Gimme Shelter: The True Adventures of Altamont

The first words we hear are Sam Cutler’s: “Everybody seems to be ready—are we ready?”

We were nowhere near ready for what was to come, there at the bitter end of the sixties. I remember that rainy day so well, when the opening scene of Gimme Shelter was filmed. We drove up to Birmingham—not Birmingham, Alabama. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to photograph Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts on a donkey for the cover of the live album from the 1969 tour, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. The Maysles brothers—David and Al—and I rode in a rented car. Mick Jagger—with Charlie, I think—came in his Bentley.

If he chooses to, Mick can make almost anyone feel uncomfortable, but on that day his spotless white car made me uncomfortable. I’d been knocking about the USA with him for months, and this sudden and unaccustomed display of wealth was off-putting. (Keith Richards—who was not with us that day; in fact, none of the other Stones came along—owned a Bentley too, named the Blue Lena, but it had so many bangs and bruises that it was not intimidating.) Mick took my long red wool scarf from around my neck, wrapped it around Charlie’s, clapped his Uncle Sam hat on Charlie’s head, and we, with the complacent burro, were off.

Almost immediately, the scene shifts to New York City, where Mick tells the crowd, “Welcome to the breakfast show.” Some of the performances on that tour were incredibly late. The Stones had yet to learn the technique of micromanaging their shows, thereby decreasing spontaneity while vastly increasing revenues. The shows in 1969 weren’t as big as later ones, and they didn’t make as much money, but they seemed much more significant because we believed then that what the Stones were doing made a difference.

To understand the context in which Gimme Shelter must be viewed, you’d have to start over somewhere else. It would have to be someplace that existed long ago and far away, in a realm where you and a precious few other weirdos grouped together as often as possible to listen as intently as you could to artists with names that were pictures, visions, mysteries: Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, Bo Diddley, Memphis Minnie, Howlin’ Wolf. These and others, such as Jimmy Reed, Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Bessie Smith, Slim Harpo, Guitar Slim, Ruth Brown, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Thunder Smith. One of them was named Lonesome Sundown. Another called himself Peetie Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son-in-Law, the High Sheriff of Hell. Artists, yes, but—if you could have been around to be a member of this wayward cult—you would know in your heart that these anointed ones were also avatars and prophets.

“All the boys in my band is bad,” Muddy Waters once said. “Little Walter got a bullet in he leg right now.” It’s not for no reason the blues got the reputation of being the devil’s music. “I’m gonna cut yo’ head four different ways / That’s long, short, deep, and wide,” Willie McTell recorded in Atlanta in 1950. That same year in New Orleans, Archibald (Leon T. Gross) recorded the lines “Stack-A-Lee shot Billy / He shot that po’ boy so fast / That the bullet went through Billy / and broke the bartender’s glass.” In New York, twenty years before, Bessie Smith sang, “I’m goin’ back to Black Mountain / Me and my razor and gun / I’m gonna cut him if he stand still / And shoot him if he run.” Maybe there is an essential connection between the blues and . . . evil?

The Rolling Stones—along with many of their contemporaries, some of them in Gimme Shelter—worshipped at the altar of the blues. The Rolling Stones’ audiences in 1969 did not necessarily worship at that altar. But by stopping in midshow and turning off the electricity—as they did on that tour—to sing a song by Fred McDowell and another by Robert Johnson, the Stones showed where their hearts were: “You may be high / You may be low / You may be rich / You may be po’ / But when the Lord gets ready / You got to move.”

I had met the Rolling Stones in September of 1968. That in itself had required a considerable journey, but I was not the only, or even the first, one to make it. Gram Parsons, another Waycross, Georgia, boy, had preceded me there. He had joined a successful folk-rock band called the Byrds and, after meeting the Stones, left the Byrds to form a band called the Flying Burrito Brothers.

