels?

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Woodstock, Monterey Pop and The Kids Are Alright are three of the best music documentaries ever produced, but Gimme Shelter is one of the best documentaries, period. What a horror-show that festival was. We should be all thankful that the Maysles brothers were there to film the whole goddam mess.

As great as Gimme Shelter is, SCTV's "Gimme Jackie", is perhaps the funniest music-inspired spoof. Jackie Rogers getting attacked by his hired security, the Shriners, while he's singing "The Love Boat Theme" is pure comedic gold; same with the interrogation by F. Lee Bailey.

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