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Anatomy of a Gag: Being There By David Cairns
In the fall of 1969, I landed the coolest possible writing gig: touring with the Rolling Stones on assignment from the New York Times (the Times rejected the hundred-page piece I turned in, but radical Ramparts printed it). The tour across America was a wild ride: I got stoned backstage with “the Boys,” then watched them onstage driving a million also-stoned kids even further out of their skulls. The Maysles brothers joined us in New York, then flew out to the free San Francisco concert that turned out to be Altamont.
The filmmakers and the Stones may have wanted an upbeat rock doc, but they couldn’t duck the ugly facts they had on film: the Hells Angels murdering a black man right before the stage. So Gimme Shelter became a masterpiece woven from three strands: a fine rock-and-roll band in full flight, Altamont’s developing tragedy, and the Stones’ reactions to watching the savagery they helped create.
As one who was there, I most want Gimme Shelter’s new viewers to know how deeply the disturbing drama of this film sprang from the disturbing drama of the times. Nostalgic journalism has made the sixties an innocent time of love, peace, and flowers, but living through the decade didn’t feel like that to me. Becoming a hippie was fun but at the same time a scary, soul-wrenching process. Altamont was one of many dark and dangerous bummers I, and seemingly everyone else, stumbled into as we reached for new ideals and possibilities.
When did the sixties begin? For me, with the chilling Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962; for a few days, we seemed to be on the threshold of nuclear war. “Michael,” a friend said, his voice shaking, “this could be the end of the world.” The March on Washington in the summer of 1963 raised hopes for civil rights and released long-suppressed rage against race prejudice. Kennedy’s murder a few months later came as a crushing blow: how could our handsome, charismatic leader be wiped out by a sniper’s bullet? The Beatles’ big smiles raised our spirits in 1964, and that summer I reported on the hopeful progress of voter registration in Mississippi. But by 1965, France’s “little war” in far-off Indochina began escalating into America’s Vietnam War. Draft notices arrived in the mail like death sentences. “The times they are a-changing,” sang Bob Dylan, and that’s just how it felt: we had no firm ground to stand on, no one older than ourselves we could trust.
By the late sixties, millions of young people were dropping out of school and traditional jobs (I quit Newsweek) and joining a huge yet intimate conversation about how to live. Dynamic kids zapped red-hot ideas back and forth through electric rock and roll: freedom, peace, love, drugs, music, sex, and politics. The Stones added their fiery tones to the debate; Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, and Jimi Hendrix got their licks in too. So did LSD advocate Timothy Leary, radical Abbie Hoffman, and the revolutionary Black Panthers. Kids flocked to Haight-Ashbury and Berkeley and let their hair grow long. The Dead learned from Mick and Keith, who learned from the Dead; all learned from Dylan; and ordinary kids learned from them and each other how to break away from the past into an unknown future. The generation gap split families in bitter, tearful arguments. Don’t forget: many of the kids at Altamont were runaways, kicked out of their homes for opposing the Vietnam War and taking drugs. Older siblings mocked younger ones for their ideals, for loving screechy songs like “Satisfaction,” but for my generation, “I can’t get no satisfaction!” was a cry from our souls that Mick Jagger just happened to articulate.
Which way to go? Which side were you on? These were tense, loaded questions. “He not busy being born is busy dying,” “All you need is love,” “Shake, everybody, shake”—these words, these infectious electric sounds, entered our lives, and we’d never be the same again. New albums came out as new turns in a whole-earth conversation—Dylan answering florid Sgt. Pepper’s with stark John Wesley Harding. Girls (and boys) heard Janis Joplin sing “Ball and Chain” and thought, Could I be as free as that? From San Francisco’s Human Be-In to Monterey Pop in 1967, great numbers of young people gathered together, hoping that each new mass event would answer elusive questions and “advance the trip” to some glorious utopia.
The riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968 proved the power of youth’s rage against racism, Vietnam, and the draft, and the power of adults’ rage against youth. Drug-induced demons gave even peaceful Woodstock in 1969 a dark side. Some hippies urged us toward peaceful nonviolence; others stockpiled guns and bombs. The Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man” convey the unsettled, contradictory emotions of the youth debate, as does Gimme Shelter: the white lady collecting for the Panthers, Mick begging the crowd “If we are one, let’s act like one,” Jerry Garcia bewildered at the day becoming a bummer. In Gimme Shelter, the Hells Angels mingle forever with Summer of Love girls; the fatal knife hangs suspended in freeze-frame. At Altamont in December, the dark side snarled its ugly answer to Woodstock’s August joy. The optimistic curve of the sixties peaked and crashed, and I decided I didn’t want to go to any more of these mass meetings.
And so with the seventies, we began the long haul. Some say the hippies disappeared, others that we sold out. We did disperse into individuals who got jobs, married, and raised children. But many of us, despite the brutal lessons of Altamont, still tried (quietly) through passing decades to keep plugging for our ideals, to value health over wealth, the well-being of the whole person and the whole community over money in the bank. Seeing Gimme Shelter today, I shudder to realize that I contributed to, and embraced, that chaos. Yet, like Mick and Charlie watching the raw footage, I can’t escape the fact: I was there, I did embrace the chaos. I’m also glad that I survived it and have lived long enough to turn my ponytail gray, long enough to understand the poignancy of Bob Dylan’s wish for everyone: that we stay forever young.
Michael Lydon is the author of Rock Folk—its final chapter his report on the 1969 Stones tour—and Ray Charles: Man and Music. He is also a musician. This piece previously appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2000 edition of Gimme Shelter.