The Maysles brothers didn’t join the Stones until the band reached New York and the tour was nearly over. Nevertheless, they managed to create a facsimile of what it was like to hear the band that winter. Gimme Shelter is an amazing work of art—Albert Maysles is one of the greatest cinematographers, and Charlotte Zwerin is an editor of genius. That such a powerful, unforgettable film could have been put together from the brief time the filmmakers were with the Stones is remarkable.

One fundamental problem in assembling Gimme Shelter was that it had to present the songs the Stones did on that tour without too much distortion of order or repetition. Under different circumstances, this wouldn’t be important. Whether the Who did “My Generation” before or after “Substitute” in their documentary film The Kids Are Alright wouldn’t much matter. But at Altamont, Death came to the party, changing its significance. It matters that the impression the film gives—Meredith Hunter pulled a gun, got offed, and everybody split—is not what happened at all.

The violence at Altamont, being completely unexpected, came afterward to seem inevitable. The assassinations of the sixties had aged us—we who were, as the seventies dawned, still under thirty—but they had been random, isolated events that didn’t involve the rock-and-roll generation. Altamont was nothing we could shrug off, and somehow we all lacked the will to rise above it.

The Stones had given another free concert that year, at Hyde Park in London, on July 5, two days after Brian Jones, who first came up with the idea for a rhythm-and-blues band called the Rolling Stones, drowned in his swimming pool. At that concert, the English Hells Angels, harmless children compared to the California Angels, acted as security. It was a warm summer day, sad because of Brian’s death, and the English are famously civilized. The Stones probably didn’t need security at all. Perhaps their asking the Angels to work on the show was a friendly gesture to fellow outsiders. They did things like that in those days. Not often, but once in a while they did. We were all great moralists then, even as we raced headlong after immorality.

The Stones started as a band in 1962, released their first record in 1963, and soon were more successful than they ever expected to be. By 1969, they had toured the U.S. four times, most of them had been to jail, and one of them was about to be dead. The year before, when I met them, I also met their London publicist, a Churchillian English bulldog named Les Perrin, who’d worked with such performers as Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. Les, taking a fatherly shine to me, suggested I might want to write a book about the Stones, but I was far too high-minded in them days to want to write a whole book about a young, white rock-and-roll band.

Then Brian died, profoundly altering the story. It became a peculiar, and to me most absorbing, murder mystery. I also had a kind of hunch, a sense that something more was going to happen that year. Altamont proved me right.

Nineteen sixty-nine was the year of free rock festivals, the high point of that movement. The Stones’ Hyde Park appearance was followed the next month by Woodstock, the best-known festival of them all. No mention is made in Gimme Shelter of the San Francisco Chronicle column by critic Ralph Gleason accusing the Stones of charging exorbitant ticket prices (as much as $15, imagine) and having contempt for their audiences. That piece came out before the Maysles brothers arrived on the scene, but it was one more thing to spur Mick and Keith in the direction of doing another free festival. Their hearts were in the right place, and they didn’t mind going out of their way to demonstrate that fact. Witness their flying through a snowstorm to Auburn, Alabama, to appear in an auditorium filled with white students, scrubbed and uncomprehending.

The tour had been different from any of their previous ones. Up until then, their performances in the U.S. had been brief, incandescent explosions of desecration, attended almost exclusively by shrieking adolescent girls. On the 1969 tour, they played longer sets than they had since playing English clubs, and the American fans—people their own age, many of them—listened.

At their first press conference, at the Beverly Wilshire, Mick had temporized regarding a free festival. “I’m not committing meself,” he said. In New York, at a press conference in the Rainbow Room, on the sixty-ninth floor of Rockefeller Center, he made a commitment to have one in Northern California at the end of the tour. Of the festival movement, Mick said, “It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.” Altamont set an example, all right. As did Vietnam.

