The body language of the band is one of a frozen watchfulness. Each band member has the look and stance of one who has witnessed something truly awful, and yet is powerless to do anything about it. Before their eyes, what the Rolling Stones were witnessing was the ending of a life…

It was to mark the end of the 1960s.

It was to be a free concert of love and peace.

It was to represent the essence of the New Paganism of the then ascendant, self-proclaimed Counterculture—a portal to the coming age.

This dream of halcyon days was, however, to end in a rude awakening at an obscure northern Californian Speedway track known as Altamont. It was to be there that, in place of the Sixties Dream, a nightmarish vision was unleashed, revealing what really lurked beneath the surface. On 6 December 1969, as the night descended upon the tens of thousands gathered for a performance by the Rolling Stones, other forces too were gathering, entities unseen but nevertheless real, that would soon make their presence felt.

The Rolling Stones’ forays into the world of cinema were to be rare, and less conventional than those of other bands. The band’s emblematic frontman, Mick Jagger solo acting debut came a year earlier in the 1968 film, Performance. This was a dark mix of sexual ambivalence, drugs, and the Occult. The film baffled critics. Unbeknownst to those taking part in the filming of that production, however, the stage was being set for something else. Performance was to be but a peculiar overture to the even darker chapter coming next.

When the Stones embarked on their 1969 American tour, the band was to be accompanied by filmmakers. Those holding the cameras were no journeymen crew, however, they were the Maysles brothers.

The Maysles brothers had made their name with The Beatles. It was the brothers who had filmed the band’s first US Tour in 1964 and, in so doing, set the template for almost every rock documentary since. The documentary, that came to be known as Gimme Shelter, was originally conceived as another “fly-on-the-wall” portrait of a British musical group. The major difference was that the Rolling Stones by then lacked the youthful exuberance of the early days of The Beatles. In 1969, the Stones had been in the public eye for seven years, and had known fame and infamy in equal proportions. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, on screen at least they exhibit a sated, world-weariness that was not an affectation.

At one point the film jumps to various press conferences. In the light of one of their biggest chart hits, Satisfaction, the inevitable question was posed whether Jagger and his fellow Stones were now “satisfied.” Jagger’s answer is telling. With tired eyes, he looks out at the massed banks of reporters and photographers replying: Satisfied with so much the world offered and offers still, but on a “philosophical” level definitely unsatisfied. It seemed as if both he and his fellow band members were still searching for something. As that year drew to its close, however, and the Stones unveiled their most ambitious plan yet, it was clear something was also tracking them.

During the summer of 1969, a rural New York State venue had become the spiritual home of the then burgeoning Counterculture—a continuation of the so-called Summer of Love that had occurred two years previously. Woodstock, as it was known, started as a free concert, before going on to become a motion picture, a best-selling album and a landmark cultural event. In light of the commercial success of Woodstock, and while the Rolling Stones and its management viewed the possibility of another such event, unexpectedly, a venue was suggested to them. The owners of Altamont Speedway track offered their stadium for the proposed free concert at no cost, apparently glad of any resulting publicity. Quickly a deal was struck, and, soon after, a concert was announced that would come to be billed as the “West Coast Woodstock” with the Rolling Stones to headline.

Earlier on the US tour that November, in some of the footage captured by the Maysles brothers, the Stones are a band making music. They are young men looking bored at being professional rock stars. We glimpse a world of limousines and adoring fans, of hardnosed business managers and savvy lawyers, of lethargy and creativity, of too much money and too few restraints. It is as if there is a haze of narcotic smoke floating in the background. There is little insight offered here though: either into the music or those who made it. In fact, there is little more presented beyond the masks that the band had carefully crafted for public consumption. This would change by the end of the picture. For now, however, like so many others, they headed to San Francisco to an open stretch of ground that was to leave its mark upon them in ways that then they could not have imagined.

Many others, too, were heading to the speedway track. An estimated 300,000 made the pilgrimage. The film footage records long queues of traffic moving slowly in the bright sunlight towards the much-anticipated show that night. On arrival, many were met with a scene that was part carnival, part religious festival. More than anything else, the scene captured on film is that of a restless drug-fuelled crowd, unknowingly dancing on the edge of an abyss. Watching the footage even decades later, there is a veiled sense of threat present. There is the hint that things could easily get out of hand, as if the “centre would not hold.” And then, as though on cue, into the midst of these optimistically smiling masses comes another group. Dressed in denim and black leather, and, like something from the works of Wagner, or even Dante, the Hells Angels arrived.

For some reason, the motorcycle gang was in charge of security. Scuffles and assaults followed almost immediately upon the gang’s arrival. Soon it was clear that they were potentially more explosive than anyone else present. The very first act, Jefferson Airplane, stopped its performance when a Hells Angel hit one of the band members in the face. The “peace and love” then being sung about on stage seemed strangely at odds with the scowling and violent men now ringing it. It was only the start.

