Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Death came to the party"

In this post from late March, I made a passing reference to the "Manson murders." A few weeks later, I touched on The Beatles' breakup. Then last week, I watched Gimme Shelter, the legendary documentary about the Rolling Stones' U.S. tour of 1969 - the tour that concluded infamously amidst chaos and death at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in northern California on December 6th. There's a common strand among these three events: the end of the 1960s as a period of youthful idealism and romanticized "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" liberation. Of the three, Altamont is most closely linked to the demise of that cultural moment, thanks in part to Gimme Shelter.
I hadn't seen the film prior to last week's viewing, but - like most students of rock 'n' roll history - I was familiar with the details. Presented as a series of quasi-flashbacks, Gimme Shelter follows the Rolling Stones as they traveled west across the U.S., starting with a performance at Madison Square Garden and from there always moving gradually, inescapably to the horror of Altamont. A sense of coming doom is the film's hallmark. It's there when the band plays in New York City; it's there when they review concert footage; it's there in the lazy, quotidian down time of the tour; and it's there, quite conspicuously, as harried negotiations take place to make "Woodstock West" a reality. (The concern voiced by various parties about logistics and safety can't help but seem prophetic.) From what I can gather, the motivation for Altamont was twofold: 1) the Stones had been criticized for high ticket prices and wanted to make amends; and 2) 1969 was the year of the free music festival: both Hyde Park and Woodstock had taken place that summer. In the film, Mick Jagger boasts that Altamont would fit the ethos of the festival movement, which was serving as "an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings." The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.
When the day of the concert finally arrives, there's still more cruel build-up to endure. The Stones didn't go on until well past dusk, giving ample time for tensions to brew between roughly 300,000 excitable, drugged-out fans and the Hell's Angels, who were hired as stage security - fatefully. Armed with pool cues and allegedly paid in beer (though this is much disputed), the Angels weren't looking to play nice. Before the Stones even stepped foot onstage, the scene turned edgy and violent. The Angels mocked the crowd - "We're partying like you" - and tussles abounded. Most notably, Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane got knocked unconscious by one of the Angels. This prompted the Grateful Dead to bail on their performance. The Stones, on the other hand, had no choice but to play: though a gathering nightmare, Altamont was their brainchild. We all know what happened next: Several songs into their set, which had featured the sinister tones of "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Under My Thumb," an 18-year-old man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by an Angel after he brandished a gun and fired off a shot. Seeing that a fight had broken out, Mick tried to calm matters down, but he wasn't aware of the gravity of the situation. He wasn't aware that Altamont had just been visited by murder. The Stones kept playing, confused and frustrated but not yet shaken to their core.
That moment seems to come near the end of the film as Mick watches video of the crime. He, as well as the viewer, sees Meredith Hunter charge the stage after being pushed back, with his gun clearly visible against a woman's crocheted top. We then see a knife-wielding Angel spring into action; one of the subsequent shots is a freeze frame of the knife held high, primed for a plunge. Finally, we see the knife viciously reach its target, not once but twice. Throughout, the shots are slowed down, rewound, stilled, and then played again. Mick's response: "It was so horrible," followed by the blankest of stares. It's also how the viewer is meant to feel. To watch an actual murder take place even on film is a powerful and sobering experience. I'll admit that, upon reflection, I found it unseemly how riveted I was by those images. Though the murder occurred under fascinating circumstances, death was still the final, gruesome result.
There are many other sequences that I won't soon forget. One of the most striking is when the Angels ride into Altamont, parting the crowd, engines blaring. In the words of Stanley Booth, it was like the arrival of "an invading army" - they heralded discord. Another portentous moment comes early on the day of the concert when Mick is making his way to the band's trailer and gets smacked by a fan. It's an eerie premonition of violence, befitting the occasion far more than the peace signs flashed in the crowd, which take on the feel of empty, feckless gestures. After the deed is done, emotions inevitably run high. There's a stirring shot of a young woman in tears, crying out, "I don't want him to die." Meredith Hunter did die at Altamont that day, along with three other people: two were victims of a hit-and-run accident and one drowned in an irrigation canal. Wikipedia adds: "Scores were injured, numerous cars were stolen and then abandoned, and there was extensive property damage." The final sequence of the film shows a stream of people leaving this calamitous scene. They were leaving the '60s.