The film speaks for itself, but there are a few points I can’t help attempting to clarify. Anyone who’s heard of Altamont knows for certain the Stones hired the Hells Angels as security for the event. It reminds one of Mark Twain’s saying that the world’s troubles are caused not so much by what people don’t know as what they do know that ain’t so. I was with the Stones before, during, and after Altamont, and none of them hired any Angels.

Mick, Keith, and I had ridden out to the site the night before, just to see what it was like. Keith stayed there, in a small trailer, hosted by Grateful Dead associate Rock Scully, while Mick and I went back to the Huntington Hotel for a few hours’ sleep. The next morning, all the remaining Stones—except Bill Wyman, the bass player, who couldn’t be bothered to wake up—rode out to Altamont in a helicopter.

The first thing that happened when we landed, as the film shows, was this: a kid ran up to Mick, said “I hate you,” and hit him in the face. Somebody grabbed the kid, and Mick was spirited off, leaving the rest of us to make our way as best we could through, over, and across hundreds of thousands of bodies to the trailer backstage. As we tried to avoid stepping on people, we could hear the Flying Burrito Brothers playing “Bony Moronie.”

We beat Gram to the trailer, but not by much. He came in wearing an outfit from Nudie the Rodeo Tailor with rhinestoned Thunderbirds and dancing braves. The trailer was small, crowded, and filled with all sorts of vile and reprehensible smoke. Keith, Gram, and I sat on a bunk in a corner, singing Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams songs. Meanwhile, the day drew on: Marty Balin, among others, got knocked out by various Angels—Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas came into the trailer bearing tales of how the Angels were fighting with civilians, women, and each other, bouncing full cans of beer off each other’s heads—and we waited for the bass player. Those long wands you see the Angels wielding in the film are pool cues loaded on the fat end with lead weights. They came with them, obviously intending to need them.

Maybe, it occurs to me now, thirty years too late, Sam Cutler never saw The Wild Ones. Sam was a cockney and had worked with bands in England, Cream among them. He fancied himself a poet and had initiated a correspondence with the late Sir Alec Guinness, in which Sir Alec was said to have actually taken part. There was, that is, or there had been, another side to Sam. But the American tour was hard on him. The groupies, of whom he availed himself heartily, took their toll on his energy, and then there were the hours and the miles and the chemicals. Handing me a 35 mm film can and a gold spoon, he observed, “Cor—tomorrow’s the last day of the tour.” We were on another airplane, heading to New York. Sam looked thoughtful. “I’ve lost twenty-one pounds in America,” he said.

The last official gig of the tour was the Miami Pop Festival. After that the Stones went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, for a recording session. Sam, along with the Stones’ secretary, Jo Bergman, and tour manager, Ronnie Schneider, went to San Francisco to start putting the free concert together. I can see the Angels arriving at Altamont like an invading army (which is essentially what they were), and Sam, no doubt abetted by Rock Scully (who’d told the Stones in Oakland weeks before that “the Angels are some righteous dudes. They carry themselves with honor and dignity”), attempting to placate them with beer, permitting them to sit on the stage, doing anything to keep them from bursting into violence. The Neville Chamberlain approach, a failure here once again. I don’t know what really happened, because we weren’t there when the Angels arrived, but capitulation on the part of Cutler and Scully would be my guess regarding how the Angels became “security” at Altamont.

In the film, Oakland Angels president Sonny Barger denies acting as security. “I ain’t no cop, I ain’t never gonna pretend to be no cop,” he says. To hear Sonny tell it, the Angels were only defending themselves from dangerous hippies. Rolling Stone, that guardian of public morality, implied that the Stones waited until darkness to go onstage in order to heighten the crowd’s anticipation. In fact, they had intended to go on at sundown. In any case, as soon as Wyman managed to arrive, the Stones went on. He took a long time arriving.

