“Welcome to the breakfast show!”
And so began the first of two triumphant and legendary Madison Square Gardens gigs by The Rolling Stones on the 27th and 28th of November 1969.
The shows came towards the end of a 17 date tour which due to various legal issues had been their first foray in to the US as a live act since July 1966. The music critic Robert Christgau would later write in Rolling Stone magazine that it was “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour” on account of the lasting impression it made for reasons both good and bad.
On the one hand you had “the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world” – as tour manager Sam Cutler introduced them every night (although in truth they were probably still playing second-fiddle to The Beatles) – reminding everybody in the U.S.A. that they were still a musical force to be reckoned with. The press raved about them and the gigs showcased the new, more mature phase the band were entering with the set-lists being drawn almost entirely from Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed, albums which would come to be seen as the start of the Stones creative peak running through to their Exile On Main Street album a few years later.
However, the final show of the tour, a hastily arranged free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, would strike a pitch-black note at the end of the 1960’s and in many ways drive a spike through the heart of the post-Woodstock flower power dream. Four deaths, plenty of violence and bad acid, the unrestrained viciousness of the Hell’s Angels, and what could be seen as a recklessly negligent attitude by the organisers all added up to what in 60’s terms might have been termed a giant bummer. If Woodstock (which had taken place just four months earlier) had represented some kind of high water-mark of the hippy counter-culture then Altamont can be seen as a swift bursting of the bubble, a wake up call to a generation convinced that theirs was different, more peaceful and tolerant and enlightened. Altamont disabused them of that notion in brutally frank terms.
“We are creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings”
So said Mick Jagger, at a press conference in the days prior to Altamont, betraying what in hindsight can be seen as naivety but in the context of the moment probably seemed like a perfectly reasonable statement to make. Bear in mind that not only had Woodstock happened but the Stones themselves had thrown a free concert in Hyde Park earlier that year. On that day the British arm of the Hells Angels had attended, helped out and generally behaved very well. That the Stones (and the Grateful Dead, who were also prime movers in organising the festival) decided to throw an event like this seems perfectly understandable. These were the flower children, peaceful and loving and only interested in having a good time.
Yet one should never underestimate the capacity for humans to cause chaos and destruction and in the rush to capitalise on the wave of good feeling that had poured out of the summer months this indelible side of human nature had been forgotten, or at the very least wilfully ignored. The evening would end with the stabbing and killing of 19 year old Meredith Hunter by the Hell’s Angels after he pulled a gun. It wasn’t simply Hunter who died on that night, but along with him the aforementioned naivety and optimism that had been such a salient feature of the latter half of this most celebrated of decades.
Watching all of this unfold through their portable cameras were film-makers Charlotte Zwerin and brothers Albert and David Maysles, and Gimme Shelter, the subsequent film of the tour and the associated events would become not only one of the most compelling rock documentaries ever made but also one of it’s most unforgiving in regards to the subject matter. Shot without using documentary techniques such as narration or analysis from talking heads this is naked filming, unflinching in its honesty and candour. Because of this it avoids retrospective subjectivity allowing the footage to speak to the viewer directly.
And yet this doesn’t mean the film-makers voice isn’t heard, and the shots of Mick and Charlie in the editing room listening to interviews with Hell’s Angels and watching footage of the moment Hunter is first stabbed as he attempts to fire his weapon give the film an extra dimension. Not only do we get to reflect on the footage, but we get to see the Stones themselves doing just the same. It takes the story outside the events of the tour and in to the aftermath.
One of the most memorable scenes involves Charlie and Mick listening to a recording of Hell’s Angel leader Sonny Barger on a radio phone-in telling the presenter that they “didn’t go there to police nothing” and that when people started messing with them and their bikes “they got hurt”, drawing a wry “well done Sonny” from Charlie who then ruminates on the Angel’s in a way that shows all too clearly how naïve their attitude towards the bikers had been.
“You know, this could be the most beautiful evening we’ve had this winter if we are all one, let’s show we’re all one!”(Jagger)
It is in the film’s final scenes that we really get to the (black) heart of affairs. Having taken to the stage late the first half of the Stone’s set is marred by encroachment from the Angel’s, now brazenly standing on the woefully inadequate stage, and the bursts of violence emerging from the shadows in front.
Comparing this footage with the Madison Square garden gig is fascinating, particularly in regards to Jagger himself. In New York he had been in resplendent form, a masterful and charismatic performer in complete command of his audience. This is one of the great rock n’ roll showmen in full bloom, preening and twirling in front of his almost entirely static bandmates, eye-balling the crowd and wilfully becoming the focal point of the entire gathering. However, in the heat of the Altamont moment what we see is a man trying to command the situation, and momentarily kidding himself that his exhortations for crowd to “cool out” are going to be heeded. He stops the band and asks “who’s fighting and what for?”. It stops nothing and when the futility sinks in and he realises that all they can do is carry on regardless he seems diminished, a small man on a small stage surrounded by violence and craziness he has no power over at all.
It was during their performance of ‘Under My Thumb’ that Meredith Hunter, having already been involved in a scuffle with some Angels, decided to pull a gun. It was pretty much the last thing he would ever do. A Hell’s Angel called Alan Passaro parries the weapon and stabs him in the shoulder, before a swarm descend upon him and drag him in to the darkness. He was pronounced dead on the scene – Passaro would later be acquitted of his murder on the grounds of self-defence.
The movie then takes us back to the cutting room and Jagger watching a slow-motion rewind of the moment. As the editing session finishes and he gets up to leave the film pauses on his face. We are left to infer a thousand different thoughts that may have been racing through his head in that moment. Is this a man who has realised that playing with fire can get you seriously burnt? Does he feel guilt or culpability, sadness even? We have no way of telling but the face staring out of the screen at you invites your interpretation.
Gimme Shelter is undoubtedly one of the great rock n’ roll movies. However, this isn’t a celebratory film but rather a skilfully edited document of an exclamatory moment in time. The well-intentioned but ultimately futile drive towards peace and love that so strongly characterised the youth culture of the late 60’s was a heady trip. However, as the 70’s began that generation came down and sobered up only to find the world was as chaotically grim as it had ever been. Vietnam was still raging, as was the nuclear stand-off with Russia. Nixon was about to achieve infamy, and people all over America were waking up to the fact that the same corrupt and amoral leaders who had been there before the ‘revolution’ were still there, running amok. Even The Beatles would soon decide to call it a day, driven apart by bitter internal battles over money. The dream was over, and the awakening was of the rudest kind. This film captures the essence of that time perfectly.
“…War, children, it’s just a shot away, just a shot away…”