The Rolling Stones documentary film, Gimme Shelter
The Detroit Institute of the Arts Film Theater
March 19, 2001
So there’s no revolution in this world of lawyers and record companies. Yeah, well, what better to replace revolution than anarchy? How freaked out would you be if you were filming a concert movie and you just happened to catch a brother with a gun get murdered by a Hell’s Angel? On camera.
I went to a stabbing and a Rolling Stones concert broke out.
This is not the first, nor will it be the last, time that I’ve seen the Maysles’ seminal piece of countercultural realism. This is as close as any of us will come to living through the notorious Altamont Speedway free concert. Alarmingly so: It’s probably as close as you’d want to come, given the circumstances. But then again, you would have seen the Flying Burrito Bros. play what must have been a way-inspired set in broad daylight, before the violence. And, of course, who wouldn’t want to party with The Stones? (Including a Mick Taylor who looks suspiciously out of place, as if his mom dropped him off at the music store for a guitar lesson and the Stones kidnapped him. No wonder this guy couldn’t hack it during their descent into hell.) I think I just might have taken my chances, even with Sonny Barger there, the Supreme Angel ruler of California’s packs of motorcycle one-percenters in the 60s. What’s the worst thing that he could do? Oh yeah. . . kill me.
People were thinner in 1969, and if this film is any indication, they took a lot more drugs. Just look at Mick and Keith then—scary. (But not as frightening as Grace Slick today, especially after you’ve seen how she used to look back then.) Other observations from the film seem significantly less astute: Lawyers ran the world then, as now, shown in the opening sequences where they’re trying to make the concert happen after the initial plan to hold it in Golden Gate Park falls through; parking is always a problem at concerts and promoters really don’t care if you have to walk a great distance; people climb scaffolding. All of this is captured with great sound and surprisingly cool cinematography. And film geeks, this is the best work that will ever bear a credit reading: “George Lucas.” (Yes, he was one of the cameramen.)
“But what does it mean, man?”
It means very little, at least in the generic sense. Nothing that went down at Altamont can be billed like Woodstock in our collective consciousness. Oh yeah, the rock historians will give you that load of crap about “The End of The Sixties” but there never was a “Sixties,” at least in the sense that revolution and change could happen to significantly alter our society. I could say something like: “There’s always a cost to be paid, even when something is free.” Sanctimonious hippie freaks might like that, but it’s a crock of shit. To write Altamont off with an epitaph that sounds like it came out of a fortune cookie would be failing one of the most significant and complicated cultural events in the history of rock and roll. (For starters, consider what happens nowadays when there’s violence at a rap concert. Then think about Mick sitting there watching the footage of someone getting murdered while he’s singing an ode to the Devil.)
“Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down.” Except that this time the “soldiers” were the Army of the People, the Great Countercultural Icons that Kesey brought to the hippies and Jerry to the Stones and thus Altamont. Four dead in San Francisco. How does that sound, Neil?
At a dirt stock car track, of all the ironically ridiculous places.
Stock car racing has a great heritage of giving The Man the finger, derived from the moonshine-runners of the Deep South in the Prohibition-era 30s. Hell’s Angels were the West Coast equivalent, if not in organized criminal activity, at least in spirit. They wasn’t breakin’ no laws most a the time, lest not any laws ‘at made much sense, an’ lest not any law that hurt nuh one ‘at mattered. Yet the cops fucked with the Angels (read Hunter Thompson’s book), just as they fucked with the granddaddies of NASCAR. And just as they fucked with the peaceniks, hippies, Blacks, women, and other assorted disenfranchised groups that made up the rock and roll Revolution (sic) in the 60s.
But at Altamont, it all came to a head and there weren’t even any cops there. No Politicians, no Pigs, no Puppet Masters. No Old White Men getting rich off the kids—the Stones footed the bill to glorify their own hubris. Yet we still killed each other, we still fought like cats and dogs, we couldn’t get along. Maybe the issue here is that the Revolution, if it existed, didn’t fail us, but we failed it. And we failed ourselves.
“It’s only rock and roll,” Mick? That was your cop out in 1974, and we all knew it was a lie. But hey, it was better than admitting the truth. We did like it. A lot. We even killed and died for it. And in the end, and that was the end, we had some great times and some great music to ease the pain. But by then, it really was only rock and roll. The revolution wasn’t televised because ABC never bought the pilot.
But it’s out there, on video. You can rent the revolution. Go ahead and see for yourself, the few flickering frames in Gimme Shelter and its contemporary brethren that prove out the power of Rock. To move, to love, to empower, to subdue, to create, and to destroy. Read between the lines, man. Rock is the revolution and it goes on every day inside of you. And inside of me.
Thank God, the Devil, Sonny Barger, and the Rolling Stones for that.