I was the first onstage, because Keith asked me to take his acoustic guitar out there. Led through the crowd by a greasy little Angel, I did so. Stu—Ian Stewart, the Stones’ late pianist and roadie—took it from me and put it on its stand beside Keith’s amp. I stepped back to look around and realized I was in the midst of a swarm, a hive, of Hells Angels. They were everywhere on and around the stage. As this dawned on me, a great big Angel picked up little old me by my upper arms and lifted me to his eye level. I couldn’t see his eyes because of his lank, oily hair, which hung down to his cheeks, but I knew they were in there somewhere, mad, swirling. “Off the stage,” he said.

I still don’t know what I told him, but he put me down and I took up my usual station behind Keith’s amp. Soon the Stones took the stage. With them were the security guys who’d been with us on the tour. Off-duty New York City detectives acquired by the mysterious John Jaymes—God knows what his real name was—they were professionals who, as their eyes revealed, didn’t like being there at all. (Jaymes is the large, muttonchopped young man you see in Mel Belli’s office. He turned out to be quite a study, having told the Stones he worked for Dodge and Dodge he worked for the Stones. Dodge provided more cars than the Stones needed and, in the end, got nothing out of it, not even advertising, because of Altamont.)

The Stones opened with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Chuck Berry’s “Oh Carol” followed, then “Sympathy for the Devil.” As Mick sang “I was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain,” a motorcycle near the right side of the stage suffered a small explosion. Oily blue-white smoke swirled up, and a space opened almost instantly, the people moving away from the trouble. You could see violent movement in the darkness, but no details.

The song started again, but before it ended there was another outbreak of violence, this time nearer the stage, where I could see. An electric-haired boy who was dancing near some Angels obviously pissed them off by having too good a time, and they started laying into him and anyone they could reach with their lead-weighted pool cues. That’s when Mick asked, “Who’s fighting and what for?”

I decided then to join David and Al atop a panel truck that was backed against the stage. At least that vantage point provided a bit of elevation. The Stones, returning to their roots, played the Elmore James–Jimmy Reed classic “The Sun Is Shining,” and things quieted down, but not for long. The next song, “Stray Cat Blues,” was marred by more violence. “Love in Vain”—which nearly became the title of the film—came next. After it ended, Mick asked everyone to sit down, something I’d never heard him do. He was always telling the crowds to “get up and shake your arses,” but now he was learning caution the hard way.

The next tune was “Under My Thumb.” Mick had sung only the first line when there was a sudden movement in the crowd at stage left. A tall black man wearing a black hat, black shirt, and iridescent green suit was waving a nickel-plated revolver. The gun waved in the lights for a second, two, and then he was hit, so hard, by so many Angels, that I didn’t see the first one as he jumped. I saw him as he came down, burying a knife in the man’s back. The attack carried the victim behind a stack of speakers, and I never saw him again. His name, we later learned, was Meredith Hunter, and he was eighteen years old. See the Rolling Stones and die.

What Gimme Shelter, fine as it is, does not show is what happened next. We didn’t know whether Hunter had been killed, wounded, or what, but the mood seemed to change; it was as if the atmosphere had been purged. The Stones did “Under My Thumb” with no interruptions; then, at Mick Taylor’s request, “Brown Sugar,” for the first time on any stage. (They’d just written and recorded it in Muscle Shoals a few days before.) Except for a brief problem with a naked fat girl who tried to climb onstage during “Live with Me,” there were no more violent incidents. The Stones did a half dozen more songs, playing as well as or better than I’d ever heard them—playing, under the circumstances, like heroes.

Then we ran for our lives. Stu handed me Keith’s guitar and told me the station wagons to take us to the helicopter would be at the top of the hill, straight back and up to the left. All of us, the Stones, Jo, Ronnie, Michelle, Gram, and I, stumbled through the blackness over the dead grass and dusty clay. There was a hurricane fence at the top of the hill, but we went through a hole in it. There were no station wagons there, just a car and an ambulance. We piled into them and they took us to the helicopter. Gram and I were the last on board; the last thing you see in the film before the copter door closes is the seat of my Levi’s.

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