Yesterday was the fortieth anniversary of the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, the free concert headlined by the Rolling Stones on December 6, 1969 that ended with the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old black man named Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hells Angels.
I interviewed Ethan Russell, the official Stones photographer for that tour and author of a book about it called “Let It Bleed,” and Albert Maysles, co-director of the infamous documentary about the show, “Gimme Shelter,” (which was just released on Blu-Ray DVD) for an article for yesterday’s New York Post.
Mick Jagger at Altamont, from the film “GIMME SHELTER.” Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
The article deals with both the events of the show itself and its eventual impact, as many regard it, having come less than four months after the successful peace and love fest Woodstock, as the end of the sixties — a status I feel, having recently read the riveting book “Helter Skelter,” that it shares at least equally with the Manson murders.
In viewing “Gimme Shelter” for the first time in years, I was struck by how portentous many of the film’s images were. The more you learn about that day, the more the tragedy seemed inevitable, and the more you actually see of the day, the more the myth of the sixties is exposed as an idealism that simply could never have stood the test of time.
Here’s my list of ten remarkable images from the film, along with the times they appear, that reveal more than meets the eye. I’ve left out some of the obvious ones, like the stabbing of Meredith Hunter or the numerous pool cue beating scenes. In fact, the violence during the sets by the Stones and the Jefferson Airplane contained too many incredible images, I felt, to single out. The images included here are less obvious, but no less powerful. They don’t bash you over the head with meaning – they’re more subtle – but within that subtlety they say something profound about the event, the participants, and the nature of the times.
1. Mick Jagger’s self-revelation – 15:50-16:20
In a press conference about the upcoming concert, a female reporter riffs on the Stones’ hit “Satisfaction” by asking Mick if he’s any more satisfied in his life, and Jagger responds “do you mean sexually, or philosophically?” He then says, to the amusement of the assembled media, that he’s “sexually satisfied, and philosophically trying.” The edit then quickly cuts to Jagger, post-Altamont – now older, wiser, and, presumably, philisophically scarred – who solemnly blurts out, “rubbish.” The moment is fleeting, but from someone as iconic (even then) as Mick Jagger, it’s a fairly startling bit of sincerity — a true rock legend, the ultimate celebrity, calling himself out on his own bullshit.
Mick Jagger at Altamont, from the film “GIMME SHELTER.” Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.
2. Tina Turner – “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” – 35:00
“Gimme Shelter” includes a brief clip of Ike and Tina Turner, who would occasionally open for the Stones, performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” For those who’ve never seen their early work, or whose memories of Tina date back only as far as the lion-maned “Private Dancer” days, this clip is a soulful revelation. We live in an age where big-name performers “kiss” on stage, at high profile events, with all the romantic spontaneity and sensual lust of a major party political conventional in a presidential election year. So considering today’s pervasive faux-sexual posturing, watching Turner’s highly charged sexuality is arousing and inspirational all at once. The song finds Turner in duet with Ike, but the cameras wisely stay focused on the diva. As she sings in halting, breathy tones, “you got what I want” and “you got what a need,” her blinged-out fingers stroke the microphone slowly to the head as her face contorts and her throat quivers. A plea emanates from her loins, vibrating through her body and seducing the audience all at once. Her fingers burn with a full-body passion in the strokes from the mic’s head to her groin as she builds to an explosion of passion wherein she screams “Sock It!” (or is it “Suck It?”), bringing the exchange between performer and audience to a satisfying and dizzying conclusion. The number would be hard for anyone to emulate today. We’d be looking for the wires, listening for the back-up tapes, figuring out at which syllable Ike had told her to break her voice and where on the mic she was directed to start her sensual digital exploration. But Turner pulls off a sexual sincerity unparalleled in an age where virginal youthful vigor has replaced wizened and questing carnality. And Jagger apparently agrees. After watching the footage, he utters, in the most casual manner possible, “good — it’s nice to have a chick occasionally.”
