02 July 2009
GIMME SHELTER! - Big Burly Guys on Harley Davidsons, Hippies, Peace & the End of An Era - the 1960s?
I was at the National Museum of Singapore last Saturday to catch the music documentary, "Gimme Shelter", produced by the Maysles brothers, who were actually commissioned by the Rolling Stones to film the much talked about free concert at Altamont Speedway in California in the winter of 1969. Mick Jagger wanted it to be a posterity stance in the vibe of the recent Woodstock filming and as well as to introduce the new guitarist, Mick Taylor, who replaced the deceased elfin Brian Jones, to the Americans. Free concert? Yes, all in the spirit of the 1960s.
What actually took place and filmed on celluloid was more than just documenting a musical event, it became, in the eyes of many keen observers, one of the few key events which marked the end of the innocent, naive and peace-loving decade. What happened? Even before the violence which shocked the world took place at the site, there was purportedly a sense of foul and tense mood hanging in the air, according to many. Some musicians even felt that the concert "smelled wrong" and wanted to pull out even before reaching the site (Spencer Dryden of the Jefferson Airplane). We sure did not see this too clearly in the film though as it was focusing mainly on the Stones. By the way, Mick Jagger looked at times out of sorts or at a loss during his re-viewing of the footage taken during the event and he was looking at himself, not able to do much but just mouthing, in this case, ineffectual words like "brothers", "sisters", "peace", "cool it" and "love" to the audience most of the time before the eventual demise of the concert. Lester Bangs, in one of his articles on the Stones actually commented that Mick Jagger looked more like a lost child as compared to Keith Richards who at least dared to confront the Hell's Angels and the audience in the midst of the whole situation.
So what happened? Apparently, one of the Hell's Angels was interviewed to be saying that the audience became rowdy and "touched" his "wife"/Harley Davidson and of course no one could allow others to touch or abuse their wives and thus retaliation had to be in order. But of course, it was more than that. The film did not really show the fatigued audience much and the ill-conceived preparation the organisers, record company and management biggies which actually contributed to the violence which erupted despite so near comic telephone conversations between them shown interspersed throughout the first half.
The Hell's Angels (the San Francisco chapter), the infamous Harley riding outlaw-like band of wild-hearted chopper lovers who led a care-free but drug/alcohol/crime addled life were engaged as security for the concert (partly due to the short time notice, partly they were involved in Grateful Dead's security previously plus the Stones had used bikers for similar purposes back in UK). However, many underestimated their propensity for violence (see Lester Bangs' account of a gun-point gang bang in one of his posthumous anthologies).
On top of that due to the short notice as it was originally planned at the Golden Gate Park earlier but which did not pan out eventually provided logistical and psychological time bomb for the event on that day. Thousands of fans had to divert from heading toward San Francisco to this barren plot of arid land within a few days with literally no shelter available there. The fans looked tired and beat, as gleaned from the film, and no wonder some of them had short nerves or temper but the time the concert started.
The Airplane played "We Can Be Together" as the opening piece, hoping to ease the mounting tension felt in the air at Altamont but in vain. With hundreds of fans refusing to clear the stage and insisting on "breathing down the neck of the musicians", according to Sam Cutler, the Stones tour manager's plea to the audience to move away from the stage failed just meant that the clash between the fans and the Angels to be more inevitable. Then when the Airplane started their second song a bustle occurred at stage front. Marty Balin, the other vocalist of the band suddenly disappeared into the crowd and before anyone realised it he was knocked out by Angels. The rest of the Airplane tried to reason with the Angels to show "love" but this was definitely not the 'Love-In" crowd of Woodstock or the early days of San Franciscan psychedelia. They valiantly finished the set but the atmosphere had already been doomed.
The Dead did not even perform at Altamont as they had heard about what happened to Balin and the general bad vibes at the scene even though they were not there at the stage but due to a solid network of friends and fans, they were well-informed of the situation. They decided to beat a retreat and headed back for the helicopter which they had taken to the site.
At the end of the disaster, an Afro-American who carried a gun with him to the concert dead in the chaos which ensued when the Stones were playing.
What happened? Was it the organisers' fault? The Stones? The audience? The Hell's Angels? The venue? Or the dawn of the Summer of Love? Noone could and can give a definite conclusion or analysis.
The film was well done, capturing the tension between the audience and the organisers, between the Angels and the audience, between the Angels and the musicians without resorting to much fanciful camera work, as the saying goes, the truth speaks for itself.
At the end of the day, it perhaps marked the beginning of the end of the innocence.