Saturday, March 2, 2013

Of Stones and Angels

A documentary of the Rolling Stones’ tour of the United States in late 1969, Gimme Shelter features dynamic performances, some intriguing behind-the-scenes glimpses of the quintet at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Studios (where we hear an early version of “Wild Horses,” the beautiful country ballad that became a highlight of 1971's Sticky Fingers), and, finally, the frightening climax at Altamont Speedway where on December 6, the Stones staged a free concert that ended in violence and murder.

Altamont is now seen as the symbolic conclusion to the era represented by the Woodstock festival only four months earlier. A film by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter is unique for its genre. It helps to have an appreciation for the music of the Rolling Stones, but it’s not a prerequisite. It is a great documentary that captures the counterculture of the late 1960s at a pivotal moment. Woodstock became famous for supposedly demonstrating how 400,000 dope-smoking, acid-ingesting young people with a love of rock music and a hatred of the war in Vietnam could congregate for “three days of peace, love, and music” (the tagline for the poster of the subsequent film) without major incident. Altamont was the reverse: a hastily organized free concert by a superstar group with a sinister reputation (owing to such hits as “Sympathy for the Devil”) at which San Francisco’s Hell’s Angels, paid in beer to provide security, clashed with the flower children of the era. In excerpts from a radio program that aired a day after Altamont, Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels defended the actions of the motorcycle brotherhood which included punching out some concert goers and even Marty Balin, a vocalist with Jefferson Airplane. Barger insisted that those pseudo-hippies could be just as violent as the Angels. Certainly, these “children,” as Jagger calls them when scuffles and other misbehavior continue to interrupt the show, were not innocent. Most of them were out of their heads on drugs.

The supporting players in the real life drama are as interesting to watch as the leads. There’s big, fat Melvin Belli, the headline hungry attorney who is seen negotiating with the owner of the Altamont Speedway to secure the site for the concert. His office is crammed with objects that Albert Maysles, in his DVD commentary, calls “junk.” Belli was a notorious skirt chaser with a fondness for very young women, and he probably met a few willing to bed down with him at the concert which he is seen attending. Then there are the Hell’s Angels, one of whom is seen staring contemptuously at Jagger as he gyrates on the stage as if wondering who this faggot millionaire thinks he is.

We also see Tina Turner who performed at Madison Square Garden as an opening act for the Stones. Her fingers caress the microphone stand, gliding up and down as if giving it a slow hand-job. Back then, it was Ike and Tina Turner, and her husband, whom she would later vilify as an abusive, violent man, recites the lyrics first:

“And baby I’ll buy you anything you want me to buy
’cuz you got what I want and you got what I need
and I want you to give it to me.”

She then sings the same words in her breathy, passionate style. She clearly seems to be taking direction.

The musical performances are probably the best ever captured of the Rolling Stones in concert with the bluesy “Love in Vain” a particular highlight.

In one of the more curious moments in Gimme Shelter, the Stones stop playing, as they must several times, because of a disturbance in the audience. Jagger pleads with the crowd to stop fighting and Keith Richards is seen making the sign of the cross, a rather odd gesture for a man who isn’t known to be a believer and who was playing “Sympathy for the Devil” a few moments earlier. The Rolling Stones were always the bad boys of rock ‘n’ roll, but that was mainly in contrast to the Beatles who were smoother, both musically and personally, than their rawer, more ragged colleagues. But it was probably Altamont, and the violence and murder that occurred there, that sealed their outlaw image which their songs, particularly “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” and the sinister “Gimme Shelter” only enhanced.

© 2013 Brian W. Fairbanks


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