3. Contributions to the Panther Defense fund – 53:00
With the sound off, she looks like your sweet aunt Lil, or a Park Slope earth mother. A white woman of around 40, she wears a white hoodie and a weaved, New Mexican shoulder bag; her blond hair is not quite to the shoulders; and then, there’s that voice: high-pitched and slightly nasal, although not-Fran Drescher nasal, but the sort of non-threatening nasal that indicates the consumption of voluminous allergy medications. And their she is, your Food Co-op shift partner or company H.R. gal, walking around the Altamont Speedway soliciting contributions for the Black Panther defense fund. She implores attendees to throw money in her bucket by explaining that these poor Panthers are being threatened with possibly violent extinction, ending her plea with the always effective, “after all, they’re just Negroes, you know?” We sure do. Thanks mom.
Won’t you give today? Photo by Toots Fontaine.
4. The naked people, Part I – 56:24
The sixties being the time of “let it all hang out,” their free outdoor concerts invariably found people taking off their clothes in the middle of the crowd. But at Woodstock, judging from film and photos of that event, the naked brigade seemed to include at least some who were not out of their minds; who had indulged in some sort of exercise in the previous five years; and who possessed the intestinal fortitude to just say no to spongecake. At Altamont, for reasons that defy any logic or reason but to say that this really was the devil’s playground, all the naked people were both chunky, and tripping their ever-loving balls off. After a brief backside shot of what appears to be a woman several minutes earlier, we get our first almost full-frontal here (the cameramen were kind enough to keep the bottom of the frame at the man’s pube line). It’s still broad daylight, but the dude in question — possibly early 20s, black hair with mustache to match, and a set of floppy man-titties that would make even Jabba the Hut sign up for a Crunch membership — is proud to display his natural “assets” to the world, at first. Seen declaring “I’m on LSD!” to whoever happens to be listening, he’s smiling wide until he turns his head, finding himself face to face with a guy who’s clearly not here for the fat naked manflesh. At the moment of eye contact, the look on naked guy’s face is worth the price of the film. In an instant, his face melts from wide smile, to apprehension, to a look of fear and revulsion like when the guy in “The Crying Game” realizes this his chick is a dude. A confrontation begins, but all we’re shown is naked guy quickly starting to stare toward the sky — having forgotten his new opponent as quickly as he feared him — and seconds later, dancing merrily in the face of approaching Hells Angels. No word on whether he made it out alive, but a good guess says that he quickly learned the value of a well-constructed pair of pants.
Aren’t you glad these days are over? (Wait. This was taken WHEN????) Photo by erenemre
5. The Asian flautist – 1:00:10-1:00:27
About a minute after the first Hells Angel pool cue crashes down onto the head of a concertgoer, we hear an announcement from the stage asking for a doctor. Seconds later, we close-up on a young Asian women who forcefully says, “they’re not gonna play music till we get a doctor!” We can’t see exactly who she’s talking to, but we can surmise that she’s appealing to the crowd, and that she’s genuinely concerned — maybe a friend of the sick or injured party, maybe just a bystander, maybe even a staffer, but either way, immediately striking as the sort of person who emerges from a crowd in a time of crisis to do the right thing — an illumination of purpose in a sea of frivolity. “Somebody help,” she then says, her voice now losing its edge; then, “somebody’s hurt,” a bit more powerful — but only a bit. And then the camera pans back to give us the entire scene, and the Wizard is suddenly exposed. In a sequence just seconds long, she flashes a peace sign as she leans way back into the hands of a floppy-hatted friend; a smile wafts across her face, and she raises a wooden flute to her lips, fluttering out some lilting notes. And all at once, the voice of reason becomes just another stoned kid succumbing to the most pleasurable instinct — yet one more sign that on this day, signs of hope are not to be trusted, and good intentions aren’t worth the wispy breath that announced their arrival.
