Directed by Albert and David Maysles. 1970.

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“I was born in a crossfire hurricane, And I howled at my ma in the driving rain...” – Jumpin’ Jack Flash, The Rolling Stones 

The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California in the autumn of 1969 was supposed to be the West Coast’s version of Woodstock, but today Altamont is remembered only for the violence that provided a jarring ending to a roller coaster decade. Gimme Shelter, directed by the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, brilliantly restored on a criterion DVD, chronicles the Rolling Stones four-month tour in New York, Boston, and Florida, beginning as a straight rock n’ roll show and ending as an account of a homicide that, thirty seven years after the event, still has the power to frighten and disturb.

The film opens with footage of the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden performing some of their biggest hits such as Satisfaction and Jumpin’ Jack Flash. It then follows the group to a recording session in Alabama, shows them watching a video of the Altamont concert weeks after it took place, then flashes back to preparations for the concert and the negotiations between Melvin Belli and Woodstock promoter Michael Lang. The site at Altamont was chosen only two days before the show after two other locations, Golden Gate Park and Sears Point Raceway, had fallen through. While hundreds of people worked very hard to put the event together, it was feared that there was inadequate time to adequately prepare for the estimated 300,000 young people arriving from all over the country, though no one anticipated the violence. As the concert began, the fears soon turned into reality and the Maysles Brothers’ camera captures it all and in the process makes documentary history.

The gathering of a cross-section of young people, unlike Woodstock, had no feeling of community. There was no obvious police presence, inadequate toilet and medical facilities, no plan to deal with cases of drug overdose, insufficient parking, and a one-foot high stage that invited easy access for stoners to rush. The Hells Angels, a group of bikers from the Bay Area, were hired by Stones manager Sam Cutler at the suggestion of The Grateful Dead to protect the stage in exchange for $500 worth of beer (though they now claim it didn’t happen).

Though the majority of Angels simply did their job without incident, the attempts of some to maintain order by clubbing people over the head with pool cues and throwing full beer cans at spectators created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. While drugs of all sorts were readily available to all, the biggest drug and alcohol abusers that night may have been the Angels themselves who insanely tried to drive their bikes through the middle of the crowd. Small scuffles broke out during the performances of Ike and Tina Turner and the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the violence escalated when Santana and Jefferson Airplane took the stage and Marty Balin was knocked unconscious by an Angel, during a scuffle near the stage.

When Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones came on, the violence spread and the camera captures scattered outbursts of fighting taking place near the stage as Jagger tries to soothe the crowd. The Stones inappropriate choice of the song, “Sympathy for the Devil”, only added to the atmosphere of menace. As Mick Jagger began to sing “Under My Thumb”, in the space of one minute and twenty four seconds, the hope that Woodstock had generated only four months earlier quickly ended.

A black 18-year old gun-wielding spectator, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed five times and beaten to death by Hells Angel Allan Passaro who later claimed self defense in a 1972 trial. Why Mr. Hunter brought a gun to a rock concert and what he planned to use it for has never been answered. When the assault occurred, Jagger stopped singing and tried to calm everyone down, finally calling for an ambulance but his admonitions to the crowd “Why are we fighting? What for”? were futile and he finally had to keep singing simply in order to prevent a full scale riot. In a fitting conclusion, Maysles shows The Stones reviewing the first cut of the film, depicting a very subdued Mick Jagger rewinding the editing machine to watch the murder again in slow motion with a very pained expression on his face.

While Altamont was indisputably an ugly event, some critics used what happened at the event to discredit an entire generation and their idealism, telling us that the idea of a peaceful gathering of a large number of young people was doomed to fail (despite Woodstock’s success shortly before). One writer claimed that the concert “exposed the ugly underbelly of the 60s and ended a period of innocence and belief in getting along”. In reality, it did no such thing. If innocence died at the end of the sixties, it was not because of Altamont, Mick Jagger, the Hells Angels, or because the values of the hip community (labeled as “hippies” by the mass media) did not work. It died because of the escalation of the Vietnam War, the ignoring of public protests, and the insanity of Charles Manson.

It died because the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King left a gaping hole in our collective psyche and threatened to destroy our sense of trust in the government. Innocence died because of the disillusionment with a decade that began with the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Corps and ended with the bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia after President Richard Nixon had campaigned on bringing “peace with honor”. Altamont, for all its symbolic significance to some, was not a defining moment in history, nor was it the end of peace and love. It was a concert that went tragically wrong. 


Howard Schumann
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