From then on, the camera bobs uneasily around the stage whilst the “security” pulls people from the crowd, or throws them back into it. The Angels’ behaviour is provocative, reckless, dangerous. It is clear from the start that someone is going to get hurt. Yet all the while, as this tense atmosphere continues to build, the air seems to fill with a dark static. Then, at last, as the night descends, the lighting rigs fire into action, and with it comes the announcement: “Ladies & Gentlemen—The Rolling Stones.”

One aspect of Gimme Shelter is that it is a film within a film. From the start, Jagger, and, for most of it, Charlie Watts, the Stones’ drummer, are seen sitting in an editing studio watching videotapes of their behaviour, both on stage and off, as revealed in the film. Occasionally, they ask for the film to be paused; for the most part they stare at the images in front of them as blankly as any audience member. It is as if they are watching someone else. At times, they smile, wryly, at their own antics, especially Jagger. He knows what he is doing—or so he thinks. A keen showman on stage, with a persona as mercurial as his singing voice off it, he has the cold eye of a manager watching his act performing with all the time another eye trained on any audience reaction. Jagger’s watching is detached, unemotional—to begin with anyway. The tape continues to run…

The Stones mounted the stage. The crowd, with a mixture of glee and relief, roared their appreciation. Jagger is robed as befits the androgynous rock star, with the Greek letter Omega emblazoned upon his chest. It is a letter that signifies “the end.” Sitting to the side of the stage that night was Timothy Leary, the self-proclaimed guru of the decade, present to “bless” proceedings and to witness the final “tuning in.” An endpoint of sorts had indeed come.

The band’s first number begins: Sympathy for the Devil. This track dates from 1968. Allegedly influenced by Jagger’s reading of various texts, the song also seems to emanate from the ambiance conjured during the recent making of Performance. Even heard today, the song remains a strange brew of images. It presents a curious dance through history viewed through the eyes of someone who hopes you can guess his name. The identity of the narrator is finally revealed at the end of the song. We are to call him by his name: Lucifer. On stage, as these words are uttered into the Californian night, a disturbance breaks out immediately in front of the stage. At first, the band ignores it but it continues. In the half-light of the film, it is unclear what exactly is happening. What is clear, however, is the look on Jagger’s face as he turns to the rest of the band and calls for the music to stop. Still in character, that of a Trans-Atlantic rock star, he calls for “people” to “cool it”…there is a temporary lull. Then, he says something as curious as it is clear, especially in the light of what happens next: “We’re always having—something very funny happens when we start that number.”

Thereafter, the crowd never really settles; even the band is unnerved now. The next song begins: Under My Thumb is performed. The camera focuses not on Jagger, however, but on the Hells Angels around him—two in particular. One stands out from the rest. His hair is short, his look is not that of “peace and love” but of anger and hate; and it is upon the prancing English musician his hate-filled stare now fixes. It is an unnerving look, but not as unnerving as that of another Hells Angel standing behind him. A drug induced fit, an epileptic seizure, or a moment of possession? Whatever it is, the man’s contorted face is now being caught on camera; by now, there is much that is disturbing, everyone and everything starts to look ill at ease, out of focus, crazed. Then the music stops.

What we witness next is filmed from behind the band. It is obvious that something has occurred just below the stage. Even when viewed from behind, the body language of the band is one of a frozen watchfulness. Each band member has the look and stance of one who has witnessed something truly awful, and yet is powerless to do anything about it. It was indeed awful. Before their eyes, what the Rolling Stones were witnessing was the ending of a life.

Many months later, Jagger was sitting in the editing suite. He asks for that precise moment to be played back. He watches it again, more closely this time. What he wants to witness is the moment when the camera catches the young man who was to die brandishing a revolver, and then the young man who was to kill, lurching at the other with a blade. The rock star watches it all without comment; but there is a noticeable change in his demeanour as a queer thoughtfulness comes upon his face. The journey from self-satisfaction to self-reflection is all too evident.

Soon after, with the film’s footage all viewed, and with a perfunctory goodbye, Jagger gets up to leave the editing suite. As he does so, he glances at the camera filming him. It is the fullest look he has yet given it. It is a strange look, a haunted look, with eyes duller—or is it sadder?—than the film has previously witnessed. These are indeed the eyes of one who has seen too much.

The final shots of the post-concert crowds leaving Altamont are forlorn. Those leaving fleeing more like refugees than returning partygoers. They huddle in blankets as they trudge away from what is now a crime scene. They had come to witness a celebration of the so-called new age then dawning, an age that was to return them to some rustic idyll, as, in their midst, the Age of Aquarius was finally born. What they found was nothing of the sort. What they had witnessed instead was that this new paganism was an entry point for an older and more sinister entity, one conjured up on stage that December night; a being all too pleased to “meet” us, and whose name is all too well known, but, unlike the pretended pleadings for understanding in the aforementioned song, with little sympathy for anyone.

 This essay originally appeared in St. Austin Review and is republished here by the gracious permission of the author. 

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