6. Black man dancing – 1:04:29
Who says white people have no rhythm? Why, everyone who’s ever seen a hippie dance, that’s who. Say what you will about hippies, but their lack of conventional rhythm while dancing is mesmerizing in its totality. Combine LSD with the harmonic forward motion of sixties-style jam band rock, and the human response is one that is somehow devoid of anything having to do with the concept of a “beat” in music. Bodies shake epileptically while limbs flail in full-on Family Guy “Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man” style, and any sense of boogie or blues roots has faded along with the logic and reason of the mind. Unsurprisingly then, the hippies, as a group, were about as white as the audience at your average “alternative” hipster comedy show today. But when you do see an African-American in the crowd, dancing to the music, it’s a strange brew, as if rhythm and nonsense are fighting it out in one body, the urge to grind those hips battling the brain’s rejection of the libido and the embrace of swirling shapes, colors, and imaginary muses instead. And so it is here, with a rare close-up of a black fan doing his thing to the music of the Jefferson Airplane. More intriguing in that it follows the flowing grace of a nebbishy, glasses-wearing white chick with flat hair in a green smock with pink sleeves, casting and jerking her limbs about as if fighting off the world’s slowest fly, we see him — the hip black guy, face large on the screen, groovin’ to the tunes. And when I say groovin’, I mean groovin’ – head bopping, on the one, demonstrating something close to constraint, an essential ingredient for dancing that smolders. But then the music and festering hippie impulse take over, and for the next six seconds our groovin’ rhythm box is overcome by a mad psychedelic rush of arm flailing and facial contortions, the victory of psychedelia over instinct, his head bobbing and weaving so fast it seems like the film’s been sped up, his cheeks retracting in fear, his arms spasmodically shifting in unison as if defending from invisible flying dragons — and then as quickly as it starts, it’s over, and our hero remembers who he is. His cheeks slacken. He smiles wide, relaxed like he owns the joint. And he returns his arms and body back to a restrained, boogyin’, cool man groove that feels needed in these turbulent times. You can almost hear his thoughts. “Yeah, baby — I do own this place. That hippie shit is in the past. Don’t you worry — I’m back. Yeahhhhhhh.”
(Watch at about 1:30 of the trailer above)
7. The Grateful Dead – Masters of Understatement – 1:07:30
The Grateful Dead, who’d been scheduled as one of the openers (and whose staff helped arrange the show), arrive at the venue, filling each other in on the gory details so far. While Jerry Garcia correctly categorizes the entire scene as a “bummer,” the best line comes from bassist Phil Lesh. When another musician (I think it’s the Dead’s Bob Weir, but I’m not sure — Deadheads, help me out in Comments?) tells him that the Angels are beating the hell out of musicians and even knocked out Airplane vocalist Marty Balin, Lesh sums it all up perfectly — “It doesn’t seem right, man.” No, Phil — it sure doesn’t. But while their rhetoric may understate the situation, give them credit for smarts. After learning about what was goin’ down, they elected not to play.
Captain Trips on a better day. Photo by Carl Lender.
8. The Amp and the Dog – 1:12:10-1:12:44
The perfect concert experience should be an exercise in controlled chaos. There should be a feeling of thrill and abandon and even a little danger — a sense that anything could happen — and yet, the risk of actually losing your life should be minimal at best. When I started going to concerts in the eighties, controlled chaos seemed to be the way. I remember seeing Dio-era Black Sabbath at a smoke-filled Madison Square Garden, sitting with rowdy friends who got so psyched that one of them brought down an entire row of seats just by stomping on it, and faced no consequences. Another night, at a Judas Priest show, people were setting spray can fires as everyone cheered. Alright — so maybe it was more “chaos” than “controlled.” But today, it often seems that the pendulum has swung completely the other way — that the concert experience is more about choreography than inspiration, as it’s accepted that many top performers simply go through the motions rather than actually singing their own songs, or chancing anything even close to a spontaneous moment, which would not have sat well back then. I even remember a well-respected Circus Magazine columnist named Lou O’Neill Jr. devoting an entire column in the late ‘70s to the growing scandal that Cheap Trick might have been using an uncredited keyboardist offstage. Ah, those were the days. But loving the days of living on the musical edge as I do, the chaos-ruled shows of my youth had nothing on Altamont, and while the beatings and ultimate weapons activity illustrated this well enough, two smaller moments, during “Sympathy for the Devil,” drove it home in a completely different but equally revealing way. After several moments of chaos where Mick Jagger stopped playing to implore the audience to cool out, since more fights had erupted between them and the Angels, Jagger and Co. resumed the show. But as the crowd momentarily held it together, two minor things happened that illustrated just how illusionary the momentary calm really was. As Mick sang of the doubt and pain of Christ, several crowd members joined one of the promoters in very casually placing an amplifier that had been knocked into the crowd back onto the stage. Can you imagine what would happen now if the crowd knocked an amp off the stage? They’d stop the show, bring out paramedics to ensure that no audience members were hurt, have them sign waivers to that effect, bring out electricians to double-check that all was in place. At Altamont, it was as much a non-event as a kid dropping his juice box. But then, not thirty seconds later, came the real, chilling sign that reason and calm were on holiday — a dog, (maybe a great dane, maybe a doberman – I’m not a dog person, but if you know, put it in the comments) casually strolls across the stage, right in front of Mick, and nobody even bats an eye. At this point, a goat and an ostrich could have followed and no one would have cared a lick, as “weird” had already been tossed from the lexicon.
