That Altamont happened isn’t surprising. That it didn’t happen earlier is.
The Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter, now rereleased in theaters on its 30th anniversary, documents the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour of America and ends, as the tour did, at the free concert at the Altamont Speedway in the hills west of San Francisco. The concert degenerated into mayhem when booze and acid-addled Hell’s Angels, hired to keep order in front of the stage, discharged their task by beating concertgoers over their heads with leaded pool cues. Altamont’s violence was capped by the murder of a young black man, Meredith Hunter. Captured on film, Hunter’s murder cemented the festival’s reputation as the official end of the 1960s counterculture. Even worse, Gimme Shelter showed that the counterculture was not going to redeem or change anything, especially the human impulse to violence.
That this free concert could result in destruction and death (three others died that day) shocked the Woodstock Nation. After all, a scant three and a half months earlier, 300,000 people coexisted peacefully for three days in a muddy field in New York to listen to music. Woodstock only became free once its gates were stormed by the ticketless, but its commercial origins are but a footnote in its mythology. But perhaps Woodstock was the fluke, not Altamont. Alice Echols, in Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin, quotes a former assistant Attorney General of the State of New York as saying, “Instead of the widespread notion of joy and an outpouring of goodness, the people I met told tragic stories of lack of consideration, nonexistent sanitation, fear and pain.” To paraphrase the oft-quoted observation of Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish, if you think Woodstock was great, then you weren’t there. You saw the movie instead.
Ironically, Gimme Shelter, the film as much as the actual events at Altamont secured that festival’s bad reputation as marking the “end” of the Sixties. On the film’s original release, the New York Times, Variety, and even Rolling Stone criticized the Stones and the Maysles Brothers for exploiting the murder to their economic advantage. Arguably, these accusations are as responsible for Altamont’s notoriety as the murder itself.
The Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin were proponents of Direct Cinema, a documentary movement that applied techniques of fictional films to shape the reporting of events. In Gimme Shelter, the filmmakers construct a narrative to lead inexorably to the murder. Indeed, they give away the ending at the beginning of the film, and don’t adhere precisely to the chronology of events. As one example of the film’s reordering of what happened, consider the following: Stanley Booth, in what could be the greatest rock and roll book ever, Dance with the Devil (also known by the exploitative title The True Story of the Rolling Stones) reports that the Flying Burrito Brothers played after the Jefferson Airplane. But in order to show the mounting tension and violence at the festival, the film situates the Jefferson Airplane’s set, in which singer Marty Balin was knocked out by an Angel when he jumped into the crowd to stop a fight, after the Burritos. Or again, the movie makes it appear that the Stones opened their set with the prophetic “Sympathy for the Devil,” which, according to Booth, they did not. And the movie makes it appear that the show concluded after Hunter’s stabbing at the end of “Under My Thumb,” which it did not. As Booth has it, the Stones went on to give one of their greatest performances ever.
But taking note of these cinematic liberties does not have to lead to the conclusion that the filmmakers manipulated the events, on film or by the act of filming, in order to exploit them. The conclusion I wish to draw has less to do with the film per se than with the historical moment it evokes: Woodstock, or perhaps more accurately, the Woodstock mindset, may be ultimate reason why the violence at Altamont was inevitable. In a letter to the National Film Registry seeking to add new information to the public record about Altamont, Stan Goldstein discusses Altamont as if it were a train that never should have gone down the track, but that no one could stop. Goldstein is listed in Gimme Shelter‘s credits as “Special Help,” but claims that he filled many roles, including “sound recordist, music mixer, contract negotiator, consultant, and advisor.” Tellingly, perhaps, Goldstein is also the only person in the Maysles and Stones’ entourage who recognized the urgent need for a lawyer as the concert fast approached.
First planned for Golden Gate Park, the free concert was moved to the Sears Point Raceway after its permit was withdrawn. The stage was all but ready at Sears Point when that venue fell through. The deal to perform at Altamont was struck at the last minute, via negotiations that the Maysles reveal to the film audience. In these scenes, the air of desperation, of doing something just because no one can stop it, is palpable. It’s also clear that the possibility of violence didn’t enter into their thinking. Further, according to Goldstein, logistics for the show, including getting equipment to the right place in time, were in total disarray. Still, any attempt to cancel the show was stopped by a general agreement amongst the people involved that they’d show the authorities that they couldn’t shut them down. As he observes, “In the aftermath of ‘Woodstock’, there was a general euphoria more than a feeling the sure knowledge that we, the rock & 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. Some raised concerns about public safety, control, etc. Those voices were overwhelmed.” His recollection of their “Woodstock mentality” demonstrates the danger and violence inherent in a naive understanding of anarchy.
For me, the part of the film that best exemplifies where things went wrong is a brief exchange between a few members of the Grateful Dead. In a scene that could be straight out of a R. Crumb strip, Jerry Garcia is offstage talking with another person about the violence transpiring in front of the stage. Weir rushes over with a brief report. Garcia’s response is a stoner cliche: “Oh, bummer.” To which Weir adds that Hell’s Angel’s beating up musicians “doesn’t seem right.” Garcia, Weir, and other San Francisco musicians and key figures like Janis Joplin and Ken Kesey lionized the Angels, hanging out with them, granting them special areas near the stage at concerts, and, as Echols observes, defending them as fellow outlaws. Garcia and Weir’s ingenuousness is understandable given the context, but irresponsible and downright stupid in hindsight.
But if the presence of the Hell’s Angels in the San Francisco scene and the havoc they wreaked at Altamont are the specific elements that “caused” Altamont, in fact Altamont, or something like it, would have been inevitable in any case. Altamont issued from the Sixties, which were steeped in violence, and there was nothing that could stop the violence from encroaching upon the counterculture. Sixties rock and roll festivals given their large crowds of people, lack of sanitary facilities, bad drugs, and shortages of food and water were catastrophes waiting to happen. People get angry when they’re uncomfortable or feel ripped off. For proof, look at what happened at the Woodstock 30th anniversary concert, when the lack of decent facilities and affordable food sent the crowd into a destructive frenzy.
It’s very easy to blame the disorder of Woodstock 99 on our violent times or on the sexism rampant in what’s left of rock culture, exemplified by the work of artists like Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock. We can point fingers at the audience, saying that their feelings of entitlement led them to violence, or chastise the bands for putting them in that mindset. But Gimme Shelter shows that the Sixties weren’t very different. The Stones may not have put on a free concert if they didn’t think their fans expected it of them after Woodstock. They may not have hired the Hell’s Angels if they weren’t held in such high esteem by the Haight-Ashbury rock and roll elite. What ultimately may be most instructive about Gimme Shelter is its documentation of similarities between then and now, perhaps especially concerning celebrity culture, rock mythologies, and our complicity in events that veer dangerously out of control.