Altamont Revisited on Film

The Maysles brothers' film 'Gimme Shelter' preserves the tragic concert like a bad dream

Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones, altamont speedway, hells angels
Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones warily eye the Hells Angels onstage at The Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969 in Livermore, California.
By |

It was frightening to see Gimme Shelter. I could hardly talk after it and walked around for an hour and almost couldn't make the next meal.

What it is like for someone in, say, Indiana, to see, I can hardly imagine. I can't imagine. But to see the familiar faces, the people, the scene, and to have recreated (no, not re-created, but reprised) that mad, frantic, unbelievable time is, at least for me, to concentrate all the bad vibes from Altamont all over again into an hour and a half.

The Rolling Stones Disaster at Altamont: Hype in the News

The speculation and comment on this film will go on for years, I suspect. And it ought to, because it is an important record of a highly important event. A documented object lesson in what not to do. Visual education.

It has, of course, along with the leaden vibes, some incredible moments. Mick on stage prancing his way into his thing. Tina Turner copping the mike. The sound of the music and that beautiful half-time sequence when Mick is singing "Love in Vain" and the movement is stopped down to form a ballet over the tempo of the music. That was one of the most exquisite moments of film and music I have ever seen and it is only lamentable that the editors didn't have the courage to let it continue on through the entire number. The music can carry it but I do not believe they believed in the music. Or at least they didn't believe in it enough.

And God knows the entire affair would put you off music if you didn't have some feeling for it from before. Music brought those people together that day and music provided the spark to set off the energy that went so sour so tragically. The Stones' music is great music, but it almost always hangs there on a thin edge of violence, usually resolving it and working it out, but on that day the stars and their puppets conspired to block off the resolution and the result was the chaos so vividly shown.

There are no specific guilty parties for Altamont. We were all guilty, myself included. To whatever degree we failed to take whatever steps we could have taken to assure that day would go down benignly, we share the guilt. But the Stones and the concept of a free day with them was such a powerful combination that everyone lost control. I believe that to be true and that Mick and the workers who put it together as well as the Angels who killed that man were all victims themselves. The ultimate victim was all of us. It was a miniature Vietnam, a machine out of control postulated on a mistaken assumption and evolving swiftly into the evil version of what could have been good.

It was a crime without a criminal, a free concert that will in the end (as Woodstock went bankrupt to make millions) earn more money than any concert anybody ever paid for. In a way it typifies the alliance between greed and grace that is part of the whole presentation of music's magic in this society. The scenes in Mel Belli's office more than even the murder itself reek of a kind of evil we seldom see. Generally we see only what goes on out there on the stage. This time we saw the backstage greed of the manipulators just as plainly as we saw the magic of the performances.

It was wrong from the start somehow. We may never pinpoint exactly how. I suspect the first wrong was the alliance of the "free" concept with the profit – exploitation – greed of the film itself. But we have traditionally been able to bring off beautiful things from that tainted base. This time it didn't work because of one thing: the incredible magnetism and energy of the Stones blinded everyone, brought into the vortex of that day all the power lust and money lust surrounding the whole rock scene. It was a tribal ritual of evil and of death at the end. It is astonishing, as it unfolds on the screen, that there was only one death. There might well have been dozens. It teetered on the edge of that.

All the devices by which the Stones create excitement (in addition to their music) had been used over and over on this tour and on others without a fatal turn. But at all the other times there were controls which stopped the movement short of real danger. And part of the Stones' thrill is the feeling that there is real danger, just as there is in auto races and bull fights. The parallel to ancient warfare is striking. The excitement outweighed the danger – except for a few.

Mick still doesn't know where he was. He thought it was San Francisco, as Brooklyn is New York. But wherever Altamont was, it was a long way from San Francisco and those who set it up, the two bodies of thought, ran counter to each other throughout. One of them was straight out of the San Francisco Renaissance, the surviving elements of the Be-In. And the other was the money changers.

The Rolling Stones Disaster at Altamont: Let It Bleed

The seeds of Altamont were present in Monterey, for that matter. There the conflict was between the styles of Hollywood and San Francisco, but the lines were not drawn so sharply and the jackpot was not so huge. In fact it was never really visualized. At Altamont, the idea inherited the momentum of all the other festivals and particularly of Woodstock, where it had become obvious that there were millions to be made at these things if they could be manipulated.

It was pitiful to see the reactions of Mick, and earlier, of Grace and the Airplane, to the violence. In those moments, the star trip came to earth and the human inadequacy was revealed. They were not prepared for such a thing as this. They were not prepared for such a thing as this. The dues were coming down and they were heavy; and response, to avert the danger, to turn the energy to up rather than down, was not there.

By the time Mick exhorted the crowd to show the world that we are one, it was too late. The oneness had gone and it was, again, "us" and "them." Either/or. Power went to the wrong people but it went there unnecessarily and this documentary of how it happened (which is not at all what the filmmakers set out to do, I suspect) is very valuable and should be seen over and over just for what it is. An object lesson in danger.

There was a man standing on the stage near Mick at one point. As the music went on and Mick sang, the man just stood there, into the music all the way. Harmless. Eventually he was violently moved off the stage. The point, I think, is that once violence is used, it is like a lease from the devil himself. You have to pay the dues. Nobody harmed George Harrison when he walked through San Francisco and nobody harmed Mick or Keith at Altamont the night before. True, a nut ran up and hit Mick on arrival that afternoon, but by then it was obvious that there was fear in the wind.

We all know better than Altamont. Even the Angels. Actually the Angels most of all. But by our own weakness we were thrust into that thing and then pulled along by the momentum it generated.

As a people, we are not used to gathering in huge crowds such as this without visible lines of demarka-tion. The football games, especially the professional ones, bring the audiences to a frenzy of drunken violence many times. So even do the college and high school games. We confuse the music with the music maker to a truly demoniac degree, crediting the doctor with the power of the medicine and trampling others to get close to him like the cripples at a religious rite fighting for the cure.

When the whole turbulent mass is whipped into a frenzy by the media, most especially radio and in this specific instance FM radio and Top 40 radio, a kind of over-ride of energy is released which sets up a volatile and wildly dangerous situation in which almost all the frustrations and angers of life get involved.

Although I believe the Stones were victims as well as the rest of us and guilty as we all are guilty, they have made it easy for the load to be dumped on them (as have the Angels). But we expect too much and we expect it because we have made them into superhuman species, the mirror opposite of the subhumans we are licensed to kill.

Gimme Shelter preserves it all like a bad dream. And like a bad dream, it has reality and it also has beauty. But it is still a bad dream and if we can think about it and learn from it, it may not ever have to happen again. We ought to work on that.

This story is from the April 1st, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 79: April 1, 1971