9. The stare – 1:12:58-1:13:04
While we see the actions of the Hells Angels throughout the show, we rarely hear their words, or get a deeper indication of what they’re thinking or feeling. While one Angel (possibly legendary leader Sonny Barger, but I’m not sure) took the stage to rebut Paul Kantner during the Airplane’s disastrous set, a more mysterious interaction came during the Stones set and “Sympathy.” After whispering something to another member, an Angel who seems to be one of their leaders takes his position on stage, and just stares at Jagger. The longer the stare goes on, the more Mona Lisa it becomes. Chewing as he stares (gum? tobacco? A leftover piece of Marty Balin’s flesh?), he burrows his gaze through the sinewy singer, gives him a quick once-over, then freezes his stare on the face of the bopping, pacifist sex symbol who just moments earlier had pled for peace. At this moment, it’s hard to imagine two men more opposed in personality, more completely at odds in sensibility and purpose, than this particular biker and rock star. We can’t know what the Angel is thinking, but it’s hard not to imagine an inner monologue filled with contempt, a psychic statement of, “you think you know how the world works – you don’t. But you will soon.” Beyond the obvious violence, no moment crystalizes the divide between the band and the MC, and the travesty of thinking that they were an appropriate match, more than this one.
10. The naked people, Part II – 1:14:35
Beyond the obvious — the murder — if Altamont’s other tragedy was in how it deflated or exposed the idealism of the Woodstock generation, then “Gimme Shelter” is filled with moments that bring this result into the cold clear light. Even with the chaos and evil of the day, most of the crowd still seemed like ordinary, everyday hippies — teens or young adults, fresh-faced, happy, digging the tunes, not looking for anything too heavy, just hoping to soak up the vibes and then get home in time for school on Monday without too many trailing flashbacks mucking up the works. While Meredith Hunter may or may not have been one of these (he was on meth and had a gun, so it’s hard to say), many in the crowd saw the death of innocence in ways significantly less final than Hunter’s. During “Sympathy,” just before the ultimate bout of show-stopping nihilism, we begin to see a chubby naked chick slobber her way toward the stage. She is clearly out of her mind on drugs, and is barreling through the crowd by falling on people at full weight. In front of her, leaning on the stage, are two wispy girls of approximately college age, more honor roll than hippie groupie. One, a long-haired brunette, wears a yellow turtleneck. Next to her, an Ivory Girl blond in a white blouse. They’re watching Mick, enjoying the show, minding their own business, when suddenly, a beefy fleshstick mauls them out of their reverie. Naked chick’s arm comes down hard around the top of the brunette’s chest, then the other arm smacks the girl’s head aside. That arm then hurls itself toward the blond, clamping down on, and virtually entangling itself in, the girl’s hair. We now have the odd image of these two unfortunate girls wrestling a fat naked octopus. Arms seem everywhere, and when they manage to swat one off, another appears, and the girls lose the war as the naked one ends up fully on the pair, her naked breasts crushing them into the stage. The camera cuts to Jagger, then back to naked chick as she is suddenly off to haunt new victims, mauling yet another youngster, then inadvertently pulling yet another into her tit as she tries to make her way through the sludge of humanity and toward the band. Murder is still about five minutes away, but the death of innocence has laid its ground. What follows is sadness, mayhem and the cracking of unwelcome reality all over fragile dreams. The events were a shock, but the signs were there all along.