What are we to make of Altamont? Who deserves blame for the chaos? Gimme Shelter implicates a handful of people while never fully assigning guilt. But it's hard not to read a great deal into a shot that comes right before the concert-goers are shown in exit. Mick and one of the directors finish going over the footage of Hunter's murder. As Mick gets up from his seat and starts to walk out, the camera focuses on his face. The shot freezes. He's not wearing much of an expression, but - unlike his blank stare from just moments prior - he doesn't look weary and burdened. Instead, there's a distant intensity to his gaze. Maybe it's a sneer. Maybe there's even a touch of evil present. It's a spellbinding shot, but its function isn't readily apparent. Co-directors Howard and David Maysles didn't need to include it, unless their intent was to urge viewers to consider Mick's role - his moral culpability - in the disaster of Altamont. After all, it would have been simplistic and inaccurate if they’d simply pinned all of the blame on the Angels. There are too many qualifiers down that path. (i.e., Yes, the Angels were rough with the crowd; and yes, it was one of their men who took the life of another. But they were in a difficult spot dealing with kids who were tripping on acid and amphetamines; and when the murder was committed, it was in response to Hunter’s show of violence. Moreover, they didn’t just show up unannounced; they were asked to be there.) Rather, I think the Maysles brothers were hinting at broader, more abstract themes, like the notion of rock 'n' roll as violent artistic expression. Maybe they didn't view the youth counter-culture of the '60s as a movement that was ever innocent. It did in fact celebrate excess, and mischief was part of its DNA. Maybe the Maysles brothers held its luminaries in contempt for what they had created but couldn't hope to contain.
Mick was obviously a consequential figure of the time. His style as a songwriter and performer was rooted in bravado, arrogance, even egomania. He enjoyed taunting his fans, filling their minds with dark, potent imagery, and then whipping them into a frenzy. Onstage he was like a populist tyrant, indulging his own whims while also satisfying those of the crowd. But peace couldn't be maintained indefinitely, and it's likely that the Maysles brothers saw the scene at Altamont as a microcosm of rock 'n' roll culture: it was thrilling but combustible. The drugs, the booze, the sex, the wild emotion - a tipping point was inevitable. Once there, the priests and prophets of the movement - the Mick Jaggers, etc. - wouldn't be able to tame the madness. They wouldn't be able to defuse the hysteria they had helped foment.** At Altamont, Mick was indeed helpless. In the face of upheaval, his calls to order carried no weight; in the face of death, his stage act came off as pathetically frivolous. With a murder taking place right in front of him, all of his panache and swagger was exposed as meaningless. In that meaninglessness perhaps lay some guilt. It's not for nothing that there are shots of fans shaking their heads at Mick, a newly fallen leader.
In the end, many were at fault to one degree or another: the drugged-out hippies, the drunk and violent Angels, the people who hired them, the festival planners, and Mick, along with the rest of the Stones***. I'm sure the argument has been made that the Maysles brothers somehow retroactively share in the guilt as well. After all, they profited from Altamont, which isn't without moral complications. And yes, it could be said that the viewer doesn't fully escape blame either. Why do we watch Gimme Shelter? It's not for the music - it's for the murder.
* - The title quote comes from Stanley Booth.
** - Some form of this interpretation is likely endorsed by Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels who was present at Altamont. In his book Hell's Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club, he writes of the Stones: "They had accomplished what they'd set out to do. The crowd was plenty pissed off and the craziness began."
*** - Long live the incomparable Keith Richards!

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