Some people have said that the Monterey Pop Festival was the beginning of the Hippie Movement, “Summer of Love,” “Era of Flower Power,” or whatever the hell you want to call it. Regardless of your chosen moniker, Altamont damn sure killed it.
In December 1969, The Rolling Stones gave a free concert at Altamont Speedway for an estimated 300,000 fans. There was a bad vibe from the beginning. Marty Balin of opening act Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious. The crowd kept pressing closer to the stage, and the Hell’s Angels were working security with sawed-off pool cues, fists, and—famously—a knife.
“Gimme Shelter” has to be one of the best rock & roll documentaries ever, if not the best. It starts off with the Stones in triumphant form, tearing it up at Madison Square Garden. We see a crowd bursting with energy and love, dancing, clapping, waving their arms inexplicably over their heads, etc. Onstage, Mick Jagger is the ultimate showman, strutting and white-man-dancing, while the other Stones absolutely shred behind him.
This was the Stones’ best lineup, musically. Mick and Keith had hit their stride as songwriters. Keith had found his role as “The Human Riff,” and the band had fired Brian Jones. Jones’s replacement was Mick Taylor, one of Britain’s best blues-rock guitarists, and his virtuosity shone in his solos, and the way he allowed Keith to do more creative things rhythmically.
Anyway, they kicked ass in MSG.
“Gimme Shelter” intercuts footage from that amazing show with film of the band watching themselves in the editing room. They see MSG. They see a press conference. They hear an aftermath radio interview with one of the Hell’s Angels who was at the show.
And then the camera goes to Altamont. Compared to Woodstock, which just seemed to happen organically, the Altamont crowd seemed to be forcing it, trying to duplicate Woodstock’s sloppy summer bliss on a chilly California day.
All through the concert footage, we see the tumult in the crowd. Fans kept climbing onstage. Fans kept getting thrown offstage. This was early in the day. By the time the Stones hit the stage, everything was at a boiling point. The band kept having to stop and try to calm people down.
It was during “Under My Thumb”* that an eighteen-year-old black man named Meredith Hunter pulled a gun and was promptly stabbed to death by one of the Hell’s Angels. The footage is absolutely clear: Hunter pulled a gun, then the Hell’s Angel comes leaping in from the right and stabbed him. The Hell’s Angel was acquitted (rightly) by reason of self-defense.
At the end, Mick Jagger is in the editing suite. He asks the technician to rewind the film. He sees the gun come out, and the Hell’s Angel with the knife come into frame. Where the film freezes, the gun is pointed at him.
It’s a somber mood in the editing suite. There are so many bright spots in this film. The Madison Square Garden footage shows a great band at their best. They detour to legendary Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama, and we see the band listening for the first time to “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar,” products of those sessions.
Then Altamont “happened.” In 1970, 60’s rock legends started dying, and the whole “peace & love” vibe withered and died.
It’s sad. Maybe a few more years of “peace & love” and flowers in their hair might have made for a nicer world. Maybe it was just time for everyone to bathe and get jobs. Either way, “Gimme Shelter” powerfully captures that first big, insurmountable nail going into the coffin.
*- There’s an urban legend that Hunter was killed during “Sympathy for the Devil.” There was a scuffle during “Sympathy for the Devil,” and the band had to stop playing and calm down the crowd, but Hunter was indeed stabbed during “Under My Thumb”
(“Gimme Shelter,” Directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin; Rated PG for a little profanity and a small bit of uninspiring nudity; available on Criterion Collection DVD, and on Hulu Plus streaming)